You Can See the Milky Way From There

My Uncle Walt died last week. If you don’t live close to the tiny town of Sperry, Oklahoma, just north of Tulsa, you probably didn’t know him.

He donated his remains to science, remarking that he didn’t think most researchers would have ever seen a specimen like his: an 87-year-0ld body that had never touched alcohol or nicotine. He was a mechanic who loved to fish and dance to Bob Wills’ music. He was proud of the fact all his five children lived within 10 miles of his house.

Since Uncle Walt had dispatched of his body, he saw no need to waste money or time on a funeral. So his grown kids — most of them grandparents themselves — threw a big party for him at the Sperry Armory. The food was barbecue and the music country and the atmosphere relaxed.

Photos of Uncle Walt flourished on tables on the edges of the armory floor — the bald and serious baby, the young man with his hair slicked back and his trousers pleated, leaning against a car, the delighted newlywed who married my father’s twin sister. The years pass, the hair begins to go, but Walt still faces the world with a relaxed and even gaze. Seeing him, you had to think that here is a man who knew who he was and was comfortable with it.

Most of the people at the gathering called my father’s twin sister Mickey. Nieces like me called her Aunt Sis. She and my father were the last two children in their brood –beautiful children, half Chickasaw, but saddled with the worst first names imaginable. No wonder Aunt Sis adopted the name “Mickey” and my father used his initials.

I stood around with some of my cousins, watching the wind blow across the Oklahoma prairie and trying to piece together how it was our grandfather died. He’d been a source of shame to his wife and children, an alcoholic who drank away his paychecks and left bill collectors beating at the family’s front door. He’d been a mystery to all of us, an enduring silence in our family. “He died in a fall,” our parents told us. What kind of fall? we asked them. From a building? While walking? “Just a fall,” they always answered. “Just a fall.”

You ask questions like that when you’re gathered with your family and the secrets have shed their long-ago shame — but they remain secrets. Funny the way stories can stay the same, but their meanings change.

I think of my Uncle Walt and his story of a man who stayed close to home and loved my aunt and their five children and took in two other cousins who’d been abandoned. The older I get, the more I admire a “small” story like that.

I return to the state I was born in, where my parents and sister were born, and wonder about how far I’ve traveled and what it’s all meant — these years of striving and reaching for more. I guess you always wonder about that when you return to where you came from. Where have you been trying to go? What was so important? Was it worth it?

The wind continues to blow and someone notes how wonderful it is, in rural Oklahoma, that you can see the stars in the sky and the Milky Way. When you have this, is the unspoken thought, why would you need or want to go anywhere else?

Oh, hell, I think. When you get down to it, the lives and the stories and the meanings are as infinite as the stars. Here is what I know: We all make our own way. We all fall in the end, one way or the other, leaving our survivors to make sense of our lives.

In Uncle Walt’s case, the story was clear: A good man who lived a long, full life had died. The wind continued to blow, his family and friends remembered him fondly, and the stars were as bright and big as I’ve ever seen them.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

25 comments… add one
  • Lovely story, Ruth, and great memories. Sounds like your Uncle Walt lived a really big small life and he was well loved. Everyone needs an Uncle Walt!

  • I am glad the family held a party instead of a funeral. I know I’ve been saying for over twenty years that I wanted a party instead of any fussy old funeral when I departed, telling all my friends to just reserve the party room of our favorite BBQ joint on the first Saturday night after I’m buried and have a grand time toasting, stuffing themselves and burping in tribute to me. Of course, over time, my surviving friend list has been ebbing. Now, when the time comes, they may only need to arrive at the BBQ joint in the appointed hour and quietly request a table for two.

  • Craig

    You’d make a good travelling preacher up in the panhandle.
    Can’t get those kinds of eulogies just anywhere. Thanks for this one Ruth

  • Marie

    This is beautiful, the whole thing.

    Some particular parts that touched me. This one because I recently attended a family event in my hometown and have been really feeling this:

    I guess you always wonder about that when you return to where you came from. Where have you been trying to go? What was so important? Was it worth it?

    AND this one because I am just fascinated and love people’s stories. And sometimes, the more “basic,” the better:

    the lives and the stories and the meanings are as infinite as the stars.

    Thank you for putting all this into words.

