Gift of the Baritone Voice

Uncle Ben never forgot my birthday.


My birthday falls during the second week of September, and even though I would be back in school, the warmth of the summer hadn’t disappeared. Almost like clockwork, Uncle Ben and my Aunt Bella would appear after dinner, parking their car near Bubi’s side of the house.

They would come with the intention to give me a birthday card with a blue five-dollar bill tucked inside, and the writing in the card would be in Uncle Ben’s cursive.

Sometimes I would wonder if they were here to see me, or were just using the excuse to see my Bubi, who was Uncle Ben’s older sister, who he affectionately called Mickey. In fact, everyone in the family called her Mickey; despite the fact, her name was Muriel. My Dad and Uncle Ben would discuss politics and world news.

Uncle Ben didn’t have a loud voice, but both he and Aunt Bella weren’t soft-spoken either. You knew when they had arrived. Uncle Ben’s voice was upbeat and full of emotion, his tone never wavered and never changed. Aunt Bella’s voice on the other hand was showy, almost to the point of a screech.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t about the birthday card with a blue five-dollar bill tucked inside; no Uncle Ben had come to sing to me.

Keep in mind that it’s after dinner is eaten, people are clearing away the dishes, filling the dishwasher, or washing by hand, watching TV, their windows are open because the sun hasn’t disappeared. Kids are riding their bicycles, or running down the street hearing a voice singing. His deep, warm, smooth baritone voice as it swam over the sound of the dulled traffic.

An invisible limelight shined on me, but I kept my focus on Uncle Ben, vowing not to look at anyone who walked by. I knew to expect this every year, this was what Uncle Ben always did; sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. It was embarrassing.

Uncle Ben came every year until Bubi died. His singing stopped. I would not ever hear his voice again. I was 13 years old. I didn’t think of his voice for a long time. Years later, I went with my Dad to visit him in a retirement home, Aunt Bella had already died of cancer. Uncle Ben was the last surviving member of his family. His other seven siblings had already passed on.

He had never been a tall man, bit when I saw him, he had become a small man, but he had kept his big bright brown eyes and dark tanned skin. He had acquired the propensity to say the same phrases repeatedly. Uncle Ben remembered me when he saw me. However, I suspected he had dementia of some sort, it was impossible to have a conversation with him. He kept saying things,all directed at me, “Do you have a boyfriend?” Then he would look at my Dad and state, “She’s beautiful!” and at the end he would say, “Wowee!” I glimpsed in at the little boy who still lived inside of Uncle Ben. I was glad had made the point to see him because it was the last time I saw him alive. He was 92 years old.

There was always something that I liked about Uncle Ben, but it took me years to realize why he had a place in my heart.

He never forgot my birthday and somehow I felt that I was important to him. I know it wasn’t the five-dollar bill that was his gift; it was his voice. People show their love in many ways, and Uncle Ben used his gift to give me one.


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