Nov 17, 2013

Uncle John Leaves Browning........

The time has come for my Uncle John to have a sale.  The past few years have turned out to be the last that he will live in the house that he has occupied for the last 40 years or so.  He and my Aunt Linda raised two children here, 1 block away from my grandparent's house, across one of the two paved roads that runs through that sweet little one horse town.

This used to be the biggest joke in the world, as there was no law in Browning.....officially. ;)

Increasingly, he has needed help.  This has resulted in many trips back to what is left of my home town.  I have followed that familiar path to the lone remaining house that I have traveled to throughout my life that remains "the same" for me.  Gone is the house I grew up in, burned to the ground several years back.  Main street is virtually unrecognizable now from what it used to be.  I have made myself see it, stare at it, drive down it, make my mind accept it, but it always feels like a movie.  My eyes see what exists now but my mind and heart overshadow all that with what used to be, ghosts around every corner, cheerfully waving and welcoming me back. Coming home has changed in many ways, and yet there is still comfort and peace in it.  

I play a game with myself to see which song will play when I roll into town, my trusty box of Kleenex always standing by.  I cry a lot, but I don't worry about that here.  Here, anyone who see me either knows me, and understands exactly what is going on, or has no idea who I am and probably doesn't care what is going on.  The best time was to the accompaniment of The Bitch Is Back, ala Sir Elton, and it was the one time I laughed instead of cried.  Stone cold sober, as a matter of fact.  I see things that are no longer visible.  I drive by a tree that is no longer there and see a determined man patiently waiting out a rebellious child who has tried and failed to escape in the top of that tree.  He will have to come down some time.  The house across the street from it is gone now too, but once housed their family.  Later that house withstood a thunderstorm with a slightly crazy lady (when she didn't take her meds, at least) on the peak of the gable on the roof.  What she was shouting as the lightening flashed and the rain poured down no one could make out, but the fact that anybody heard her at all is testament to how loud she was, and I am here to testify that no one who saw that scene ever forgot it.   You would know none of this as you drive by now unless you were there.  Now it's just an empty corner, giving none of it's secrets away.

The last day I made that trip it was to meet my cousin and pack up a U-haul with what Uncle John would be taking to KC with him.  She had spent the last couple of days packing and tossing the (carefully packed and stored) accumulation of several lives "like a boss", as the marines would say, and assured me that "everything was under control".  Because she is my cousin, I understood this to mean that she had the determination and will to get through this heartbreaking and soul sucking process, as long as she didn't have to stop to think or God forbid reflect on any of it.  Which basically meant we were to get there pronto and keep moving and soon it would be over and we could all collapse.  Uncle John described it thus: "My God, she went through this house like a tornado.  I've never seen anything like it".  It was one of only a few times I failed to think he was exaggerating in my entire life.  I could see that was the God's honest truth with my own eyes.

Indeed, when we arrived the front lawn was already full of everything she and her 11 year old daughter could carry out, which was quite a lot.  We have 3 sixteen year old sons between the two of us, and they got the show right on the road.  Uncle John sat in his recliner throughout the morning as boys disassembled and carried out beds and furniture.  Any break in the carrying would find all the kids sprawled out in the living room floor, watching either a ballgame or a race with Uncle John.

It was actually exactly like it had always been in that house.

My cousin and I steadily worked our way through bedrooms and closets.  She pretended not to notice when I cried and I pretended that it was easy to finally get rid of the clothes that have hung in those closets, undisturbed, for almost 20 years.  I held those clothes to my face and inhaled, and then put them in bags for Goodwill.  May they be worn again by a good looking guy who will plays a guitar and can identify cars coming down the road at 50 yards.  I know the next guy will not be as sweet as the last person they belonged to, but men that sweet don't happen very often.  

We remembered the times that we girls would lock the boys out of the house as children but never remember to lock the windows, and how the boys would scare us when they snuck back in.  I don't think any of our parents EVER knew about that.

We crawled again into the "cubby holes" in the attic that we had played in as children (which seemed MUCH smaller now), discovering childhood treasures and what must surely now be "genuine antiques".  We sealed the house up for winter.  I took down all the sun catchers from the kitchen window where we always ate as kids.  That same window looked right down the road to our grandparent's house when we were little, and my cousin Jon and I used to get out the binoculars to watch each other when I was staying at Big Grandma's.  Between us was the paved road that separated Big Grandma's from Aunt Linda and Uncle John's houses, and the tree that we used to climb endlessly.  That road got oiled every summer, and Big Grandma made us put bread sacks over our feet to cross it, so we wouldn't track up either house with tar.  That tree's shade was where we learned to walk on stilts and shoot bb guns, our first target practice.

Standing in the driveway under that tree, while some of the other's searched the top of the garage for God only knew what, we found the trap shooter.  Is that even what they are called?  The things that sling the blue rocks into the sky so you can shoot them?  See?  THAT is how good Uncle John was as an uncle.  I don't even know what they are called for sure, but I can run one and I will have you know I can hit anything slung from them a very good percentage of the time.

It was always Uncle John that took us places.  He was definitely an adult to us kids, but he was the adult that also frequently got "in trouble" with our mothers, sometimes right along with us kids.  It was Uncle John that taught us to shoot, to bat, to fish, to ski, to drive, to canoe, to be brave when you got hurt bad, and to take your punishment when you made bad choices and everybody found out what you had done.  Of course, everybody would find out what you had done.  That was a fact of life for us.  Uncle John was the go-to guy when you wanted to go get ice cream for no reason at all.  He was always game.  The trick was to get him talked into going before either of our moms realized where we were going.  We were always going somewhere, and often they were so glad he was taking all of us that they didn't question us closely.  From our perspective, we knew there was always plenty of time to take our punishment when we got home around suppertime and got in trouble for him ruining our appetites.  That's the kind of uncle he always was, and remains so as far as his health will allow.

