My childhood was a fun one. Especially when we went to 'The Farm" (as we called it). My grandfather and grandmother lived in the old homeplace of Rose Isle. My grandfather was a cattle farmer (at times he'd grown peaches, raised hogs, chickens... everything, but his main area of expertise was cows). His brother, my Uncle Jim, helped him on the farm. When I was just 7 years old, my grandfather was killed in an automobile accident. I still remember where I was when I found out. My mom and dad were getting us ready for a stint overseas as missionaries. My dad had dropped my mom, brother, and I off at Toys-R-Us to look for some travel games to play on the airplane. I saw my dad walk into the store and ran over to him, only I noticed he'd been crying. I asked him what was wrong, and all he could say was, "Where's your mother?" We found mom, and went to the car. Mom drove while dad told us that he'd received a call that his father had been killed in an accident. A tractor trailer pulled out in front of my grandfather on a 2 lane highway. My grandfather swerved to miss him, and hit a tree. He wasn't wearing his seatbelt, and died instantly. I tell you this because I loved my grandfather dearly. He had a hearing loss like me, so he was a quiet man... unless you got with him one on one, or in a small gathering. His hands were large and rough from the farm-work he did. He always drove us around on the tractor, and set up hay bales for us to play on.
His passing was very hard for me to understand. We stayed at my grandmothers house for a little while before leaving for the mission field, and while we were there, my Uncle Jim would come over and take us on tractor rides... and hold us in his lap, much like my grandfather would.
He smelled like grandaddy... that mixture of diesel, cow manure, sweat, and whatever aftershave he used. I didn't know it then, and I didn't know it until last week, but Uncle Jim soon became like a grandfather to me. When I was in college, my Uncle Jim sent my brother and I (and the other nieces and nephews) a check for 10 grand to use towards education. It was a very generous gift for a farmer... and one that to this day I'm very grateful for. When Forrest was looking for a job, Uncle Jim took great interest in learning some about what Forrest did, and was extremely proud of Forrest when he got a job in DC. So proud, you'd have thought Forrest was his own flesh and blood grandson. Then, the news about our pregnancy. Uncle Jim, aside from our parents, was the one person who I can honestly say was the most excited of anyone about the impending birth of our little boy. So much so that he'd ask daily if there was a baby yet. And last Tuesday, my mom and dad stopped by to see Uncle Jim and showed him Shepherd's picture. Uncle Jim looked at my dad and said, "Donnie, Steady me." My father asked him why. Uncle Jim said, "So I can hold the baby!" In his mind, my parents had brought Shepherd to him. They weren't just pictures that my Uncle Jim saw, but it was the baby. The next morning, Uncle Jim died.
We drove down Friday night to be with the family. We missed the viewing, but I was assured that there would be a private viewing the next morning. My aunt (dad's sister) cried when she saw Shepherd, and held him while crying. She'd been the one to tell Uncle Jim that Shepherd was born. She'd been the one Uncle Jim asked daily about Shepherd... So holding that baby in her arms was healing for her. It was healing for me. We slept well that night, and woke up early the next morning as the family began flooding the house. Everyone wanted to see Shepherd, and everyone told us how much Uncle Jim wanted to see him. As we sat around, we shared stories of Uncle Jim, and I thought back on the years, and tried to piece together all the memories. I tried to hold them in my mind, so I could close my eyes, and one last time see Uncle Jim the way I remembered him. I remember his huge, rough hands. He'd gather us up as children and hold us in his arms...
I remember the feeling of the flannel shirts or the denim jean jacket, along with his suspenders as I pressed my face in his chest. I remember quietly listening to him talk... he had a very loud voice, mostly because of his hearing loss. He'd talk loud and laugh loud. Along with that laugh, came the joy of fun. Uncle Jim LOVED to have fun. He knew how to play... and he played with us kids.
But most of all, Uncle Jim knew how to love. If you met him in the store, or on the street, you might not think him a loving man. He was tall, burly, and rough looking. But he was the gentlest man I've known. And even though his hands were rough from years of work on the farm, when they held us, somehow, they were the softest hands we'd ever felt.
And each year at Christmas, Uncle Jim would announce his arrival to the homeplace by ringing the black fire-bell that hung outside. In my heart, I know that if there are bells in heaven, Uncle Jim must surely be enjoying himself.... Ringing them for eternity.