A Miracle Maker
Just a Girl
Man of Earth
Preface & Reader Response
An old toy or tool, a dusty corner of a room, a little-visited closet, or a storage box – all can bring back memories of what was and what could have been.
by Jerry Murley
Just when you think you are on top of the world, along comes a slamdown to correct your inflated point of view. I, for one, try not to wait for the next catastrophic event to refresh my perspective. To do that job, I choose, instead, to closely observe the behavior and troubles of people on the streets, to attend to the less glamorous details of others' lives, and to frequently revisit objects and remembrances of significant acquaintances from my past.
What one sees on the streets and in the hallways of a major medical center is a constant reminder of human frailty and courage. What one hears over and over in close company alerts one to the temptations and accidents that threaten us all. Yet, it is the choice or occasion to hold an old object from one's past, or to recall the lives that have crossed one's own, that applies a softer, gentler persuasion. If charity begins at home, clarity begins there, too.
An old toy or tool, a dusty corner of a room, a little-visited closet, or a storage box – all can bring back memories of what was and what could have been. But for me, reflection on the life of someone known well is a powerful path to pleasure, instruction, appreciation, and, yes, sadness.
One of my favorite uncles had a speech impediment from birth. That would be the first aspect most would notice about him. But soon thereafter that fact was merely incidental and forgettable. Though I have not been with him much in the last four decades and have moved across state from Memphis, my childhood experiences of him, and the things that he created, reside with me – a fragment of my self. I was from what seemed at the time, in comparison, a progressive suburban family in the 1950s in Frayser. Uncle Alvin lived in, what seemed to my sister and me, more rustic country. His simple white house, which he built himself on an acre of land by the Illinois-Central railroad tracks in extreme south Memphis, was an occasional stopover for my sister and me. (In later years I would pass this house several times while on the train to and from New Orleans. It was just over the barrier of big hardwood trees that lined the railway.)
My uncle had put up a sturdy rope swing strung from a tall oak tree next to his gravel driveway. The limb to which it was attached was high. Swinging on a summer afternoon in the shade was like flying. When I was able to pull the swing as I high as I could get it, the experience was also a bit frightening.
My uncle's house was unfinished until late in my teens. He was a painter by trade and had suffered a few serious injuries after falls from ladders and scaffolding while at work.
For at least ten years, during my grade-school years, when I most stayed with and visited my uncle, Aunt Dot and my cousin Pat, the interior wall frame was exposed in several rooms in the as-yet small, unfinished house. The exposed wooden support studs were dark and rough hewn, and larger than the two-by-fours used in modern homes. When we spent a couple of days there, I would bath in a large galvanized tub set up in the kitchen or in the unfinished bathroom. The room and the tub were cold in winter. My aunt heated the water in pots and kettles on the kitchen stove. When we stayed overnight, I slept on a roll-away bed in the living room close to the TV set. (By my early twenties, Uncle Alvin had beautifully finished work on his home and added a large living room, master bedroom, and bathroom to the front of his white house in Whitehaven.)
Almost every visit, my aunt served us spaghetti, because it was my favorite of all her many homemade dishes. However, her pies ran a close second. We were always generously and well fed in her home. The love and care for us, and regard for our parents, was ever present.
The primary outside activity, besides swinging, playing croquet, or watching my aunt wring laundry and hang it on the clothesline, was to walk a block up from the dead-end road to the country store at the crossroads. The store had a wooden floor that creaked when an adult walked across it. It was as far removed from our local Big Star grocery as Juneau from Broadway. We bought forbidden jaw breaker candy and Cokes in a small bottle and walked back. This was the treat that we reserved for that point in the day when we were at a loss for something to do and an adventure was most needed.
My uncle's activities were unlike any I was usually exposed to, even though my father was quite a handyman and sportsman himself. On Fridays he always watched the fights on his black and white television set, making gestures with his shoulders and grimaces as the fights intensified. He also constructed tall sailing ships to display in glass cases. Once I accidentally broke one, and he displayed no reproach, only resignation, as if to say that sort of thing was bound to happen when favored nieces and nephews played in the house.
One summer he took me on an all-day bass fishing trip to Tunica Cutoff. We got up early at dark. Between the long drive to and from, we were afloat in his flat-bottom fishing boat all day. On that one day on the water in the sun, he taught me how to cast using a rod and reel, and how to bring in my catch. By that evening, when I was back in my home, I could feel the sway of the boat in my body as I struggled to finish supper before drifting to sleep.
As I became a teenager, absorbed in my life of studies, sports, music and girls – and as I became a college student convinced of my advanced ideas – I saw less and less of my uncle. He was very helpful, after I botched the renovation of our garage into a band room, by helping to create a solution for the drywall seams left on the ceiling. Those times of my casual neglect toward a kind and important childhood influence are perhaps among my chief regrets as an adult. How do we forget to observe the treasures that stand before us? How do we fail to see that they will not always be available to us?
We were united in spirit after I left college. I began to teach myself to paint and became interested in the craft of building. It cheered and encouraged me to hear from my mother, his sister-in-law, that my uncle admired an oil copy of a Rembrandt bather that I had painted and given to my mother and father. Craft will out – and bond in silent, resilient ways.
Recurrent discovery of deep-seated interests shared by an influential adult or acquaintance in one's life serves to center one degree by degree over the course of a lifetime. All those people one had come to think ordinary, in one's mistaken detachment from reality, turn out to be the very models of and connectors to a life of stable relationships and thought, and meaningful activity.
It happens over and over again. These occurrences are constant reminders that we are not alone – that we did not make ourselves from nothing – that we are privileged with past and not exempt from error. For better or worse, we are not above our context. No matter what our diversions and their apparent disparities, we are little different from our community, though that company has been tucked away in time, in our minds, and deep within our hearts.