For my “Unca” Duane, on July 4, 2013 – what would have been his seventieth birthday.
July 13, 1994 – also known as my fourteenth birthday – was an unmitigated disaster, in the opinion of my poor teenage self. Less than two weeks before, I had been dragged bodily from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois and plopped down unceremoniously in a tiny town in northeast Oklahoma that my elementary-school classmates had christened “Hickville.” And with no movie theater, no shopping mall, no public transportation, and nothing worthwhile within walking distance, it certainly seemed at the time that my life was in a free-fall. To make matters worse, our planned celebrations had fallen apart rather spectacularly not fifteen minutes into the first event (which was, incidentally, a screening of the Disney film The Lion King, just to show how long ago this occurred) due to a bad thunderstorm that caused a power outage. There would be no movie, no ice cream, no music on the stereo, no pizza – I was crushed (today, less than ten days from my thirty-third birthday, I look back at that poor child and think, “How spoiled she was!” but I also remind myself that I was a hormonal teenager at the time, and probably worse than most due to the not-yet-diagnosed major depression). What saved the party was my Uncle (or “Unca,” as he always signed himself on birthday and Christmas cards) Duane. He came over to where I was pouting by myself and talked to me about turning fourteen, and what a big deal it was. I remember only two sentences of many: “I kissed a girl when I was fourteen,” and, “I played hooky from school when I was fourteen,” but the net effect was that I started giggling and forgot to feel sorry for myself. His calm way of sharing “secrets” raised my spirits in a way that jokes, silliness, or lectures never would have. I still won’t claim it was a great birthday, but it was certainly a memorable one. Thanks to my Unca Duane, I remember it with fondness, rather than just disappointment and embarrassment.
When I kissed a boy for the first time, less than three months later, I remembered what my Unca Duane had said, and felt good that I was “on schedule,” whatever that meant.
Before my fourteenth birthday, my Unca Duane and I had not been particularly close. We had often shared birthday celebrations, since his birthday is less than ten days before my own, but aside from occasional trips to the Grand Lake area in northeast Oklahoma (to where my grandparents had retired shortly before I was born), my family did not see much of Unca Duane and his family, who lived in the Tulsa area. This all changed when three things happened within about a year and a half: 1. My family moved to the Grand Lake area to help care for my grandparents; 2. Unca Duane retired, and 3. He bought a boat. Because we lived in a small-ish resort town, we began to see quite a bit of Unca Duane and his boat, as well as my cousins Rae and Sarah, when they would all come visit and we would all go “boat-riding” together. My cousin Rae and I had special seats staked out on the boat, and we would lounge sideways with our feet propped on the seat and enjoy the feel of the wind in our hair and the sun on our (frequently-sunburned) faces. It made every weekend feel like a celebration. When we had something to celebrate, such as our two birthdays, that weekend was always the most special of all.
The summer of boat-riding would always begin a few weeks before the end of the spring semester. When I was a senior, on one of our first trips of the season, Unca Duane asked me about my plans for college. I told him I’d decided to continue studying psychology at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, where I had been taking concurrent classes that semester. He was pleased, since he had also studied at NEO (as it’s called) for a year. My family are all born storytellers, and so all summer I was treated to a large number of stories of Unca Duane’s exploits while a student at NEO. My favorite, and the one I’ve re-told to many people, was about this old jalopy that he and several friends had all chipped in to buy. It barely ran, but they had many adventures with it. Because it was falling apart at the seams, they didn’t see the purpose in buying an on-campus parking pass for it, and they were always in danger of having the car towed, but none of them would admit to owning such a sad piece of machinery. Finally, the Dean of Students insisted that they take the car off-campus, and so they drove it north to Pitcher, Oklahoma, where there were (and still are) many abandoned mining shafts. They performed a solemn high ceremony (which, I was told, mainly involved drinking large amounts of beer) and pushed the car down one of the mine shafts. For an inhibited seventeen-year-old, this was high adventure indeed! Plus, Unca Duane had a real gift for story-telling (my re-telling never comes close to doing justice to the actual story), and I would beg him to tell me more stories.
