Uncle Fred

[Editor’s note: F.N. Wright was a novelist, artist, and poet, whose work was published widely in the small press.]

Uncle Fred and I once thought up a name for our dream bookstore. It would be called Tangents. I’ve always thought that would be a perfect name. We would model our bookstore after the one in Hermosa Beach that is no longer there…where he bought all his paperbacks in the early 60’s; Either Or Bookstore. I love finding an old faded construction paper bookmark from Either Or tucked in one of Uncle Fred’s books. It always brings me “back” to a time I only experiences through the countless stories. That already makes me want to go off on a tangent. I’ve heard lots of stories about “those days”. Anyway, Tangents, yes, very fitting for the Wrights are capable of telling some long stories with lots of country roads that eventually circle back around to the beginning. We call that “trickle down” in our family. Telling long stories with plenty of meandering here and there, I’m pretty sure that’s in my DNA. Good spelling and grammar is not.

Uncle Fred stole my “b” (blanket) when I was still sucking my thumb. He was a prankster and at a young age he had my attention. When I was 11 he gave me an assignment to write him a story and we traded stories in the mail. Snail mail; hand written letters stuck in envelopes that you lick and stamps that cost 24 cents. Remember that? When I was 14 and started showing an interest in all things 1960’s, the floodgates were opened and I soon realized how lucky I was to be F.N. Wright’s niece. He called me “nappy joe”. My first trip to California to see him, I was 16. At the time he was dating “Too Tall Tina” and she was living with him. His place was spotless and organized. For those of you that know him, this was a deceptive first visit! I can remember sitting in his yellow chair in the corner and reading the entire “On The Road” in one night. He fed me Patchen, Brautigan, Miller, Ken Kesey and the Pranksters. This was magical stuff and I was hooked.

I would end up going to art school for college. During a semester in New York City I took a poetry class with William Packard at The New School. We had to do a biography on a poet so naturally I chose Kenneth Patchen. Uncle Fred gave me Miriam’s phone number and I got to interview THE Miriam Patchen for my paper. The magic!!!!! You can only imagine how this made me feel. I mailed my final (hand written) copy to Miriam in Palo Alto.

My first year in college I took the train from Chicago to Los Angeles for another visit. I traveled with garbage bags for luggage. My clothes had paint on them. I kept a journal and I felt like a poet, a true artist. I was young, free, and on my way to see my dad (Brother David) and Uncle Fred in sunny California. This was the first of a few train rides I would take to spend time out west.

For my 21st birthday I received a box in the mail from my dad and Uncle Fred. Inside the box there were instructions that I MUST follow. Uncle Fred insisted that 1) purchase a rose and put it in my hair 2) open the package next the river and 3) take pictures. When I opened the gift, down by the river, with a rose in my hair, I opened the box to find an original copy of Kenneth Patchen’s Panels for the Walls of Heaven. The note said to turn “turn to panel 27 and read aloud”. This is what I read:

Right now I insist that
Right now some
Where a beautiful girl is
Sitting on the bank of a river
With a copy of
Book in
Her hands
And right now she has a
Rose in her hair oh

When I graduated from college I got a tattoo of one of Patchen’s drawings on my back. The illustration from the poem that reads All at once is what eternity is. Soon after I was tattooed, I took another trip out west. During this visit we took a road trip to Palo Alto to visit Miriam Patchen. Sitting in the living room, listening to Kenneth Patchen’s voice on the record player, with my dad and Uncle Fred and Miriam… If I could stop time I would. On the coffee table sat my copy of the paper I wrote for poetry class, and the pictures of me with a rose in my hair, down by the river. That night I slept next to Miriam in the peaceable kingdom itself. We fed the black squirrels in the back yard. We ate Sara Lee cheesecake. We laughed and we cried. Miriam passed away 6 months after our visit, in her reading chair in her golden living room surrounded by books and art. It’s strange to think that all three of them, Miriam, my dad, and now Uncle Fred, have all passed away.

Uncle Fred - Natalie Wright

In 2001, just after 911, my husband Ben and I found our selves living in a tent for 6 months outside Uncle Fred’s trailer. At the time Fred had a roommate named Ted. That was fun. He loved Ted and loved to pick on him. Those were some crazy times. Ben and I officially moved to Santa Monica in 2004 and stayed for three years. I feel so happy to have had the time I did with Uncle Fred. I’m not going to lie. It wasn’t always easy! He and my dad could be so stubborn and it wasn’t always easy to get Uncle Fred out of the house. For all the difficult and stressful times, I would do anything for one more hug. One more visit to The Rock Store. One more ride in the El Camino. One more evening of sitting on the sofa, listening to the Blues and the long repetitive stories with tangents that make your head spin.

Uncle Fred influenced me as an artist more than I could possibly express. I’ve got a magical family. I don’t know how else to put it. These are some special people and now it’s my responsibility to carry on that magic through my writing and my art. It’s time to step it up a notch. It’s hard right now to look back at the past few years, especially since my dad passed and since my son Oscar has been born. I feel myself regretting not calling enough. Why didn’t I call once a week? Once a month? Life is so precious and we get so caught up in the “every day” of it. I just assumed I would see him in May when he returned home to Mattoon. I am still trying to process his sudden departure. He just slipped right out the back door, just like my dad. But now they are having a hell-of-a-party somewhere in the heavens. Oh you can bet on that! I wouldn’t be surprised if him and Grandad Charlie are tossin a baseball. With all the sadness that comes with loosing Uncle Fred, I am so inspired by him and all of the friendships he has made. All of the lives he has touched because he was who he was; a storyteller with a heart of gold. It’s been so exciting to read all the comments on facebook and see all the creative lives he has influenced. I can only hope that I will be able to pass on even just a hint of that spark.

Right now I’m slowly going though boxes, searching for all those handmade cards, the handwritten letters, the postcards. I keep everything, every little sentimental piece of paper, and yes, that is “trickle down” thru and thru.

Uncle Fred always used to say over the phone “I miss you whole bunches” and now I hear him saying that and it brings a tear to my eye. Right now I can only hope that I can even begin to be as prolific as him. He always looked ahead to the future, the new work, the new poems, the new paintings. He always had a project going. Thank you Uncle Fred for sharing your life with me. I’m gonna miss you whole bunches, UF without an O.