My mom is the youngest of nine children. Her oldest sister Lula died when Grace was young, and her sister, Lorena, the eighth child, died about four years ago. Now her brother Don, who is the seventh child has died.
Unlike the rest of his brothers and sisters, Uncle Don did not leave his home state of Kentucky, so he always sounded more southern than the others. His voice was a high tenor. He also went bald early. I don't remember him not being bald, while the rest of his brothers still have thick heads of hair as they journey through their 80s.
When I think of Uncle Don, I remember visiting there as a child and the time he had the three-legged dog named Rainbow.
My mom and Uncle Don fought when they were children. They grew up on a farm in the hills of southern Kentucky and Uncle Don was the brother who tortured her, mostly because the others were grown and moved away. Uncle Don knew my mom was afraid of pigs, so he would hide and make pig noises to scare her. He knew it would always get a rise out of her.
The other story I remember is about Uncle Don's military service. He was in the Navy during the Korean War. I sat down with all of my uncles a few years ago and videotaped their reminisces about their military experience. Uncle Don pulled out a card the size of a drivers license. It was a mini certificate for crossing over the Prime Meridian while in the Navy. My Uncle Clarence, who fought during World War II, hurried over to his car and came back with a full-sized, wall certificate that he got for crossing the Prime Meridian. His certificate dwarfed Uncle Don's. They laughed at the way the certificates had shrunk as crossing the Prime Meridian became less of a feat.
The question I asked Uncle Don about his military service was whether the rumor was true.
"Did someone else take your swimming test for you?" I asked.
That was the story I had heard. To be in the Navy, Uncle Don was required to take a swimming test, but he wasn't able to swim, so he had someone else swim for him.
Now, just a few years later, I can't recall what his answer was. I'll have to search for the videotape to see what he said. But that's how I'll remember him, a man willing to get on an aircraft carrier and cross the Pacific Ocean while unable to swim a lick.
Uncle Don always wore a hat, not a baseball cap, but more of a tractor or trucking cap with a bill. He always spoke to me at the crowded family reunions and asked how my family was. He raised two sons who now have wives from the Phillipines, one of whom helped care for him while he was ill.
Today as she mourns his passing, my mom doesn't think about the ways he teased her as a child, but the relationship they built as adults.
"Bereavement in their death to feel
Whom We have never seen --
A Vital Kinsmanship import
Our Soul and theirs -- between" -- Emily Dickinson