My Uncle Laurie

I wrote this article a few years ago.  I thought about Uncle Laurie again today (the old family piano needs tuning) and thought I’d share it again here.

I was given this link this morning. And even though it was entertaining in its own right, it more than anything made me remember my great-Uncle. Uncle Laurie. His wife Evelyn was my paternal grandfather’s sister. She ended up with chronic disease which had her bedridden and unable to care for herself for the last years of her life. Eventually they moved into a care home, and my uncle eventually developed Alzheimer’s. But I would still go visit whenever I was in Victoria, even though towards the end he had no clue of who I was.

One visit, he turned to me, took my hand and said “I have no idea who you are, but you’re a very nice person.” On another visit he said “We have nothing, you know, to leave you.” I just held his hand and said “I know. I’m not here for ‘stuff’.”

He was a fascinating man though, and had many professions and careers, including church minister, photographer, naturalist, and piano tuner. So I’d go in and visit, and we’d have a talk about general stuff, and then I’d persuade him to get out his photo albums, and he could talk for hours about the various flowers he’d photographed. He also did slide shows.

The tales of how the photographs were taken are legend in our family. My father would be driving along with our family in the car, Uncle Laurie with us, and Uncle Laurie would spot a particular flower growing along the side of the road. He’d be out of the car in a flash (the car would still be moving), dodging across lanes of traffic with his camera, to get a picture of a single flower growing on a mountainside.

Driving with Uncle Laurie in the driver’s seat, when he still had a car, was an experience in itself. I don’t think he believed in using the brake. He’d just ride the clutch until you could smell it burning. Last week when I was in Victoria my daughter and I drove down Beach Road, and it brought back many fond memories of taking the exact same drive with Uncle Laurie. I could almost smell the burning clutch.

But it was music that really made Uncle Laurie special. Many years, when my Great-Aunt was still mobile, they would come to Calgary and he would tune our piano. Part of the piano tuning process was always a little impromptu concert. Uncle Laurie was exceedingly talented and could play many pieces completely from memory.

And then, in the fall, when the air got drier, my mother would get a letter from Uncle Laurie: “Time to put the bucket of water in the piano.” I think Uncle Laurie would be happy to know that piano is now on the coast, and I don’t have to put a bucket of water in the base of it to stop it from drying out over the winter.

One year, after my Great Aunt had passed away, I went to visit Uncle Laurie at the care home. He’d been very depressed since she had died, and it was difficult to get him enthused about his pictures or telling tales of olden times. I tried to persuade him to play something on the piano, but he didn’t want to. So eventually I sat down at the piano, in the recreation room at the care home, and started to play. I tried my best, really I did, but I guess, even in his confused state, my poor piano playing was more than the poor soul could take. He came over to the piano and said something along the lines of “You’re a very nice girl, now back away from the piano slowly.” (Just kidding – but that was the general intent of his very kind words.) He sat down at the piano and started to play. And played, and played. I just sat and enjoyed. And the nurses came over and said “He never plays anymore. It’s so wonderful to hear him play.” He was THAT good.

Uncle Laurie died soon after, but that was not the end of his musical legacy. I attended his funeral, and it seemed all the musical elite in Victoria knew who my ‘Uncle Laurie’ was. The place was packed, and there was a trumpet solo of ‘Amazing Grace’ that brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it a quarter of a century later. After the funeral I was invited to a ‘tea’ back at a heritage home in James Bay. (Had a plaque on the outside explaining the historical significance and everything.) It was a huge home, and it was filled with all these friends of my great Uncle. People he’d gone to school with, telling stories of school years, people he’d ministered to, and of course everybody whose piano he’d tuned. And I sat and listened to the stories, and then some of the people got up and played the grand piano sitting in the middle of the living room. (I was not one of those playing.) They all knew me simply as ‘the young lady who used to visit Laurie’. It was a fabulous experience and one that enriched my life.

Uncle Laurie and Aunt Evelyn had no children of their own, but I like to think their legacy lives on, if only in the family piano and the memories it symbolizes. 

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