Twenty-one years ago, the world lost an amazing…..and an amazed man. He loved life. He was in love with living I think. My Great Uncle, married to my Mama’s Mama’s sister, my dear Great Aunt. I can honestly say he was one of the most joy-filled people I’ve ever met.
Family issues put him and my Aunt in a position to be our grandparent figures on Mama’s side of the family. Mama and her brother moved in with them when she was in high school, though they’d already been stable and consistent people in their lives before. Mama loved living with them, and when we came along, we loved them too.
Where my Aunt was, for the most part, very ladylike and all about doing what was “proper,” my Uncle was full of fun and laughter. I can remember from a very early age visiting them, and him motioning quietly for me to come over. I’d lean over his recliner where he sat so I could hear his whisper. “Shhh, go ask your Aunt when she’s going to get her hair done.” Like an obedient puppy (is there such a thing?) I’d walk up to my Great Aunt and ask, completely unaware that she had been that morning, “Aunt W, when are you going to have your hair done?” She’d snap her dishtowel at me and click her tongue. “Go on with you. And go tell your Uncle he’s full of trouble, getting you to ask me that.” He would laugh and it was infectious. Before I knew it we’d both be rolling in laughter.
That was life with him. Rollicking and fun.
He was a CB ham radio operator. He let me call Mama on it one time when I was spending the night with them. From his radio to her phone. And sometimes we’d talk to his Ham radio buddies. They all treated me like I was royalty. I learned to say “over” when I was done speaking. I loved it. He also loved clocks. He had one whole wall in the wood-paneled den covered in clocks. My Uncle was one of the first people I ever met with a computer. He was fascinated by them, and he wanted to know everything. I would often show my cell phone to my Great Aunt in the last couple of years of her life, and say, “Wouldn’t Uncle R love this?” And he would have. A mini-computer? That takes pictures and fits in your pocket and you can talk on it–shut the front door. He would have had the very latest, not to impress anyone, just because he loved technology.
He had a dune buggy for a while. That was fun too. And he had a metal detector that he found some of the coolest things with and he let us try it. He and Aunt W loved going to Helen, Georgia to go panning for gold, but their very favorite place on earth?
Oh my. They went several times. I know they really loved Epcot too. But Mickey Mouse was a favorite. They had matching timepieces with Mickey Mouse on the face.
So full of joy and whimsy and love of life.
But he was no fly by the seat of his pants kind of guy. He retired from Robins Air Force Base as a civil servant and worked in a doctor’s office in the later years. He was a great cook and love my Aunt dearly. He raised Mama and her brother and loved them like they were his own. Just as he loved us.
When I graduated from high school, he and Aunt W drove up from their small town south of here in time to come to the house first for a visit before the ceremony. A couple of my friends from school were coming over to help me type my speech. They arrived and said they’d seen a couple stopped just up the road from our dirt road, putting something on their car. We all were puzzled, but shrugged and went on. The mystery was solved a few minutes later when my Great Aunt and Uncle pulled into our yard. There were cardboard signs stuck all over their Very. Nice. Car. “Follow us to Graduation.” “Tara is Tops.” “Tara is “MY” niece.” The last two lines he had also had printed on fancy plastic name badges they wore to graduation. Very swanky. I was laughing and crying at the same time. I was so loved.
When I married, they were listed in the announcement as my maternal grandparents. That’s who they had always been.
It was cold and rainy on a Sunday afternoon in February 1993. I went by my Granny’s after church to visit for a few minutes. I was heading to Macon to see my Great Uncle who had been pre-admitted to the Medical Center for surgery on an aneurysm near his heart. Granny was worried about the weather, but I assured her I would be okay. I drove up and spent a wonderful afternoon–laughing of course. My Uncle was full of stories and they always made us laugh. It was with a reluctant heart that I said goodbye to the party that included him, my Great Aunt, and my Mama. At the time I remember I wish I could have stayed longer, but I told him I’d see him again in a day or two after the surgery.
The surgery was scheduled for Monday, and as far as I remember it went okay. But Tuesday morning, very early, brought me the phone call I will never forget. It was my Daddy’s voice. “Tara, I need to tell you something.” That was never good.
My Great Uncle died in the wee hours of that Tuesday morning. Mama drove my Aunt in the dark hours before dawn back to her home over an hour away. I drove Daddy up to the hospital to get Mama’s car, and then I followed him down to my Aunt’s house. We spent the day making coffee for folks who dropped by–in small towns news travels fast. That was where I got my “making coffee for other folks” phobia. One lady made a face and nearly spat her coffee out. “Who made this coffee?” she asked. “It’s horrible.” I wanted to tell her I did, and she was welcome to make it herself. In her own home. But I didn’t. That wouldn’t have been proper and neither my Aunt nor my Mama would have been pleased. Still.
During the ride with Daddy and then the ride down south by myself, my mind kept turning. It had happened so quickly. I had had no worries over this surgery. What had happened? I was so glad for the gift of that Sunday. I treasure the memory of that visit still. But as I thought about it then, my hands gripped the steering wheel tightly, and I asked myself a question that I still wonder about from time to time now.
If I had known it was our last visit, how much longer would I have stayed? Would I have been able to leave at all?
This is where my mind goes when folks start talking about wanting to know the future. Not me. It would just be too hard to LIVE if I did.
My Great-Granddaddy, Aunt W’s Daddy, used to give me a dollar to spend at the TG&Y on occasion. One time he gave me one and my Uncle took me to the store. I bought a little Tweety Bird. My Uncle was delighted. He spent the rest of my visit “fussing” about that bird and all the mess he was making. I would find him in the trashcan sometimes. I can remember hearing a toilet flush, and then my Uncle walked in the den, wiping his hands, and said, “Well we won’t be bothered by that bird anymore!” Once I figured out the game, I was all in. I made sure I took Tweety Bird every time we went. Somehow over the seventeen years after Uncle R passed, Tweety Bird became my thing with my Great Aunt. Our way of continuing the laughter and remembering. I found everything from Tweety Bird socks and hand towels to sheets and tea seats and shirts. Well, what else do you give a prim and proper lady from south Georgia?
Tonight I am thankful for a man who loved my Mama through some dark times as though she were his, and then who loved me and all of us like we were the greatest treasures he’d ever found. He, in fact, was the treasure. He brought laughter and joy and whimsy into our lives and chased the darkness in the corners away. He was patient with our questions and curiosity and instead of telling us “don’t touch,” he seemed to love showing us new things on each visit, as though he’d been saving it up just for us.
As for that question I have wondered about all these years, I’m glad I didn’t know what was going to happen when I sat in the hospital room that Sunday afternoon. If I had, the visit would have been a lot different. Instead it was nearly as fun as if we’d been sitting in his den back home, listening to another tale from Mama’s childhood or the story of his new favorite attraction at Disney. It was a visit filled with hope and fun and a love of life and others, just as his whole life was. And for that, I give thanks.