I read a blog post recently which brought back some memories for me. The post, a good but sad read, written by Erik Weiner stayed with me for days (read the article here), as it reminded me of my step uncle’s brother, whom I met only once when I was young.
I am guessing that I was about 9 or 10 years old. One day, out of the blue my parents told my brother and I that we would be going out with our aunt and uncle. We had been sent to their house before for babysitting purposes but never for an “outing”.
They came to pick us up and we were told that we were going to take my uncle’s brother out to lunch. I knew my uncle had a sister. She lived right across the street from him and she and her family were there for every holiday. We were around her often enough to also call her Aunt and her husband, Uncle. Never had I heard any mention of a brother.
We pulled up to a very large building, really rows of buildings. My uncle went inside, while we waited in the car with my aunt. She told us that we could not go in because it wasn’t safe for us to be inside. I got a bit worried at that point.
I was and still am a terrible judge of age, but I am guessing that my aunt and uncle were somewhere in their 40’s. Eventually my uncle came out arm-in-arm with a man who seemed to be about the same age. They put him into the car, in the front seat between them. He was very excited to see us, it seemed, very excited – I was still a little bit afraid.
His name was Freddy. I don’t remember hearing him speak, I don’t think that he could. There were a lot of grunts and noises. He seemed so happy to be out and so happy with the Devil Dogs, his brother brought for him. I remember devil dog remnants being everywhere. My uncle was really good with him, which led me to believe that even though I had never heard mention of him and he was really not spoken about (that I knew of), this visit was not random. He was so good with him and prepared so for everything that I had to believe these visits were quite regular.
My aunt explained that Freddy was mentally challenged – of course back then they used different words, and could not take care of himself. This was why he lived at the “school”.
It did not take me long for my fear to subside and to warm up to him. I’m sure, now feeling comfortable and with my interest piqued, I asked far too many questions. I wanted to know what happened, how he got that way, why he didn’t know how to eat, why he couldn’t or didn’t talk. I don’t remember the exact answer I got to those questions, quite possibly because no answer they could give me would have been good enough of an explanation in my mind. It was probably that he was born that way. This was confusing to me. I wanted to know if he lived there all of his life, why I never heard about him, why he didn’t come to family holidays, but was afraid to ask. I think this may have been my first experience with anyone with special needs.
We took Freddy for a drive and then stopped at A&W Root Beer for lunch. He really enjoyed that. A&W was close to the “school” where he lived so after lunch we drove back to bring him home.
I was glad that I has the opportunity to meet him. I really liked him. I am sorry to say that this was the first and last time that I ever saw him and I never heard him mentioned again. I didn’t feel comfortable asking about him but I always think of him when I see a devil dog or see an A&W Root Beer, or read an article like the one mentioned above and every time the “school” is mentioned. This was not residential housing or a group home, it was at the time, an institution, probably one of the few options available at the time. I believe it is still in operation today, whether or not it is still considered an institution, I do not know.
Now that I am an adult, I understand that this is the way things were handled back then. This is where people like Freddy went to live. I also understand, after working in a convalescent home many years ago and from his reaction to us, that it probably wasn’t dangerous in the true sense of the word for us/children to have gone inside. It was probably more like the seniors at the convalescent home, who would get so excited, overly excited and sometimes frighteningly excited to see young children. I could be wrong about this, I have never been inside but that is the way I explained it to myself.
I am happy that I got over my fear quickly enough to enjoy the day with him. I am sorry that times were as they were and parents were told that this was the only option for Freddy and people like him. I don’t know if Freddy ever lived at home, so I won’t say that this was the case with him, but it was the case with many children back in the day.
I can say that Freddy did seem to be very happy and I developed a new appreciation for my uncle after seeing how kind and loving he was with him. I also imagine that Freddy might be the reason that my uncle always remembered DC on his birthday and holidays.
I can also say with certainty that I will never forget Freddy.