Uncle Willie

We lost one today.  A 90-year-old link to the past.  My Uncle Willie.  He remembered the stories, the old stories…of his grandparents moving across Tennessee when TVA flooded their valley, of the hungry Indians coming to their door asking for food when no one had any.  He was married twice, seven kids.  And alone at the end.

His house sits on brick-o-blocks.  On a back road, off a back road, in a forgotten part of Tennessee.  Not even a house number.   It’s the same house he’s lived in for 60 years or more.

Every winter morning, he went to his front porch and got wood for the cast iron stove that heated the house.  Everyday he wore overalls, sipped his coffee, scraped his plate and looked out the window into the back field, the field where his cows used to graze.  His voice grew quiet, raspy, from lack of talking.

Every Saturday he drove 40 miles to go dancing.  He had several pairs of cowboy boots for “the dancing”, each pair still kept in the original plastic wrap and box.

Uncle Willie was a dreamer, sentimental.  He kept the family photos, the old Bible.  He talked about the photos, the old times.  His blue eyes twinkled and he grinned, a mischievous smile.  Maybe in his mind he was still 21.

He wanted a woman’s touch, her attention.  Someone at the dances.  He kept her photo on a shelf by the door.  No one had met her.  He built an addition on his house.  Something to do, maybe.  It was for her, maybe.  It was nicer, lighter, with white carpet and a fancy bathroom.  She never came.  He cried when he spoke of her.

I hadn’t seen Uncle Willie for maybe 20 years.  Then in the fall of 2013, I visited with my father.  We laughed, we talked.  I found something familiar in him.  I photographed him.  I went again on Easter 2015.  I filmed him, his voice a bare whisper.  His attention seemed parsed, distracted by the thought of the woman.  I asked him about the past, about his mother, his father, his childhood.  My dad sat beside him and inserted little details along the way.   Uncle Willie’s cloudy blue eyes watered as he told the tales.

I last saw him at the end of September 2015, when we celebrated with an early birthday party.  In December he would turn 90, my Dad would turn 80.  He was in good form.  Laughing.  Joking.  Enjoying the attention.  His blue eyes glimmered with that old light.  He had new boots.  He had a gadget for helping him to take off his boots without touching them, and he demonstrated it for me.

We made plans to get together in the spring.  For another party, for dancing.  He told me that it would keep him alive, to think of that.

Uncle Willie passed away at 3:30 a.m. today, February 27, 2016.

cast-iron-stove-wood-elder
Uncle Willie lights the old stove in his home in Tennessee.
Old-family-photo-fletcher
Uncle Willie treasured this old photo of his grandparents.
Uncle Willie is proud of his boots. He has 9 pairs of cowboy boots, pristine, ready for a night at the dance hall.
Uncle Willie is proud of his boots. He has 9 pairs of cowboy boots, pristine, ready for a night at the dance hall.
Uncle Willie
Uncle Willie in his living room.
kitchen calendars farm
In the kitchen.
Uncle Willie
In the kitchen.
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The back field.
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Uncle Willie’s house.
The addition
The addition
The addition, living room
The addition, living room
Family Bible
Family Bible
Three Fletchers
Three Fletchers
Willie at his early 90th party
Willie at his early 90th party
Uncle Willie demonstrates his boot-remover contraption.
Uncle Willie demonstrates his boot-remover contraption.
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Dog Rescuers

Almost 8 million dogs and cats enter U.S. shelters each year, and almost 50% of them will not come out alive. The cycle is horrific.  Dogs come in abused, neglected, heartbroken, sick, old, pure-bred–with one thing in common…they are unwanted and unloved.  It is hard on the animal-lovers who work for the shelter. It is hard on anyone who loves animals.

What many people don’t realize is that about 35% of abandoned animals are pulled out of shelters by rescue groups. Rescuers go deep into the shelters looking for adoptable dogs. They find foster homes, they provide food and vaccinations and spay/neuters. Their own homes are usually brimming with wagging tails. They sell t-shirts for medical care fundraisers. They network to find just the right family for each dog. They organize transport to move dogs all over the country, to get them to homes where they will be loved and taken care of. Their phones buzz with incoming texts, emails, messages…about the dogs they’ve saved, or about dogs that are urgently in need of a place to stay before time runs out.

Rescue groups operate all around us.  Rescuers seem to lead double lives…working full time jobs, raising families and giving the rest of their time, hearts and homes to the dogs they save. It takes a great human to traverse through this bittersweet cycle. Rescuers experience extreme joy when opening a shelter cage to save a dog, only to turn around and have their hearts broken when they look into the eyes of the desperate dogs still in their kennels. And there is pain–anger–when they walk to the front of the shelter, only to see a line of people dropping off unwanted pets. It takes a hearty soul to care so deeply, to do so much, to function so effectively around “humanity” and to give so much of their lives.

This is the story of Kelly and Judy: special souls who are dog rescuers in this never-ending stream of unwanted and abused animals.

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Now and Then – Ravenswood Gardens, Chicago

 

Fifteen brick structures mark the entrance to the streets of this 100+ year-old neighborhood near the river. These sentinels stand in pairs, trios or quartets along Rockwell between Montrose and the el tracks at Rockwell. Some have planters on top, others a concrete ball resembling a bed knob. They mark the streets of Ravenswood Gardens, a community planned in 1909 by William Harmon. Photographed on film with a Seagull and a Rolleicord.   Now and Then – Ravenswood Gardens, Chicago

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