Thursday, December 3, 2009

On Motherhood: Remembering Unk

My father and his older brother were raised by their mother, uncle, and aunt on a farm in Hartsville, Tennessee. The farm was off of Walnut Grove Road, which meanders along rising hills of green, dotted with yellow and purple flowers, sunsplashed, in the summertime. The small house sat at the end of a gravel drive, and there was a low rock fence, with a gap in the middle beside the mailbox, down by the road made of white slabs of stone most likely pulled from one of the many quarries our part of Tennessee. My father's mother, uncle, and aunt were all teachers, all unmarried: the ladies widowed and my uncle a lifelong bachelor.

My father's father died of a brain aneurysm when my father was six years old. The family, at that time, lived in Oak Ridge, where my grandfather worked at the nuclear plant. I don't know what he did there exactly, but I've always dreamed he was a top engineer or scientist with the Manhattan project, or designed bombs or made fusion more efficient. I do know that he, like my father, was exceptionally smart. My father's brother, Joe Pat, a few years older, died the same way before he was 50 years old.

My grandmother did not drive. This was in the mid 1940s, and she was a lovely lady of the flapper generation: gorgeous and sassy and spoiled.

I'm not sure who did it, but I think it was my uncle and his nephew, my great aunt's son, Doodle, (Yes, Doodle. I don't even recall his real name.)who packed up my grandmother and her little boys and moved them back home to the farm, where she lived until she passed away on February 2, 1997.

The Dude was named after my great uncle, who was legally Benjamin Brown Draper, but who I always called Unk. All my cousins - all eight of them, Joe Pat's children - called him Unk as well, and I have rarely known of a man more adored by family, friends and colleagues alike than Unk, also known as Mr. Draper.

(I wish I had a photo of him with me now to include, but they are all at home, or burned with my father's home in 2005.)

All three of them, as I mentioned, were teachers: my grandmother, or Gran (Robbie James Draper Wiley), and my great aunt (Vyda Mae Draper Thompson, and the most saintly woman who has ever graced this earth) at a tiny one-room schoolhouse just down Walnut Grove Road from the house, and Unk at the Trousdale County High School, where he was regionally renowned for his farming education and FFA leadership. Hell, even in high school I knew people involved in FFA who knew him, or at least of him, and he passed away when I was in the 6th grade.

But for me, what was special about Unk wasn't who knew him or what a superb teacher he was, but how he made me feel, which was as if I were the most special little girl in the world. Beautiful, smart, and important: and he was a man of few words.

I was lucky: my Alaska cousins as I call them - Joe Pat's children, who all grew up in Anchorage - only got to visit him sporadically, although the older ones, especially Kathy, were good about coming in the summers to visit. But I got to see "the trio," as I call my Gran, Unk, and Aunt Vyda Mae now, much more often, especially since they were much older: my father was 40 when I was born, so they were already in their late 60s and 70s when I was young - Unk especially.

I remember him leaning over, bending his tall frame almost in half, to pick buttercups along the crumbling rock sidewalk in front of the house with me, because buttercups were always my favorite when I was little. We had them at my house, at their house, and it seems now my little girl life was filled with buttercups, our first sign of spring and warmer, better things to come. I remember him making a swing for me and hanging it in the branches of a tree with no top, no matter how I stood and turned, I could never see the topmost branches of that tree, or the sky beyond it. I remember his laughter as he pushed me, skinny legs and white patent-leather shoed feet kicking, as high as he could before leaning against the tree, smiling, telling me I looked just like my daddy, whom he loved so much.

My father, mother and me at the farm

But as I get older the one aspect of that farm that keeps resurfacing for me is the tiny cabin out behind the house which, when I was little, was always locked. They told me it was a cabin for farmhands, for helpers, for storage. It wasn't until I was in high school and either broke in (most likely) or someone finally let me in (not probable) that I saw the narrow cot against one wall, the doll-sized kitchen, the homey touches like curtains, a hand-knotted rug, and cushions on the seat of the rocking chair in one corner, flattened with time and use. I wandered around the tiny cabin, the raw wood ceiling just inches over my head, touching books, notebooks, old newspapers and magazines, sneezing every now and then, wiping my eyes, awed.

Unk never married: he promised his mother on her deathbed that he would take care of his two sisters until he died, and that's exactly what he did.

For years, until I was a grown woman out of college, I held fast to his sacrifice, his unwavering selflessness, his principles and his morals. That is, until someone - and God help me, I can't remember who - let me in on the little secret: that little cabin was no farmhand retreat, no storeroom.

It was his bachelor pad.

"His what?" I recall breathing. There could be no such thing - Unk was asexual. Unk was practically a saint. He didn't have physical urges or need women like that. Selfless! Moral! Principles!

"Cathouse," I believe the term was.

And then it struck me like a slap on the ass: that book. That book on the shelf in his simple bedroom of pine and warm wood. The book with the naked people in it. I never saw it until I was tall enough to be on eye level with the bookshelf over his desk, but there it was: a book about nudists in America. "Naturalists," I believe they were called.

Turns out Unk was human. In a little girl's eyes he was a looming, smiling figure who said "Gimmie a bus" when he wanted a kiss on the cheek, who had an impressive collection of bolo ties he gave to my maternal grandfather and which I rarely saw him without. Who's sharp chin, impressive eyebrows and warm eyes I see more and more in my own father's face each time I see him.

For whom I named my son: Draper.

The saints in our lives are still people. They make mistakes and they have urges and needs and are human. It's how we choose to remember them, how they made - or if we're lucky, still make - us feel about ourselves and the world that matters.

I don't remember Unk for that cabin now, although it amuses me to think about it. I remember him as a shadow against the sun, leaning over me, tucking a snipped buttercup behind my ear, his warm, papery hand lingering on my jawline. I remember him as strong hands against my back, pushing me in a swing, my laughter and squeals rising into the leafy tops of a tree I could not see past. He is low raspy laughter and a cheek turned for a kiss. And he is leaning against a tree, arms crossed, bolo tie cords askew, smiling, saying: "Aren't you just the loveliest little girl."


  1. That was great! Not what I was expecting, but great!

  2. DO YOU HAVE A MOTHER.........what part does she play in all of this. So your daddy was smart. Look where that got him.........