Long before I was born, my grandfather walked out on my grandmother, their three boys, and their three girls in the blue hills of Jamestown in southern Kentucky.
My grandmother, needing extra support, gathered up her children and relocated to the big city of Louisville to be nearer to her brothers, my great-uncles: Marion, Claude, James, John Henry, Orville, Orison, Bab and Silas. Of the eight, I knew my uncles Claude and James best.
They were both larger than life to me, so tall (to a 5-year-old, anyway) and ancient-feeling. I knew they’d fought in wars and liked their liquor brown. Uncle Claude was a handsome, deeply brown man with a big potbelly, skinny little legs and a rumbling sonic boom of a voice. He kept a small bottle of Maker’s Mark in his shirt pocket, and his white K-Swiss shoes always looked brand new. Every time I saw Uncle Claude, we had the exact same exchange, word for word:
“Hey, ol’ Trace!”
“Hi, Uncle Claude!”
“You go to school today?”
“You learn anything?”
“Well, what’d you go for?”
“Because my mama makes me.”
And he’d laugh and laugh, each and every time, as if he didn’t know exactly what I’d say. My mother loves this story. She laughs every time, too.
Uncle James was the uncle who kept a bunch of bananas on top of the refrigerator and always offered me one when my mother and I came to visit. He never yelled or shouted. His voice was low, soft and just a little scratchy, like a drying rose petal. He was mild, but funny and sharp.
I remember being very small, maybe 4 or 5, sitting next to Uncle James at my grandmother’s dining room table, being served slices of her famous caramel cake. Uncle James took a bite and complimented her, but when she left the room, he leaned over and whispered to me: “Tastes like cornbread.” We shared a secret little laugh, and he told me not to tell her what he said. I never did.
These were the uncles who raised my uncles, Earnest, Gilbert and Ronald. Earnest and Ronald have since died. I feel their absence most at family functions, because they were always my favourite part of our gatherings.
Uncle Earnest was a warm, funny man who was famous for his ribs and his collard greens. He made everyone hate Mystikal’s “Shake it Fast” because he wouldn’t stop singing it one Thanksgiving. We called him Uncle Professorlips because when he drank, he fancied himself a well-educated philosopher and gave sweeping speeches that no one asked for, punctuated with words that weren’t really words. (Think Damon Wayans’ character Oswald Bates from “In Living Colour.”) My mother says that when I was mere months old, Uncle Earnest would come to the house and pick me up, and we’d go riding around the city.
“A 2-year-old in the front seat sitting on an armrest without so much as a seat belt! What was I thinking!” she says.
I smile. It was definitely dangerous, but also a testament to how much she loved and trusted her brothers. I always made it home safely.
“I didn’t realize just how influential and important my bond with Uncle Ronald was until I was at Green’s Chapel Cemetery in Jamestown this May saying goodbye, taking one more yellow rose from the spray atop his casket, not wanting to leave him there all alone.”
Uncle Gilbert eventually moved back to Jamestown after living in Louisville for 32 years, missing the pace and safety of the country. I saw him less often than Earnest or Ronald, but he was always a fixture in my life, even from 120 miles away, without the internet or FaceTime. Like Uncle Claude, he is tall, sturdily built and deeply brown with a big, booming voice, but his laugh is high and happy. His siblings always allude to him being “a lot” and “kind of wild” in his youth, difficult to influence and not afraid of a fight.
One of my favourite stories is of Uncle Gilbert posted outside my Aunt Reda’s school, leaning against his car, smoking a cigarette, and waiting for the boy who’d been giving her a hard time. The boy was allegedly so scared, he dropped out of school altogether. But there are some stories they are hesitant to share with me. The mystery titillates me as much as it worries me.
My uncles have always made me feel happy, protected, loved and provided for. But I was closest to Uncle Ronald, because he lived with us in the house I grew up in for a time.
Just as his uncles stepped in when his own father stepped out, Uncle Ronald helped pick up the slack when my father and I were on the outs. In my father’s absence, I needed to see Black men caring for their families, protecting them, showing up, dancing with their grandchildren at family reunions. I needed to know that I was worth being loved and protected by people in the demographic my father was in, because he was not there to send that deathly important message to me. That’s where my uncles stepped in time and time again.
I didn’t realise just how influential and important my bond with Uncle Ronald was until I was at Green’s Chapel Cemetery in Jamestown this May saying goodbye, taking one more yellow rose from the spray atop his casket, not wanting to leave him there all alone.
