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Everyone has a clinically insane family member. I’ve had five. Today is the birthday of my favorite schizophrenic relative, Uncle Leopold. Ever seen Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory? Add guns, flying saucers and forty pounds and you have Uncle Leo.

Since he lived in New Mexico, he would visit us occasionally. Arriving unannounced to see mother while father was at work, he would be dressed in army fatigues and armed to the teeth. Mom always insisted he unload his guns during a visit. One time he refused. She quietly hustled me out the back door and sent me to a neighbor. Daddy came home early that day and had a quiet, brief talk with Uncle Leo. When I was summoned home, a weeping Uncle Leo apologized to me for making our home “a scary place.”

I felt very sorry for him–a quiet talk with my Dad was much scarier to me than Uncle Leo and a boatload of guns. From then on, Uncle Leo usually called before visiting and never brought guns into the house. Despite my parent’s concerns, I unabashedly adored Uncle Leo. He always brought me strange gifts, like pretty polished stones with supernatural properties or odd homemade stuffed toys with intricately embroidered faces.

Nevertheless, the best part of an Uncle Leo visit was his stories. Amazing, bizarre and a little incomprehensible, his tales of adventure and persecution entranced me. My mother issued a disclaimer with every visit, stating that Uncle Leo’s stories were as fictional as Grandmam’s ghost stories. In my mind, his sincerity outweighed Grandmam’s theatrics. My beloved Uncle Leo definitely laid the foundations for my own enduring love of eccentrics and peculiar characters.

When I was a teenager, Uncle Leo shot himself dead. He believed that the CIA had covertly broken into his home and infected him with cancer. By his bedside was a yellow legal pad, which logged his temperature and bodily functions. Other inscriptions related his final paranoid theories and resoluteness. His last despondent words were printed in black felt ink: “Cleansers not working. Will not suffer.”

Sadly, the medical examiner said the vast quantities of “cleansers,” (i.e. bone meal/vitamins) he took greatly contributed to the sickness he believed to be cancer. If only we knew. The first several weeks after Uncle Leo died, my parents spent their weekends sorting through the vast accumulation of junk in his home. They found an impressive variety of knives, firearms and ammunition.

It took three gun shows at bargain basement prices to sell off his stash. Uncle Leo’s home had been intricately booby-trapped, resulting in a minimal clean-up effort after his suicide. My folks experienced many harrowing moments during their excavation of his property, including the disposal of a locked and chained refrigerator, which appeared to be wired for explosives.

Because the wires dead-ended in a closet, they used a mattress to protect themselves as they pried it open. Inside was a large steel firebox containing a single head of cabbage. The aftermath of Uncle Leo’s suicide reverberated through out house for almost a year.

My mother blamed herself for not recognizing his mental decline or foreseeing his suicide. My father, who had met my mother by being Uncle Leo’s roommate, sympathized with her greatly and carried his own burden of guilt.

I was numb for a month, and then I started demolishing things. My telephone was the first casualty, followed by old electronic stuff in the garage that my parents would never miss. I found peace the weekend my parents brought home the final truckload of his salvageable possessions. Tired and hassled, my mother instructed to me remove boxes of Uncle Leo’s vinyl collection from the U-Haul; I could either keep them or put them on the curb for the garbage-man.

Of course, I kept them. He had a comprehensive collection of baroque music and an assortment of authentic Tiki Lounge, including most of Yma Sumac’s albums. As I sorted through the records, I was amused and saddened by his printed commentary on the albums. He believed that Baroque music was curative and that Yma Sumac was a benevolent alien goddess (Oddly enough, I have reached similar conclusions). Playing a crackled version of Gluck’s Orpheo, some little mechanism turned inside me. I had reached the famous final stage of grief.

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