My father’s brother James passed away yesterday. Those of you who have read the memoir will remember James as the brother who went with Mama to pick up Daddy’s body when they shipped him home.
You might remember James as the brother who Daddy called before shipping out after his R&R in 1966. Daddy asked James to take care of us if anything should happen to him. James promised he would, though, at the time, he just thought Daddy was talking nonsense. Daddy had survived some fierce battles in Korea. James wasn’t worried about him.
I will remember Uncle James as the fellow who flew out from Denver for my wedding, so that someone was there to represent my father’s family. I will remember James for his laughter. I will remember James for the way he stood over the kitchen sink in his kitchen last year, staring into my eyes and telling me, “You’ve got your Daddy’s eyes.”
James had some video footage of my father that he wanted to give to me but only if I made the trip to his home in Bullhead City, Arizona. So daughter Shelby and I did just that. We drove there and spent a couple of days with James. He loved that place, though I couldn’t understand why anyone who had grown up in the foothills of the Smokies would take a liking to the treeless landscape of that part of Arizona.
James called me from time to time, wanting me to research something for him. I went to Anderson prison graveyard in Georgia because James asked me to go look up some relative there. The last years of his life were spent trying to piece together the patchwork of his ancestors.
I tried talking to him about his salvation last year. Granny had raised all her children up in the wisdom of the Lord. I’d asked James where things stood between him and the Lord. He told me he believed but not the same as me. I told him he didn’t have to believe the same as me but he did have to get things right between him and the Lord. He had done some hard living in his days and wasn’t one to back away from doing things his way. My uncle indulged my request that he straighten things out with God but in the long run, he was just being gracious in his own gruff way.
He called me a month ago. I couldn’t talk at the time. I’d tried to call him back several times over the past few weeks but he never returned the call.
When I visited there last year, Uncle James sat before a small TV and rolled through home video after home video, laughing at his boys. We saw endless hours of tape with my cousins Rogers and Bill in them. James talked about the boys and laughed at their chubby thighs and the way Roger was fascinated at age 2 with a hole in the porch. It was as if James was trying to recapture a happiness and a joy that had long-since passed.
Watching those films with James made me sad in ways I can’t describe. Sad for him and for my cousins who spent much of their boyhood days without a father around, same as me. Only my father had died serving his country whereas their father spent the bulk of their childhood in a federal prison for robbing a bank. James told me once that he wasn’t ashamed of what he’d done. He’d served his time.
What was remarkable about James is that after he served his time he got a good job, and worked hard at it. He took care of Granny & Pap. He loved children always. I think because he was such a boy at heart himself.
He lived hard and played hard.
Only once did I ever hear James express any regret over his choices in life.
“I wished I’d been able to do what Dave asked me to do,” he said. “But I couldn’t even take care of my own boys.”
James left behind a trail of broken promises in his lifetime, the greatest of which is the promise of who he could have been had he only made better choices.
It seems fitting and somewhat bittersweet that James died on Mama’s birthday.