In mid-July, I was visiting my aunt and uncle in Minnesota when my uncle passed away unexpectedly. A trip that should have been a joyous post-vaccine reunion turned tragic the day after I arrived. He was 90 and lived a long full life but his passing was still a heartbreaking moment for our family.
My uncle often treated me like the daughter he never had and I looked up to him as a towering father figure, especially in my younger years. As with everyone, he had his issues but there were so many ways in which he was truly an amazing uncle to little me.
About 20 years ago, I gave my uncle a framed image of the two of us spinning in the Tea Cups ride at Disneyland with a little inscription. He kept this framed image in his bedroom on top of his dresser. The day I arrived, he asked me, “Do you remember that time at Disneyland with the Tea Cups? I keep that picture framed in my room.”
I smiled and nodded … mostly because I already knew he still kept it there. Every time I come to Minnesota, I always check his room to see if that frame was still on his dresser. It documents one of my favorite childhood moments on my favorite Disneyland ride. My mom’s arms just did not compare to my uncle’s strong arms as he spun that Tea Cup wheel. I have so many favorite childhood memories with my uncle because he just could not resist making children giggle. An excerpt from my inscription:
“One of my greatest memories with you is riding the tea cups on the ‘Mad Tea Party’ ride, my favorite Disneyland ride … You whirled the tea cup so fast that gravity pulled me against the wall of the cup. I had to grasp the edges of the cup to keep from falling over, dizzy with laughter.”
He didn’t come out to Los Angeles often — he hated the freeways and thought the houses were built too close together. This was fine because we loved our trips to Minnesota and he loved showing me Minnesota.
One Christmas many moons ago, he pulled an eager me on a sled across a frozen Bush Lake. Twenty years later, he took me ice fishing on that same lake. Both were firsts for this California girl. While showing me the exhibits housed in the Bloomington Historical Society’s 1892 building, he pointed to the huge photo of the old Met Stadium and claimed “The best Minnesota stadium!” He felt that today’s football players have it too easy with their covered domes. It just didn’t feel like football if players weren’t tackling in the snow and rain (like he did back in his football-playing days).
One place he was especially excited to show me was Red Wing, Minnesota. This scenic river town sits on the edge of the Mississippi River with Wisconsin just across the water. We drove down there a few years back (after an intense summer rain storm) wandering through the wet historic parts of the town. We grabbed drinks and snacks at the historic St. James Hotel (built in 1875), one of my uncle’s favorite places to have a fancy meal. This hotel has quite the storied (haunted) past and hosted guests like President Hayes. Minnesota native Bob Dylan mentioned the hotel in his song Blind Willie McTell. It was only after looking through our family photos did I realize this recent trip was my second time at the St. James Hotel as apparently we stopped by the hotel in the 1980s.
One of my Uncle’s favorite memories with me happened during a 1997 trip to the Boundary Waters, where we stayed in a cabin along Mitchell Lake near Ely. He loved to remember that one moment a bear came up to the cabin door while my mom and I were inside. But I always like to remember riding in the canoe with him — just the two of us moving across the quiet lake. No one else around except the loons. This was his slice of heaven.
I’ll always be grateful for the many ways he was a wonderful uncle and for showing this California girl a slice of Minnesota life.