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Rosalie Ferrer Kramer

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Uncle Ben
By Rosalie Ferrer Kramer
Thursday, March 13, 2003

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The story of my eccentric "Uncle Ben," his magic tricks, bedtime stories and his fascinating sporting goods store on Lafayette Street in Suffern, New York

BETWEEN 1933 And 1939, my sister, Mimi, and I looked forward to spending summers in Suffern, New York. Mother was born there in a beautiful white house with a veranda, where our grandparents still lived. From our Detroit home, it was a long 3-day trip through the mountains. A few days after arriving, Father, who manufactured women's clothing, would leave for New York to do his winter buying. Uncle Ben, Mother's eccentric bachelor brother, still lived with our grandparents in private quarters on the third floor. Occasionally he let my sister and me visit his rooms, filled with dusty hand-me-down furniture, a hat collection hanging on dozens of pegs, his World War I medals, mementos of all kinds and hundreds of butterflies displayed on boards along the walls. Mimi and I slept on the second floor in a sweltering little room under the eaves. He loved to tell us bedtime stories. Sometimes, on hot nights, the smell of the blooming nicotina vine was so sweet and oppressive it was impossible to fall asleep. That's when Uncle Ben would amuse us with magic tricks and tales of hunting and fishing adventures. He also told funny stories about his sisters and brothers when they were kids. Inevitably, those stories set us to giggling with such hilarity that Mother would yell up the stairs and threaten us with dire consequences if we didn't hush up.Uncle Ben would simply smile and whisper, "She just don't know her onions." This was his favorite expression of disdain or disgust. Mother would've been terribly annoyed had she heard him ... but Mimi and I thought he was hilarious. Uncle Ben owned a sporting goods store that was popular with locals. He drove there every day in his spotless Model T. He called his car "Bessie" and said she was his girl-friend. We'd never heard a car referred to by name, so it added to the fun of being with our eccentric uncle. I loved going to his store on Lafayette Street it was full of exotic things. Decorating the walls were mounted fish and animal heads with glassy yellow eyes that seemed to follow me everywhere.Trying on some high boots, I'd clump around the store. I was baffled by the greenish, rubbery clothing and wondered why anyone would wear such things. The display cases were full of fishing flies, lures, knives, guns and ammunition. I must have driven my uncle crazy with questions, and I spent so many hours watching him tie flies that he finally taught me how to do it. One day Grandfather came into the store from his shoe-making shop across the street and saw me tying flies. "That's not a fitting thing for a little girl to do," he said. "Horse feathers!" Uncle Ben replied. He was a stickler. Sometimes he'd chide me," Tie them a little tighter, squirt." I'd occasionally stick myself on the hook and give a little yelp. "You don't know your onions," he'd admonish. Yes, Uncle Ben was the proverbial small-town character. One summer when he went to Alaska for weeks on a fishing trip, he simply closed the store and hung out a "Gone Fishing" sign! Later in life, Uncle Ben married a widow and moved into her little bungalow. When he eventually passed away, hundreds of townspeople, customers, family and friends, Kiwanians, Lions' Club members and Masons attended the services. Not long ago, my husband, Mel, and I happened into a store like my uncle's. The sights and scents reminded me so much of Uncle Ben that tears welled up in my eyes. "My goodness, Ro," Mel said in amazement. "You're crying in a sporting goods store?" "Well," I replied, "I cried at the Grand Canyon, and you didn't think it was strange." "That was different," he countered. The canyon is unbelievably awesome." "You never saw my uncle's place," I sniffled. "You're embarrassing me now," he said, looking around. "Well, you just don't know your onions!" I replied

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Reviewed by Jim Dunlap 9/22/2003
Perfectly delightful. I guess that about sums it up.

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