Tag Archives: Bastrop

“Anyway… Beep Beep”

29 Sep

My Uncle Jack, my dad’s youngest brother, was my hero. Born November 9, 1940, he died today, September 29, 2020, just a few weeks shy of his 80th birthday.

Jack and Mary Nelle, his wife of 54 years, loved each other dearly—and they lived for adventures together. They were the first couple I heard of taking dancing lessons together back in the ’70s. When I was a kid, one of my earliest memories was getting to ride in their big camper trailer when they came up from the Texas Hill Country to visit us in Eastern Kentucky. I liked to hang out in the part of the camper that stuck out over the cab and pretend that I, too, was setting off on an exciting trek across the country.

As a youngster or later in life, whenever I visited, Jack and I would always scan the East Texas backroads for Roadrunners, his and my favorite shared bird. He would organize a day of what he called “Tex-sploring,” showing his guests all around the area near Bastrop. He’d always take me to Winchester, TX, since I’m from Winchester, KY.

Back in 2011, when Jack and Mary Nelle lost their Hill Country home and pine-tree-laden acreage burned to the ground in the Texas wildfires, I remember his voice on the phone sounded calm and confident: “We are doing just fine. We are survivors. We will miss the wildlife that came to visit us in our forest. But all the things we lost… it was just stuff. It was easier than having a garage sale!” Resilient and hopeful for the future, they rebuilt their new home on the same spot a few years later.

When my mother died in 2012, Jack came for the funeral and the wake—and all my friends really loved getting to know him. It meant so much to have an actual family member there.

When he lost Mary Nelle in May of 2016, he carried on with an ever-positive attitude, and continued to devote himself fully to creating as wholesome a life as he possibly could for his grandchild, Cheyenne, as well as her extended family.

Three years ago, John and I visited Austin and spent two nights and three days with Jack and Tabby, Cheyenne’s other grandparent. It was she who called me first thing this morning with the news that Jack had died in his sleep. I am so glad that Jack and John got to meet and know each other’s goodness of spirit.

Jack and I talked every few months. Lately he had mentioned a desire to go back to a favorite destination from his past, Mexico, and to visit Panama and possibly retire there. But he also hoped to stay at the bank where he worked part-time until he could beat the record of someone who had served there into his 90s. Ultimately, his strong love for and commitment to Cheyenne, now in seventh grade, kept him from flying off to another destination.

Today, new trees are beginning to grow and the animals are returning to Jack’s Hill Country homesite. He called me this past weekend and I sat on our front porch in the sunshine and listened as he talked again of a yen for travel. He had just purchased a new RV so that he could safely take Cheyenne on the road during COVID-19. We fantasized about a road trip in which the two of them would visit us here in East Tennessee, hang out on our six-acre mountain property, and I could take Cheyenne horseback riding, something she is getting really good at these days.

Jack’s favorite connector word in his dialog was, “Anyway…” He said it liltingly, with the first syllable up high, and the others down low about an octave. Those who know him heard it a hundred times during a conversation. It reminds me of my grandmother, Jack’s mother, who had a wonderful Pennsylvania Dutch accent.

I have reflected on that word, “Anyway,” today while grieving, and I think it encapsulated Jack’s attitude toward life. He met with many disappointments and heartaches, but he always tried not to dwell on them, to move on, not focus on sadness, and to look forward to the future. When we ended the conversation, we both said, “Love you!”

The Roadrunner will always symbolize my Uncle Jack for me. He knew that, and sometimes he would say, “Beep Beep!” Always a traveler, he is on a big journey now and I wish him godspeed. I will never forget his voice, much like my own father’s, yet somehow more vulnerable. And I can imagine him saying to me now from somewhere bright and full of promise, “Anyway… Beep Beep!”

 

Post Script: I had a post card of this Road Runner by Charley Harper tucked into a box of items I had planned to send to Jack in a few weeks. I had sent him many old photos and other family heirlooms in recent months.  

Healing hearts through genetic comfort

10 Feb

As an only child, I understood sibling relationships vicariously through the way my parents each related to their brothers and sisters.

262144_1782171397263_2141167_nWhen my dad passed away suddenly at age 65 back in 1992, I was particularly empathetic and curious about how this shocking loss might be experienced by his younger brother, my Uncle Jack (shown here with me and his wife, my Aunt Mary Nelle).

