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.