My brothers and I squirm in the back of the station wagon as it finally pulls through Grandma’s farm gate. We crane our necks to see whether Uncle Rémi has come down yet from the logging camp and taken up his customary place on the veranda, for though we love Grandma dearly, it’s Uncle Rémi we’re bursting to see. He’s here! He’s here!
The car is barely stopped before we tumble out of the back seat and stampede, squealing, into a huge Uncle Rémi bear hug, our faces crushed against his rough wool coat and the familiar scent of pine and wood smoke enveloping us. We step back expectantly and shyly eye the myriad of tattered pockets in his khaki bush pants, too well-bred (and well-warned) to ask for the gifts he always brings us, but beseeching him with our eyes nonetheless. Grinning knowingly, he fishes around absentmindedly, first in one pocket, then in another, feigning surprise as he pulls out a couple of carved wooden flutes for the boys and a bear claw necklace for me. Grandma pops her head out the window to announce dinner and we crowd in through the door, clinging like burrs to his side.
Grandma’s kitchen shrinks whenever Uncle Rémi comes indoors. His calloused hands look better suited to wielding a chainsaw than heirloom flatware. His plate gets filled twice for our once and he always manages to wheedle a third piece of pie out of Grandma by sliding his arm around her ample waist and praising her cooking to the heavens. The token noises of disapproval she makes are belied by her blushing cheeks and sparkling eyes. Uncle Rémi’s only contribution to the conversation ping-ponging across the table is an occasional appreciative guffaw or nod of assent: the hand engulfing his fork doesn’t rest until he scrapes back his chair, groaning, to pull out his tobacco pouch.
Later on, after the women are asleep, we kids slip quietly out of the huge quilt-covered bed in what used to be the boys’ room and tiptoe to the floor grate. Fanned out on our bellies, we peer down to the sitting room where the men are toasting themselves in front of the wood stove, surreptitiously passing Uncle Rémi’s battered silver flask around as he holds court late into the night. We listen raptly to the oft-told tales of his adventures in the bush, stories deemed much too wild for “little ears.” When he gets to our favourite part, where the attacking bear swipes the axe out of his hand, he pauses, leans back, makes a pretence of stretching his arms behind his head—then winks at us overhead. Our painfully held breaths explode collectively in a burst of guilty giggling and we scamper back to bed, ducking under the covers to assume innocent poses of sleep, should Grandma come down the hall to check on us.
The next morning, as we are herded yawning and shivering into the station wagon, we search in vain for some sign of Uncle Rémi, but he was up and gone to the bush hours ago, we are informed, unlike some sleepyheads who couldn’t get out of bed. We settle down among pillows and travel rugs for the trip home, the boys clutching their carved flutes and me my bear-claw necklace. As the station wagon crunches down the gravel driveway and out through the farm gate we grin at each other, black-toothed conspirators, as we pass around the bag of liquorice that Uncle Rémi has hidden for us in the back seat.
*Uncle Rémi is a composite of all the shy bachelors and woodsmen I’ve ever known, but in my heart I believe he exists somewhere. Perhaps you know him?