Garrison Keillor used to tell stories about the bachelor farmers up in Minnesota. He did it in the News from Lake Wobegon segment of his radio show. I particularly liked that part because I’m familiar with the type. My uncles and for a time my brother Jerry filled the role in my family.
Actually there were lots of uncles. No two were the same. There was uncle Ray, Ray Clarence Long was his entire name. He was a dyed in the wool gen-u-wine cowboy. Can’t have a better uncle than that. I mean, how many kids are blessed with one of those. He rode, roped, forked hay, milked cows, always a squirt for the kitties and the occasional nephew. Consider that once a chicken waddled into their old kitchen, hopped up on the table and laid and egg. My aunt Mariel calmly shooed the chicken out the door, returned, grabbed the egg and fried it up for my little cousin Lucinda’s breakfast. Business as usual.
There was my mothers brother, uncle Bob, Robert Harrison Hall who was one of two best tellers of jokes I’ve ever known. He had all kinds, dirty, cringeworthy and even a category for kids. He collected them like gems and I never heard him tell the same one twice. He could really spin a yarn.
My uncle John, John Madison Gray, was my grandmothers youngest brother. He had a blarge square head and a deep voice that rumbled like he was gargling rocks. He managed the family trust in the waning days of our families oil fortune. He wore a suit. An unusual thing in our family. He was a formal man.
Wiry, bandy legged uncle Bob, Robert James Gray played shortstop on the Santa Maria High School baseball team in 1904 and spent all of his life on the land. He ranched on the Cuyama river, lived in an adobe house built in the 1840’s on a small, flat piece of ground twenty two miles up the rivers canyon and every two weeks he’d load his wife Marian on a wagon and come down the riverbed to Santa Maria for provisions. They were newly married and just eighteen. He later ran cattle on the big ranch near Shandon. I remember it as a dusty place, most notable for its peacocks and always being too hot. He quit all that and moved to Oroville in the fifties and grew crab apples for the rest of his life.
Uncle Jackie, John Patrick Shannon was my fathers brother, my paternal uncle and the one I knew the best. He was a lifelong bachelor and dedicated his entire life to cattle. He had no wife. Cows were his family. He was a good uncle for my brothers and I though. He used to take us around in his pickup truck and hike with us up Buzzards rock or fishing at Davy Brown creek or Huffs Hole. A cattleman in our county knows all the other ranchers and we’d explore the Carissa plains or the road to Lockwood and the Peach Tree ranch. We even went up to Drury James old place to see the people who owned it then. Frank and Jesse hid out there for a while when on the run. Some historians say it ain’t so but as we say in the writing business print the legend. We’d always be sure to have a good time. He did most everything right but he was also the sort of clueless uncle who gave you socks or a box of cheap candy, bought on Christmas Eve, at 5:30 just before we’d show up and grandma Shannon’s house for presents. He might even eat a piece or two before he stuffed them in brown paper bag and put them under the tree. Not too much family sense but we loved him anyway.
The best uncle ever and I mean ever, is my brother, Jerry. He is still a boy at heart and was really great when my boys were little at giving them birthday and Christmas gifts. Perfect gifts. No socks. No shirts. The best teddy bears, the best toys. Very thoughtful things that boys need. Once he gave them knives. Not pocket knives but these great big ornate knives such as Saladin, the great Muslim Sultan of the middle east wore. The kind you slide into you silk sash, just so. That’s in case Richard the Lion-Heart rides up and you need to, maybe, poke him a little to get his attention. Little boys understand that kind of thing, living as they do in a world you can no longer inhabit. Most leave that dimension behind some where before teen time.
I’ve often wondered where that gene comes from. Probably from my mother. She had some kind of gift, call it empathy or whatever you like but she knew kids, especially boys. She would take mine, one at a time, Christmas and birthday shopping and they were allowed to choose one gift which she never criticised. No matter how outrageous, noisy and such it might be she let them have it. She’d pick them up and they go off on an adventure, lunch with dessert, always dessert, that being the most important part. They’d hit all the toy stores spending the entire day hunting the perfect thing. The gift they chose for themselves was one thing but the time spent with grandma was the real gift. The evil cancer killed her when my boys were just twelve and nine and I often think how their lives might have been with her around for she was really best with teenagers. Their are many aging men around who still remember the special treatment they got from her. She worked in a Men and Boys store on the main street of our little town and dressed generations of kids for school, Boy Scouts, the Prom and weddings. She had just the right touch. Jerry got it from her.
My wife and sister in law were simply nonplussed. Looks were exchanged, serious looks, but it was too late. My mother sat in her rocker and smiled her secret smile; She understood.The boys were strutting proudly around my parents living room, 18″ engraved blades tucked in the waists of their pajamas ready for trouble. If Zorro the Fox had ridden up to the front door, he was a local boy you know, he’d have had two little men with blades ready to ride out against the evil Captain Monastario and his hapless sergeant, Demetrio Lopez Garcia.
Of course the blades were confiscated after the kids went to sleep, tucked away until safety was assured. What was most important was that both those, now grown men were bonded to Unca’ Jerry for as long as they shall live. Who can see into a little boys heart? Uncle Jerry can. What a gift. I love him for that.
Oh, and the next year at Christmas, he gave them great big flintlock pistols.