Uncle Billy: A Story of Hope
as told by Claudia Barker

My uncle Billy came to my grandmother when he was 6 and a half years old. His mother had died of alcoholism, and his father, also an alcoholic, had abandoned the children. This was in the 40's, in Chicago. His birth name was Albert, but his adopted name was Norman. No one ever called him that, though, because he walked into their house and their hearts on that first day, as cocky as a little boy can be, and said, "Just call me Billy". No one, not even he, knows where that name came from.

Billy came to my grandparents as a foster child, and she later adopted him. She was told that he was retarded and couldn't learn, that he stole, lied and cheated, and that he was an all-round bad boy. Today we would easily say he had FAS, looking at her early pictures of him.

Billy took to my grandmother like glue - became her instant shadow. He was impulsive and a little wild - knocked over a china cabinet that contained pre-civil war heirlooms and broke most of them, but she didn't blink an eye. She said he was more important than her grandmother's dishes, which were a pain to move, anyway. When he was ill treated in public school, my grandmother got a job working in an insurance office to pay for private school for him. Even so, he dropped out before finishing high school.

She taught him math with money, but that was as far as he would ever go with math. My mother says he can read, but I've seen his letters, and they look like they were written by a 6 year old.

He got in trouble with the law, and to avoid jail, he joined the army. When he came back, he held a few odd jobs, nothing seemed to be working very well, and then he hit on the meaning of life, for him. Kites. He had always made kites, always, out of anything and everything that he could find. He could make them with newspaper, sticks and flour paste with rag tails, or he could cut up his best Sunday shirt to make a really beautiful one. He began making and showing his kites, and met a wonderful woman - not the town beauty or brains by any means, a little rough around the edges, but a lady who loved his kites and loved his wackiness. Now he owns a kite shop in Kentucky and travels to Kite Festivals all over the US. His wife manages the money, and they love that kind of life. He's not rich, but he's happy.

If you remember when the Nickelodian network first came out, about 10 years ago or so, there was a segment with just music where a man showed a little boy how to make a kite, and then they went outside and flew it. That was my Uncle Billy.

When my grandfather had a stroke, Uncle Billy left his home and small business and stayed with my grandmother for 3 months, lifting, bathing, feeding and caring for my grandfather. Why? Because he is an impusively loving guy.

And he was by far my favorite uncle, over and above the one with all the degrees.

Boy, that really sounds hokey, but it's true. I remind myself that my grandmother did it without even knowing what FAS was. Surely I can do it, too.

Email Claudia Barker

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