Sunday, October 28, 2012

Uncle Clifton's Lyrical Voice

My kind Uncle Clifton has died just shy of his 91st birthday. “Kind” is the word that comes to mind when we all think of Uncle Clifton. He was just a nice man, patient and long-suffering. I didn’t know him well and only saw him once a year, but this is the impression I have of him.

Although my family unit lived in Northwest Indiana, the rest of the larger family lived in Alabama, and we visited them every summer, usually for one week in June. We would drive down in our Ford Galaxy 500 and stay with our grandparents, Memaw and Granddaddy. Their house was home base, and the relatives would stop by for visits. We’d share big meals all the women would prepare, with dill pickles, cornbread, fried chicken, coleslaw and sweet tea. After some pecan pie, adults would sit at the kitchen table and play Rook, or they’d sit out under the backyard trees and smoke and whittle and swop stories, and the cousins would play games.

I was the youngest of the cousins, considerably younger, so I didn’t always get to play. The older ones would sit around Memaw’s big, round dining table and pretend to hold séances—in retrospect, you’d think the conservative Christian parents would be opposed, but there is a different sensibility about these things in the old south. There never seemed to be room at the table for me, so I played Chinese checkers on my own, or played with my baby doll and her wardrobe Memaw had made out of dress scraps. But there was room for me to play Blind Man’s Bluff, and I couldn’t wait for the older ones to declare time to play that mysterious game in the dark.

Memories of those visits hold magic for me, and I paint them with a feathered brush, a little hazy with muted and pleasing colors that blend into shades of pine paneled walls and braided rugs. And behind the visuals that come to mind are sounds I remember hearing from other rooms, lyrical voices and laughter that would rise and fall and trail off into phrases like “Well, shoot,” or “I declare.”

As I mentioned, the aunts and uncles played Rook, and they played it with a level of importance that suggested life and death. They would bid high with confidence, expect greatness from their partners, and declare trumps and sweep up won hands and shoot daggers at the one who shoots the moon with intimidating enthusiasm. Don't sit down at that kitchen table to play unless you can handle the pressure. And I can still hear Uncle Clifton’s voice in the card-game chorus. His voice was as lyrical as they come, heavy with a southern accent but light and high like the tenor he was. When my mother was young, and her family would sing in tent meetings as The Maner Family, Clifton shared a part with his mother, such was the pitch of his voice whether talking or singing or laughing, even as a grown man, a World War II veteran, a husband and father.

In a traditional and conservative family, divorce was uncommon, especially in my parents’ generation, but Uncle Clifton divorced Aunt Christine after years of separation and re-grouping and separation again. But then they got back together in their old age and kept each other company. Christine died just a few weeks ago, and soon after, Uncle Clifton had a stroke. There is talk he was hanging on just for his wife, but I wonder. Their relationship was so complicated for so long, I hesitate to assign sentimental care to his longevity. I think he was just a kind man. And I miss his kindness, and that lyrical voice.

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