23 May 2005

Saying Goodbye To An Uncle...And Remembering A Sister

"Transitions are almost always signs of growth, but they can bring feelings of loss. To get somewhere new, we may have to leave somewhere else behind..." ~ Fred Rogers

I just found out a few minutes ago that my Uncle passed away. This wasn't entirely a surprise. Of the three brothers, my father being the youngest and my Uncle Otis being the oldest, the one that wound up with the diagnosis of lung cancer, happened to be the only one who never smoked. How ironic.

Otis lived a very sensible, orderly, predictable life. My uncle owned a car dealership, Cook Motor Sales, in Oceana, West Virginia, and along with selling cars, something he was very successful at, he spent the rest of his time attending Toneda Baptist Church on Clear Fork. He enjoyed good health for most of his 84 years, and even when something health related would pop up from time to time, he wasn't one to go on about it.

When I was a little girl, I remember the many times he and his wife Lucille would drive from their home in Oceana to our home in a suburb of Charleston, WV, on Sunday Afternoons for a visit. They would leave following church, usually arrive around 2:00, drink coffee, whatever dessert my mother would have ready "just in case" company might pop in, and even though I never stuck around in the same room for the entire length of their visit, I remember how comfortably familiar it felt.

I knew my parents enjoyed having them over, and I would hear laughter wafting from the living room, the smell of perked coffee and always bits and pieces of stories from when my father and uncle were small children and adolescent boys. There was the time my Uncle Dick and Uncle Otis had been charged with leading the family cow from one pasture to the next, when the family moved. I think they got lost on the way and everyone was very worried when they didn't show up as expected. I guess things can get a bit disorienting when leading a cow through the fields of Southern West Virginia.

There is a photo of my father and his two brothers,
strapping young trio that they were, looking appropriately serious, as people were wont to do in photographs taken in the 1930's. My Uncle Otis was holding a chicken that had been an FFA (Future Farmers of America) Project. I remember how strange it seemed to see my Dad as a young man of around 13, staring very seriously at a white chicken. I used to laugh at that photograph and wonder, "How could they not be smiling or, at the very least, feeling a little goofy having their picture snapped while thoughtfully regarding a live chicken? Did it drop a mess on one of their shirts and, if it did, wouldn't that alone be enough to elicit at least the hint of a smile?", but no, they looked like that chicken was serious business, and maybe it was. That chicken probably wound up on their table for Sunday Dinner. If anything should have been looking unusually serious and unsettled, I'd say it was the chicken.

I always thought of my uncle as a combination of one part serious and one part silly. He'd tell the same simple jokes, every single time he'd see me, and it would always make me laugh - the first 50 times because I thought any joke with the word "pee" (Why did the Indian who drank thirty cups of tea drown? He died in his own tepee.) in it was nearly illicit and tediously on the verge of "low brow"; Years later, I'd laugh because it was so funny he'd still tell the same jokes. It was a good kind of predictability. The kind you subconsciously retain in your memory bank, and find yourself calling on when you become aware that the last time you heard that joke really was, as it turns out, the last time you will ever hear it.

Though my uncle could, and often did, tell silly jokes, he was a pretty formal guy. He was the tallest of his five siblings, standing around 6' and he was, like his two sisters, a red head. I rather doubt there were too many times the church doors of Toneda Baptist Church were open that my uncle wasn't in there, including Sunday Nights and Wednesdays. He was a very dedicated Christian and from what I can remember of my visits to his home and his car dealership, he was pretty well-liked. I know he loved to drink coffee and work crossword puzzles, two things that I obviously inherited because I am pretty serious about both pursuits.

