He might have won the Nobel Prize before I was born. Back in 1940, when he was a researcher at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston (as in, "call Uncle Al at the BI"), he was studying the effects of infection on the heart and circulatory system. One of the effects seemed to be small bleeding ulcers. He had read that doctors had seen curved bacteria in the stomachs of (dead) ulcer patients, and he wanted to know what they were doing there and whether they had something to do with the ulcers in live patients. A surgical friend gave him some tissue from stomach surgeries, and a pathologist gave him a microscope and space, and he discovered what two Australians named Drs. Marshall and Warren discovered again 42 years later, earning them the Nobel Prize.
Equally miraculous, really, is that he happened to be my uncle; that he and I were both related to my mother and grandfather. My grandfather was a gambler. He went to Dartmouth on a football scholarship from Salem High. I was always told that he was "in insurance." In later years, he and Birdie tangoed.
My mother was blonde and a perfect size four until the day she died. The big money on my mother's side of the family was in the suit business. Fashion has never been my strong suit. My daughter ensured that no one would confuse the mother in her first novel with me by making her a fashion guru.
"Uncle Al doesn't talk to anyone," my mother would say, after he had spent the entire "evening affair" at somebody's bar mitzvah talking to me. Me? Me: not a blonde, not size four, but a size 12 14-year-old. "Why?" my mother, God bless her, totally perplexed, would look at me and say. "Why is Uncle Al talking to you?"
Uncle Al was a Harvard professor.
I was a majorette for Marblehead High. A cheerleader would have been better, but the majorettes had the second shortest skirts.
Uncle Al was an intellectual. I was an outcast. He was the star of the family. I was the fattest girl.
He gave me hope. He was, from the time I can remember having uncles, my very favorite. We were related. I might be like him.
I called him when my father was dying, and I called him when my mother was dying. Everyone in the family did. My father called him when his father and mother were dying. It never occurred to me until I was one that fancy Harvard professors don't take care of their niece's husband's parents.
He came in on Saturdays to help out at his brothers' suit warehouse, when it was open to the public. He was the only member of my family to come see me do my big speeches at Wellesley. He spent the last 20 years of his practice, beyond his 80s, taking care of the medical students at Harvard Medical School. He loved his wife and his family, music and art, medicine and science, and his patients, students and colleagues.
Last year was his 100th birthday. There was a big party at Harvard Medical School and then another at his apartment. He told me that he was enjoying music and art and books and food; and yes, he was still taking care of a few people, of course, longtime patients.
On Sunday, he gathered the family — his sons and daughters (not in-law) and the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren — and he said his goodbyes. On Tuesday, he died.
At first I was sad that no one called me, not on Sunday or Monday or Tuesday, not in time to tell him, again, thank you. But he was my "great uncle" — and he was surrounded by loving family, generations' worth, and I live thousands of miles away. Still. "He really liked you," my brother responded when I wrote to him, hearkening back to all those affairs where he mystified my mother by talking to me.
I will forever be grateful. I liked him even more.
A. Stone Freedberg, M.D. (1908-2009)
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