Our family is a game-playing family. Holidays are marked not only by excessive pie intake but also by highly competitive board games. Particular favorites for us are Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit.
When we kids were little, we would play Scrabble with Gammy, who taught us the rules and schooled us with obscure words from her crossword habit. But when we grew up enough to have a decent vocabulary, we graduated to the blood sport that took place between Gammy, Uncle Leo, and the other adults. I never knew Scrabble could be so strategic until I played on Uncle Leo's team a few times. We would turn away from the table and he would confide his plan, six moves ahead of the board, just like a chess grand master.
Trivial Pursuit was another favorite, and no one could beat Uncle Leo. His encyclopedic knowledge of American and European military history was formidable, and was only rivaled by his equally great knowledge of literature, sports, and geography. He might have had an age advantage, since we played with the version that still used USSR as a correct answer, but overall it was his huge stores of diverse trivia that gave him a win game after game.
Despite a bloodthirsty approach to his honor on the family board game circuit, I don't think I have ever known a man who was so gentle-hearted toward everyone. You only had to see him cradle one of his puppies or his granddaughters in his arms to see how much he cared for them. You only had to be on the receiving end of his hospitality once to see how much he enjoyed gathering people together for celebrations.
He had a razor-sharp wit but he was always playful with it, never malicious. He would come out of nowhere with a quick jab and temper it with a grin that made you laugh in spite of yourself.
The last time I spoke to Uncle Leo, he was in the car with his friend Rachel on their way to a shoot. We were talking about having a family party for GrandDad's birthday this coming weekend. I mentioned to him that I had stopped being a vegetarian and he wouldn't have to worry about cooking anything weird for me. He countered by asking if I was eating big animals, or only the small ones? I laughed and told him I was eating all sizes of animals. Rachel tells me that after he hung up the phone, he couldn't stop laughing about giving me a hard time.
When I remember Uncle Leo, this is what I will remember. He was kind and generous. He was smart and witty and always good for a game, whether it was cards or board games or wordplay. And he never let anyone he loved want for anything if it was in his power to give it.
He has left a giant hole in our family, and he will be dearly missed.