Every year around this time I open the basement cabinet and haul out the Christmas boxes. One of them I just open for a peek inside. There wrapped lightly in tissue sits an ancient gingerbread house, crumbling but upright—a feat of engineering, since we kids built it circa 1969. That year, like every year, the mailman brought my three older siblings and me a gingerbread house from our Uncle Rob, which he had sent from Paris or Quebec or Istanbul or some other far-flung dot on a map.
I don’t remember where this one was from. I just know that Rob loved Christmas, and Rob loved us.
He was my dad’s kid brother, a lifelong bachelor, and the most universally beloved human being I have ever known: unostentatiously kind, intellectually buoyant, wholly devoted in conversation—and possessed of a wit that, like all good wit, transcended humor.
He taught French in East Coast prep schools, where he coached soccer and led kids on trips to France and reliably spiked the punch at faculty events. A student of his would later remark that Rob could correct a new boy’s table manners so deftly that he came away flattered Rob had paid him the attention. Those who went into town with him invariably found themselves on treasure hunts, where Rob would race from antique shop to antique shop muttering, “Junk…junk…high-class junk…real junk…now there’s a treasure.”
The treasures that didn’t wind up in his storied apartment—here an antique Nantucket harpoon, there a first-edition Great Gatsby—became presents for his family. He once gifted each of us kids with a silver goblet that might have been crafted to the precise contours of our individual personalities: my brother’s geometric and manly, my sisters’ two varying shapes of elegance, mine a little busy and covered in flowers. They were a set but not matching. Like us.
One Christmas he delivered the gifts himself. Just appeared on our doorstep one frigid mid-December day, red wool scarf pulled up to his grin, arms loaded with boxes. As I remember it—I was all of six—snow began to fall the next morning. I sat in my classroom watching it pile into drifts, and by lunchtime we got the announcement: School was closing early!
By the time we galloped out to the curb, however, reality tempered the giddy news. Our school buses weren’t equipped for the onslaught, and we’d have to get home another way. Mind you, home for me lay one flat mile through profoundly unthreatening suburbs—but I had never walked it before, and it felt scary, and it was cold. The moms had been called, but mine wasn’t here yet. Bursting into tears seemed reasonable.
I remember standing in the bus bay, smearing hot tears into my cheeks with wet wool mittens, straining for a glimpse of Mom. I waited and shivered and waited. And then, rounding the curve—a solitary figure on foot, growing steadily larger as he approached, red scarf brilliant against the snow.
I don’t remember now how he knew, or where Mom was, or what he said to comfort me. I do remember Uncle Rob hoisting me onto his shoulders and walking me the whole way home like that. I remember laughing and feeling safe, my world looking really big from up here.
Four years later, I was 10 and Uncle Rob was dead. He was 44.
His body had washed up on a beach in Corsica, where he’d gone to travel before meeting that year’s crop of students. That was the beginning and the end of what any of us knew—or, in fact, still know.
Was it an accident? Possibly, though Rob was a strong swimmer. Suicide? More likely, alas…though, to those who knew him, unthinkable. Murder? Corsica was then the hub of the heroin smuggling network, the French Connection; perhaps he’d landed on the wrong side of that crew. Dad had always jokingly accused Rob of being CIA—here was a smart and fit young man, bilingual, unencumbered by dependents, constantly off to exotic ports of call, who had graduated Yale during the years the spy agency famously recruited from that school. Adding to the seduction of that theory was that the State Department, for reasons still unclear, ordered Rob’s body cremated before anyone from the family could identify it. We were still kids when Dad, beside himself with grief, wondered aloud: Could Rob have been plunged into deep cover?
Could he still be alive?
Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit that this is a hope that remains alive in me—but it does. It lies dormant until something awakens it, like when I’m in Europe and suddenly all over train stations and cafes I see men who could be older versions of him.
Or when I open a box at Christmastime and there stands a gingerbread house, crumbling but upright: a testament to the life force of a man whose indelible presence will not be extinguished. Not even by absence.