  • Cheryl

    Ruth~ I loved the story. Dad would’ve loved it too. Dad always thought so much of you and Ellen. He would ask me if I had talked to you all. The party was great, and I’m so glad that so many people were able to go. I’m glad that you and Linda came up for it too. He would’ve loved seeing all of his friends and family there:) Love you, Cheryl

  • M.K.

    This is a sweet story and one that should resonate with all of us who are over a certain age. When we crest the hill our destination comes into view, but we can also look back and see the road that brought us there. We want to understand not just our lives, but our parents’ lives.

  • Jeannie Winton

    Ruth, thank you for writing a beautiful tribute to my dad. I am so honored. Yes, he loved us all and family was so important to him. I am so thankful you were able to attend. Wish we’d had more time to visit. He gave strict instructions for a party and that we did!

  • Kendall Winton Johns

    Beautiful. My grandpa was one-of-a-kind.

  • Linda Cox

    I love the line “We all make our own way.” One of life’s eternal truths. Thanks for a lovely piece, Ruth.

  • Karen Ward

    Ruth, what a wonderful story. Walt was a wonderful person who loved his family beyond words. I am glad we were able to fulfill his wish to have a party and you and Linda were able to be a part of it. I enjoyed getting to visit with you and having breakfast with you and Linda. Perhaps the next time we get together it will be for a joyous event.

  • Cindy A

    Beautifully done, Ruth.

  • I’m so sorry for your loss. This is a terrific tribute. I like the no-muss, no-fuss idea. “Normal” funerals are silly expensive.

  • Donna M.

    What a lovely story, Ruth. There really is nothing more important than connecting with others and when it can be with one’s family, that is divine.

  • Sheryl

    Sounds like a very special man. I admire your uncle’s ability to keep his family close to him.

  • Amazing post. So moving. Thanks for sharing this story. I love the perspective you give and will be thinking about these ideas all afternoon, I know.

  • Oh, Ruth you write so perfectly about these things. And I love that there was just a celebration and no wake or funeral.

  • Great post. Very moving. I don’t think there’s any better tribute than the one your Uncle Walt earned.

  • I think Uncle Walt would have liked reading what you’ve written, Ruth. and I expect he’s having a good time dancing to bob Wills, music right now.

  • I so love the idea of a party instead of a funeral. I’m definitely going to ask my kids to do that. A funeral is something people dread. A party is something they look forward to. And Walt sounds like my kind of guy. Kudos to him and his family and to you, Ruth.

  • I loved this line: We all fall in the end, one way or the other, leaving our survivors to make sense of our lives.

    And I’ve always wondered what happens to your body when you donate it to science. I suppose most just end up as cadavers, but some probably end up in that place where they watch the body decompose in a puddle. Any way, good that you can still have closure despite the body not being around. I always wondered about that, too. I would like to be noble enough to donate my body to science, but I think I might be too attached to it.

  • Steve

    Well said, Ruth. Beautiful and moving words, a story no “smaller” than those of Horton Foote.

    Your Uncle Walt seems the kind of man I aspire to be. My spouse and I spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday a couple of weeks ago at a camp down along Frio helping put on a nephew’s wedding. By the time Saturday night rolled around, the whole wedding party had taken to calling me “Uncle Steve,” a title I’ve intetionally avoided for years (I’m not sure why; I’ll need to reflect on that). But over the course of the wedding weekend, I came to see as an honorific title, and to accept it.

  • What a way to remember your Uncle Walt. Thanks for posting this.

  • M.K.

    Much of our culture seems to be dropping the use of “Aunt” and “Uncle.” In our family, we have stubbornly clung to their continued use, because we see the terms as markers of love and respect. If you get awarded an honorary “Uncle” in our family, it is indeed something to be proud of.

  • Lovely eulogy to a man who sounds like he deserved every word. I’m with you on the “small” story front.

  • I am slow in getting to your post, as I was-ironically-in Oklahoma. We were in a small town just north of Tulsa. Skiatook. I had never been there. I would not have had an accurate picture in my mind had I not been there. The wind is amazing, the countryside beautifully stark. I felt the love of that area in the folks we met. There were many who are probably similar to your Uncle. It is a good place to be, and to be from.

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