I was reminded of this when, recently, a close friend lost her older sister, age 64 when she died. My concern for my friend has caused me once again to be struck by the contemplation of a sibling loss.

Some of the books I’ve read on grief since losing my mom in 2012 suggest that the loss of one’s brother or sister can be more difficult to deal with than that of a parent. There are many reasons for this, one of which is that society doesn’t expect it to be so tough and therefore peer support is not as strong. Another reason is the light a sibling death can shed on one’s own mortality. A huge reason is all the memories that only a sibling shares. I’m glad that my friend has two brothers to provide her with “genetic” reminders of the sister who is now gone.

fireplace_grill_company565063When I was a kid, my parents did a lot of special things to “make up” for the fact that I didn’t have a sibling playmate. On winter weekends, they let me “camp out” on the living room couch near the fireplace. I loved this arrangement because I knew my dad would get up and put logs on the fire a couple of times a night. While half asleep, it was comforting to hear him tending the fire, and I’d often wake completely up just to watch him shifting the logs with the fire poker. When morning rolled around, Dad was the first one up, and I’d hear him in the adjoining kitchen, quietly and methodically pacing about, opening first the fridge, then the drawers and cabinets, taking out a bowl and utensils, and cutting up fruit as he prepared his cereal.

Some years after my dad died, I visited his little brother Jack and wife Mary Nelle at their home in the beautiful pine forest of Bastrop, Texas, near Austin. I had always loved hanging out with them as a child, so being there was a treat. I spent the night on the living room couch just off the kitchen. When morning rolled around, I slowly became aware of an eerily familiar and somehow immensely comforting sound: the quiet pacing, the opening and closing of drawers, cabinets and fridge, the same methodical dicing… a morning ritual performed as it could only be done by someone who had some of the same genetic makeup as my father.

Because he was like my dad in some small ways, my uncle represented a healing presence.

IMG_0724Just last month I visited my home state of Kentucky over a four-day weekend, stopping in to see many of my closest friends there. I also called on a few friends of my late mother’s, not so much because they wanted to see me, but because they longed to be with her again, and I could bring them some small and comforting piece of her – almost like the genetic code could allow my mother to visit them through me.

308123_282943175064098_202550860_nIn early September of 2011, more than 1,500 homes were lost in Bastrop’s pinewood forests due to wildfires spread by a “perfect storm” of weather conditions. Jack and Mary Nelle lost their home, most of their possessions and all their trees. They moved forward in the face of adversity and, as a testament to their inner strength and good sense of humor, their attitude was invariably, “Well, it was easier than having a yard sale.”

542445_447718408586573_811013158_nAlthough it was a tough decision, Jack and Mary Nelle decided to rebuild on their decimated land. When my uncle came to Kentucky for my mom’s funeral in August of 2012, the construction was already under way. Now they are in the new house and volunteers have just this month reforested the property with seedlings to begin the long process of nurturing it back to health. The healing has begun.

I haven’t seen Jack’s new home yet. And so, on Wednesday, I’m leaving for the Lone Star State with my new friend John, who grew up in East Texas and lived in Austin for many years. I’m hoping to enjoy a bit more of that “healing genetic comfort” that comes from being with my uncle, and I’m hoping I can provide him some small reminders of my parents as well this Valentine’s Day.………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

1794577_733948516630226_1862585834_n“Hooray!!! We now live in a pine forest again! Volunteers with treefolks.org planted over 1000 pine seedlings on our property this week! Check back in about 30 years to see how they’ve grown and matured!” ~ Jack Figart, Feb. 2, 2014

Image 4Presenting my friend Nina with a heart rock that I found for her while she was attending the memorial service for her sister Robin, Feb. 2, 2014.

IMG_0812My Aunt Mary Nelle has designed and made elaborate quilts for many years. I have at least four of them. She lost dozens in the fire. When I moved into my new home in September 2013, she sent me this handmade Mola, my first house-warming gift.

IMG_7397My Uncle Jack with me at my parents’ grave in Kentucky in August 2012. Most of my mother’s ashes were scattered in the Kinniconnick Creek in Lewis County, Kentucky. Some were mixed into the dirt here.