November 1, 2020

Remembering an uncle from childhood

Except for his clean-shaven face, he was exactly the kind and shape of man I imagined Santa Claus to be. He was a jolly man, always had a twinkle in his eyes, a smile on his face and a funny story on the tip of his tongue. He loved kids, though he had none of his own.
          Not very tall, he had massive arms, a thick hairy chest, an enormous waist and legs. He said he could lift the front end of an old Model A car. 
          His laughter came from the bottom of his huge belly and rumbled into the air. Sometimes tears rolled down his cheeks, he laughed so long and hard.
          When a man told him he was going to whip him over something trivial and long since forgotten, he said he laughed and shook his head. “You’re welcome to try, mister, but you might want to pack a dinner pail and bring a water jug. If you get the job done, it’ll take all day.”

           But that was a side of him I knew only through stories. I just knew him as Uncle Roy. He lived with Aunt Fannie on a small hill, surrounded by trees. In the cool of the evening, he’d sit on the front porch or in the yard in his bib overalls and laugh and tell stories to my sister and our cousins.

          On Christmas Day at Grandma’s, he really was Santa Claus to all the kids and passed out candy, toys and love. He’d disappear for a while and park his car down the road. There he’d slip into his Santa Claus suit and walk the muddy, frozen or snow-covered road back to the house.

          With a sack of goodies slung over his shoulder, he’d sneak through the back door. We’d see him coming a quarter of a mile away. But we’d pretend we didn’t see him.

          Around the fire after dinner at other times, he’d visit with us and teach us what we had a difficult time learning. “You can’t spell geography?” he’d ask. “Why that’s easy. Just remember George-Elliott’s-oldest-girl-rode-a-pig-home-yesterday.”

          And we’d remember it.

          In the summertime he’d bring cold watermelon to Grandma’s. An hour or two after dinner, he’d cut it while we watched with our mouths open and our tongues hanging out. There was always a steady flow of conversation as he sliced it and passed it around.

          His eyes always twinkled when he’d see the juice dribble down our chins or when we’d spit the jet-black seeds at each other. The other grownups would say, “Here, you kids quit that.” But he’d just laugh. He understood.

          We always wanted to go to his house to visit because he had the time to take us fishing, swimming, blackberry picking, mushroom hunting, riding his goats, whatever our whim. And we had many whims.

          But at his house he’d make us go to bed early for his was a day world. He’d get up early and show us the beauty of the sun rising through the woods across the road.

          And he’d show us the squirrels at play in the early morning light before taking us through the dew-laden grass to drive the milk cow to the barn. As he showed us how to milk the cow, he’d ask if we wanted to give it a try. More often than not, we’d try only to give up in disgust at not being able to match the heavy stream of milk he made.

            After a breakfast of biscuits and gravy, we’d gather the eggs and perhaps help Aunt Fannie churn butter. In blackberry season, we’d pick berries before the summer sun got too hot. Then we’d clean them and have cobbler for dinner. It always tasted better when we’d picked the berries. 

          In the heat of the day, he’d sometimes take us swimming in the river. Most of us couldn’t swim well, but he’d have an old inner tube for each of us to float around on. The water was shallow, so he’d find a deeper spot where he could float on his back or swim and laugh at our frolicking. 

          Back at his house, we’d play cowboys and Indians as he watched. He’d laugh and kid us out of our tears and hurts when we fell and went to him scratched and bruised.

          He had an old dog he had named Dopey that howled like she was shot every time a train went by on the track a half a mile away. At night she woke us all because we weren’t used to her. We all loved that dog, though, just as we did Uncle Roy. Dopey eventually died. So did he.    

          Perhaps he didn’t realize all the happy times he gave us, perhaps he did. But I don’t think I every told him how much I appreciated him. Sometimes it just takes a long time to get around to saying some of the things we should have said long ago.

          So this is thanks a little late, Uncle Roy, for all the happiness and joy you gave us. What you did was help us learn to laugh at life, enjoy it and deal with it. We appreciated it then and still do.


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