Thursday, April 16, 2009

Memories of my Great Uncle

I think it’s more than sinus. I’m now getting a rattlin’ in my chest and have been up to par for much of the week. Today, my head was exploding, so I came home at lunch and took a nap and then worked on this piece. It’s my uncle’s story—some of which was in a piece I wrote a couple of years ago. There’s a new photo of him that I found last year when I was at my grandma’s, one of him in the navy during World War II. The other photo, with him holding the mule as they took a break at an end of a row of tobacco, I shared with back in 2007. I got down and saw Rick Bragg on Tuesday and enjoyed his presentation. Soon, I’ll write a review of It’s All Over but the Shouting.

I drove to hospital in Pinehurst the first day I had off. It was the thing to do, especially since my dad was living on the other side of the world and my grandmother, a widow for just a few years, had her hands full. There, in a sterile room, was my Uncle D. He really wasn’t my uncle; he was great-uncle, my grandma’s brother, a man who seemed to have as many lives as a cat. He was still living in the old place, his parents home and had come home from work with the intent on doing some grilling. I’m sure his judgment was somewhat impaired by alcohol. The coals just weren’t turning white fast enough for Uncle D and he was ready for that meat to start sizzling, so he tossed some gasoline on the grill. He was in a mighty bit of pain when I was saw him, but he’d live another day. In fact, he’d live another twenty-five years. That gasoline saved his life, for afterwards, till he finally went into a nursing home, my grandma would keep a close watch over her younger brother, keeping him mostly sober.

My first memory of Uncle D came from when I was just a little boy. I was probably four years old and my parents had brought an old home and were fixing it up so that we could move in there. Every evening, we’d be over there working, or at least Dad would be working. D, who was still living with his parents, my great-grandparents, just up the road, would come down and help out the best he could. He was wearing a neck brace then, which made him kind of look like one of them women from Burma with long necks and heads pulled high by metal bands. Of course, D’s brace wasn’t a fashion statement; it was the result of having totaled his car over on 15-501, near the Little River Bridge. He almost didn’t make it then. Despite a broken neck, Dunk would do what he could to help out. When not able to help, he’d play with us kids. By keeping our little fingers away from the skill saw was probably a big help.

After we left Moore County, we’d only see D occasionally. On time, he’d told my Grandma that he wanted to see us. She went and found him drunker than I’d seen a man before. She brought him home with her and ran him through the shower, then sat in one of her hard maple chairs at her dining room table and poured coffee down him. He cried, saying he was ashamed of his condition. By making him sit there, I wasn’t sure if she was trying to punish him or to use him as a lesson for us kids. I was probably ten or eleven years old and just didn’t know what to make of it all. I still don’t.

A few years later, after D’s daddy had died and the old place was getting pretty worn down, my Dad took my brother and me over to see if he was home. Knocking on the back door, he yelled for us to come in. Dad opened the door, but wouldn’t let my brother and me go in. I could see there were four men in the sittin’ room, all nearly passed out. Seeing us, D struggled out to the back porch, where he held tightly to the screen door in order to stand upright. I think he was both ashamed as well as glad to see us. One of the other men yelled out some lurid comment. D told him to shut-up, but by then my Daddy was herding my brother and me toward the car. I was probably thirteen or fourteen then and even today I ain’t sure what to make of it all.

As the years drifted on, we’d occasionally see D at church, smoking cigarettes and talking to the men out front after the preaching was over, that is if we happened to be in town when he was on the wagon. If he’d fallen off, he’d be missing for the assembled crowd. However, regardless of his condition, he’d always remember us kids at Christmas and send us something. At first, it was mostly candy, often a box chocolate covered cherries that would leave a little sticky glue on the corners of my mouth. When I got to high school, he went through a phase of giving me bottles of Old Spice. Then, thankfully, he started giving me packages of handkerchiefs. This kept up till I was in my early forties and I’m sure even today half the handkerchiefs in my dresser drawers were gifts from him.

As he got older, his wounds begin to bother him. His back and neck, both of which had been broken at various times from automobile accidents, always hurt. He shuffled around; at least he wasn’t able to get into too much trouble. He started to go to a men’s Bible Study and attended church more regularly. I reckon it was in his blood as his Daddy and Granddaddy and Great-granddaddy had all served as an Elder at Culdee Presbyterian. He never served as an Elder, but for his last quarter century of his life, he attended faithfully.

