My uncle was the first and only one to show me how wood is patiently sculpted by hand into musical instruments. I was around six years old when I discovered the smell of sawdust coming out from his workshop at my grandpa’s house. I can clearly see him working hard during the summer of early 90’s Venezuela with the tools my grandpa had accumulated over the years, patiently peeling away at the chunk of wood, shaping up what was to become the neck of an electric guitar. He was wearing a white tank top and ripped jeans, using a protective mask that always made him look crafty. My uncle had long raven hair, arms of a titan and the height of Napoleon.
He also introduced me to Casio watches before they became a hipster gadget and a symbol of resistance against modernity. He was still in awe with the digital numbers and the shiny light that allowed you to always check the time. He would always put it back into a drawer, together with his guitar pedals, microphone and other treasures. These possessions were cherished and meticulous taken care of by him.
My uncle lived at my grandpa’s and he would always have the door to his bedroom closed. My other cousins were never allowed to go in, but he would always let me in when I knocked after being dropped off by my parents. I loved his bedroom, because one wall had shelves filled with Popular Mechanic magazines and Topolino, the Italian comics released by Disney about the adventures of Mickey Mouse and his gang of friends. This collection had been brought by him from Italy, after spending most of his childhood there. Some of the books had been repaired and taped together to avoid them from falling apart, since they had been used extensively by him somewhere in post-war Southern Italy decades ago. I would look at the characters full of colour in excitement, but never liked when the pages were done just in black and white. It felt like they contained just drawings, instead of characters filled with soul and purpose.
When my parents were having a date night somewhere in Caracas, my uncle would be reading Topolino to me, translating from Italian to Spanish, and showing me the drawings of Mickey chasing bandits wearing masks, Donald Duck getting angry about this or that and Goofy being utterly confused about life. We would then try to draw our own comics in the kitchen, which he always took very seriously, while my grandma would be cooking spaghetti for dinner. I still remember with fondness the wizards, creatures, castles and battles that he created just with a blue ballpoint pen.
Years passed and I became a teenager, forgetting about Topolino and wondering why would an adult still save and revere moldy paper like that. What was the point? I would no longer rush to his door when we were visiting my grandparents. Instead, I would sit down in the living room and watch TV until someone was determined enough to pull me away from it.
However, things changed. Life had an interesting way of bringing us together again. It was through math. I, a teenager living in Venezuela during the years of revolution, had to rebel. I will step up and not blame my teachers for this, which I assume will gain me some brownie points in front of whoever is counting. But I had to rebel against math and its neat and perfectly quantifiable solutions. Order was contra natura in my books. Math was the bane of my existence and it had a way of humiliating me every year during high-school, so my parents took immediate action.
My uncle had studied civil engineering during his undergrad, so that made him my extracurricular math teacher by default. There he was, teaching me again for the first-time things that I will never forget: Arithmetic, Trigonometry, Geometry and other things that I have voluntarily forgotten. We would be sitting again together going through a book that replaced comic strips for equations, formulas and triangles. He would sit down patiently through every exercise at the beginning of a new chapter, but once he saw and convinced himself that I was applying myself to the task, he would then go to his workshop and work on his guitars. I could then hear the saw go through the wood or smell the sprays of paint that would transform the guitar into this shiny and attractive object. On occasions, he would walk me back home, making a stop for ice cream while we chatted about music, Aristotle and the cosmos. He kept insisting that math was in all of these things, which piqued my interest enough for me to get interested in philosophy, but forget high-school math the minute I went to university.
After my second year of undergrad, I made the decision to move to Spain for a year to study European Law. This was the first time I was going to live by myself in a country and a culture new to me. I was in my early 20s and the desire to explore the world kept me away from home. I would never think about Topolino, his guitars or our conversations after my math lessons, because I was taking this whole new world in with all my senses. I wanted to eat cod fish in Bilbao and drink at night in Madrid. I wanted to go to Rome to drink wine and eat authentic pizza shaped by someone’s nonna. I wanted to live the life that I had read about during all those years growing up in Venezuela. Nevertheless, I would always call my parents, but I would never ask about my uncle. My dad would never bring him up, despite our conversations mostly being about family. Today, they don’t speak to each other anymore.
Eventually, I went back to Venezuela and finished my undergrad. I never made time to see my uncle. It was always about friends and the next upcoming weekend. He would be there at family reunions and we would talk about whatever was going on in our lives and the country. He still had the comic books on his shelves, but I never went back to flip through its pages again.
I left Venezuela more than 8 years ago to live in Germany, but ended up making Canada my home. I haven’t spoken with my uncle again. Last time I saw him, he was wearing a vintage Casio watch and was against using smartphones. I didn’t know that that was going to be the last time I was going to see him in many years to come, because at the time I thought that I could always go back. It is only until recently that I have become aware about the fact that he had been fading away from my life imperceptibly. Forgetting him would be to forget my childhood and now I have finally understood what was the point of saving Topolino’s comic books all these years. Those beaten up books were his shield against time and oblivion.
“Si usted no tiene libertad de pensamiento, la libertad de expresión no tiene ningún valor.” - José Luis Sampedro