Remembering Uncle Gus

 
 
 

I don’t remember the first time I met my Great-Uncle Gus. My mother, I’m sure, will never forget. It was the mid-70s and Gus, like many in the pre-WWII generation, was still a smoker. Gus (and, of course, Elmer, who by that time had been a part of our family for so long, he’d earned his own “Uncle” moniker) was in Dallas for a family visit. On this particular occasion, Gus had just crushed out the burning end of a cigarette when I toddled up and popped the tasty-looking morsel into my mouth. My mother shrieked, forcibly removed the offending butt from my tiny palette, and the rest, as they say, is family history.

In the nearly forty years since that first encounter, I was blessed to know Uncle Gus as much more than my grandfather’s oldest brother. Born December 7, 1915, in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, Gustavo Abimael Archilla was the first child of Gustavo Edmundo Archilla and María Ildefonsa Estrada. Gustavo, the elder, was a second-year ministry student at the Theological Training School on the grounds of Mayagüez’s Central Presbyterian Church, a church he would later serve as pastor. Gustavo’s wife, María, hailed from a renowned family of educators and musicians in the north coast village of Isabela. (María’s nephew was Noel Estrada, the composer and singer of Puerto Rico’s famous bolero, En mi Viejo San Juan.) Together, they had ten children, seven boys and three girls, all born in Puerto Rico between 1915 and 1930. Only the youngest, little Elias, did not survive infancy.

Gustavo and María’s story is one of great drama; something I’ve spent years piecing together in a book manuscript I call The Last Spaniard, named so for my great-grandfather’s place among the last generation of Spanish citizens born in the New World. As I’ve learned, the Depression that gripped our nation in the dark years of the 1930s was felt much more intensely in Puerto Rico. A full year before the stock market crash of 1929, the island was devastated by one of the worst hurricanes on record. Facing financial ruin, Gustavo fled the island for New York, leaving María and the children behind until such time as he could send for them. One bad break led to another and, before Gustavo could reunite his entire family in New York, María contracted tuberculosis and died in quarantine on Staten Island. Five years later, Gustavo himself succumbed to a massive cerebral hemorrhage in the family’s apartment in Washington Heights. “Gustavito,” as his parents called the younger Gus, became a patriarch at 24, responsible for the livelihood of his eight brothers and sisters.

The next several years brought many challenges and triumphs as Gus tried to lead his siblings toward the future he thought his parents would want for them. At times, their survival was questionable. Yet, despite outside attempts to break up the family, a disaster that carried three brothers off to war, and a Depression that seemed to hang on with its teeth, Gus never wavered in his responsibility. Though he had not asked for it, Gus accepted his role as head of his household and, in the process, earned the respect and admiration of multiple generations to follow.

To my dad and his three sisters, Uncle Gus was the grandfather they never had. To me, he was something much, much more. Part grandfather, part uncle, part sage atop the mountain. I loved listening to his stories about his parents and the family’s early years in Puerto Rico. Unlike my grandfather, who was only eight when he left the island, Gus never lost his Spanish accent. There was always something exotic about Gus’ voice, like it transcended another place or time. Why didn’t I talk like that? What was it that made Puerto Rico seem so close and yet so very, very far away?

When I was thirteen, I made my first solo trip to visit Uncle Gus in New York. My dad and I attended our family reunion in Buffalo and, when it was over, I accompanied Gus & Elmer back to their Morningside Gardens apartment. It was the first of many wonderful visits with my “uncles,” touring museums, seeing shows, and simply soaking up the sights and sounds of their city—a city I came to love almost as much as they did.

Years later, when I was young in my career, I was fortunate to find a job that “required” several business trips a year to New York. When my work in midtown was over, I’d often ride the #1 train uptown from Times Square to Gus & Elmer’s stop at 125th Street and Broadway. If my schedule permitted, I might stay an extra day or two with them.

