family


Well, it is official. I’m a landowner. Last January when my Uncle Doug died I was informed that in his will he bequeathed to me property he owned in Walker County, Alabama. Nine months later, the legal process is complete and I am now sole titleholder to 15 reportedly well-timbered and entirely undeveloped acres, replete with a creek known as Sims Branch (named after my grandmother’s parents) running through it, pictured approximately as shown below via Google Maps.

mine

What makes the gift even more special than being deemed worthy of it by my uncle — who was pretty much one of a very few adult males who demonstrated any kind of regard or concern for me during my childhood — is the fact that this particular plot of land is where my grandmother lived and where I stayed with her when I’d visit as a child.

Her house is long gone now. It was sold years back and its buyers jacked it up off its foundation and moved it to an unknown location. Though I last was inside when I was 7 years old, I can easily recall its layout… and lots of memories.

It’s an interesting sensation to own land that’s been in my family for quite some time, even if its far away and smack dab in the middle of nowhere. I certainly hope to stand upon it sooner rather than later, but who knows. If this life-long experiment as a Los Angeles native ever craps out, odds are this is where you might be able to find me. Either in a log cabin, a double-wide, or a recreation of my grandma’s home constructed from memory.

 

Part of our morning routine: Pumpkin, Ranger, Patchy, The Jig, and Pepper nomming in their regular spots. Not shown: Bink, who prefers to dine upstairs rather than mix with the proletariat. Also not shown: The elaborately choreographed pre-nom dance that happens with everyone eventually winding up where they’re supposed to be.

My uncle Doug died. My middle name comes from him, my mom told me when I was a boy, and thus he became my favorite way back then simply because of that similarity.

Apparently when his body was discovered he’d been dead for around three days.

The last times I saw him in person was 1987 for my grandma’s funeral, and a couple years before that solemn occasion when I took a train trip all around the country: LA to New Orleans to Washington DC to Chicago to Denver to San Francisco and back to LA. During that epic tour I spent some times in Tennessee and Alabama visiting relatives and seeing the sights. One stop along the way was a visit to the town of Jasper, Alabama, near to where he lived and I met up with him and his wife Jeanne (who passed a few years ago; that’s the three of us pictured below during that stay).

uncledoug

Uncle Doug, me, and Aunt Jeanne. Somewhere in Alabama. Sometime in December 1985.

We had dinner together at the hotel the second night I was there. The next morning we met up and I went for a ride with him around Carbon Hill, the family hometown, and I got reacquainted with those environs I’d last visited for a section of summer spent with my grandma back when I was seven.

When we said our goodbyes we shook hands. In his was $100 that he placed into mine. I balked. He insisted. “You’ve go a long trip left. Just in case something happens,” he said

Uncle Doug was always gruff with me the few times we’d spoken on the phone over the course of my life. The conversations were awkward during mostly difficult low times of my life where he’d call most likely at my mother’s behest and do his best to counsel me on the right mindset and actions to take. I did my best to listen.

And that was pretty much the extent of our relationship.

The relationship between him and my mom, took a frustrating turn around 2003 when my mother moved back there to reconnect with the home turf she’d left for California as a young lady and to help him and Jean with various things. Instead things ended up with nasty words, accusations and angry feelings exchanged. And my mom, realizing why she’d left Alabama in the first place, came back to Los Angeles with the door firmly shut on the south at-large and her brother. The feeling was mutual, I’d guess.

So it is that the last 10 years of uncle Doug’s life, I’d never said a word to him. My mom may have sent flowers in both our names when Jeanne died, but that was her doing.

When my mom called me this last weekend with the news of his passing, it took me a day or so to get choked up, and even then it felt kind of forced. Maybe because we’d never been that close. Maybe because the way my schedule is, I didn’t have time to grieve much less attend any services that might be planned. Even when she called back to say I was named in his trust to receive 15 acres of what she called well-timbered land in Walker County, Alabama, replete with a creek running through it, I greeted that news clinically and wondered why me?

