My uncle Fred...Fred Ferguson, Jr...is gone, as of yesterday. He was the very last of his generation in my family. His wife, my mother's sister Gayle, and my father's sister Martha, both died within a week of each other in 2013, and they were each the last of their own siblings to go. We are the old folks now.
No offense to the Amis side of my family, but growing up the Fergusons were definitely the fun cousins. Some of it was that there were five of them and eight of us...and that is a lot of children. Especially all in one place. Literally enough for two baseball teams, with the dog playing short-stop. (I was too young). Some of it was that we are just a fun bunch of people, though God help you if you want to get a word in edgewise at any point. Some of it was our parents, and theirs. Especially Uncle Fred.
One of my earliest memories was him taking me for a ride on his motorcycle. He had a big purple Suzuki (I think...it was a long time ago). I was maybe four or five, but I remember the smell of leather and engine oil and hot pavement, the weight of the helmet which was a little too big, the stern warnings to keep my bare feet and legs away from the engine. He set me in front of him and rode us once around the block, I'm sure very slowly, but it was the thrill of my short life.
I also remember my mother's visible but un-uttered disapproval. This was of course what made it that much more awesome, and is an aunt or uncle's proper place in the universe: letting you do stuff your parents won't, in a way that allows you to have adventures with adult backup. At least that's the philosophy my sister offered when she gave my then-eleven-year-old-and-feckless son an entire bag of fireworks. I may have said something to the effect of, "What the hell are you thinking?" but she just sniffed and said, "That's what aunts are for." He didn't set himself or anything else on fire, so I guess that turned out all right.
My Uncle Fred was also a fundamentally kind person. He always talked to me (and later my son) like we were people whose thoughts were of some importance. This was not an unusual trait among the adults in my orbit...our parents had that many children because they liked children...but it was enough to stand out to me, especially since I was "The Baby" then and now. (I will be fifty at the end of this year. Don't tell the rest of them).
My mother's final illness coincided with the dot com bust (ie, two layoffs in my household in three years) and was a wretched period that culminated with me having to pack out our possessions so we could short-sell our house, drive from Atlanta to Ringgold to pick up the things I had inherited from my mother so we could sell the house I had spent my entire childhood in, then drive it all to Athens. Meanwhile my son's father had informed me that he wouldn't be moving with me. On the way to Athens, my car broke down.
I was exhausted, miserable, and not even sure where I was, but when the woman at the convenience store said, "Winder" I called my uncle. He came and found me, led my limping car to a mechanic he knew, told me funny stories to cheer me up, and generally turned my calamity into grace. If you have a person who, when you call them with a tale of woe, will cheerfully help you solve the problem and still sound glad to hear from you, treasure that person (and resolve to be that person yourself for them or someone else). I have been blessed with several of those in my life and I adore them all.
At Aunt Gayle's funeral, he was already suffering from memory loss. I spoke to him and he said, "You're a good girl. Your time will come." The minds of people with dementia play tricks on them and they can be hard to follow but that doesn't mean that everything they say is meaningless. I don't know if he was reminded of that earlier incident, just responding to my expression in the moment, or what but either way he was reaching for something kind to say, a reflex that went all the way down to the core.
No matter who you are, how much you accomplish, or what your other gifts may be, what people will remember about you is your kindness. My Uncle Fred was a deeply good-hearted man, playful and funny, hard-working, helpful and kind. If more people were like him, the world would be a far better place.
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