My Grandpa Bethancourt died when I was twelve years old. At the funeral, I spotted a tall, bearded fellow dressed in a distinctive (peculiar, to me) manner. He looked familiar, but I was also certain I’d know it if I’d ever seen such an odd character before.
“Who is that?” I asked.
“That’s Cousin Joe,” I was told. “We don’t speak to him.” The tone implied that the reasons were of an unsavory nature best not explained to a child, that he was one of those weirdies.
Four years later, I was at a collegium learning about the history and the modern practice of rapier fencing. “Hey, look,” my companion said to me. “It’s your cousin, Joe. Aren’t you going to say hi?”
“I’ve never met him,” I shrugged and replied, and was met with an incredulous stare.
Almost as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I was made to stand in front of the tall, bearded fellow who dressed in a distinctive manner. He peered down his nose at me, over his spectacles in that way of his, and said, “Who is this gorgeous redhead?”
“This is your cousin,” my companion informed him smugly.
Joe’s scandalized oh was several seconds in forming.
I was sixteen years old and the subversiveness of a relationship with an older relative not on the parents’ Approved list — especially if he was a weirdie — had all the appeal necessary to ensure we’d get on splendidly. We did. Joe was a good friend to me in those rocky teen years when I felt like I had a lack of adult support in my life. He even went to bat for me against my father, a rather intimidating figure. I’m told there were raised voices. I don’t know if I ever told Joe how much it meant to me that an adult had enough faith in me to stand up for my choices, right or wrong. I don’t know if he ever knew how badly I needed that. I do know that he meant his standing offer of help sincerely; I don’t suppose he knew that there were moments when it felt like the only lifeline I had.
Some time after that confrontation, Joe and my dad started spending more time talking to each other. In the nearly twenty years since, they became quite close. Earlier this year, Joe played a concert put on by my dad.
Joe Bethancourt was a local celebrity. That no-good banjo player was how he liked to describe himself. If an instrument had strings, he could play it. If there was a joke to be made, he’d put it into song. If a song was beloved, he could filk it to bits.
Every time I saw Joe, he greeted me as his “second favorite redhead” (first honors to his wonderful wife) and asked me the same two questions: “Is he still treating you right? Do I get to have to kill him for you?” meaning the man I married. Because that was part of what he’d fought with my dad about, for me, and he had an endorsement to stand behind. But also he was the kind of man who would really have relished the excuse to take any one of his many cherished weapons out for a spin. I think Joe had two – no, thr—make that four true loves: music, weapons, greyhounds, and redheads. Five true loves: also bad jokes.
I last saw Joe when he played that concert for my dad, in January. He offered the usual greeting, and asked me those same two questions. I laughed and thanked him for playing.
And that was the last time I saw Joe.
Today I have another family funeral to attend. There will be no tall, bearded fellow to spot across the room.