Otis did very well in the car business, at least from what I could tell, but one thing I remember is that nothing ever changed in his house. In fact, I can only remember visiting him in the same house which was a nice, albeit modest, split-level brick home on a hill over looking a very busy road in Wyoming County, not more than 3 miles from his car dealership and his church and that's significant in that he seldom roamed much further away than that 3 mile radius, save for car auctions in Charlotte, visiting sick family and church members at one of the three hospitals in Beckley, and of course, visiting my family in Madison, Welch, DuPont City, Belle, Point Pleasant, and DuPont City again, which is where I lived until I was married in 1980. If we accomplished anything, it was showcasing other cities in West Virginia to the family. We were famous for it. I'm pretty sure they thought we were not quite right, all that moving around, but every time we marked about 18 months in the same location, usually just after my Mom or Dad would say, "You know, I bet we wind up staying here a good long time.", it was as if a silent invitation was whispered for the telephone to ring and another job offer was extended to my Dad, who was an accountant for various coal mining companies around the state. No sooner would I begin the second year in the same school, would I come home one day to discover that a moving company would be arriving in a few days to take us to some new town. I must have loved the adventure of it, because I have followed the same pattern most of my adult life. I've always loved moving around and it's been fun collecting friends and memories in so many parts of the country.

Later on, when my family's gypsy leanings took us beyond the borders of West Virginia, 1600 miles West to Amarillo, Texas, Sunday Afternoon visits with my Uncle Otis and Aunt Lucille became a thing of the past, even with a standing invitation. I guess he never heard the same call of the wild that kept luring us West to Texas, North to Cleveland (a call we should have hung up on!) and South to Miami, and I suppose it was a little inconvenient to drive so far for a couple of hours and a piece of cake, even if my Mom is an outstanding cook.

My family had a cabin on eight acres that bordered Carnifax Ferry State Park near Summersville Lake in Nicholas County. We spent quite a few weekends up there during my junior high and high school years. My Dad enjoyed clearing out the area around the cabin and my Mom just enjoyed being in the mountains. Me? I was on high alert for anything remotely resembling a slithery copperhead snake. I was terrified that one would have invaded our cabin during the periods we were away and that it would somehow find it's way into my bed at some point during a visit. This absolutely used to keep me awake at night!

Some weekends, particularly in the Summer and Fall, my father's siblings and their families would join us and drive up to spend a Saturday Night. My Dad loved to go on hikes around the property and, given that there were about 32 acres of which we owned 8, there were lots of places to explore, even hiking down the mountain to the shore of the twisty Gauley River, close to what is a now a huge white water rafting mecca, as is the nearby New River Gorge and Bridge. Of course, my Dad would usually wear some worn out shirt and shorts that wouldn't cause my Mother any angst should they get snagged or torn by branches and trees that seemed to spring up just about everywhere. I rarely ventured out on these pre- or post-dinner "hikes" because I was sure that since there wasn't a copperhead lurking in my bed, it must be hiding in some innocent looking bush ready to strike me as I walked along some weed obscured path. No thank you. But my Daddy really seemed to enjoy his walks in the woods, much as I enjoy walks on the beach.

One Sunday, after I had gotten my license, I was driving along a path and saw my Dad and my Uncle Otis walking along, hoe in my Dad's hand just in case a snake made the mistake of crossing his path, and the only thing truly remarkable about that scene is that my Uncle Otis would be wearing dress pants, a dress shirt, dress shoes and a tie. A TIE! It wasn't even a tie with a wilderness scene on it. It was a dress tie. I have tried and tried and I can't for the life of me ever remember my uncle without a tie. Even on a hike! I always found that, well, kind of different, but also endearing. He looked as if he could walk right out of the woods and onto his car lot without missing a beat. To this day, I have never seen anyone hiking in a tie. I am told by reliable family sources that he also wore a tie on one of his few trips to the beach. Come to think of it, I'd be surprised if he didn't. I don't think my Uncle Otis owned any "kick back" clothes. I guess his tie was the equivalent to Mister Rogers and his sweater. They just seemed to go together.

