Thursday, February 15, 2007

Signature of a Life

A week ago, my great-uncle Willis passed away. For most kids, a great-aunt or -uncle is a relative on the periphary, someone seen only occasionally, and whose presence inspires a sort of curious dread (like you want to go see him/her because he/she is someone different than the usual, but you vaguely remember the last time you saw Auntie Em/Uncle Mel he/she had a nasty mustache that poked you every time he/she kissed you, and he/she kissed you a lot...).
Willie was not this way.

Since Willie and my Grandpa John lived on the same farm, Willie was another grandpa of sorts, and his house was another place to go searching for special treats, or favorite toys. Willie's basement was creepy/cool, a place to play with the handmade wooden blocks housed there, but only during the brightest daylight hours. It was a place to grab a snack of a mini Snickers bar (conveniently "hidden" in the lower drawers of the kitchen), as long as never strayed past that room, or occasionally the living room. (It wasn't until we started renovating the house for my brother that I even knew how many bedrooms were in the back).

Willie's house was like an odd musuem, full of strange head mounts of caribou, elk, and deer, whose eyes seemed to follow you wherever you went. There were momentos of countries Willie and my Aunt (his sister) Onita pledged allegiance and remembrance to, but to which my cousins and I were only partially familiar. There were books and toys that had the look of age to them, and the marks of many hands they had encountered over their lifetimes. And of course, there was the still, musty air, the frail, transluscent look, and fine sheen of dust that all things, and people, of antiquity seem to have. To this day I walk through the front door and get an instant flashback of how things in the house were when I was a child; how they continued to be, until Willie was too unsteady to live at home alone any longer, and the renovation of the house sent its varied treasures into Rubbermaid tubs, closets, and dressers for safekeeping, or to new homes among relatives.

But as much as these hallmarks of the distant past shape my memories of Willis, the one thing that brought me to tears at his funeral last weekend was a relatively recent recollection. My family has been lucky and blessed enough to celebrate a number of weddings in the last few years - there have been five such gatherings, and one funeral. At each one, Willie would, as regularly as rain, show up in a blue suit, white shirt, and tie. The tie was a red silk one, slightly stained, fairly faded, and completely careworn from use during all Willie's formal-dress occasions. I can tell you from my personal experience of cleaning his closets during the house renovation that it wasn't the only one he owned, but it was the only one he wore. And it showed. But the beauty of that tie was the way in which it mimicked Willie's life - not always the most fashionable or attractive, but steady and constant; performing the required function without showiness or ostentation; fraying slightly over the years, but still showing up regularly and being presentable about it; bringing a flash of color and humor to an otherwise bland ensemble; classic enough for a funeral, yet not afraid to cut loose and have fun when warranted.

A red tie. Simple, direct, traditional, yet still the color of love, fealty, and family. Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves; Willis wore his around his neck. Good journey, Willie; we'll miss you.

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