But then on my way to training yesterday afternoon, I was transitioning from the 101 to the eastbound 60 and I thought about old pictures I have stored away in an album somewhere. Of him and me when I was a couple three years old standing next to his super sweet 1966 Mustang Fastback. I’m not sure why that image and why then, but the waterworks just came on hard, and for the next few miles I found it so utterly depressing that in my entire life, my connection with my favorite uncle consisted mostly of a few pictures and uncomfortable phone calls. Maybe the feeling was mutual when he was alive.

Well, I am sorry, uncle Doug. I am so very sorry.

One of these days I’ll beat it down to the basement and dig those pix out and up into the light. And another one of those days I’ll beat it down Bama way and be found standing upon the land my uncle Doug saw fit to pass on to my undeserving self. I’ll listen to the creek burble and hear the wind through the boughs, and I’ll figure out a way to honor him and his gift that’s far better than that which I’ve attempted to do here.

 

I blew it. Missed the centennial anniversary of the oldest familial object in my possession. For several years, bestowed upon me by my mother who’s kept it I don’t know for how long,  I’ve had a remnant of my grandmother’s father’s life: a Gordon pipe clamshell case seen below (click it for the bigger picture):

pipecase

Also seen in that image above is a piece of paper that I found within the case when I opened it up. It’s a receipt for $2 spent made out to my great-grandfather W.D. Sims (William Devon), most likely for the pipe and case. I say “most likely” because the receipt is not specific, only identifying the purchases made as “50 cts incidentals — $1.50 supplementals.” But the fact that the folded piece of paper was kept for so long within the container seems to make a good case that one resulted from the other.

The reason I’m mentioning it is that the document, written in pencil by one A.S. Scott, is 100 years old, dated December 2, 1912. Of course, I’d been planning on mentioning it on the actual anniversary of its creation, but I’m three weeks and a day late because I’d gotten it into my head that the date was sometime at the end of the month, not the beginning.

And when I cracked open the case to doublecheck the date this morning you can imagine how disappointed I was that I’d missed it by such a margin. Of course the disappointment is quickly supplanted by the amazement at holding a century-old moment in time of one of my ancestors. Owing that I have absolutely zero knowledge of the branch of my family that extends back from my unknown father, it’s nice to be able to hold something in my hand from the side to which I do have a connection, however tenuous it may be.

There’s an amazing story about my great grandfather that I’ve taken various incomplete stabs at drafting into written form. It’s full of details I’m woefully inaccurate about, the anniversary of which is the least of my worries. What I do know is that it was post-Civil War when he was a much younger man and a sharecropper somewhere in Alabama, and it involved him killing a man in cold blood who had taken to harassing his mother over a debt… one substantially more than two dollars, and that he paid off in full the moment before gunning the man down where he stood cash in hand.

Whether my great-grandfather’s intent to zero out the debtee’s heart rate upon zeroing out the balance owed was pre-meditated, or whether the deceased brought about his own demise with some derogatory and/or condescending words that in a hundred years of hindsight would have been better to go unspoken so soon upon receipt of the money, is both an historical and plot point with which I continue to grapple.

 

 

This is a portrait of my mom, taken yesterday.  Behind her is a more formal portrait of my mom and me and her granddaughter Kate and let’s not forget her dog Crockett in the dark lower left corner) taken in the mid-1990s.

This time last year, I came home from our fabulous Far East vacation with Susan and was greeted by a voicemail message from her that she was in a Glendale hospital with cancer. Two of them actually: ovarian and colon.

She kicked both their asses so well that it made her doctor cry. Literally.

Now that her hair has grown back she wanted me to take a picture of her to show my cousin Margaret how wild and crazy her “March hair” is. So I obliged.

Margaret emailed back: “I think it’s beautiful.”

I couldn’t agree more.

It is my new absolute favorite picture of her ever.

I love you, mom!

Shadow’s deterioration into total immobility during her last months made it tough to remember when she was so full of life and personality. And that’s what makes finding this forgotten (albeit ultra low-res) video mostly of her during a 2005 hike with me and Susan in Bronson Canyon Park that much more of a pleasant surprise in that it shows Shadow how she should and will be remembered: in all her rambunctious creek-hopping, keep-up-with-me glory. I love you, Shadow. Rest in peace.

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