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In the spring of my senior year in high school, my uncle Peter was killed when his airplane crashed in the field he was crop dusting. A witness said the engine just choked and died on him. He was only thirty-five years old, and he had been my first pretend boyfriend. He had taken me flying at least a dozen times in his plane, each time more fun and exciting than the time before. When he performed his aerial acrobatics with me in the passenger seat beside him, I screamed at the top of my lungs. I screamed with a smile on my face, the way most people do when they have just gone over a particularly steep peak of tracks on the roller coaster at the Castle Rock Fun Park, which was only a few miles east of Columbus. Uncle Peter had taken me there, too.
He was my father's younger brother, but the five years between them seemed like a gap of centuries when it came to comparing their personalities. Daddy was often almost as serious and religious as Grandad Forman. Both were what anyone would call workaholics on our corn farm, actually Grandad's five-hundred-acre corn farm, which also had chickens and cows, mainly for our own consumption of eggs and milk. Grandad sold the remainder to some local markets.
Everything still belonged to Grandad, which was something he never let any of us forget, especially my step-uncle Simon, who lived in a makeshift room over the cow barn. Grandad Forman claimed that way Simon would be close to his work. One of his chores every day was milking and caring for the milk cows. He was the son of Grandad's first wife, Tess, who had lost her first husband, Clayton, when his truck turned over on the interstate and was hit by a tractor trailer. Clayton worked for Grandad at the time.
Simon had just been born when Tess married Grandad, but Grandad always regarded him as if he were an illegitimate child, working him hard and treating him like he was outside the family, treating him like the village idiot.
There were only very rare times when all of us, my uncle Peter, my father and mother, and my step-uncle Simon would be around Grandad's dark oak dining room table, reciting grace and enjoying a meal and an evening together. However, when we were, it was easy to see the vast differences among everyone.
Mommy was tall with a shapely figure, often kept well-hidden under her loosely fitted garments. She didn't wear any makeup and never went to a beauty parlor. Her rich, dark brown hair was usually kept pinned up. On special occasions, I helped her wave a French knot. Mommy wasn't born here. She had come from Russia when she was in her late teen years, accompanied by her aunt, Ethel, who was a relative of Grandad Forman's through marriage.
Simon was the biggest of the men in our family. His father had been a very big man, six foot five and nearly three hundred pounds. Simon had grown very quickly -- too quickly, according to Grandad Forman, who claimed Uncle Simon's body drained too much from his brain in the process. Always taller than anyone his age, Simon was large, towering, and lanky, awkward for almost anything but heavy manual labor, which only made him more massive and stronger. When I was very little, I rode on his shoulders, clutching his hair like the reins of a horse.
Simon never did well in school. Grandad claimed the teachers told him Simon was barely a shade or two above mentally retarded. I never believed that to be true. I knew in my heart he simply would rather be outside and couldn't keep his eyes from the classroom windows, mesmerized by the flight of a bird or even the mad circling of insects.
Simon was only twelve when Grandad Forman moved him into the barn and more or less forced him to leave public school. Besides his farm chores, Simon's only other real interest was his beautiful flower garden. Even Grandad Forman was forced to admit Simon had a magical green thumb when it came to nourishing the beauty he could garner from a seed. My mother and I were often the happy recipients of a mixed bouquet of redolent fresh flowers, to place in vases in our rooms or throughout the house. It amazed both of us how something so delicate could come from someone so hulking.
Anyone would look small beside Simon, but Uncle Peter was barely five foot nine and slim to the verge of being called thin. He had as big an appetite as my daddy or even as Simon at times, but he was always moving, joking, singing, or dancing. His body tossed off fattening foods and weight like someone tossing heavy items out of a boat to keep it from sinking. He had long, flaxen hair, green eyes, and a smile that could beam good feelings across our biggest cornfield. He cheered up everyone he met, excluding Grandad, who ordinarily viewed a smile and a laugh as a possible crack in the spiritual wall that kept the devil at bay.
Sometimes, for fun at dinner -- when Uncle Simon was permitted to eat with us -- Uncle Peter would challenge him to an arm wrestle and put his graceful, almost feminine fingers into the cavern of Uncle Simon's bear-claw palm. Uncle Simon would smile at Uncle Peter's great effort to move his arm back a tenth of an inch. Once, he even put both his hands in one of Uncle Simon's and then he got up and threw his whole body into the effort, while Uncle Simon sat there as unmoving as a giant boulder, staring up at him in wonder the way an elephant might wonder at a mouse trying to push it away. Daddy and Mommy laughed. Grandad Forman called him an idiot and ordered them both to stop their tomfoolery at his dinner table, but not as gruffly as he ordered me or Daddy or even Mommy when he wanted us to perform some chore or obey some command.
I always felt Grandad Forman was less severe on Uncle Peter. If Grandad had any soft or kind bones in his body, he turned them only on him, favoring him as much or as best he could favor anyone. From the pictures I saw of her, Uncle Peter did look more like his mother than he did Grandad, and I wondered if that was what Grandad saw in him whenever he looked at him. His and Daddy's mother was Tess's sister, Jennie, whom Grandad married a year after Tess's death from breast cancer. Simon was only three and needed a mother, but after a little more than eight years of marriage, Grandad lost Jennie, too.
According to everything I've ever heard about her, my grandma Jennie was a sweet, kind, and loving woman who treated Uncle Simon well, too well for Grandad's liking. It wasn't until after she had died of a heart attack that he moved Simon out of the house and into the barn. According to Uncle Peter, and even Daddy, she wouldn't have tolerated it, even though everyone who knew my grandmother said she was too meek and servile in every other way and permitted Grandad to work her to death. She was often seen beside him in the fields, despite a full day of house cleaning and cooking.
However, Grandad Forman had a religious philosophy that prevented him from ever taking responsibility for anything that had happened to his family or anyone else with whom he might have come into contact. He believed bad things happened to people as a result of their own evil thoughts, evil deeds. God, he preached, punishes us on earth and rewards us on earth. If something terrible happens to someone we all thought was a good person, we must understand that we didn't know what was in his or her heart and in his or her past. God sees all. Grandad was so vehement about this that he often made me feel God was spying on me every moment of the day, and if I should stray so much as an iota from the Good Book or the Commandments, I would be struck down with the speed of a bolt of lightning.
Consequently, Grandad Forman did not cry at funerals, and when the horrible news about Uncle Peter was brought to our house, Grandad absorbed and accepted it, lowered his head, and went out to work in the field just as he had planned.