by Brenda Wilson Wooley
Uncle Noel was tall and slim with black curly hair and the brightest blue eyes I'd ever seen. He wore pleated gabardine trousers, white shirts; sports coats with shiny gold buttons. He smoked Chesterfield cigarettes, blew smoke rings. I could see my face in his shoes.
Unlike Papa and Uncle Robert, who were farmers and had lived in rural Kentucky all their lives with no desire to live anywhere else, Uncle Noel hated working the land. Papa said he vowed to get out of Kentucky, make big money. And as soon as he graduated from high school in 1922, he headed to New York City.
As I got older, I learned that Uncle Noel lived an exciting life as a single man in the big city, hitting the night spots, drinking highballs, dancing the nights away with various women. And, at least one time, a famous woman.
He and a few friends were in a Manhattan night club when he spotted a beautiful girl, "standing there acting like she wanted to dance," he told Papa. While they were dancing, she said her name was Kate, hailed from Connecticut, and her father was a doctor.
"My name is Noel," he said.
She threw back her head and laughed "The only Noel I know is a Coward!"
"That girl knows Noel Coward," he told his friends when he returned to the table.
"Noel Coward, hell!" they laughed, "You just danced with Katherine Hepburn!"
It was a big occasion when Uncle Noel returned to Kentucky each year to visit Grandmother. There were picnics, excursions to Kentucky Lake and family dinners, the adults ending the warm summer evenings on the front porch as my siblings and I played hide and seek around the cars. Uncle Noel’s Cadillac was the nicest. I could smell the newness, and something else I could not define; somehow foreign, like the big city in which he lived so far away.
As I hid near the porch, I could hear the adults' muffled voices drifting through the air, punctured every now and then by Uncle Noel's deep voice. He talked fast, unlike the soft, thick drawls I had heard all my life. He was familiar, yet alien, like the handsome, fast-talking actors at the picture show.
Uncle Noel was always kind to my siblings and me. And he joked a lot. He never picked us up or patted our heads, as Papa did, but he made us feel special. Just a smile and a look with those flashing blue eyes were enough for me.
"How ya doin,' Sarah?" he said, "You sure are pretty!"
A shy child, I blushed and said nothing.
During the early years, Aunt Victoria accompanied him on his visits to Kentucky. My memories of her are in black and white, faded and vague: a dark, silky dress, high heels, soft, gentle fingers stroking my chubby cheek.
They had gotten married years before I was born. In 1933. Grandmother had a photo album of the event, and my sister and I spent hours in the front-porch swing, gazing at their wedding pictures. Uncle Noel stood straight and tall in his tuxedo, an impish smile on his face. Aunt Victoria wore a fitted satin gown with a long veil and train, which circled around the tip of her dress on the floor, reminding me of a cream-colored puddle swirling around her feet. Her bouquet was the largest I had ever seen.
"Where do they live?" I said.
"A long way from here," Grandmother said, "In a great big city."
I tried to picture it in my four-year-old mind. But all I came up with was Paducah. On a Saturday.
At Christmastime, Uncle Noel always sent a big box bulging with gifts; one year he sent a bicycle for Johnny, a doll with magic skin for me, blocks for Libby; another year our gifts included a basketball, a scooter, a dollhouse. He also sent Momma and Papa a big box of fruit: crunchy yellow apples, sweet, tangy oranges, and grapefruits with red juicy centers which Momma served for breakfast on Christmas mornings.
I was five when Uncle Noel phoned with the news that Aunt Victoria had died. Papa and Uncle Robert drove Grandmother to the train, and she was gone a long time. On her return, she and Momma talked in sad, hushed tones.
After a while, Uncle Noel began coming to Kentucky again, but his blue eyes didn't flash as before and he didn't laugh nearly as much. He was still kind and always paid special attention to us. But something was missing.
"I've bought more property on Manhattan Island, and Long Island, too," he told Papa and Uncle Robert, "I had to hire fifty more carpenters."