For a variety of reasons, I stayed on campus at NEO the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, and so I missed out on most of that summer’s boat-riding. I still maintain that that was the best choice for me at the time, but I did miss spending the summer with my Unca Duane and my cousins. The summer after I received my Associate of Arts degree in Psychology, I did spend the summer with my family, but we didn’t go out on the boat as much as we had when I was in high school. We all drifted even further apart the next fall, as both my brother and I were moving away to college, I to the University of Oklahoma and Norman, and he to Oklahoma State University and Stillwater. Again, I stayed in Norman over the summers and took summer classes, but complications with both my academic life (three changes of major) and my personal life (a horridly abusive relationship, among others) meant that I spent three and a half years finishing up my Bachelor of Arts degree in English. I spent the following spring looking for a job that would pay better than the one I had, and that summer working as an assistant manager of a convenience store. Financial difficulties coupled with some family issues sent me back to live with my parents that fall, less than a year after receiving my degree. I was disheartened, disappointed, and depressed, but I hoped that there would be “boat-riding” the next summer.
To be honest, I really don’t remember if there was or not. I do remember that at one point, after he and my aunt had gotten divorced, that Unca Duane actually moved to “Hickville” and rented a small house trailer there, but I don’t remember if this was between my Associate’s and my Bachelor’s, or if it was after I’d finished my degree. Now that I think a bit, I think it must have been after I’d finished my Bachelor’s, for reasons I don’t want to discuss (because I did something I probably shouldn’t have, something related to the age I was at the time, as a favor to my several-years-younger cousin). As much as I’d been trying to recapture a happy, carefree time in my life, things just weren’t the same, and I was still disappointed. I’m learning now that nothing is ever the same as it was, and I’m trying to cherish every moment for itself, rather than comparing it to those that have come before, but that’s a lesson I will be learning for the rest of my life.
A few years passed. I worked at a variety of jobs before finally deciding to pursue my teaching certificate. During this time, Unca Duane had remarried and moved again, this time to Bartlesville, Oklahoma (which is my mother’s hometown and where they had all grown up, although Unca Duane was not born there). During the summer of 2008, I sent out dozens of applications for teaching positions, but the only school that was interested in me was Pawhuska High School. Since I had planned to get a job within commuting distance of my parents’s house (so that I could live there and use the money I’d save on rent to pay off my student loans and my car loan, and build up some savings), Pawhuska was a bit farther than I would have liked, being half an hour on the other side of Bartlesville, I was more than a little disappointed that they were the only school willing to offer me a job, but Unca Duane and his wife welcomed me to stay with them the night before my interview, which was also my twenty-eighth birthday. To make a long story short, I did, in fact, accept the job (which turned out to be one of the best decisions I’d ever made – I miss that town, that school system, and my old bosses, co-workers, and students very, very much).
Because Bartlesville has several important features that Pawhuska, for all its charm, does not (such as a branch of my bank, a Wal-Mart, and a Laundromat with a functioning hot-water heater), I saw quite a bit of my Unca Duane and his wife in the three years I spent there. I would drive into town at least once a month, to deposit my paycheck and do my grocery-shopping, and I would try to stop by and see Unca Duane when I was in town. He and his wife also let me do my laundry in their washer and dryer on more than one occasion (at least until my dad found me a washer and dryer at a yard sale – my dad is awesome too, but this story is not about him). We three would sit at their kitchen table and chat about what my cousins had been up to, what my parents and brother had been up to, and also what my students had been up to. I also learned about the many projects Unca Duane was involved in in the local community, and every once in awhile, I would hear a story or two about my grandparents, who had both since passed away. It was the first time that Unca Duane and I really connected as adults, and I cherished those conversations.
Unca Duane did not often make it out to Pawhuska, but if there was a project around my house that I was unable to tackle myself, he was always more than happy to come out and help me. I’m pretty handy for a member of the female gender, but some projects are just too advanced for my skill and comfort level (I’m pretty good with a hammer, screwdrivers, and pliers, but I do not mess with major appliances, pilot lights, or electricity). Unca Duane would always come out to help if I needed it, especially with the older appliances in the older houses I was able to rent. Not only was he able to help me light the floor- and wall-furnaces, but he also explained what he was doing and made sure I understood, so that the next year, I would be able to do it myself.
