Uncle Owen was a red-haired, strong-handed, heavy shouldered, soft- spoken farmer in overalls, a keeper of crops and gardens, work animals, milk cows, and a couple of red bone hounds that he loved to hear bay after foxes, 'coons, and any other threats to his chicken house, including the
[quoteright]Aunt Virgie was a buxom, energetic woman who found time for keeping a clean house, yard, and garden, plus tending to her cooking, washing and milking chores, in addition to raising their only child, a son named Alfred.
Between the age of twelve, when I fell through their hallway ceiling, and seventeen, when I left home, they seemed to me as enduring as earth below and sky above. I was in my middle twenties before memories of poverty and hard times faded enough for me to see, through a screen of bitterness and immaturity, that I was wrong in not going back to visit those of whom I was a part.
After that the years rolled by, almost twenty of them, and during nearly every one of them I found a way of having time for a back home visit — which, of course, included some porch-sitting and story-telling with Uncle Owen and Aunt Virgie. Their weather-beaten and faded old house with the full-length front porch that was east-side shaded from the summer suns always appeared to me to be durable enough to shelter another three generations of family. It sat some sixty or seventy yards back on a slightly sloped hill overlooking the graveled public road, as well as their son's house that I had helped my Uncle Bill build when I was twelve. That was how I came to fall through Uncle Owen's hallway ceiling. Bill had put a new asphalt shingle roof on the old house that same year, and when I saw him walking the bare, skeleton-like rafters, I thought I could, too. It turned out to be a bad thought.
Time: it pulls down mountains, and fills in valleys. It erases men's victories, and their defeats. It grays our hair, and slows our step. And time had its way with Uncle Owen and Aunt Virgie. With each trip I saw their field of activity narrowing down, their hands more frequently reaching to chair arms, door frames, and porch rails for support.
But that was all they ever called on for support. Their finances were slim but secure. Home, garden, Social Security and a pension he had earned by being gassed in the World War I trenches of France were enough to keep them.
I knew Uncle Owen as a man of wide-ranging interests, even though he stayed, during my days, in his little backwash corner and watched the current of world affairs sweep by. When I accused him of saving up and waiting for our long afternoon-into-the-evening discussions, his ruddy face would break into network of grin wrinkles and, blue eyes twinkling, he'd drawl something like "Wal son, I wouldn't want you to think I wasn't payin' attention."
I didn't realize how much he needed those conversations until I was leaving what turned out to be my last visit at his home. I had stood up from the rocking chair and said, "Uncle Owen I gotta go. I am two hours late now, and I've just gotta go." He looked off towards the mail box by the road and said, "I sure am glad you came by, Son. I get so tired of listenin' to people talk about nothin' but trucks." I didn't need to, or want to, read the book — the cover told all there was to know, and I admired his fight against mental decay that is all too frequently the price paid for becoming old and ignored.
The following year, fall of '76, I was back home and said to my mother and step-father, "I'm going over to see Uncle Owen and Aunt Virgie for a while."
"They ain't over there no more."
"They're not! Where are they?"
"Alfred and Donna had them put in that old folks home in town." My mother's voice left no doubt about her opinion of that situation. "After all Owen and Virgie done for them, now they get put away 'cause they're too much trouble to look after."
"Well in that case I guess I'll just drive up there to see them. Where is that place?"
I parked the car and walked to a straight-lined, two story, red brick building that federal funds had built in the seedier section of town. Double glass doors led to a spacious lobby that struck me as a cross between a YMCA recreation room and a hospital waiting area. An afternoon soap opera on TV held the listless attention of the twenty or so watchers. An even divided number of black and white faces showed that integration, with the blacks shyly enjoying the whites' resent- ment, had come to the Deep South's old people as well as its young.
A question answered by the professionally polite receptionist sent me to the second floor hallways where nurses and nurses' aides were pushing laundry carts and wheelchairs, guiding faltering footsteps, making beds, giving medication and talking in the loud, patronizing voices designed to counteract pre-supposed Senior Citizen senility.
I found them in their room. Single beds, after sharing the same bed for fifty years. She sat in her wheelchair between the beds and stared at the wall. He sat on the bed to her right and stared out of the window that faced clothes-hung backyards and abandoned automobiles. Their institution blue pajamas, washed thin and faded, hung slack on frail shoulders. The words "futile" and "forlorn" gained new dimensions in my mind.
My words "Ya'll ready for some company?" broke the chamber silence and brought a spasm of activity. Their heads turned, eyes and faces lighted in recognition.
"Why, it's Jake!" was Aunt Virgie's exclamation in a high thin voice as she lifted seemingly fleshless arms to welcome me.
Uncle Owen pushed himself forward to stand, saying "Wal, I'll be doggoned, look who's here." I stepped into their arms, and tried to divide myself equally.
How they talked; listening was like trying to drink from a fire hydrant. The conversation crossed over family, friends, and the good times. Each told their stories, and listened with pride to the other. I heard, responded, and prompted. She spoke of children, church picnics (called "dinner on the ground") and summer Sunday afternoons with children cranking the ice cream maker, and arguing about who should get to lick the paddle. He told of fishing trips, deer hunting junkets by mule team and wagon to the delta country. And about the time he and Uncle John, while still young boys, were caught by their father racing the log wagons and tiring the mules.
I left with the remnants, only the memories, of their world. A time past and long lost: going, going, gone. I left in answer to the demands of the modern world. The steam-rollering, crunch-everything- in-its-path, don't look back, devil take the hindmost, modern world — my adult life.
A few month later there came a telephone call. Uncle Owen had died on Christmas day. Several more months after that, in the summer of '77, I was able to take another trip back to the places of my youth. And this time my visit was to Aunt Virgie alone.
The same lobby, the same television, the same vacant eyes. I wondered about the benefits and blessings of modern medicine, long lives, and tranquilizers as I made my way to the second floor.
I found her parked in her wheelchair amidst the busyness of the sterile hallway by the open door to her sterile room. Hands folded still in her lap, she was taking a quiet, long look towards the far end of the hallway, unmindful of the people and things in between. I stood unnoticed beside her, and looked at the drawn-back, bunned gray hair, the sunken toothless mouth, the wash-wrinkled silkcloth skin, the fragile-boned blue-veined hands. I knelt beside her and touched her arm. When she turned, saw, and knew, I would swear she glowed.
It was a good visit. We, or rather she, talked long and on until she tired. My leavetaking was gentle, touching. Her last words were, "Now like I told you, Owen is down the hallway, and you be sure to go see him 'fore you leave, 'cause I know he wants to see you."
"I will, Aunt Virgie. I will for sure — go and do that right now."
We welcome storyteller ALLEN J. PETTIT back to the San Francisco Bay Area. His writings have appeared several times before in these pages.
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