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A Family of a Thousand Stories

June 17, 2005

A family of a thousand stories, too strange for fiction.

It has been two years since my uncle Arvy died. My oldest sister had a blog before they were cool. I would read it and not let her know I knew of its existence. I didn’t want her to hide anything. Today I will share what she wrote two years ago. She is the real writer in the family. The one that makes a living at the craft.

My uncle Arvy could be a tyrant at home, as was true for all of the six adult children of Lawson and Eunice. In some ways, all of them were reared to be hard, to expect too much of themselves and those for whom they felt responsible. Maybe that was why all of them seem to have chosen favorite nieces and nephews with whom they could let down the standard and let out some tenderness. Uncle Arvy was always more than good to me. When I was a young girl, he embodied all that was dashing and romantic, like the hero of best-loved novels. Handsome, charming, risk-taking, generous with money and praise, he was the first man who made me feel that I was special, that I might grow up to be lovely.

He drove everywhere on two-lane highways at a minimum 90 mph. He invited me along with his family on sales trips, to New Orleans, to Biloxi. He was an executive who dressed well, who knew about things. At what seemed to me the finest restaurants, he introduced me to lobster and scallops and Bananas Foster, foods his own family wouldn’t touch. His wink told me we were the ones with real taste. He let me have a sip of wine as if I were mature beyond my years. He showed me how to reel in a huge marlin. He was tall enough, strong enough, and believed in me enough that I let him teach me to swim. He’d let me be silly, too. laughing as Linda and I wailed all the latest hits from the back seat as he passed another car, a red blur as we flew by.

At home, things weren’t so good. He and my beautiful aunt danced in the living room on some nights; on others they poured gasoline on each other’s wounds. The many episodes and evolutions of my aunt’s continual headaches and seclusion progressed into depression and countless shock treatments. Eventually, she developed a full-blown schizophrenia with occasional violence and, after paying for years of expensive private care, he finally committed her to the state mental hospital in Jackson, MS. After my cousins left home, my uncle lived alone in Memphis, continuing to work, helping my cousin to launch his business in Jackson. He was quieter, lonely, I thought. Then one year he brought a woman with him to the family reunion. I waited to see the response of my mother and her siblings, but apparently they already knew. This woman worked somehow in connection with one of the blue-print businesses my uncles owned, as most of my relatives have and do. Soon, the two were always together, glowing and laughing. His kids didn’t like it, but I couldn’t expect them to with their mother ill and shut away apparently for life. There’s always some jealousy as well.

I was thrilled to see his face alight but somewhat disappointed in his choice of new love. She seemed to me far too conservative and boring for such a gallant hero. But he clearly loved her. Just about the time we expected a marriage, though, my uncle retired and built a home on the old family property in Mississippi. The doctor said his heart was enlarged. Once established in this remote place, he went back to church. For many years, he had ignored and, I believe, even resented the religion of his family. But he went back and became close friends with the preacher of the small country church I can remember visiting on Sunday nights, the entire place slightly rocking with the movement of funeral-home fans. This preacher convinced him that he had become a dreadful sinner, to the extent that he must be baptized again. Then he told him that he could not divorce his wife on any grounds because of her illness; it would be an unquestioned “putting away” that could never be forgiven.

My uncle gave up his beloved; it was apparently difficult enough that my mother even commented on it. I think perhaps he told her that, besides the sinfulness, he was going to die soon, which wouldn’t be fair to her. But he didn’t die, though I know he prayed for death or the Second Coming. For the next 17 years, he spent most of his hours sitting at a window that looked out on the woods, chain-smoking, silent and alone. He’d break this vigil if a visitor came by or twice a day to eat his unvaried diet of frozen foods: Jimmy Dean sausage-and-biscuits and Eskimo pies. At some point during this time, it was pointed out that, if he divorced his wife, he would not have to pay for her care. So he did. This was not sinful, he was assured, since he was not going to remarry and since it was demonstrably practical. He exchanged his sharp suits for a uniform of plaid shirts and chinos. He did not walk in the forest. He did go to church. This continued until one day he was found on the floor beneath the window, literally felled by a severe stroke, his cigarette burned out in the ashtray. Then began the succession of VA homes and private nursing homes that kept him in an undignified suspension until his painful death, all contributing to a widespread relief among those who loved him and a desire to remember him from the days before his retirement.

Still, my mother gets great comfort from the long confessional conversations she had with her brother during the window years, from his evident repentance, from his promised reward. The preacher, praising himself as much as my uncle, traced the journey at the graveside service. Arvy was a sinner, but he shaped up. He cut off his limbs; he plucked out his eyes. He made himself blameless enough to be redeemed.

My mother’s comfort is my sorrow. My uncle’s life seems to me a tragedy, especially the latter part of it. During the past few days I have read several times from the Sermon on the Mount, quoted in that service, and from all the other speeches of Christ in the gospels. I find it hard to believe that the very rebukings of the Pharisaic idea of what religion is, of what God wants a life to be, have been so terribly converted into ever-more-rigid law. “You’ve got it all wrong,” Jesus says again and again in the parables, the stories, the hard sayings, the strange utterances. “It is what is in the heart that matters.” I think that if I am wrong about this, about the way God loved my uncle, I don’t want to know it.

And a beautiful heart can be wrung dry as stone, even in the name of good. But my uncle’s was not. I was selfish in his last years. He cried when he saw me and would not stop. I found it hard to take. But it wasn’t about what I could take. It was about what he wanted to give.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 17, 2005 2:31 pm

    I am speechless and in awe of the power of this story. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. June 17, 2005 3:07 pm

    Me too!

  3. June 17, 2005 4:37 pm

    BTW, sorry about your softball injury, hope it was nothing too serious (she types with her right hand only…)

  4. June 20, 2005 3:11 pm

    Tommy –

    Your uncle’s story is terribly tragic and unneccesary. But, it’s one I’ve seen and heard in my life many more times than I would like to recall. It could even have been my life, at one time and nearly was, among the “people” I lived and fellowshipped with.

    I know story after story of such lives from the past and feel deep sorrow for each and every one. I don’t often think of them because the memories are too awful to contemplate. What is beyond me, though, is that anyone in their right mind could still, even two years ago, as with your uncle, or TODAY hold such rigid, unbending views.

    I wish I could say something comforting here to you and your sister. But, there are no words comfort can bring. Even the idea that he is now in Heaven with Eternal God does not help much, after so many years of misery and imprisoned solitude when he could have been a productive, happy, Christian man.

    God help us all to not ever, EVER be such people toward anyone, no matter who they are or what they’ve done or not done. I know God is love and forgives all who come to him in repentance and that we all sin. But, I just wonder if there is any repentance for people such as those who so desecrated and ruined your uncle’s life.

    Maybe I’m being too harsh, which puts me on the same level they were, I suppose. But, it’s not a wall easily climbed over to be as loving as God. No matter what. And, I haven’t reached that level yet.

  5. June 27, 2005 10:27 pm

    That could have been me.
    Trapped in a marriage of emotional and mental abuse…no one knew.

    Breaking free, sinning terribly, falling and getting up…standing up with God lifting me under my arms until I could walk.

    I am truly blessed.
    Thank you for sharing.

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    September 8, 2006 12:59 am

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