Great Uncle Hugo wore a white dress shirt, a three-piece seersucker suit, polished tan and white spectators and a gold pinky ring in the shape of a snake with ruby and diamond eyes. In his vest pocket was the gold timepiece he wound every morning. He had a 3-inch stripe of white hair that encircled the back of his head from ear to ear. For casual dress he would remove his suit coat and roll each shirtsleeve two folds. Weekdays for 47 years, as Great Aunt Blanche’s assistant, he sits behind an uncluttered mahogany desk on the 19th floor of the Pittsfield Building in the Chicago Loop. He answers the phone, “Shay Employment Bureau and Medical Agency, Blanche L. Shay, Director.” During slow times he files his fingernails and reads.
At home, his tool shed hangs at the edge of the hill, more museum than workshop. To enter, you have to put a foot on the door jamb and pull with both hands because the warp against being opened is powerful. Inside his reliquary are myriad tools rusted closed years earlier, swabbed now with sheets of billowy cobwebs. For guests, the shed is on his tour of the grounds. My brother and I are happy to traipse along beside him, knowing that our presence is helpful to the task at hand so Hugo can keep his mind on what he wants to explain about things. We learn early on that this is important.
At 102, he tells us that a dedication to reading and relaxing every day does, in fact, keep the doctor away—a lesson he learned from an experience so indelible it confirmed his life’s course and incontestable bias against manual labor. He raises his right hand to eye level and turns the index finger directly into the light while he explains an incident that happened 92 years earlier: while fixing his bicycle chain, the pedal slipped and the loose chain sliced off a good bit of the top of that finger. We three solemnly inspect the squiggly scar.