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Larger than life–and now beyond it

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By Carolyn Ten Broeck

 If I close my eyes, the images come quickly but oddly so does the smell and while some would argue that you can’t smell what isn’t there, I know I can.

My earliest memory of my father’s youngest brother, and my favorite uncle, Edgil was sometime in the early 1960s. I remember him standing in my grandparents’ yard taking a photo with his new camera and then amazing us all as it developed in front of our eyes after he tore it from the camera. But even more memorable is the tube he took from his pocket, uncapped and then swiped over the photograph to fix the image. It is that smell I remember–the fixer that swiped a Polaroid photo.

That random memory swept over me two weeks ago when I made the long drive back to the Kentucky mountains to say a last farewell to my uncle, who died–I think–too soon at the age of 68.

Mountain customs have changed over the last 20 years, but the one thing that has not is the two night wake/visitation where family and friends gather to remember the deceased. Over coffee, cake–and sometimes chicken and dumplings–there is much laughter and tears as one after the other shares a story.

With Uncle Edgil, I have many.

Born when my grandpa was 54 years old, Edgil tended to rely more on my father for advice and counsel during his early years. He was a common fixture around my house, and was more like an older brother than an uncle back then.

The only time I ever went rollerskating was perched high on his shoulders circling the rink to “Yellow Submarine.”

Soon he married, got a job with then-C&O Railroad and proceeded to work–always work–to achieve goals and dreams that only he knew.

Edgil was one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known. In addition to his job on the railroad, as a brakeman, conductor or engineer, he always had a side job going on, whether it was rewiring someone’s house or building retaining walls. 

He also had the infamous Roberts’ temper and I had the unfortunate occasion to  be the recipient of it.

I was nine years old and had spent the night with he and my aunt, Linda. For breakfast, I requested waffles. They were the frozen variety, but nonetheless a treat for me. However, by the time they reached the table they’d already started cooling and the butter that Linda slathered on them wasn’t melting. I stared at my plate.

“Why aren’t you eating?” he asked.

Rather than be honest and hurt Linda’s feelings, I lied and said I was no longer hungry. He didn’t buy it and ordered me to eat because I’d asked for them. When I still stared at my plate, he lifted me out of the chair with one hand and proceeded to tan my bottom good and hard. I hated him–at least for a week–but you can bet that from then on anytime I had food around him, I ate it–no questions asked.

When I was 12, Edgil took my brother and me on our first vacation. Before that, my parents had only had money to take us to visit relatives. Edgil knew this. He wanted us to experience more and he had the means to do it.

For three weeks that summer, we visited historical places from Appomattox Court House to Jamestown to Washington D.C. He took us to Virginia Beach, where I first saw the expanse of the ocean and fell in love with the sea.

Through the years he continued his big brother ways–buying clothes, slipping me money, taking me places. By the time I was 15, I was living with  him and babysitting their 3-year-old, Michael, while he and Linda worked.

He left the railroad and became an entrepreneur, first owning a furniture store, doing major construction and playing poker.

He also gave me my first real job–and fired me that same day. When I failed to sell any furniture that day, he shook his head, “You just aren’t cut out for sales.” He gave me $50 and told me not to come back the next day.

But that didn’t stop me from accompanying him to High Point, N.C. to buy furniture. I was a good talker–and listener–and it was my job to keep him awake on the long journey.

When I moved to Georgia, it was Edgil who drove the Ryder truck and unloaded it at our new home and then immediately turned around and drove the seven hours home.

When we sold our Kentucky home 10 years later, it was Edgil who brokered the deal and handled all the paperwork.

After my daddy died, it was Edgil who stepped up to the plate and took care of my mother.

There was nothing he couldn’t do and everything he did had to be done correctly and to perfection.

More than five years ago, he developed a rare form of leukemia and there was nothing that could be done except watch a larger-than-life man shrink into a shell of himself.

I went last summer to visit him, knowing it would be my last time to see him alive.

Our reunion was pleasant, filled with remembrances, laughter, tears, forgiveness and love. 

He brought up the spanking. We laughed about it. “You weren’t laughing then,” he said.

I told him then how much he meant to me; how my life was richer because of him. 

I thanked him for the shoes that my parents couldn’t afford; the $50 slipped to a hungry college student; the opportunities he put in my path.

And then I asked him, “Edgil, every baby who has been born in this family has been rocked to sleep with the same song you used to sing. I can’t remember what it was called. Do ....”

“Johnny Cash,” he cut me off. “The Wall.”

And then he sang a line or two but in his feeble state couldn’t do anymore.

I can’t help thinking today about that song about a prisoner who tries to scale a wall in a jail break attempt.

He didn’t make it, but Edgil did.

In the early morning hours of July 29, he soared above the wall and the man who was larger than life was suddenly beyond it.

It’s just as it should have been.