From my earliest memory, I thought Uncle Albert and Aunt Jewel were dull as mud. All Uncle Albert ever said was “Don’t mess with that!” or “That’ll fall on you.” Normally, Aunt Jewell only coughed and told us to go play outside, but some reason I once spent an endless afternoon with her when she made a point to converse with me. I was impressed when she’d told me an acronym for spelling the word contents. “Coons ought not to eat nuts too soon.” Then she laughed, saying coons didn’t eat nuts, squirrels did. The joke was wasted on me, but I was surprised she had the wit to think anything was funny. I’d never heard her laugh before. Her incessant smoking made her rattly laugh sound like nails scratching on tin. She also told me that if you hit the bottom when you were falling in a dream, you’d die, as well, no matter how long a dream seemed to last, it only took one second to dream it. I believed her for years, so I guess she wasn’t the dumbest one around.
That pretty much wrapped up my relationship with Aunt Jewel, except the time she fell out the back door. Uncle Albert offered her a cigarette. She cried saying, ” I want a smoke so bad but I’m too sore to cough.” That was the first time I’d seen an adult cry. I got a little older, I found out Uncle Albert and Aunt Jewel weren’t dull; they were just worn out.
Besides that, Uncle Albert had a fascinating physical attribute Daddy slipped up and mentioned one day, to his later regret. Uncle Albert had a tail! From that moment forward, my brother and I stalked him, probably the first nasty little, voyeuristic kids in the world to stalk a pitiful, worn-out old man. We kept hoping his butt-sprung old khakis would slide off his bony behind, giving us a glimpse of that tail. Eventually Daddy realized why we were pestering him and threatened us enough to put a stop to our tagging. Why in the world did Daddy ever tell us Uncle Albert had a tail if we couldn’t ask questions or ask to see it? The next few times I saw him, I followed him around, hoping his pants would fall down. He was emaciated as only an eighty-five year-old life-long smoker can be. It seemed like a real possibility. For a while, every time I was saw him, I’d be following so closely, I’d run over him. Eventually, Daddy ran me off. I had to resort to peeking around corners. I never did get to see that tail, but suspected my brother had. Boys have all the fun. We took to calling him Uncle Albutt when we were sure we wouldn’t be caught.
At any rate, once I got sly enough to ferret out family gossip, I found out Aunt Jewel had once been a very pretty, if not too virtuous, young girl. Apparently, Uncle Albert brought her to his house to visit one evening when his wife, Mary, was out. Mary, came home early and found them together in her bedroom. Not surprisingly, Mary was unhappy. When she tried to get in the bedroom with them, Uncle Albert slammed the door on her arm, breaking it. He and Aunt Jewel became a couple after that.
It’s not surprising he preferred her to the unreasonable Mary. She was a very understanding woman. She told Albert’s sister, my grandma, “Albert has to have a woman! Fortunately, her three sisters and mother were all friendly women, of questionable virtue, willing to accommodate Albert’s needs when she wasn’t well. Uncle Albert and Aunt Jewel lived together over thirty years, becoming very devoted members of their local church the last ten years or so. They gave very good advice once they got too old to set a bad example. For the remaining years I knew her, I studied this dumpy, gray-haired, old lady who coughed every breath, wondering how he could have possibly have chosen her over anybody else. She whined, stared off in the distance, and never had anything interesting to say. Her only vaguely entertaining attribute was that she’d strung Crackerjack prizes together on a leather strip which she twice allowed me to play with as long as I sat on the floor in front of her, though she was oblivious to all my hints that I really needed that string of prizes.
Uncle Albert kept all his stuff organized and in perfect repair. Daddy’s barn was a disorganized mess. He tossed things wherever he got through with them. Uncle Albert walked around, examining items and commenting. “This is a good old singletree. It just needs a new chain.” “This is a good rasp. It just needs to be cleaned up.” “This is a good axe-head. It just needs to be sharpened and have a new handle put in.” Before too long, Daddy came striding up, delighted to see his uncle. He was smiling broadly and thrust out his hand.
Uncle Albert looked at straight at him and pronounced, “Bill, you need to get the junk man out here and get all this #^%$ hauled off.”
Though Uncle Albert was dull, his farm wasn’t. Miles off a paved road, their log cabin had no power or running water. It was heated with a huge fireplace, whose brick hearth extended far out into the sitting room. The brick stayed warm for hours after the fire was banked. My brother and I used to lie on it and nod off while the grown folks visited way into the night. The couple’s bed sat in a corner of the front room. No one would have dared to sit on it. A small table with a coal oil lamp and a couple of straight chairs filled one corner. A couple of wooden rockers completed the furnishings. Because the cabin was unsealed, newspapers and magazine pages were tacked up to seal the room and served as wallpaper. I loved studying the pictures, exhibited at all angles.
They got their water from a well and used an outdoor toilet. Uncle Albert’s farm was immaculate, fence rows clean and outbuildings neatly maintained. He incorporated all kinds of found items into his pens and fencing, such as large metal signs and saplings he just gleaned. His vast barn was far nicer than his house, divided into many rooms and stalls. We were free to play as long as we left his equipment alone, didn’t tear up his hay, and closed gates behind us. It was more fun than Disneyland. I loved it when he hitched up his gentle old mules to plow or pull a load of wood or hay. They seemed huge, but allowed us to pet them, as long as we didn’t mess with Charley Mule’s mustache. That irritated him and he’d bite. The cows rushed out to meet us when they saw the wagon-load of hay coming.
Despite the fact that I considered them inadequate company, I always enjoyed visiting their farm.