My great Uncle Drew (Andrew Chalmers Lillie, 1911 – 1997) was my gran’s elder brother. He was an architect by trade and a writer and artist by passion. By the time we met, I was fourteen years old and he was already a very old man. Most of what I know of him comes from half-remembered stories from my gran and the one opportunity we had to meet in Glasgow.
In 1994, I travelled to Scotland with my mom and grandparents. It was a difficult trip in some ways, and wonderful in others. My grandpa spent a lot of his time in pubs and my mom somehow managed to survive driving us around the country on roads often too narrow for one car and roundabouts designed by sadists. But my mom and I also climbed a waterfall in Glencoe to bury my Uncle David’s ashes, fed wild goats in the Highlands, wandered in the footsteps of Robbie Burns, and explored more castles than I ever thought I would see in a lifetime. I even spent an hour at Loch Ness, enjoying the sunset and waiting for a glimpse of the monster (to no avail).
Visiting my Uncle Drew and Aunt May was another highlight of the trip. They were living in a quaint flat in Glasgow with the same loud wallpaper and carpet that seems to be a staple of certain Scottish apartments. The flat was cluttered but cozy, the living room dominated by a large oil painting of my uncle’s old dog Tess (he loved animals and was devastated by her loss). One of the bedrooms served as my uncle’s study and was filled with art supplies and papers.
Uncle Drew was tall and thin, his legs so long that they both touched the floor when he crossed them. He was quiet spoken and difficult to understand, but his warmth and good humour were obvious. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I left with an old oil painting kit, a book about drawing with a kind note from him within, and a general feeling that I had missed a lot in my life by not being able to spend more time with this man.
Uncle Drew served in World War II as far as Italy, but nearly died close to home during bombings in Glasgow. According to my gran, his wife, May, and my great gran didn’t get along. May was slightly older than my uncle and my great gran felt she had tricked him into marrying (my impression of May was of a warm, friendly woman so I imagine this story had more to do with the conventions of the time and my great gran’s prejudice). Uncle Drew was May’s second husband and she had children from a previous marriage. My mom told me that my Uncle Drew thought he would never marry and truly fell in love with Aunt May. He said at one point that he didn’t know what he would do without her.
My uncle was passionate about art and writing and I was fortunate to experience this firsthand. The holidays were always exciting because he sent a hand-drawn card, poem, or story every Christmas. He spent years working on an illustrated autobiography and, just before he died, Tenement Folk was picked up by the Springburn Museum. He sent us a handwritten copy that I have yet to read through to the end (it is a difficult read because of the Glaswegian slang). The illustrations are fascinating in the attention to architectural detail and the often hilarious scenes from his childhood.
My uncle died when I was in my late teens. I hadn’t thought about him for some time but the news of his death disturbed me deeply. I took my dog, Kaeleb, out to the quiet lake we sometimes went to walk and cried. While I was watching Kaeleb play at the lake’s edge, a small yellow butterfly started fluttering around me. It kept trying to land on my hand for what seemed like an hour and I had the strangest feeling that it was my uncle saying goodbye.
I’m glad I had that closure, real or imagined. And I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet such a wonderful and interesting man.
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