o“Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins, it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols.”– Tomas Mann
“Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.”–Marcus Aurelius
“I can’t stay long, Mom.”
His words were a familiar phrase meant to be part greeting and part warning. A rush of winter’s chilly air crowded in around him like flies swarming picnic food. Despite the fact he quickly closed the back door, the entrance through which all family, and most friends, entered, the temperature of the room temporarily lowered, and I was momentarily reminded of the thin layer of ice lining the single pane windows. I shivered in reaction.
“What’s wrong, Sis? You act like it’s winter,” he teasingly questioned me as he wiped his feet on the doormat.
He had entered directly into the kitchen table area of my grandparent’s kitchen. Uncle Leo was the middle brother of my mom. Uncle Ralph was Mom’s oldest brother, followed by Leo, one and a half years later, and then Mom was born some eleven or so years after Leo.
Leo had thinning hair, but that which remained was nice and mostly salt, with an occasional strand of pepper throughout. His eyes, like his daddy’s–my grandfather–and his brother, my Uncle Ralph, twinkled when he spoke; and yet, unlike Pappaw and Uncle Ralph, Leo possessed a bit of intuitiveness/sensitivity–a trait of his mom’s–my grandmother–that I only now begin to realize/understand . . .
My first recollection of Uncle Leo’s emotional sensitivity occurred when I was fairly young. I recall him gazing intently at me as I passed him in the back hall of the evangelical, small town church we attended until I was twelve years. We were between the preparation activities for Sunday School and the actual classes. I was walking with my peers to my class, and Uncle Leo was traveling with the adults in the opposite direction. While I do not remember his exact words, he knew I was sad/upset, and he further seemed to know the reason why, though I had not spoken a word to him. As he walked by me, he ruffled the top of my head and began singing to me, as he was known to do, in his best baritone/bass-like voice. Oh, how that man loved to sing and make others smile.
Uncle Leo; his Grandfather, my paternal great-grandfather, Wesley; and Uncle Ralph
In fact, later, I recall my mom asking me what I had said to Uncle Leo, and I began to panic because, for the life of me, I didn’t know what I had said/done wrong. The subject was dropped; but later, I overheard adult conversation after church regarding how I wore my heart on my sleeve and was an open book for him to read . . .
Back Row: Pappaw; Grandmother; Uncle Ralph; his wife, Patty; and their son, David Bottom Row: Uncle Leo with Ralph’s oldest, Candy, on his lap; Leo’s wife, Janet; my mom, Dolores; and Ralph’s middle child, Carol.
It was this sensitivity, well, and let’s be honest, Grandmother’s cooking, that I now understand motivated Leo to drop by and visit my grandparents–sometimes unexpectedly, but also when my Grandmother called. While Leo was funny, witty, and charming, like Pappaw and Uncle Ralph, Leo had these eyes that knew, understood, and offered empathy when needed. He could take a 30 minute visit with my grandparents, spend 25 of those minutes swapping funny stories with Pappaw, making both Grandmother and Pappaw laugh. However, Leo could likewise skillfully interject a sentence of some serious nature to either gratify or reassure Grandmother–though, truth-be-told, due to her instinctive nature, she often knew he placating her. Still, she nonetheless relished the respect of my uncle’s gesture regardless of his intent.
Uncle Leo and Uncle Ralph–ultimately, Ralph would move Dallas, Texas where he was a pilot for Braniff International Airways; and Uncle Leo worked for Amtrak Railway.
When Leo arrived at my grandparents’ backdoor on that wintry afternoon, I do not remember if it had been a snow day closure, a Saturday, or an afternoon after school hours, but I was not at my place of work–the first teaching gig of my career–a two-year stint at Greenup County High School School, a mostly rural county school in eastern KY, during which time I lived with my grandparents. Leo, in his typical fashion, had entered the kitchen with great flourish, his blue/gray eyes ablazin’ and a song emanating from his throaty voice–always a church hymn that could be sung in four-part harmony. He habitually spoke in-between the lines of a song.
Leo lived nearby in the same quaint town of Raceland, KY, situated in the eastern, and less rural, part of Greenup County. He worked on the railroad, so he wasn’t home often. However, anytime my grandmother made one of his favorite foods, such as vegetable soup, as she had on this day, and she knew he was home on a lay-over, she gave Uncle Leo a call on her black rotary phone to invite him over “for a bite.”
“I don’t want much, Mom,” he said, as he always did, winking at me comically because we both knew that Grandmother’s servings were typically large enough to feed at least two people.
I was already sitting at their kitchen table working on something, presumably lesson plans or grading papers, and he sat down across from me. Grandmother bustled around the kitchen–as if suddenly energized by an unknown source–first gathering his soup and saltine crackers, followed by more flurry as she gathered a clean, plastic tub, most likely a former container of some sort of meat or salad, and she began filling it to the brim with more soup to cool on the counter, so he could take it home for later.
Eventually, Grandmother would sit down at the head of the table, her usual spot to the left of me, with Pappaw already sitting to my right.
“Whatcha’ know, Pop?” Leo would ask with another wink and easy grin as his eyes continued to gleam.
Pappaw, with eyes matching his son’s starlight sparkle, would, in his classic entertaining manner, share some sort of silly story, based on partial truth, but exaggerated and stretched out like the colorful salt-water taffy sold at every beachside tourist gift shop. Together, these two beloved men would alternate who treadled the proverbial story spinning wheel creating long, colorful yarns knitted together in one expansive fabricated story that enfolded Grandmother’s kitchen with warmth and laughter. Grandmother could be heard saying,“Oh, Check,” my grandfather’s nickname, or “Now Leo,” shaking her head in feign disgust, but her eyes betrayed her as they filled with love and appreciation for the moment.
Soon Leo with dart away with as much fanfare as when he entered. A hush would quickly settle over the kitchen like a summer rain settling the dust after a dry spell. Grandmother would sigh, pick up his dishes, carry them to her sink, pour another cup of coffee in her unbreakable, mostly white and blue Corelle coffee mug, and return to her chores, shoulders slumping as she went. Pappaw, with crestfallen face and sunken chest, would return to either the work desk in their bedroom, or disappear to the basement to complete a seemingly urgent task, with the fire embers that only moments ago had burned brightly in eyes now gradually extinguishing. Meanwhile, I remained in the kitchen as the frosty air filled the room once more. The moment was gone, flowing on as the winter waters do along the mighty Ohio River that unites the three states–Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia–in which I have spent a lifetime–working, playing, and loving.
As I look back at that moment, I am overwrought with colliding emotions regarding the passage of time as I reach back, trying to hold on to the memory a bit longer. However, as I age, my memories are becoming more fluid, like water slipping through space and time.
Another decade of life is on the horizon. 1999 once seemed an eternity away, much less 2019; and by the time you read this, Dear Reader, another new decade, 2020, will have arrived. I still remain on this earth, surrounded by loved ones, and filled with the memories of those who were once here with me, full of the knowledge that soon, I too, will drift down the eternal flow of the river of time because in the words of Uncle Leo, I can’t stay long.