In the summer of 1978 my uncle Denis Reilly, standing on the sugar-white sandy shore of the Gulf of Mexico, pulled a shark pup from the frothing waves.
He gave it to me, the nephew he knew would appreciate a dead fish as a present. And in fact I kept that foot-long corpse in the refrigerator, showing it off to friends, for a week before the stink drove my mother to throw it away. I cried so much about that (I was only 10) that Mom retrieved the moldy thing and took it to a taxidermist. It was stuffed, mounted on a board with "Jaws II" written above it (this was just before the sequel came out) and presented to me on my following birthday.
Uncle Denis died on Jan. 3, just two days after hosting the Christmas tree bonfire at his house with which my family ushers in the New Year. Last Tuesday we held his funeral.
When my wife and I arrived Monday night there was a party going on at my uncle's house. Lots of beer, lots of food. It was a typical Irish wake, a celebration of the life of the deceased rather than the mourning of his or her death. But there was always that deep undercurrent of sadness flowing through the conversations, and there was the occasional tear.
Every one of Uncle Denis' eight brothers and sisters came in, on a day's notice, from New Orleans, Atlanta, North Carolina, Washington D.C. and Baltimore. With the exception of one all of my cousins came down, including one who lives in New York, to attend the funeral mass that was said by the Archbishop of Mobile and six or seven other priests and deacons.
These are my memories of Uncle Denis.
In his early 20s he was a U.S. Marine serving at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was on his way home in October of 1962 when a presidential order caused his ship to be turned around in preparation for the Cuban missile crisis.
After that I suppose he'd had enough adventure. He came home and married my Aunt Mary Ellen, had three kids (Denis T, Ellen and Margie), went to work guiding trains at the Alabama State Docks and lived in the same small frame house for my entire life.
He was the second oldest of six boys, but his older brother Edward died in childhood so everybody called Uncle Denis "Old Man." There were also four sisters, including my mother.
He was the keeper of family stories and traditions (though some occasionally questioned him on specifics) and he took his Irish heritage very seriously. He managed to go to Ireland a couple of years ago.
He was a member of the Friendly Sons and marched in just about every St. Patrick's Day parade. He also marched with me and other cousins on Joe Cain Day, part of Mobile's Mardi Gras celebration, as a fellow member of the Society of Bums (abbreviated S.O.B.s).
Uncle Denis brought my parents together. He was friends with my father when they were children and as a result Dad met Mom when she was still in diapers, a fact he constantly reminds us about.
It was from Uncle Denis that I learned the songs "The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle in your snout" and "Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, think I'll eat some worms."
On more than one occasion I was recruited to help him scare my mother as he did every Halloween.
Some of my best memories of him are beach memories, from the biannual Reilly family reunions held at Gulf Shores since I was a child. The man was an excellent crabber, as are most of my uncles, though the catch has been sparse in recent years due to over fishing.
Uncle Denis was also an artist, a painter who covered the walls of the old family home with murals and whose sawblades were coveted by all family members. I have two, plus a landscape he did on a piece of 100-year-old tile.
And I still have "Jaws II," recently restored and hanging in my master bath where he fits in well with that room's oceanic theme. I took him down the day after I got back from the funeral and re-read the inscription on the back.
"From Mom and Dad. Caught by Uncle Denis for Edward. Summer of 1978."
So long, uncle.
Ed Brock covers public safety and municipalities at the News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753 ext. 254 or at email@example.com .