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Guardian Angel
Even when he wasn't around, her uncle made her feel safe. Years later, she made it up to him by honoring his last request.
Story by Judy Bridges

Illustration by Paul Tong

My feet are pushing hard on the pedals. This is a new bike, my first. Mom, Dad, and my favorite uncle, Warren, are standing on the front steps, watching. My feet slip. The pedals spin. I fly down the hill, over the curb, and under a moving car. 

Minutes later, Dad is racing to the hospital. Warren is in the back seat, cradling me. My head is wrapped so I can’t see, but I can hear his mellow voice. “It’s OK, Judy. You’re going to be OK.”

A few days later, head still bandaged, I wake up early and find Warren snoozing on the living room floor. He’s curled with a pillow and a blue striped blanket. I cuddle in next to him and stay there … feel the warmth, listen to him breathe, watch the sun rise.

This is the last year of my parents’ marriage.

In fourth grade, at Holy Angels grade school, the nuns think having divorced parents is a sin, and some of my classmates’ parents agree with them. The kids chase me to the brick apartment building where I live with my mom and big sister. I yell up at the second-story window. “Uncle Warren! Uncle Warren!” I know he can’t hear me. He’s way far away, fighting a war. 

The kids back off and I feel safe. Uncle Warren does that for me, even when he’s far away.

My uncle’s parents were also divorced, and he also moved from place to place, always the outsider. He was born in a thunderstorm in Appleton to Eva and Holgar Rasmussen, whose marriage was as wild as the weather. Eva had two boys from her first marriage – Roy and my dad, Lionel – and a daughter, Claire, who became Warren’s “little mother.”

During the Great Depression, when Warren was in fourth grade, Eva gave up on the marriage. She sent Claire to live with a well-to-do family that needed help, and Warren to live with his grandparents in a logging camp north of Antigo. He swept his grandfather’s blacksmith shop and picked buckets of wild raspberries. If you didn’t pick, you didn’t eat. That was his grandmother’s rule.

When Eva had enough money to take care of Warren, she took him back to Appleton, where they lived until he was 13 and times got hard again. With no home and no money, they returned once more to the north woods and lived at Jack Lake in a ramshackle cottage Claire purchased on a land contract. For two years, Warren and Eva ate fish, potatoes, berries and deer meat. In the winter, they chopped holes in the ice to get water. 

Despite the hardship, Jack Lake was the place Warren loved best of all. He had a girlfriend, the niece of the only other family on the lake. Her parents sent her there to keep her away from boys. Warren swam across the lake to be with her. 

When Claire visited, brother and sister swam to the middle of the lake and floated for hours, pretending they didn’t know their mother was standing on the rocky shore yoo-hooing them to come in. 

When the Depression ended, Warren and Eva returned to Appleton, where they became more of a family. Claire taught Warren how to dance, and they won prizes at local competitions. The day of one special dance, Warren’s brother Lionel drove up from Milwaukee and surprised him with a nice new suit to wear. 

Things also improved at Jack Lake. The cottage got a new roof and became a vacation place for the family. We fished and swam and picked berries. Uncle Warren showed me the best place to hide from grownups – lying flat on the roof of the outhouse. After dinner, he and I would pour gravy on slices of bread and stand at the shoreline, listening to the loons call at sunset.

Years later, Claire sold the cottage. The place is a shambles now. Warren and I have walked the property, trespassing, though it feels like we still have rights to it. 

The last time I saw Warren, we both knew he was near the end. The Parkinson’s was so advanced he could barely walk, but when they turned up the music in the rehab unit, he gave me a look that said, “Let’s dance.” The therapist gripped his waist belt and off we went, the three of us shuffling a passable two-step. 

Later, when it was quiet, he put his hand on mine and said: “Scatter my ashes in Jack Lake.”

The ice is off the lake. I paddle a canoe out to the middle and imagine that below the surface, the water holds memories of everyone who ever swam or fished there – especially the skinny kid who knew where to catch a nice bass. I trail my fingers in the water, and give Warren back to the place he loved. ■

This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. 
Read the rest of August issue online here, or subscribe to Milwaukee Magazine.

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