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Bill Titus
personals [ Journal ]
more creative non-fiction

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by [jaw ]

2012-01-30  |     | 

Uncle Bill wasn’t really my uncle or related to me in any way, though his relationship to my family was... odd to say the least.

My memories of uncle Bill go back to when I was about eleven or twelve years old. I am sure he was around before that, but I was a late bloomer and did not really become aware of much outside of my immediate family before then.
He lived at Kemp’s Motel in Blaine Washington in unit # 1. He had a bargain with the owner and helped around the place for his room and board. You see, Kemp’s motel was owned by Harry Kemp, my grandpa.

But Harry wasn’t my real grandfather either, in fact, I never knew my grandfather and even my dad has never seen a photograph of him. Harry Kemp was, I believe, my grandmother’s fifth husband, though I could be off by one or two. To me he was grandpa, and he treated me as well as he did his real grandchildren.

I have one fond memory in particular. Grandpa Kemp needed to go down to the hardware store when I was on a visit for a few days one summer. He invited me along for the short drive down Peace Portal Way. There was a bin with cheap tools, made in Japan, in the days when Japanese was synonymous with poorly made. He told me to pick anything I wanted, I chose a screwdriver that seemed a wonder to me, as it had a built-in flashlight.

Too cool!

It was my pride and joy for many years.

One day when I was visiting, uncle Bill asked me to run into his room and get... his wallet I think. That was the day I understood the one thing about Uncle Bill that stood out above all others.

I entered the room and my nostrils filled with the most horrid stench. It was the first time I smelled the distinct odour of stale booze and vomit.

Uncle Bill was a drunk.

No, we didn’t call him an alcoholic, he was a drunkard, pure and simple. I remember he spent a lot of time at Pastime Tavern, which was in downtown Blaine, easy walking distance from his austere room.


“Hey son,” I looked up from my reverie.

“Hi Dad,” I gave him a warm smile.

He was out of breath from the walk from the car to the coffee shop. Seventy or eighty steps. The emphysema was getting worse.

“Sit down, let me get you a coffee.”

“That’d be great,” he puffed as he sat, then took long, ragged breaths.

I went for his coffee.

“Your dad looks pale,” Kristen said as she passed me the steaming mug.

“Yeah,” I shook my head, “smoking for sixty years will do that to you.”

One half teaspoon of honey and a great gobbet of cream. I shivered as I prepared my father’s coffee. The thought of ruining a good, strong cup of coffee with all that sweetness. Yuck!

I placed the large mug before him and sat back down.

“You looked like you were somewhere else, when I came in,” Dad said. “Off in one of the worlds you create in your writing?”

I smiled. “Kind of, I was thinking about the family, you know, some of the ones that are dead and gone.”

He nodded and took a sip of his coffee. “Perfect,” he said, and then looked at me with those piercing blue-grey eyes. “Who was on your mind?”

“Bill Titus, for one. I guess every family has their skeletons.”

Dad grimaced. Our family did indeed have a few close-held secrets, not something he wanted me to share with the world I’m sure.
I however, write. I must write, it is an untameable compulsion. In that instant, he went away, though he sat before me still.


A smile crossed his face a moment before he spoke. “I was driving Bill Titus to the store one day when we lived in New Brunswick. I was operating the vehicle to give me practice handling a car in the snow and ice. He was giving me instructions.” He paused, and a Cheshire grin crossed his face. “I was already a better driver than he was.”

I shuddered at the thought. The Old Man was one of the worst, most aggressive drivers I knew. If he was a better driver than Bill Titus...

“I was driving in the middle of the road, as there was no one else on it. It was crowned, you know, just like the roads today. I saw Bill turn and stare out the passenger window. I slammed the brakes on, released them, and spun the steering wheel hard to the right. The car spun like a top, three or four times, but stayed on the road... the crown you know.”

I nodded.

“It scared the piss out of him. Bob and I had done it a lot before and knew exactly what to expect.

‘What the hell just happened?’ He asked.

"Must have hit a patch of ice," I told him with a straight face.”

I chuckled. I always did when he told the story, except I now understood more after the family secret was revealed to my sister and I.

My father then told me a story I had never heard in my more than a half a century of existence.

“Bill Titus had a son from his first marriage. His name was Tommy, Tommy Titus.”

My eyes widened. Uncle Bill had a son? “I never met him!” I exclaimed in surprise and shock, “Or even heard of him.”

