When I close my eyes and conjure up my childhood, what I see is straight out of a 1980s movie. The soundtrack is synthesizers and British accents of the Pet Shop Boys. What I smell is gasoline burning as a boat engine roars inside a garage. Tools clinking metal hitting metal. I see neon Oakley’s glaring as the sun hits them. A bright smile appears as the camera pans across a suburban driveway and I hear “my girls!,” shouted with a laugh. I feel joy and I feel excited because walking up the driveway I see my Uncle. He’s the cool guy in this movie of my memory. When he appears, you can’t ignore him, and you know an adventure awaits.
At 11 years old he taught me to drive. Up unto that point I had only ever sat behind the steering wheel of my dad’s boat as it sat the trailer and my dad drove it around the block. Always closing my eyes letting the wind catch in my hair I imagined how it would feel to really be the one driving. The first person to have a 1980’s moped in our neighborhood, and most likely in all of Buena Park, was Uncle Mark. The day he rode it up the driveway, no helmet, that bright smile plastered across his face and said, “take it around the block Anne-Marie,” I froze with fear. “Um, I don’t know how to drive,” I stuttered. Laughing Uncle Mark gave me a quick lesson stood back and offered me the seat. “Take her out,” he encouraged. I was always the cautious one, between my sister and I. But, something in that moment made me push the fear down and go for it. White knuckle gripping I took off. I didn’t breathe for the first minute. My 60lbs of body weight hardly could stabilize the moped, but by the time I rounded the last corner of the block I was full throttling that thing, eyes watering from the wind and heart racing, I felt like well, a bad ass. That was the thing about Uncle Mark, he always made you feel special.
Every birthday he loaded us in whatever Miami Vice cool car he had at the time…his van, the el Camino, my dad’s Cutlass…and took us to May Company at the Buena Park mall. “buy whatever you girls want,” he’d exclaim. And we would!
Around 13, I remember watching MTV on the couch with my sister. Uncle Mark came in and started dancing. He grabbed my hands and tried to get me to dance too. I refused, teenage angst seeping from my pores. I mean, for real, me and dancing did not get along at the time. He kept trying though. “Girls, just like this.” And he contort his body into some kind of rigid spastic convulsive 80’s move. Laughing we finally followed along. And, that was how I learned to dance, laughing and jumping along to MTV videos with my Uncle and Sister in the living room.
As life went on and got busy, things for Uncle Mark got more complicated. But, he was still always there in some way. Calling on holidays, checking-in on my kids, or reminiscing about every old story he could remember whenever I saw him. Everyone at my office knows Uncle Mark, not because they met him, but because he often called me mid-day just to tell me how beautiful it was up in Big Bear. He was impossible to ignore, even over the phone.
His light burned bright, and sadly I don’t think he ever fully recognized that about himself. He generously gave of his spirit without even knowing the joy his enthusiasm brought to each of us. We lost Uncle Mark in tragedy and way too young. His life was not an easy one, and yet in his way he was constantly daring us all to live how he lived — Unabashedly Full and loud and–just like the song says, “Forever Young.”
As for me, I will keep his spirit alive by pushing past my fear and full throttling, white knuckling my way through this complicated life. Goodbye Uncle Mark I always miss you.