My mother says that the first time my Uncle Ronald held me after I was born, he smiled and said, “Now, this is gonna be my baby” ― and I immediately threw up all over him. I think that’s when we bonded.
Uncle Ronald was the funniest, skinniest, coolest man I’ve ever known. He wore a black leather jacket, always had a new Cadillac, and smelled like Joop, tobacco and weed. He greeted his friends with “What’s up, doc?” and a loud, clapping handshake. After Christmas dinner, he’d say he was going “round the corner,” leave the house for about 10 minutes, and come back with a smile plastered to his face, ready for another plate. The only times I saw him without a smile were at funerals in the living room, pacing and shaking his head, watching the Louisville Cardinals men’s basketball team lose.
When he passed this year, I learned that his friends called him “Smiley” because that was his defining, most memorable feature. When he smiled, his whole face became teeth and his eyes disappeared and the corners of his mouth seemed to hang from his ears. He was always on the edge of a laugh, and it didn’t take much to make him lose his breath. When he caught it, he’d let it out in a big exhale, collapse a little, and usually start laughing again.
I had an embarrassment of riches when it came to wonderful uncles, but it’s the laughter that made my and Uncle Ronald’s relationship different. He lived at home with me and my mother, brother and grandmother for a while, and we hung out together, just watching TV on the couch or swinging on the porch beneath the maple tree my mom planted in the backyard. We laughed a lot. We had inside jokes and nicknames for each other that we kept until the end.
My dad was in and out of my life when I was a kid ― and at 18, as a college freshman, I decided I was never talking to him again after he forgot to come and get me from campus one weekend.
By then, Ronald lived in Nicholasville, about 25 minutes away from Lexington, where I went to school. After I cried to my mom about it on the phone, Uncle Ronald came and got me, took me to his house, put some steaks on the grill and cooked a big meal while I did my laundry. That night I cried softly on his couch. In the morning, he made me breakfast and we laughed together about everything and nothing on the way back to campus.
During those years, there were many times that I called Uncle Ronald instead of my father when I needed something, comforted in knowing that he’d never forget me or turn me away. He never, ever did.
I believe that the optimal living situation for a child involves two parents present. But when there is only one, as is often the case, then surrogates can provide priceless support, sorely needed love and recognition. It chafes me when the village that comes to stand in for an absent parent is discounted.
Even as they filled my father’s shoes as best they could, they sometimes faltered as parents themselves, shouldering the generational curse given to them by their own fathers. Uncle Ronald had only one child, Montell, and he was not as present as he could or should have been. It used to be difficult for me to reconcile how he could be there for his siblings’ children but drop the ball with his own.
But this actually helped make forgiving my father possible. My uncles failed their kids sometimes, but I still knew them to be good, kind people and loving, dependable men. If they were simply good people who happened to make bad decisions, who didn’t always get it right, then couldn’t the same be true of my father? In taking up the helm, my uncles softened the ground for my father and helped me to become someone capable of forgiveness, acceptance and understanding. Today, my father and I are closer than we’ve ever been.
The last time I saw my Uncle Ronald, he was at home in hospice care, watching the news. I could not bring myself to tell him what he meant to me, to thank him for the positive impact he’d had on my life. It would have meant acknowledging that he would not get better and that I would likely never see him again, and I didn’t want to mourn him while he was still there in front of me.
Instead, we talked about politics, my life in New York, and whether I should move back to Kentucky. (“Come on home,” he told me.) He’d always been skinny, but now he was sickly, lung cancer having ravaged and claimed most of his body. He was exhausted and uncomfortable, but he never complained and we still found things to laugh about. When a visiting nurse walked in to check on him, he introduced me with a smile.
“That’s my niece. She came all the way down here from New York City,” he said.
There was so much pride in his voice, and I could feel the energy that his trademark smile now cost him. An ocean ripped loose inside me, spinning and crashing, and it was all I could do not to burst into tears.
I now understand why it was so important to my mother that I know and spend time with her own uncles, Claude and James. She knew the power and importance of a good uncle, the magic and possibility they can bring to one’s life.
But I also think my mother took me along on those trips so she could show her uncles the proof of the impact they had on her life, as if to say: “I made it through my difficult days and became a mother. My daughter is happy, she is healthy, she is loved, she is safe. Look at what you have helped me do. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Before I left Uncle Ronald’s house for the last time, I lingered in the hallway outside his bedroom, watching him sleep. I said to him the things I was too scared to say earlier: I am so glad God chose me to be your niece. Thank you for spending time with me, for laughing with me, for loving me. You made everything so much better. Thank you, thank you, thank you.