D. took great delight in my adopted son. When we’d visit in the summer, he’d take him out fishing on his pond, the same pond I’d first fished in when I was just a tot. I liked that they got to share that together. Both of them had been through a lot and they seemed to develop a close bond. As the boy got older, whenever we talked, he’d always ask about D. Uncle D also adored my daughter. When he learned she was taking violin lessons, he presented her with a violin that had belonged to his granddaddy, the man for whom he was named. His granddaddy had traded a barrel of kraut for the violin, back in the 1860s. It needs some work, but it has a sweet sound. When my daughter gets a little older and big enough to play it, I hope she’ll occasionally think of Uncle D. He was tormented by demons all his life, yet deep down there was goodness.


  1. This is a good post, and beautifully written.

    My friend John is spending months recuperating from a major surgery, so I sent him two books of Bragg, All Over But the Shouting and the Prince of Frogtown. I so wanted to say to him, pass them back to me once you're done. But that's a bad manner, so I kept quite. Bummer. Bragg has this magic, reading his books makes one wanna run to the desk and type out a story, a story like yours. Your great uncle was a good looking man actually. And I do believe, sincerely, that living in the clouds of alcohol can be a lot better than the real world.

  2. What a beautiful tribute to your Uncle D. Amazing how he was always good to you and your siblings no matter what condition he was in. I'll bet you never look at a bottle of Old Spice without thinking of your Uncle D. ;)

  3. This reminded me of the book and movie, 'The Secret Life of Bees'. The vernacular in that and in this post really made the southern-ness come through.

    I think I'm goin' to drop all usage of the letter 'g' when it appears at the end of a word.

  4. Yes, nicely written. What a great story about how he got the violin.

  5. A nice story, Sage. I think we all know someone like that, who's nice deep down.

  6. Unlike your great uncle kid...I didn't have to wear a halo when I broke my neck. Other than that I have walked more than a few miles in his shoes...I found this to be a very touching memoir.

  7. Mother Hen, I enjoyed listening to Bragg and got to meet him at the book signing. He said, "You're not from around here, are you? Where are you from?"

    Scarlet, I'm pretty sure I never used a full bottle of the stuff--these days I don't own any after shave, imagine that!

    Murf, before dropping "g's" you should stop adding "u's" in words like "color" :)

    Fantasy, thanks!

    Karen, wow, you're the second woman that says that...

    Kenju, you know, a lot of nice people are wounded like him

    Walking Guy, Thanks. Different war, but same issues, I suppose.

  8. I always enjoy reading about your relatives back home. It is kind of like getting a couple new pieces to the puzzle of how you became you. Thanks for the very enjoyable read.

  9. Thanks for inviting us down this memory lane.

    I laughed at the chocolate cherries. My mom told us this past Sunday that her great grandparents always gave her chocolate cherries at Easter -- and she hated them.


  10. Oh that's so obvious! You're from outta space don't you know? :) Does he speak with a strong southern accent too?

  11. Wonderful tribute Sage--totally capitivting

  12. Great description of your uncle, Sage. That's awesome about the violin. I'm glad the goodness found its way out eventually.

    You got Old Spice. I always got Brut.

  13. Ed, I'll have to remember to keep a few pieces missing!

    Randall, I love them, still do!

    Mother Hen, yes, he does have a strong accent--probably stronger than mine

    Thanks Pia

    Bone, At least Old Spice had a nice whistle tune to get stuck in your head

  14. You are agood soul to see past the faults, to the man. Netchik sent me.

  15. Whatever the cover maybe, its the content that gives quality to life. We all have our own shortcomings,so are the rest. You have wondrous perception that transcends the weaknesses of others.Good write and wonderful memory of a great person.

  16. Sometimes, I think, the most sensitive of us are the ones who can't quite assimilate reality.

    This was a beautiful and loving tribute to your uncle D, Sage. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  17. Really neat thoughts and memories- I believe the story of people's lives are as varied as the stars.

  18. You have an adopted son?!?! How did I not know this?