Some of my fondest memories of Gus & Elmer involve mealtimes. Both men had experience in the kitchen and enjoyed cooking as much as, if not more, than going out to eat. Gus had a habit of humming falsetto while he worked and, if I close my eyes and listen, I can still hear him as clearly today as when I was thirteen. Those were special moments—me, Gus, and Elmer crowded around their little kitchen table, the lights of Yankee Stadium just barely visible out the window to the north.

After dinner, Elmer would watch Jim Lehrer while Gus cleaned up the kitchen. When the dishes were washed and put away, we’d all settle in for an evening of British comedy. I saw my first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus at Gus & Elmer’s apartment. Gus was particularly amused by a woman named Mrs. Bucket (pronounced “Bouquet”) and the pink-haired lady on Are You Being Served? who loved to talk about her, er…cat.

When we did go out, Gus almost always wore a crisp, black baseball cap with a small French horn pinned on the front. I don’t think I ever saw Gus without a tie and tie pin nor Elmer without one of his beloved bolos. Their pants were always perfectly creased, like they just picked them up from the cleaners. I asked Gus once how he got his creases so sharp and he confessed to sewing them in years before so he wouldn’t have to iron as much.

When walking to our destination, I usually had to choose which one of them I would accompany on that evening’s excursion. I could stroll leisurely with Uncle Gus or be dragged by the elbow a half a block ahead by Elmer. Both had their advantages, depending on what type of conversation I wanted to have, what questions I wanted to ask, or what I hoped to learn about the city. Gus was never in a hurry, Elmer never slowed down, and neither one seemed to want it any other way.

Going to a restaurant with Gus & Elmer was always a grand affair. For years, one of their favorite places was a Swiss restaurant called Mont Blanc off 8th Avenue in midtown. They knew the owner and wait staff by name, where each was from, how many children he or she had, and even what each one was studying in school.

And it wasn’t just Mont Blanc. Gus & Elmer remembered the smallest details about almost everyone they met, in almost every country of the world. Gus & Elmer loved people. As far as they were concerned, every woman was lovely. Every man was handsome. Every child was beautiful. Not surprisingly, each of Gus’ nieces and nephews believed they were his favorite—and they were all right.

It would not be cliché to say Gus & Elmer never met a stranger. In fact, they kept a book with the names, addresses, and birthdays of almost everyone they came in contact with. And every year they’d send a birthday card (and often a check) to every person in it. I went with them once to the Hallmark store near Bryant Park where they bought all of their cards and I can tell you, Gus & Elmer’s frequent buyer rewards were not a good deal for Hallmark. The last time I saw that birthday book it was falling apart, held together by an old rubber band, and stuffed far beyond its intended capacity (largely because Elmer was too cheap on himself to replace it).

Gus & Elmer’s generosity did not stop with birthdays. When the time came, they helped put many of their nieces and nephews through college. It’s a simple fact that neither I nor my siblings could have made it through four years of school without them. And I know I wasn’t the only one to spend a few New York nights on Gus & Elmer’s yellow, pull-out couch.

Like most in my family, I never knew Gus without Elmer or Elmer without Gus. The two were together so long they existed as one entity, “Gus-and-Elmer.” It sounds naïve, but I was fifteen years old before I realized they were gay. And I had to be told; I didn’t figure it out on my own.

It wasn’t that Gus & Elmer tried to hide it, or that everyone in my family didn’t know the true nature of their relationship. There was just something so much bigger about them than that. Being gay may have described what they were, but it never defined who they were—at least not to me. They were Gus & Elmer and that carried with it its own definition. To say they “broke the mold” would be to assume a mold could be created of them in the first place. My Uncles Gus & Elmer were two extraordinary people who saw something extraordinary in me and everyone else they met.

In 2003, after 58 years together, Gus & Elmer were married in a private ceremony in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Like any large family with a broad set of beliefs and personalities, opinions varied. Yet whether liberal or conservative, Christian or atheist—even pro-gay marriage or against it—the one thing that bound us all together was our deep love and respect for Gus & Elmer. If a family as large and diverse as mine can love past our differences, there’s hope for the rest of the world as well. And that, to me, is Gus’ greatest legacy.

