The other day I received a package of greeting cards from an organization called, “Chimp Heaven.” The cards were attractively sketched and painted by chimpanzees sheltered in this safe refuge.
One card was drawn by a male chimp named “Keeli.” The reason I mention this is that Keeli looks a lot like my dear uncle Nathan. Uncle Nathan was the youngest of five brothers in my father’s family. He was known for his comic-style face with ears that protruded far from the sides of his head and folds of wrinkles rippling from his nose to chin. His high forehead and deep-set eyes further added to his chimp-like appearance.
The family often teased him about his looks, and they also considered him to be stupid. In truth, he was neither stupid nor slow in any way. He was smart and he was the kindest and most thoughtful of the five brothers. Nathan seemed unconcerned by the teasing, and I heard him tell my dad, with a laugh, that he’s living proof of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
I remember being a young teenager and wondering why the family often whispered about my Uncle Nathan. I found out later, that he was gay. My Uncle Joe told my dad, “Nathan has ‘that sickness,’ but a good woman can change him.” Joe always seemed uncomfortable with Nathan’s mannerisms. I didn’t understand why.
Joe and Nathan co-owned a men’s clothing store in Chicago. One day, to the shock of the entire family, Uncle Nathan was arrested. A customer accused him of making “inappropriate advances.” I didn’t understand why my sweet uncle was being arrested or what “inappropriate advances” meant. Uncle Joe responded to Nathan’s arrest by refusing to help or even see him. By contrast and with great concern, my dad hurried to reach Nathan and help him if he could. My dad hoped he could bail him out.
A mere few hours after Nathan’s arrest, I remember how horrified my dad appeared. There were tears in his eyes and his entire body shook. Holding on to my mother, I heard him say, “That crazy Nathan killed himself. He hung himself in the jail.” Nathan left a note saying he was sorry he “shamed the family.”
This horrific episode happened a long time ago, and fortunately many attitudes have changed over the years since then. Education and understanding have encouraged most of us to appreciate a variety of human behaviors and to be proud of who and what we are. That said, much hurtful intolerance still exists.
I am grateful to “Chimp Heaven” for sending me the greeting cards with the picture of Keeli, the chimpanzee artist. Mixed in with my memory of what happened to Nathan, the photo brought back thoughts of a sweet and gentle uncle whom I remember with great fondness.
Harriet Hausman is a longtime River Forest resident and, at 99, is likely the oldest regular newspaper columnist in the country, if not the world.