Shortly after returning to New York, he called Grandmother. "He was drunk," she said, "Going on and on about moving to San Francisco." She hesitated, a worried look on her face, "He's drinking all the time!"
He did move to San Francisco, and his construction business flourished as it had in New York, even though he was drinking all the time. And, as Grandmother put it, carousing. He met a woman twenty years younger and married her. We never met her; they divorced a year later.
"He never got over Victoria," Grandmother said.
At dawn one morning in 1958, Papa received a person-to-person phone call from Las Vegas. After he hung up, he shook his head and looked at Momma.
"Noel said he woke up married."
His bride, Benita, a former Las Vegas show girl, was a loud woman with bright red hair. She wore low-necked, tight sheath dresses with scarves wound around her neck and thrown casually over one shoulder. When she walked, her hips swayed from side to side, causing all of the men, especially Uncle Robert, to stare at her. After they left, Aunt Flora chastised him for staring at "that strumpet."
After Grandmother's death in 1970, we discovered that Aunt Flora had given Uncle Noel and Aunt Victoria's wedding album to Benita and she had thrown it away. "Why did Aunt Flora give it to her?" I cried, "All those beautiful pictures…gone!"
A few years later, Uncle Noel retired. He and Benita moved back to Kentucky and bought a large home in the most exclusive area of Paducah. By that time I was married and had a family of my own, so I seldom saw them. Neither did Momma and Papa.
"Benita sees to that," Momma said.
"Why on earth did Uncle Noel marry her?" I said, "It's obvious he can hardly stand the sight of her."
"He considered divorcing her years ago, but he was afraid she would take everything he had."
One weekend, when Benita was out of town, Uncle Noel visited my parents. He looked pale, distracted. And his health was deteriorating. As he was leaving, he took Papa aside. "I've named you as executor," he said, handing him his will, "She signed a pre-nup, so she'll get half, and I'm leaving the other half to your kids."
Months went by without a word from him. Papa kept trying to call him, but no one answered the phone, so they went to his house to check on him.
Benita met them at the door. "Get out!" she spat, "The will has already been made!"
Uncle Noel died a couple of months later. He was eighty-three years old.
After the funeral, Benita presented another will, which she claimed Uncle Noel had made just days before he died. Papa took her to court, but the judge ruled in her favor. She walked away with a little over eight million dollars. When she died in an automobile accident a few years later, Uncle Noel's fortune went to her niece, a woman he had never met.
After Uncle Robert's death, Papa inherited Grandmother’s house, and while clearing out the attic one day, Momma came across a box labeled "Noel’s Pictures."
She gave them to me.
The pictures tell the story of Uncle Noel’s life with Aunt Victoria, when they were dating, the early days of their marriage. In the background of some of the pictures are huge estates and shiny roadsters, reminding me of The Great Gatsby. In one, a group of people stand in front of a sprawling brick mansion set on a manicured lawn. "Lily, Randolph, Mary, Noel and me, Great Neck, NY, 1935," Aunt Victoria wrote on the back. In another, they stand with two people on a long pier, the crashing waves of the ocean behind them: "Brodhurst, Sunny, Noel and me, Montauk Island, 1937."
My favorite is faded, worn and creased, as if tucked inside a wallet for years. They are dancing cheek-to-cheek, Uncle Noel in a tuxedo; Aunt Victoria in a long, swirling evening dress, a mink stole thrown over one shoulder. His eyes are sparkling and the smile on his face is the one I remember. On the back is Uncle Noel's familiar scrawl: "My love & me at the opening of The Rainbow Room, October 3, 1934."
Brenda Wilson Wooley's work has appeared in The Birmingham Arts Journal, Etchings, Existere, Kentucky Monthly, Straylight, Amarillo Bay, Mississippi Crow, and elsewhere. She makes her home in Paducah, Kentucky, where she is working on a novel and a collection of short stories.