Dad ignored my outburst. “Tommy went through the war overseas, without a drink,” He shook his head. “He came back and worked in the dance hall Bill and your nanny ran. He was surrounded by people drinking, though they weren’t supposed to,” He grinned to himself. “People would disappear into the bathroom every once in a while, take a nip and return to the dance. Everyone knew it, but no one said anything.”

He shook his head again... another memory, more of the past, my past, or a past to which I was somehow connected. C’est la vie.

“Sergie, the local constable” he continued, “and your uncle Bill, would sit outside the dance hall in his police cruiser and catch the drunks as they started up their cars.” He laughed. “They sat in the police car drinking! How ironic and dishonest. Here he was ticketing others for doing the same thing he was doing.”

I had heard this before, and reminded him about Tommy, the new story... to me.

“Oh yeah, Tommy did fine all that time until his mom, Uncle Bill’s first wife came up from the States, Minnesota I think. She was a drinker that lady. A shame too, ‘cause Tommy started to drink with her, it was pretty bad and he died of cirrhosis of the liver.” He gave his head a sad shake.

Uncle Bill’s son, I understood, preceded his father to the grave with the same infirmity. Like father, like son.
Christ, I hope not!


There was something that was unclear to me. Had been for a couple of decades, it touched on family secrets. When my Old Man died, he would take it all to his grave, everything I couldn’t remember or pry out of him. I was going to work on that.


Uncle Bill died, of cirrhosis.

Grandpa Kemp died, of old age, though he smoked cigars for as long as I remember.

My grandmother had two more husbands after that... or was it three? I was grown-up and living in Mexico by then.

She outlived them all.

My pretty, young wife, two children and I moved to my native Canada in the eighties during the worst economic downturn ever.

My father, in an extraordinary fit of honesty, decided his Christ insisted that we, (my sister and I,) know the truth.

Uncle Bill had been Nanny’s husband.

My confusion today was which one?

I asked.


“Bill was her second husband,” Dad explained with any lack of discernable emotion.

Thoughts flew through my head.

Muriel, his baby sister was a Ferguson, and Uncle Bob looked like my dad the way a duck looks like a goose, though he was a Williams too...
Ann and he did have the look of siblings in every imaginable way, which he did reconfirm.

Then there was aunt Hilda who it turns out was nanny’s child by some lover, and had been adopted out.

Jesus! My grandmother was a... what, whore? A ‘loose woman? A particularly passionate soul?’

My memories were of a thoughtless bitch, more concerned that people thought well of her than of being a good person. I was, I believe, the last of her army of grandchildren who would visit her.
“If you can’t say something nasty and loathsome, don’t say anything at all, ” was her motto.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my grandmother, I just didn’t like her.

“I guess Grandpa Kemp never knew that uncle Bill had been married to Nanny,” I asked for confirmation.

“No, he replied, “We kept it quiet, for peace sake. Her marriage to Harry was her longest ever relationship. Harry only knew that Bill was a vague member of the family. She worked hard at the motel and seemed happy. Harry was easygoing in the extreme, he was a kind, gentle person. No other man had managed to put up with her for so many years.”

“She treated his children and grandchildren well,” I remembered aloud.


A stray thought flew through my head, like a vision. I was in my grandmother’s car heading to Stanley Park from our farm near Zero Avenue. It was a family outing and we were in several vehicles. We shot up the onramp onto Highway 99 north, then called the Deas Island Throughway.

This part of the memory was misty, I’m not sure if my dad was ahead of us in the family car, or Nanny didn’t want him to pass us. She was competitive, often about ridiculous things... from my perspective at least.

We came upon a pair of semi’s, one in the left lane and the other in the right. Neither one gained on the other, and my grandmother grew annoyed. This did not take much in my experience. After what seemed to a thirteen-year-old boy, no more than a few seconds, she shot up between them. My heart stopped for the few seconds it took to run the gamut, I could have reached out and touched the trailer as we rushed through the narrow gap.

Air horns blared, and the, (I imagine,) shocked truckers moved over to the shoulder and the tiny opening widened as engine brakes howled.
We popped out from between them like buckshot from a shotgun barrel.


Hundreds of bits of information coalesced as I sat before my father in the coffee shop sipping my steaming latte. His eyes wandered into some unknown place, but some small part of his journey was soon written down. I edited it and sent it to my two children together with my thoughts.

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