Friday, October 5th, 2007
I attended my Great-Uncle James’ funeral today. He was 75 years old and until this year was remarkably healthy – tall, slim and spry. He kept his ginger hair perfectly coiffured and his trademark mustache carefully curled up on the ends.
He was so very, very alive.
How do I write about a man I loved so dearly but knew so little? He lived in California and only came home to Alabama in the summers. I might see him once per visit – or maybe, in recent years, not at all. I don’t remember the last time I saw him, only the last photo I took of him – rain spots on his shirt.
Much of my love for James – and his for me – was left over from the times when I was a little girl sitting on his knee making up stories to go with the pictures in my Golden Books. Every time I saw him in later years, he put his arm across my shoulders and presented me to the group, announcing, “This girl was so smart. This girl could read when she was 2 years old!” (not true), and he repeated the jokes he told me back then and the names he called my dolls.
But unlike many grown-ups, James never seemed to resent my growing up – never seemed to count the years, the inches as years flown by in his own life.
When my mother told me James had died, I was stunned. Somehow, I never suspected death would catch up with him. I had recently decided that next time he came to visit, I would invite him and Gordon (his best friend and companion for longer than I’ve been alive) to come to my house and meet my friends. He was such a character, and I knew my friends would like him and he them. I wanted him to see the kind of person I’ve turned out to be – the real me, not the quiet, awkward self I often turn into around the extended family.
Now it’s too late to get to know him that way – adult to adult. I never knew what he did for a living, how many children he had, what he did for fun – only vague ideas about a life lived in leisure suits and Western ties. I never had a real conversation with him, at least not since I’ve been too big to sit on his knee.
But I do know he was warm and kind and loved to laugh. I know he loved me and thought I was something special, maybe only because I am my mother’s daughter and he loved my mother very, very much.
He is one of two special men I’ve lost in my adult life. It always hurts to have one less person in the world who loves you, but I don’t think that’s why I keep finding myself in quiet moments thinking of James and bursting into tears. He was just such a good person, so funny, so quirky, so charming.
I wish so hard that I could talk to him again. This time I would think to ask him about himself. I would ask to hear his stories, and I would listen a long, long time.
Now I’m listening to other people’s stories about him – my mother’s, my cousins’, my aunts’ and uncles’. They all have James stories. I have James stories, too. I just wish I had more.