I saw Uncle Gus for the last time a couple of years ago. I was in Tampa on business and decided to stay an extra day or two to drive down and visit him and Elmer on Marco Island. After 65 years together in New York, they could no longer manage life in the city on their own. My Great-Aunt Idalia’s daughter, Christina, and her husband, Pat, offered to care for Gus & Elmer on Marco and the two nonagenarians relocated to south Florida in 2010.

Gus always looked and acted at least ten years younger than he really was and, at 94, he was no exception. He was a little slower now and I could tell that Elmer’s declining health had affected his mood. Still, considering the circumstances, Gus looked and sounded much like his old self. We had a wonderful visit together and the time, as always, passed much too quickly.

I must admit it was strange visiting Gus in Florida. In some ways, it feels like I lost him when he left New York. He and Elmer were such a part of the city, and it of them, that something’s missing when I go there now. The lights of the city seem to shine a little less brightly. Gone are the days of the #1 train, the walks to Columbia or the climb to the top of Riverside Church, and, of course, our nights with Mrs. Bucket (“It’s pronounced, ‘Bouquet.’”).

Uncle Gus has gone on and I have to trust that someday I will see him again. We still have Elmer; for how much longer, only God can say. Chris and Pat’s burden is lighter now, though helping Elmer cope with Gus’ death comes with its own challenges. I pray God blesses them through it.

It was the day after Thanksgiving when my dad called to tell me Uncle Gus was not expected to live much longer. The aortic aneurism he’d lived with for years had finally worsened to the point that little could be done for him except to make his final hours as comfortable as possible.

My family and I were Black Friday shopping when the call came in and, as soon as we got back to our car, we said a short prayer for Uncle Gus. As we pulled onto the interstate, my wife spotted a big, blue billboard standing tall on the other side of the highway. “Stay strong, Gustavo,” it read, “A lot to be proud of.” Whoever put that sign there—and to what purpose—I don’t know, but I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

Evan Archilla

12/6/2012

6 Comments

  1. December 6, 2012  4:25 pm by Richie Reply

    Beautiful thoughts, Evan--touches many emotions. As for the billboard (photo), I guess we'll never know who Bernie is, but he is right.

  2. December 7, 2012  4:00 pm by David Jones Reply

    This was a wonderful peek into the life of Gus (and Elmer). Evan - you have a gift for writing and detail. I could recall vividly my own memories of Gus and Elmer from the few visits we made to New York together as I was reading your post. In fact, as you soon as you started the line..."When we did go out..." I immediately thought of Gus wearing a black cap and tie, and of Emer and his bolos. Funny how some details always stick with you. I can attest to their love of people, generosity and ability to make a lasting impression because as a non-family member, I'm pretty positive that I'll always remember Gus vividly through the rest of my days.

  3. December 10, 2012  1:08 pm by Duncan Reply

    They sound like two fellas who I regretfully never knew...; Bless them both...
    Evan, this was a lovely accounting of their lives as you knew them..., thank you very much.

  4. December 10, 2012  9:37 pm by Michael Sabatino Robert Voorheis Reply

    Thanks for filling in some of the history on Gus and Elmer although in the decade we knew him he related most of what you wrote. They always talked about their nieces and nephews and the joy they had of helping all of you get through college.

  5. December 13, 2012  12:57 am by Judy Archilla Reply

    I too remember great times in NYC with Gus and Elmer, both before and after you were born, Evan. They made me feel part of the family from the very first day I met them. My one regret is that I always wanted to accompany them on one of their fabulous trips. I loved Gus dearly. He will be greatly missed.

  6. December 15, 2012  3:05 am by Bob Thrun Reply

    Beautifully done, Evan. Brings back so many memories. One of a kind, classy, sweet, wonderful, kind and always so much fun. Uncle Gus had it all. Such a treat when he and Elmer stayed with the Thruns in Chicago. And the stories about the adventures travelling all over the world with our parents, Helen and Howard. We will miss you so. Love, Bob and Fumei, Hap, Sherry, Gary and the families.

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