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)