I flew down to Raleigh for the next round. Family, food and fun was in the air.
Our first dinner was at an excellent tapas place called Mateo in Durham. It was recommended by my sister, a Durham resident and local food writer. We ordered round one, and Dad ordered round two and three along with another glass of wine or two to go with it. The jamon sampler was amazing. When I see family, most of the talk centers around where we ate or what we cooked. We are a family of foodies, none more than Dad.
The next day I hit the road to New Bern. The visit with my Uncle was a long time coming. He’s everyone’s eccentric uncle, but to an even more extreme level. Brilliant. Funny. Caring. Genuine. A renowned civil rights lawyer who grew up in the St. Louis area, and marched to his own beat. A riveting story teller with a gift for knowing how to spin a tale and string you along for miles and miles. Well-traveled and worldly, with the ability to hold a conversation with the Queen of England or the auto worker at the UAW hall. An animal lover and amateur historian. And our family historian. He dove into genealogy before it was fashionable, and spent countless hours poring through library and court records in St. Louis to piece together our family’s story. Before ancestry.com existed. We are a people of Alsace, if you must know, which is more of a German culture than a French one. More of a sausages and beer kind of place than a wine and cheese kind of place.
He deeply valued education, and it was important for him to pass this along as a core family value. He went out of his way to attend every graduation, from my high school walk in Michigan to college in Colorado, to my sister’s in Michigan to my grad school finale in Evanston.
Growing up in Michigan, our family visited him every year or two, and I spent some special time with him in my early 20s. When I was completing some job training for our family business, I had the good fortune to stay with UP, P and the dog Otter for a couple months. We spent countless hours shooting the shit over BBQ chicken and pork steaks smoking in the Weber kettle grill at the edge of his garage. Drinking beers, listening to the birds and petting the dog. He took me to my first bar in St. Louis when I was 19 or so. He and my Aunt were bad influences like that in a good way.
Sometime in the mid-2000s, he and P relocated from St. Louis to New Bern to make the way for sailing and retirement. I saw him less and less over the years, more due to life getting busy than anything else. L and I got married in 2007, and he did not make it to the wedding. His dog Otter was dying, and was too big and too old to be taken to the kennel. I was disappointed he could not be there, but I understood with time. I think his siblings were less understanding, and held on to it.
L met him for the first time at my Aunt’s house in Chapel Hill the year after we got married. Christmas Day dinner, I think, and he was drunk. I think he had words with my Aunt that weekend about her values and choice of business, and caused a freeze in the family.
A couple years later, he reached out to everyone after converting the Family History from hard copy to digital. He specifically reached out to me to share some family heirlooms, and asked me to take the torch and become the next family archivist. He and I corresponded now and then, and he shared some great family stories. But sometimes when he would email late at night, I could see sarcastic tones and intoxication in his writing.
Around 2010, L and I committed to making a whirlwind trip from Chapel Hill to New Bern during our post-Christmas visit. I was excited and stressed at the same time, mostly because I was concerned about the experience L would encounter. As it turns out, North Carolina was hit with a big snow storm, dropping five inches the day after we arrived in Chapel Hill. While that’s not a big deal in Chicago with all of its snow plows, it’s enough to paralyze North Carolina. He sent a note, and told us we were off the hook for the visit. I was secretly relieved.
Three years later, the holidays were approaching again, and I was planning a trip to NC. I decided to give it another shot, and this time L was not with me. Over these years, his contact with his siblings was limited.
Real or imagined, I carried a lot of weight on my shoulders with my planned visit.
When I arrived in New Bern, I called my Uncle and he rode a bike down the dock to greet me in the parking lot. He and P live on a boat with their cat, and he showed me around the ’57 Carver cabin cruiser. Much like him, this boat had a lot of stories behind it. It was originally wood, and then refinished in fiberglas after sinking. Nice woodwork throughout, and plenty of character.
Soon after, we cruised around town, did some sightseeing and hit the Piggly Wiggly on the way back to the boat.
That evening, we hung out on the dock, barbecuing pork steaks and shooting the shit. Dinner was fresh, soulful and fulfilling. I slept on a cot in the living room, and then next morning I hit the road back to Chapel Hill. Of course, I needed to stop at Wilber’s BBQ in Goldsboro for some of the world’s finest pulled pork. In the true Eastern Carolina tradition, they serve hush puppies as a side, and they use a vinegar-based sauce nothing like the stuff you find in your local grocery store.
I arrived back in Chapel Hill, but the feast wasn’t over. The next day, Dad got ambitious and used the injector I got him for Christmas to marinate the brisket. He seasoned it with the Brisket of Love rub from Spice House in Evanston. And he smoked it on his Big Green Egg. Do I need to tell you it was amazing?
By the end of the trip, I had certainly eaten enough.
But I also had a warm feeling, a kind of glow I hadn’t felt during the holidays in a long time.