Unca Duane first met my then-fiance (and now husband) not long after he moved in with me. I had called Unca Duane to come out and light the floor furnace, but he was only able to come at a time when I was in school. He and Robert had a lovely conversation while Unca Duane lit the pilot light, although Robert didn’t know at the time that Unca Duane was serious when he said he was thankful the house hadn’t blown up (apparently, those old floor furnaces can be tricky, and I was right to be very cautious of them). Robert and I spent some time with my Unca Duane and his wife, but not as much time as I had spent when I was single. Unca Duane never pressured us to spend more time with them, but in my reflective moments, I often felt a little guilty. Unca Duane had been like a second father to me when I had moved away, and I often felt that I hadn’t done enough to show my appreciation.
Robert and I got married in December, which most people think is an odd time for a wedding. Unca Duane and his wife were the only non-immediate-family guests who were not also in the wedding party (we kept things small on purpose), and they were also the only guests at a party we threw the next week for my co-workers (which is what you get when you get married at Christmastime – everyone is busy). I suspect that it wasn’t a big deal to them, but it was a very big deal to me that they would make that effort for us.
Shortly after Robert and I got married, his father was diagnosed with cancer. We both felt that we should be closer to his family, who lived in Oklahoma City, so I dutifully applied for jobs there, even though I really did not want to leave Pawhuska. Still, the obligation was strong, and when I was accepted for a job at a school with a very good reputation, I dutifully accepted it and tendered my resignation in Pawhuska. The day we moved, I had stupidly given myself heat exhaustion, which meant that no one would let me pack anything or lift anything. Even though we were leaving, Unca Duane still came out and helped us move. During the brief time since Robert’s and my wedding, he and his wife had separated, and as a consequence, we had seen very little of him. I felt guilty about that, but I also felt that it would be somehow wrong for us to parade our newly-wedded selves around someone who was recently divorced.
The week before Spring Break of the first (and only) year that I taught in the Oklahoma City area, my mom called to tell me that Unca Duane had passed away. No one knew what, exactly, had happened; he lived alone, and apparently his neighbors had called police after not seeing him for several days, despite the fact that he was very active with his committees and his volunteer work. To this day, all we know is that whatever happened was natural. At his memorial service, and also at the reception afterward, many people told wonderful stories about his strong work ethic, his compassion, his strong sense of honor, and his giving spirit. I still remember sitting in the pew at the funeral home, and again in a chair at the reception, listening to story after story and thinking, This isn’t my Unca Duane! All of this stuff is true: he IS a wonderful person, and he DOES work hard, and he DOESN’T complain, and all of that is great, but that’s not ALL that my Unca Duane was. Afterward, when Robert and I had met my parents back at their house, I said as much to my mom: “I wish more people would have told about some of the crazy things, like the pushing-the-car-down-the-mineshaft thing, or the time when he was working as a cook on South Grand Lake, and he told all the people in the bar that they were going to have mandatory drug tests, so they needed to bring their drugs back to the kitchen, so he could test them and make sure they were okay.” Mom said that those weren’t really appropriate for all of the Pillars of the Community who had come to the service (people who knew him through his volunteer work, of which there were a lot). I suppose I see her point, but I also know that I want to remember my Unca Duane for who he really was: a six-foot Jerry Garcia look-alike, complete with full beard and (briefly) a ponytail; an aging hippie who never finished college. I doubt he was anyone’s definition of a perfect person, but that’s what made him special; that he was a character.
Today marks the second Fourth of July since he passed away, and it would have been Unca Duane’s seventieth birthday. I want to say something profound about how much we all miss him, and how, if there’s an afterlife, I know we’ll see each other again someday, but I just can’t seem to find the right words. Today may be a national holiday in celebration of American independence from England, but as much as I love cookouts, celebrations, and fireworks, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to celebrate without missing my Unca Duane.