My Uncle Saul taught me how to play gin. Not just the basic rules of the game, but when to take risks to get a card to complete a hand; and when a hand held little promise for success, the defensive strategy that had to be used to limit a loss. Along the way I was tutored in the finer points of “gamesmanship”. How to distract an opponent with gab, a well placed insult or a condescending comment meant to lull an adversary into a false sense of security.
I can imagine Saul laying waste to his card playing buddies.
Saul also fed my curiosity about dinosaurs. Many a Saturday afternoon, with an egg capturing net in hand, we would go on a dinosaur egg hunting expedition in the acres around his home in Woodbury. Along the way we would find butterflies, crickets & a diversity of birds, for which Saul could speak at length. “Jimmy, look at that hawk circling overhead!” And then Saul would tell me that the birds were descendants of dinosaurs. Which I thought was BS, although I didn’t tell him so at the time.
But on one of many family visits to Yale Peabody Museum, Saul pointed out to me the difference between the “lizard hipped” sauropod dinosaurs like Brontosaurus and Stegosaurus; and the “bird hipped” bi-pedal dinosaurs like T-Rex! Bird hipped! Hawk? The connection seemed unlikely… particularly to a little kid like me.
As I write these words, I look at a picture on my desk. Aunt Meggie & Uncle Saul on the lawn outside their Cape Cod home in Chatham. I focus on the details. Meggie, powder blue light crew neck sweater over charcoal slacks, wind picked-up curly chestnut colored hair. Saul, tennis sweater over shorts, arm on Meggie’s shoulder, face pivoted directly toward her in wide smile, impervious to the wind that was coming in from the Atlantic sea. God, I love that shot.
My memories of my Aunt and Uncle are indeed rich. Lucky for us who can draw on early experiences that help shape our lives. And yes, I am a good gin player, and I continue to enjoy my love of dinosaurs.
But it took me decades to unearth the greatest treasure that my Saul gave to me. It was the idea that I could “see” the world.
Maybe it began on a late spring day in the early morning sun as we progressed along the walking path in Middlebury… a tiny stream to our left, and surrounded by leafy trees. Saul called my attention to the leaves resting in the sunlight, “Jimmy, what is the color of those leaves?”
“Green? Is it all the same?” He didn’t wait for the answer. “No, see how the sun strikes the exposed surfaces to the direct light? The leaves are illuminated into a brilliant yellow! And the undersides? A lime green! And look closely! The veins of the underside of that leaf can clearly be seen in the deeper green!”
There was nothing extraordinary in the words he chose, nor the manner in which he directed them to me. And as he we walked he made mention of this, that or the other thing… the sound of the modest brook tripping across the rocks, or how the air felt in a shaded portion of the trail. Details relating to the five senses. Each detail simply put for my hearing. But at no point did Saul say, this what you must sense. Or, this is how you do it. No, that would be left for me to discover. But open the door, he did.
Then there came the day in my 11th grade year when I wrote an essay for Miss Stewart’s English class on the “Beauty of a Green Banana.” I received a “C” for that essay, and it was one of the two grades that I ever objected to during my academic career. I questioned Miss Stewart about the grade and, focusing on the under ripe taste of the fruit, she said that she couldn’t fathom how I could find beauty in a green banana.
Maybe my writing deserved a “C”; but I replied that I wasn’t writing about the taste of the banana… but at its appearance. A point that was lost on Miss Stewart; but wouldn’t have been on my Uncle Saul. I still doubt that in the 11th Grade I appreciated the ‘building blocks” that Saul had given me.
Even as a sophomore at Union College when I watched Professor Hugh Allen Wilson’s hands race over the harpsichord’s keyboard as he worked his way thru Bach’s Brandenburg No. 5, I looked beyond the sound to feel and see that musical piece. It was not just “green”. But amazing shades of green. And on occasion veins of bright color popped thru during the cadenza.
And today? Today I revel in a Sancerre from grapes grown in a tiny section of that Loire Valley appellation. Vines that have deep roots into ancient soils composed of a marl… a sedimentary layer combined of clay and tiny fossilized Jurassic oyster shells. Shells deposited when dinosaurs ruled the land. The stratum is called the Kimmeridge Shelf and it gives the Sauvignon Blanc grapes here its distinctive, and unique, character. The hue, scent and taste of these wines can’t be replicated anywhere. I look at the greenish tinge of the wine, the unmistakable fragrance of fresh gooseberries, the clear fruit and mineral laced taste —
Yes, I am thankful for Uncle Saul who decades before opened the door for me to see and experience the world.