When I would bring him groceries or do his laundry these last few years, Uncle John was extremely grateful.  He always thanked me profusely, more than once.  And that bothered me.  How could  he not know how much I owed him?  

When I was 13 and had knee surgery for the first time, I got all whiny about not liking the food in the hospital.  He asked what sounded good when he called me on the phone from our hometown, an hour away.  I said Pizza Hut pizza sounded good, pepperoni.  I thought he was just being nice and talking me out of my bad mood.  An hour later he showed up at the hospital with Pizza Hut pizza. Pepperoni.   He made me feel like I mattered, and that he would go to the ends of the earth to make me happy, if it was within his power.

Exactly 10 years and a few months after that, I had my first baby.  Everyone came to the hospital, including Uncle John.  He asked me what sounded good after I got back to my room and with no hesitation whatsoever I ordered french fries and a hot fudge brownie sundae.  As always, he delivered within about 20 minutes.  I dread ever going through any big event without his funny, derring -do spirit.

Once when I was in my early 20's and alone in my parent's house when they were on vacation, someone tried to break in.  Well, they seemed to be trying to break in, crazy as that is in a small town.  They snuck all around the house and tried every door.  My legs were shaking I was so scared, because this just DID NOT happen in my town.  I got the gun that I was not even sure was loaded and guess who I called before I was going to (possibly) shoot someone?  Uncle John!!  He answered the phone, we made a plan, and he was there in about 3 minutes.  Up he pulled into the driveway, out the front door I came, and with our guns, stepping gingerly, investigated all the way around the house.  Twice!  Uncle John was just starting to accuse me of being crazy when we finally found a guy from the next town over peacefully passed out in his truck, snoring away.  He was not happy to be woken up by me sticking a rifle in his stomach and I do admit I did get a little carried away with the forcefulness of my wrath, but nobody died and he never made that particular mistake again as far as me or Uncle John ever heard.  I think he may have taken to drinking at home after that, which was probably for the best anyway.  To the best of my knowledge he didn't even come to my town again for many years. Apparently I told him not to, although I don't have a clear memory of anything I say or do when I get into such a state.  People were watching for him, believe me.  :D  It all worked out in the end.  We were that kind of town.

I looked around the front yard of that house, old memories laid over what my eyes were seeing now.  The curving sidewalk that seemed so long when I drove down it on a tricycle.  
Across the road to the left here is the field that the Montgomery boys used to cross when I babysat them (which was against the rules, not that they cared), calling me and laughing hysterically at their "escape", so they could play with Jon and Kristen, from Uncle John's house.  Good times.  Good times.

The spot I was standing in the night my finger got knocked out of joint playing kickball.  Uncle John driving me and my mother to a Dr's (that might have been a vet, there was an argument and it was never determined what the truth of the situation was) where I was given many shots, wouldn't stop crying, and finally just buried my face in Uncle John's shoulder while he tried to straighten it out.  It was not straightened out, but has worked just fine, ever since.

How many times was Uncle John Mayor of this town?  How many cars did he sell or work on?  How many teams did he play ball on?

The pitcher's mound my cousin spent hours practicing on, pitching to Uncle many hours?  How many years?  How could we leave that there????  Everything we did that seemed.....wrong, but was right.  It was the right thing to do.  We kept reassuring ourselves and each other about this.

I still think this should go with Kristen.

The picnic table we ate on every summer of our lives, where the boys figured out how to take the wings off flies and no one could help but laugh, even our mothers, when the flies would keep hopping up but never fly away.  Using the magnifying glass to burn ants on the front sidewalk..........and figuring out that we could start fires all by ourselves.

Aunt Linda joined an "album of the month" club and we listened to an eclectic mix of Meatloaf, Helen Reddy and Barry Manilow until we knew every song on every album by heart the summer I was 12. The other 3 would have been 8 or 9.  This never really served any of us very well, I might add, but does that matter now?  No!  THAT is how memories are made!

Finally everything was loaded.  The freezers were defrosted, the house was winterized, the thermostat turned down, everything locked.  It felt like the house was mourning, but it could have just been us.  It felt like we were abandoning a baby, or an old person, someone who thought they could trust you. Someone who should be able to trust you.  It felt like we were untrustworthy.  But we're not.  It's hard to explain, and I hope you never have to go through it.  However, the only way to avoid going through it would be not to get attached to a place, and that would hardly be any way to live at all.

As I loaded my car to leave I noticed that my cousin's kids had found the magnifying glass and were burning ants on the front sidewalk.  My poor cousin still had a 3 hour trip to make and all that stuff to unpack and arrange and was determined to do it that evening.  I knew it was time to leave so she could keep going.  Stopping now was not an option, not if she wanted to get through it without a nervous breakdown.  I left them burning the ants with the magnifying glass.  The song playing in my head was Twilight Time.  I have no explanation for that, and I blamed Big Grandma's influence as I smiled.  I frequently picture my grandparents and all their peers in heaven now, looking down and lending us strength.  

By 10 that evening I got a picture from my cousin.  Uncle John was settled in his new place.  It was over, except for the sale.  She could now collapse.  It was done.  She had made it.  I knew she would.  She comes from a long line of strength.

Uncle John in his new place.