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Uncle Brad

February 7, 2014

My uncle Brad died Wednesday.  He’ll be buried this weekend, and there’ll be a lot of talk about how hard he worked, because he did and because that’s the thing you say about a man where I’m from, but what I’ll remember is how he played.

I don’t mean the forms of play that are common where I come from – hunting, four-wheeling, that sort of thing – although he did more than his share of all of that.  The play  I will remember had to do with things that no one else I knew growing up would have thought to do.  In my earliest memory of him, he is describing how he filed a peach pit, from a peach he’d eaten, to see if he could get it to sprout – it did; he grew a tree from it.  “Who thinks to do something like that?” the child me thought.  Is that a thing you can do?

He built a little old-fashioned car, from a kit, and drove it down to my parents’.  He grew gourds and hung them up to dry and then painted them to look like geese and swans and things, because they were shaped that way.

For all sorts of things like this, he was the kind of person about whom you would say, if you were a typically practical rural Midwesterner, “He’s all the time doin’ somethin’.”  The italics and the apostrophes aren’t right; I can’t punctuate it the way that it has to be said in order to be understood where I’m from.  It’s one of those seemingly generic phrases that actually always means something very particular: the point is that the somethin’ is a thing that isn’t necessary, or practical, or possibly even advisable.  It is an experiment, a lark, a moment of play.

He did work, a lot – I’m sure he had orders to fill when he died, at 82.  More than anyone else I knew growing up, though, his work was play to him, too – he enjoyed it.  He made teeth – like, dentures and partials, in a shop in his garage.  He learned his trade in the military, in Germany, in the fifties.  As he told it: one day he was part of a group of soldiers digging a ditch, in the heat, when an officer came by and asked if any of them would like to learn to make teeth – the military has all kinds of craftsmen, and this base needed a new false-teeth guy, apparently.  “To Hell with this,” he thought, jumping out of the ditch and handing off his shovel, and that was that.

Beyond that, he made it clear in the way he lived that the point of working was to be able to play, and to give to his family.  When I was in college he slipped me cash every time I saw him, despite my protests; he did not intend it for books.  He had a heart attack in his late fifties and completely changed his eating habits and lifestyle, because he was smart about things and enjoyed life and wanted more of it, and he lived another 24 years.  He was happily married – another distinguishing feature among the people I knew growing up, to be completely frank – and still, on my way to the funeral now, I cannot fathom seeing my aunt without him, because they were always together.  And because they were happy and inseparable they have been my mental image of my wife and I growing old together, and now I have to go and look on our own inevitable bereavement.  Is there a way to experience another’s death that is not, also, about our own?

He had a soft voice and an easy laugh, and now they’re gone, except that we all who heard them remember.  And I have this: What I learned from my uncle Brad was to never, ever ask the question that dogs playfulness – “Well, now, why would you want to do that?” – as if everything we spend time on has to have a reason.  For New Year’s I built what is essentially an outdoor closet in order to smoke a ham, and I never got to tell him about it, but he would have asked me how I did it, not why.

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