You’re not alone!
My Uncle Johann was a lunatic. His lunacy wasn’t the sort that can be hidden, since he persisted in venturing out into the regular world at whim. Whenever fancy struck him, he came trudging into town where everyone could see him, much to my chagrin.
Growing up in a small town, I felt the universe was watching me – my every move noted and recorded by prying eyes. This was not solely due to normal adolescent paranoia – because the whole town was watching. My father taught high school English; he was the head of the drama department, the choir, the poetry and music festival and, never one to miss a leadership opportunity, he was also church deacon, choir director, and Sunday school superintendent. To say he was omnipresent is not an overstatement. The hierarchy was evident: first was God, and then there was my father.
Fact was, my illustrious father had a wacko elder brother – and the whole world did know. Most families can claim a few nuts dangling from the branches of their trees. My Uncle Johann was the real thing, the genuine article. Rumour was that in his rebellious youth, Johann ran away to Hollywood to try his luck at acting. He managed, according to scuttlebutt, to score only one role – as an extra. Johann’s stab at stardom rested solely on his command performance chasing a cow across a set. But fame eluded him, and he returned to his parents’ dairy farm in Manitoba a changed man. By that time, he was crazy, I guess, because they tossed him in the loony bin for a few years.
When he was released, he was born-again. And he began to eschew all things ‘wordly’ – you know, things that normal people had, like electricity, photography, motor vehicles, haircuts, plumbing – and taking on a simple Godly life of prayer.
I’d like to say prayer and work but there is no evidence that he ever actually worked. I doubt he could have held down a job because he was, as I’ve already said, crazy. I suppose he may have helped my Grandma with the dairy farm but in my minds’ eye, I see only Grandma in her work boots and barn clothes. You could, however, find my uncle trudging the fifteen miles from farm to town, alongside the highway, hunched over, long straggly white hair and beard, with ankle-length coat flapping, in clothing from the turn of the century which was somehow more ‘Godly’ than anything manufactured in his lifetime.
Everyone in town knew him as the crazy guy who wouldn’t ride in cars, walked everywhere, never bathed nor cut his hair. And let me add, my mother, a fastidious woman, found that fact distasteful to the nth degree. Eventually Johann moved into a shack his brothers built for him out in the woods, with no mod-cons. Running water, septic system, electricity – all sinful. Uncle Johann would come a-walking to our house in town where he would be fed by Mom, and he would ‘pray for us,’ angrily reciting scripture and heatedly debating the finer points of sin with Dad. Head bowed to avoid eye-contact when a female was present since, by virtue of our gender, we embodied the very sin he devoted his life to eschewing. This was an impossible concept for my 12-year-old brain to grasp but I did understand he was serious about it. But the worst – absolute worst – thing was that he refused to use our indoor bathroom and did his business out in our back yard for all the world to see.
In contemporary back-to-basics terms, one might think my crackpot uncle ahead of his time. Certainly he wrote the book on ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ – and, if it weren’t for the religious zealotry with which he carried out his mission, they might have a point. But his attempts to ‘save’ the rest of us from damnation, with all the smug superiority of the uber-holy, and an overabundance of self-righteous piety, made anything he claimed as truth ring hollow.
Many years later I learned that Uncle Johann, in his attempt to carry out the Word of God as he perceived it, destroyed many precious family archives, especially from the ‘old country,’ irreplaceable, and now lost forever. I’ve also been told that he was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and that he terrorized my grandmother to the point of abuse, especially in her senior years, refusing to allow her to use the electricity and other conveniences her adult children had installed in her farmhouse to make her life in her old age easier.
Having a wacko uncle taught me many things. A healthy suspicion of anyone claiming to know the one true path to any given end – be it heaven or justice or the best recipe for something. It also taught me that family is family – and you don’t turn your back on family, no matter how psychotic they are. You tolerate them, and you help them if they’ll let you. It taught me that every single human on earth, from homeless hobo to mass murderer, is most probably a nut from someone’s family tree. They are our brothers, uncles, fathers, mothers, daughters, and our sons. And, surely most importantly, it taught me this: There, but for grace, go I.
© L.D’anna 2017. All rights reserved. To reproduce or distribute, please contact the author.