Friday, July 29, 2011

This is Where The Cowboy Rides Away

My uncle died.  Alzheimer's is a horrible disease.  But then again, most of them are. Nobody dies from a pleasant disease, now do they?

Uncle Gene was a cowboy.  Not the kind who rode in trail rides along the highway on the weekends; the kind without any cows and a police escort bringing up the rear.   And not the kind who lived on a 25-Acre "Ranchette" that he managed from the seat of a tractor the rest of us would readily identify as a lawnmower.

My uncle was a Real Cowboy.  As in, that's what he did for a living.

 Just like his daddy before him. 
Alzheimer's took him, too.
Here's my grandfather with my mom.  Alzheimer's took her, too.  I was pregnant with Jasper, at the time.

My uncle was also a daddy.  This little baby on the back of the horse is my older cousin.  It was great to see my cousins.  It's one of those situations with us where we really only see each other at funerals.  Which is sad.  Our lives are all so busy.  Which is ridiculous.

I used to visit my cousins on the ranch were they lived.  My uncle managed Big Ranches....the kind where herds are now rounded up via helicopters.  I loved visiting and playing with my favorite cousin, Gene Anne, and pretending I was a country girl.  I wasn't exactly a city girl, you see...I was a Tiny Texas Town girl...but we lived in a neighborhood with a driveway and gangs of kids riding banana-seat bicycles.  It was very quiet where my cousins lived, and there were exciting challenges like cattle guards, barbed wire fences, and of course, rattlesnakes.

Watch out for the tall grass, girls, he'd say as we walked.  There's rattlers out.  Here now, I'll go first and y'all follow me.  I'll wake 'im up...the next one of you will make 'im mad, and well, whoever goes last can deal with angry SOB. 

On our heals was always his blue-eyed cowdog, Son.  Son was his nickname, of course.  His full name was SonuvaBitch.  He was occasionally referred to by his full name, usually when he'd done something stupid.

Sometimes he'd let us go with him to feed cattle.  Y'all mind the truck, he'd say as he got out.  The truck was still running, of course.  Driving ahead very slowly through the pasture, all by itself, with me and my cousin sitting in the front seat while my uncle hopped in the bed and rolled out salt licks or hay. This was all great fun to me.

Sometimes I was a little bit afraid of my uncle.  He was gigantically tall.  In fact, I once snagged my cheek on his belt buckle during a goodbye hug.  He could give us what my sister called...the crazy eye.  He'd cock his hat back on his head and a raise up a single eyebrow and say, What did you say?  To which we'd invariably reply, Oh nuthin'.  No matter what we'd said.  'Cause that look could knock the air out of you.

Sometimes when he raised that eyebrow he wanted to know what we were up to.  And usually we weren't up to anything but man, it sure felt like we'd been caught under that steely gaze.  And sometimes he'd raise that eyebrow and go to ask a question and we'd be all ready to say, No sir! but then he'd say, Y'all want some ice cream?  And it would take a minute for us to recover and switch to Yes sir! 

When I was a teenager I discovered something cool about my uncle:  He knew stuff.  Lots of stuff!  And if you had the patience to withstand the raised eyebrow and the tilted hat and the long periods of considerin' this and that....he had a lot to say.  Wow! Who knew!  I guess I fell in love with him in my teens.

My uncle loved to fish.  Mostly he fished in rivers and cattle tanks and ponds and such.  But my dad introduced him to saltwater fishing and man oh man, but he liked that a lot.  My dad would be all decked out on his Boston Whaler with his leather, rubber soled deck shoes and his fishing hat and shorts...some sort of t-shirt...and my uncle would come aboard as if it were any other dull Sunday and time to feed the cows.  Hat, long-sleeved shirt with pockets and the cuffs Not Rolled Up but buttoned  On the deck of the boat.  My dad complained about the boots on the boat deck until my uncle finally bought a pair of sneakers.  The first time I saw him wear them I laughed hysterically.  I mean, I couldn't stop.  It was just so weird.

My mom took this picture of him fishing on the boat in the back bays of Port O'Connor.

My uncle taught me to 2-Step.  He took us to dance halls....the kind with sawdust on the floor and a band on the stage...the kind of band with a steel guitar and a fiddle.  He was so tall!  You'd think it would have been hard for a shortie like me to dance with him.  But it wasn't.  He was so smooth it was like we were floating...floating and twirling.  He was always the best lookin' cowboy on the dance floor, at least in my opinion, and the best everybody's opinion.

I grew up and went to college and got all kinds of busy.  And then I got married and had kids and a job and got all kinds of even more busy.  And so I didn't see him, anymore.  And then my mom got sick...and he got sick...and I got all kinds of busy with my mom.  Then my mom died, and I was all kinds of sad and yet all kinds of relieved from the stress of Alzheimers and so I didn't go see my uncle.  I thought about him.  He was my favorite uncle...mysterious and handsome and a mind that never stopped...and so I didn't want to go see him when I knew all of what made him my uncle was slipping away.  I wish I had, of course.  But at the time, I just couldn't muster it.

We're not a religious family (have I mentioned that before?).  There was a graveside service.  It was deathly hot but nobody complained.  My eyes caught the glint of a silver and turquoise belt buckle as  my cheek rubbed against a 100% polyester suit complete with a western yolk as I was embraced by a man named Chili.  You remember me Carol Ann?  Because you don't call a person by their first name only.  My mom called me Carol Ann.  Even when she wasn't mad.

There were flowers and tears.  The picture at the top of the blog sat next to the casket.  I looked at it.  With my uncle, still waters ran deep.  I knew him as my Cowboy Uncle...but beneath that there was a man that I didn't really know.  I think, I'd have liked that man, with all his faults, just as well. 

There was noise from a nearby construction rudely marches on even in the middle of a cowboy's burial.  There was a preacher who was sweet as peaches but couldn't remember my uncle's name to save his soul.  There were my kids, politely bowing their heads...hugging people they didn't know...amazed that this was somehow a part of their story, as well...these hats and buckles and mustaches and soft-spoken people.

We left the tent and the coffin and the cousins....with promises to get together soon....and I really hope we do.

Here's George Strait and this song's for my Uncle Gene.  It's an old video...looks like Austin City Limits, maybe? 

I wish I could have had one last dance before the cowboy rode away.


  1. What a beautiful tribute to your uncle! Thank you for sharing with us.

  2. beautiful photos and words. Just in case you haven't seen:


  3. the alzheimer's took my grandmother. it was so awful to watch my dad and his siblings go through it.

    love you.

  4. Alzheimer is nasty - the post and the pictures are nice, and I would have liked to know your uncle too now I've read it!

  5. 1) I love you more than words can say...
    2) He loved you to pieces...he always got a kick out of you and your "observations"...
    3) We will get together...that's the one thing we can do...we can't fix so much stuff in life...but this...THIS we can do.

  6. ha ha....i'm still making observations :).