I grew up with men that had odd nicknames—Trub, Hoot, Tip, Unkie. Being a child I never really thought of how those nicknames came to be. They just where. I took name to be what you told me it was. So my grandfather’s baby brother was Unkie. I never thought it was shorthand for uncle, nor did I think he was really my mom’s uncle. He was and always will be my Unkie.
Herbert Denton Rolen was the last of my maternal grandfather’s siblings. He died two weeks ago at the age of 93. The whole family feels the loss of that generation. I can’t say his passing was sad, it was a release for him. It was sad for us because we won’t have his grin that rumbling chuckle, or those strong gentle eyes watch another generation of kids grow up here with us. The sadness is selfish, for us. Still one of the good ones is gone from this life and I’ll miss him.
However, when I remember him I’ll always smile. My first image of him is in olive green work clothes – shirt and pants matching, sitting silently in the corner as I entered Granny Rolen’s house. He’d grin at me not in the condescending ways adults can smile at children but more in the conspiratorial way kids beam at each other when they know they could get into fun the adults might not wholly approve of them doing. Oh nothing harmful just stuff that could get good clothes dirty or make us late for dinner.
Granny, really my great grandmother, had grape and scuppernong vines. She was protective of them. I now know it was probably because growing such things in the climate of East Tennessee isn’t easy. As a kid I didn’t know why. But I knew I loved the fruit. If there were some ripe she’d go out with me to pick them. I wasn’t allowed to pick without her because she wanted to be sure to get just the ripe ones. One visit I waited for her to come out. The golden green globes looked so good I couldn’t resist. I picked one and popped it into my mouth. OH! It was bitter. Unkie came grinning from garden.
“That one wasn’t ripe. They are bitter until they turn gold.” He laughed as he watched my face and my hurry to spit the fruit from my mouth. “That’s why she wants you to wait.”
I suddenly felt guilty. “I’m sorry.” I was also worried I’d just gotten myself in trouble with three generations, Granny, Nanny, and Mom. I must have looked worried.
“Don’t worry I won’t tell.” He grinned and patted me picking some gold ones from higher up where they got full sun.
He and I were buddies then. Just like I was his brother’s, my grandfather’s, little buddy I was Unkie’s too. That day he became my Unkie because he didn’t tell on me. He understood what it was like to be a kid. He took time from working the farm to play with me. To catch tadpoles with legs, to chase grasshoppers in the field, to swing in the shade while eating ice cream we’d churned with Granny.
I knew he was in the Merchant Marines that’s why he wasn’t there all the time. You’d never think the man in dirty farm overalls, with the shy smile, and East Tennessee twang in his voice had traveled the world. He was good ole’ down home folk. However, he’d been to every continent except Antarctica. He’d sailed through the dangerous seas of World War II. He’d been in Vietnam during the fighting and even visited a nephew serving in the US Army there. He’d seen the world but loved the valley that held his family farm. He’d come back every summer to cultivate that land, to play with kids that showed up, to fool strangers into thinking he’d never left those East Tennessee hills.
One story he told was when he was a young man his mother sent him to town to get a new broom. At the time the transportation available was their old mule. Herbert was a large fella so his legs hung awkwardly off the mule as he rode to town for the broom. He got the broom and was riding home holding the broom to the side and plodding away on the hair too small for him mule. That was when he spotted his sister Sammie Sue with her new beau. She turned red and ignored her baby but not little brother distracting the beau. Well, being one who couldn’t resist a good laugh Herbert shouted “Howdy” to his sister waving the broom. He made making sure that not only the beau saw him, but everyone else on the street did too. As he’d tell the story his smirk would spread, his eyes sparkle, and he’d end the telling with a good laugh.
He was one who loved to laugh. The laugh was a warm and welcoming one rolling up from his belly, erupting as a chuckle, then breaking into a full laugh would roll out making all who heard it join him. The big man never seemed threatening but always seemed loving, cuddly, and safe. The kind of protector a child and a country deserved. The kind of man who was pleased to oblige both.
The last conversation I had with him was one of equals just like the day I’d eaten the sour grape. Except this time we talked of warfare, Navy, ships and service. He as a man who’d retired from it, me as a wife of one doing it. He’d showed me a picture of his ship. Then he turned it over and showed me the billets of his service, various ports of call, missions we’d call them in US Navy. He told of life aboard the ship, port calls, and fear during war. My son was there to hear it from one who had lived history. Unkie was tired when we said good-bye but it was a good kind of tired. I knew because that grin that had welcomed me all my life was still there on his lips.
Last week I drove to Tennessee to attend his funeral. We all mourned our loss. Then over a fellowship dinner graciously given to the family by his church we began to laugh and grin remembering him. He brought us together as a family with smiles, memories happy times we’d all shared with him. I am proud to say that good man, Herbert Rolen, was my Unkie.