Two of my uncles were missing this year, from the family reunion.
Uncle Jack, who was known in his youth as “Jiggs” Lael, was a well-known rodeo cowboy, Elvis-handsome. He once rode broncs at Madison Square Garden, and got to kiss Miss America. I’ve often thought that Uncle Jack was born into the wrong century–he would have fit in well in old Tombstone, or Dodge City. He was always tough, but tender-hearted, too. One of the things people say about him is that he never said an unkind word about anybody. He’s aging now, in a nursing home, and in one of the pictures taped to his wall, he’s ‘dancing’ with a colt. I mean, the colt’s forelegs are balanced on Jack’s shoulders, and he’s grinning into the camera. What a prominent place he holds in my memory, and in my heart.
The other uncle, Wes, died this year of a blood disease. He was the uncle who always put on a comic performance at the reunions–playing banjos made from bedpans, wearing funny hats, and telling hokey jokes. He was a dandy poet, and although he knew a lot of tragedy in his life, he made the best of things, and never missed a chance to laugh. He lived in Minnesota, and was quite well known as a folk artist; he made fish decoys, and was even featured on a special on PBS. The thing I will remember most about Uncle Wes (Otis Wesley Lael) , though, is that he wrote his own obituary, and it was not only funny, but powerful. (“My name is Otis Wesley Lael, and I approved this message…”) He recounted the highlights of his life, mentioning those he loved, but it was the theme that really impressed me. Basically, it boiled down to this: I had a good life. I’m gone now. Get over it. My aunts reported that, when they were keeping a vigil at his deathbed, he told them to “cry on their own time.”
I come from good stock. Something to live up to.