My mother was an artless raconteur. She didn't tell stories because she thought they were clever, or because she wanted to have the spotlight. She told them because they amused her, and in sharing them, she could be amused all over again. As a child, I heard all of the stories many times over, and they would always make me laugh. Today, they make me laugh even harder.
My mother's tales were about her own childhood and adult experiences in London. Many of them were about the Blitzkrieg and were understandably grim, but even those often had amusing twists, like the ones about her antics in a military uniform factory during the war. She also liked to recall the oddities of some of her distant relatives, like the uncle who sold butterscotch at the dog races. Pretending to wear the candy vendor box, she would walk around our living room and mimic him in a completely deadpan voice: "Doncaster Butterscotch, very nice, very nice."
My favorite stories, however, were the ones about Uncle Ellior. Ellior was not my mother's uncle; he was the father of her friend, Lee, but everyone called him Uncle Ellior. Ellior had a wooden leg and was cursed with phantom pain most of his life. He made money by trafficking in illegal dog and horse race betting slips, and he infuriated his family by serving rationed fish to the neighborhood cats during World War II. The cats loved him and followed him everywhere.
Ellior's main career was making people laugh. His daughters recalled a day when it was unusually cold in London, with freezing temperatures. They hurried home to get out of the cold, and when they entered their house, their father was sitting in his armchair reading the newspaper. Sticking from his nostrils were two extremely long "icicles" he had fashioned from pieces of cotton. They laughed until they hurt, but Ellior just went on reading the news, never changing his expression or saying a word.
A legendary tale about Ellior is that he swallowed his false teeth and vomited them several decades later. My inclination is to believe this story because it is the sort of thing that would have happened to him. Once, he was walking through the streets of London and was stopped by the police, who were pretty sure he was a racetrack criminal. They patted him down and searched his pockets.
"What do you want from me?" he asked them, with tears in his eyes. "I'm an old man with a wooden leg. Next you'll be wanting to search that." The police backed away from him, apologizing all the way. Inside his wooden leg were over a dozen betting slips. The police never bothered him again.
Lee and her sister, Dorothy, knew how to get their father going. Sometimes one of them would find an odd foreign coin in her purse and show it to Ellior. My mother told me about a coin she found with a former Swedish monarch on it; he had a lot of hair and a very long beard. She showed it to Ellior, who immediately pointed and yelled, "I know that bastard! Worthless. Cheated on his wife. Filthy slime."
Once, a family member concerned about Ellior's many aches and pains gave him a bottle of Sloan's liniment. On the label was a photograph of a very serious-looking Dr. Sloan, who had a mustache so large it looked as though a hairy bat had landed under his nose.
"Look at that filthy bugger!" Ellior shouted when he saw the bottle. "Wouldn't fight in the war. A coward if I ever knew one. Get his ugly face out of my sight!"
Ellior died before I could meet him, but I did get to meet Lee, back in the '70s, when I first went to London. She and my mother were reunited for the first time in twenty-six years, and within a few moments, they were howling about Lee's father and telling the Uncle Ellior stories all over again.
Though it isn't as popular as it was once, Sloan's Liniment is still available in a few drugstores. When I see it on the shelf, I always laugh out loud and think to myself: just look at him, still posing for liniment, as though he had nothing to be ashamed of, the filthy bastard.
Diane E. Dees is a regular contributor to Moondance Columns. She is a psychotherapist and writer in south Louisiana. Her essays and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in several publications, including: The Raven Chronicles, Thema, Southern Ocean Review, The Melic Review, The Dead Mule and The Louisiana Review. Diane and her husband are the webmasters of www.princesscafe.com, a virtual rock and roll restaurant
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