Today as two of my sons raked the yellow and gold leaves into piles I sat with my uncle on his patio. The little two ran around his cars and down the driveway, chasing each other and squealing as they played. I could tell he was melancholy as he talked about my aunt and how he’d trade the fortune they acquired in order to have spent more time just enjoying her company. When the segue came I boldly seized the opportunity.
“Uncle M@^%, you’ve said that Grandpa wasn’t a good man. Daddy told stories about him, too. Since he was such an awful example of a man, where did you learn to be a good man? Where did you learn how to keep a marriage together for 62 years?”
Without hesitation he responded, “I did learn to be a man from my dad. I learned what a man is from my dad.” For just one-tenth of a second I was confused. And, then, in a millisecond I flashed to when my oldest son responded to the same question with exactly the same words. I asked, “Ohhhh, so, you learned how not to be from your dad?” He said, “That’s right. I figured whatever he did I was going to do the exact opposite. I didn’t want to be anything like him.”
He spent the next two hours sharing his life story with me. He shared that he remembers his dad coming home at night, falling down drunk, and beating my grandma. Her two little boys weren’t going to have anybody beating up on their Mama though. So, he, being about six, would run and slam into his dad, knocking his “snockered” father into the stairwell. While Grandpa tried to regain his footing my other uncle, about 8, would hit him over the head with a stick of firewood, knocking his own father unconscious. The boys would then run like crazy for the store to use the only phone around to call for the police. Grandpa would be hauled off to jail, and it was after his release that he would take off for two or three months at a time, completely neglecting his family’s needs.
My grandma worked in a laundry, earning $2 a day, but that wasn’t enough to feed and clothe herself and five children. When my uncle was old enough he took a paper route, making $11 a month, which he gave to his mother to buy food. Still, there wasn’t enough to go around no matter how hard the woman and her children tried. My two uncles came up with a plan for one to eat produce in the grocery store as quickly as he could, knowing he’d be caught. Then, while the storekeep was busy dealing with the first little thief, the second boy would go eat. My uncle hated stealing. He hated taking what belonged to someone else just to appease his empty stomach.
They had virtually no clothing; everything was completely worn out, didn’t fit well, and certainly wasn’t enough to protect them from the elements.
He recalls sitting in school one day thinking that there had to be more to life than this. There had to be a better life. The hunger was just too much, and he determined the only way he could find that other life was to strike out on his own. At 13 1/2 he hopped a rail and rode with the bums, warming himself by their fires. Late one night the railroad dick caught them and threw them off near Red Bluff, California. With no other trains to catch that night, my young uncle laid himself down near a creek and fell asleep. When he awoke he found himself in an orchard with trees loaded with plums. At first he thought he must have died in the night and gone to Heaven! When he realized the fruit was real, he voraciously slammed the food into his mouth.
He worked at that orchard until the season was over, leaving with $900 in his pocket. He then hitchhiked north where the migrants had told him there was work in the woods. He eventually went back home, but his perspective was changed. He explained to me that poverty is not just about being poor. It’s a worldview. It’s about how you perceive yourself in relation to the rest of the world. He wasn’t impoverished anymore.
He then described for me the upward spiral from the deep poverty of his childhood to being a wealthy landowner. He stated that he and my aunt both worked hard but by that time “the rising tide was raising all the ships.” However, if he had a secret as to why his ship raised higher, he credits it to giving. He saw his dad as innately selfish, that selfishness being the root of everything evil he did. So, he determined that he would always give to those around him. That’s what motivated him to make constant trips to Mexico, bringing clothes to poor villages and establishing relationships with those he helped. He never wanted to be selfish like his dad.
Before my oldest son left for college he told me that he had learned to be a man from his dad. I was horrified. After his dramatic pause he explained, “He has shown me the kind of man I don’t want to be.” This is my son who spent a year after college helping me adjust to life as a single mom. He cooked; he chopped wood; he put up safety lights and a gate; he babysat; he home-schooled his siblings; he took his siblings to dental visits, to the movies, and on special outings; he listened to my sob stories. He is the antithesis of his father.
I find it ironic that sometimes the best example we can have is the worst example we can have.