Uncle Phil the Gentle Texan
“Howdy ma’am, pleased to meet you.”
I looked straight into his eyes as warm brown as the pecans from his family orchard, above a row of perfect teeth.
I could have balanced a yardstick on top of both of our heads
Shaved close with a hint of permanent stubble. The top of his head gleamed like the receding water in a tidepool.
My Aunt Ginger had graduated from Newhall Bible College where she met Phil. He asked her for a date, but she politely refused. For two years he waited. She finally accepted his offer.
My Aunt Ginger taught Spanish in Chile for four years. Her visits were always fun. She would do something like offer us a stick of black gum from a pack. I would snatch a piece and bend it to fit my mouth and chew. Then I would choke and gasp as the taste of pepper filled my mouth. She would giggle. She always had a surprise. Sometimes it would be a Chilean poncho or a miniature replica of a donkey cart.
Now she was marrying a Texan. A proper and gentle one. Would she change?
She was a tomgirl and he was proper in every sense.
“Ma’am, let me open the door for you.”
“Yes, ma’am I’m much obliged.”
“Ma’am, ladies always first.”
A few years later, my Aunt Ginger and Uncle Phil, became my foster parents.
One day as my uncle came around to open the car door as usual, I scooted to the other side and climbed out the window. He looked puzzled but didn’t chastise me. I could only take so much politeness.
But, I loved it when my uncle would tell a corny joke and then throw back his head and let out a hee-hee-hee-hee like a car engine trying to turn over.
It felt good in my heart to see him doing what old-timey pastors used to do. He would visit every parishioner who was sick or having trouble of any kind. He would visit those who were incarcerated and take them a bible, but mostly just listen to their story. I didn’t care for the baptist denomination but he showed by example what a Jesus follower should act like. A foot washer.
When I lived with them my uncle was studying for his PhD in Greek, his goal was to become a Bible translator for indigenous tribes. He battled almost daily with migraine headaches. His medicine was watching The Road Runner cartoons every night with dinner.
I was visiting my aunt and uncle a few years later. I was a pregnant unwed mother. My Uncle Phil stepped in the room with his hand behind his back, grinning as he whipped out his Polaroid and snapped a picture with my aunt relaxing on the bed with her cat in the middle and me on her other side. Three mounds of baby bumps.
“Uncle Phil, you’ve always been such a good guy. Did you ever get in trouble as a teen?
“Yes, ma’am I was a wild carouser before I became a believer. I hung out at the bars with the guys. I smoked and I was mean and onery and cussed a blue streak.”
I tried to fit this image to the face in front of me. I never heard even an acceptable cuss word from his mouth. Even when he disapproved of my actions that landed me in trouble when I first lived with them. He was firm with his words but never mean or abusive. I can picture him holding a lamb in his arms or placing his hand on a child to bless them. But, not the image of the man he said he had been. Smoke curling from his lips, tossing down beers until his lips were so loose the foul smell of words tumbled out like tight fists.
My Aunt Ginger and Uncle Phil had moved to Washington State years before I moved there. They lived close to my mother, Dorothy Jeanne. My grandmother Esther Allen had lived with my aunt and uncle for years. I took a plane up there when my grandmother passed away.
My Aunt Ginger was washing dishes at her sink one day and I was drying.
“I’m so sorry about what happened to you when you lived with us. Will you forgive us? We were newlyweds and you were a troubled teen and we didn’t know how to help you.”
“Of course I forgive you. I’m sorry for what I put you through when I ran away with Manon. I didn’t know that’s what she was planning to do when she asked me to get the keys from you at church. I wanted to bring the keys back to you but she seemed so desperate. She threw the keys in the apartment and locked the door after we gathered some clothing and the fifty cents Uncle Phil had on the dresser. We watched from the alley in some bushes after you called the police. I wanted to tell you we were okay. You didn’t deserve that.”
“Yes, you had us worried to death.”
“You took me back. That made me feel wanted.”
“We shouldn’t have called your social worker after I found those letters from your sister and those two cigarrettes.”
I felt devastated that night. I sat up all night with my bags packed. I didn’t cry. I vowed never to let anyone get close enough to hurt me again. EVER. And I didn’t cry for many years. If I didn’t feel so secure and loved by you I wouldn’t care. It wouldn’t hurt so much.
My mother became the hospice nurse for my uncle when he was dying from Hodgkin’s Disease. He had been the grace she needed in her life. Now it was her turn to help him.
My Uncle Phil was the person my mother turned to when she needed anything done, from driving posts into the rocky ground on her property to changing a light bulb. Her health was deteriorating. He would listen to her complaints and was always patient in spite of her grumbling. He would say, “Yes, ma’am,” and answer with a kind word.
One dreaded day my Uncle Phil was tested for cancer. He went through the conventional treatment of chemicals to kill the bad cells but, a year after treatment the monster returned. He decided to go to Mexico to try the unconventional treatment. It didn’t work and he finally said. Enough.
My mother sat by his bed reading day and night. He had become bones wrapped in skin and his wobbly knees and wobbly voice started to lose the will to support him. His warm brown eyes took on the hue of death. My aunt couldn’t bear to watch her husband suffer, but would prepare his food until that no longer trickled down his throat.
As his final hour drew near, my mother told me how he pushed his body to a standing position with the strings of his will; like a limp puppet.
“What are you doing?”
“It’s Sunday. I need to get to church to preach.” He was hanging on to his Bible like a lifesaver. He swayed.
My mother said, “Oh no you’re not. Get back in bed.”
He laid his earthly body down and his last breath with it.
Goodbye Uncle Phil, we miss you terribly, but I’ll see you later. Jesus will take care of the flock and your family. Whenever I see a pecan, I think of you. I remember you bent over your tender young fruit trees, picking off the bugs and dead leaves and enjoying the warm sunshine on your face, gently holding your pruning shears like a surgeon. Your family sent bags of pecans picked fresh from their orchard and my aunt would prepare, “The best pecan pie I ever ate.”
My Aunt Ginger’s life was cut in half after he was gone. She tried going back to teaching, so after her son moved to Romania she moved there also. Depression sat on her daily while her children lived their separate lives. One day after a checkup at the clinic, she was told she needed to go back to the United States to see her cardiologist immediately. She returned and stayed with a friend. Her cardiologist checked her out and assessed, “There’s nothing wrong.” The next morning her friends heard a thud in the bathroom. They called an ambulance. She said, “Don’t bother.” as they loaded her limp body on the gurney. Her spirit left her body in that ambulance. I’ll see you later, Aunt Virginia.
In the story about my Aunt Virginia asking my forgiveness, I remember it as if I was still holding the pretty flowered dish towel against a fragile plate and she was reaching in a basin of sudsy water up to her elbows. She had turned and looked directly in my eyes before she said the words. The light from the kitchen’s bay window was casting sparkly beams on her face.