Of course, this man, this uncle of mine was the oldest brother in a family of five kids and one half sister and, given that lofty position, I have heard a few stories of where he stepped into the "older brother" role and behaved as older brothers usually do - a bit on the bossy side. However, he couldn't have been too difficult to grow up with, because I never heard my parents ever utter the first negative word against him or, for that matter, any of our relatives. You have to remember though, I live with a couple of people who I am certain must be up for sainthood, even if they are Protestant. I say that in jest, but it's actually true. My parents have never been given to gossip or unkind words, either in front of or behind anyone's back. Probably just another reason a lot of people question my DNA and wonder if I truly am their biological child. Oh well...sometimes the apple DOES fall far from the tree. Sometimes, if the wind is right, that apple can blow that apple to a whole other orchard, even across several state lines - which probably explains me. :-)

Even if you know someone you love is terminally ill and death is imminent, the pain, the actual shock when the news is announced, is never easy to handle. There's no real way to prepare yourself for the loss. The mind may grasp and even process the information, but the heart simply refuses to get on board. And that is why it stings and aches, as if the realization that the person you love has passed away was completely out of the blue. Even when you've been warned, it still rocks your world, and let's face it, when someone we know quite well is suddenly gone, it's a keen reminder of our own mortality.

It is a very hard thing to lose a close relative and, unfortunately, I have some firsthand experience in this area because my own sister died at the age of 23, when I was 13. In a few days, on May 25, my sister will have been dead 32 years and I was thinking about that the other night and just couldn't believe it could possibly be that long ago, but it is. I did the math twice.

Since ten years separated us, I was raised mostly as an only child because of the vast difference in our ages, but after she passed away, my "only child" status became official. I always envy people who have brothers and sisters and I often wonder what it would have been like if I still had my sister. What would our relationship would be like? Would we visit often? Would she have turned into a gypsy like me or would she have had a more conventional life? How often would we have talked on the phone and what would we have talked about? Whenever I'm in the greeting card section of a store, usually in the "belated" area, when my eyes run across the cards wishing a sister happy birthday, happy anniversary, happy whatever...I am reminded that I do have a sister. I just can't buy a card for her.

My sister was very much a girly girl. She played with dolls, willingly, even excitedly wore dresses with lace and I've never seen a photograph of her with the first hint of dirt or mud. Me? I grew up playing with dolls too, it's just that I enjoyed taking them apart, particularly if they did something fancy like take in water, let out water, have movable parts such as mouths, arms and legs and I would become especially excited if they contained a voice mechanism that allowed them to talk. I dissected more than a few pretty expensive dolls. I was much more interested in how they worked, rather than the fact that they did. I knew it wasn't magic - it was more the mechanics that fascinated me.

My sister would ask for sensible, predictable things for Christmas like typewriters, clothes (yuck) and matching luggage ensembles. When I was four years old, my mother took me to see Santa. Of course, when he asked the big question, "And what do you want for Christmas?", I was happy to inform him that I wanted a hammer, nails and some wood to build... something. Or maybe a dog. And for the love of everything holy, PLEASE don't bring me any clothes. What a waste of a present! Besides, I don't think the GAP was around then. If it doesn't come from the GAP, I have very little interest in it.

It's interesting to imagine how life might have been different with the addition or subtraction of various components, people, places and things, but other than recreational pondering, there's not much you can do but simply imagine. You can never really know. The tiniest incremental inclusion or exclusion can change a whole life and the direction it takes, which is a good argument for giving most actions a lot of thought. Which is an even better reason to remember that when you tell someone that you love them or toss out a casual goodbye, even if they're just leaving to take care of an errand, it's a good idea to give that some thought as well. You just never really know when the last time may turn out to be - the last time.

My Uncle, the one who passed away this morning, had a son and daughter. It was his daughter, Peggy, who called to inform my parents this morning. She has always been close, as so many people are, to my parents. Her call to them was one of the first she made to deliver the sad news. It's a very reciprocal feeling because Peggy, along with her older brother Donnie, swooped in and took charge when my sister died all those many years ago. They pulled up in our driveway in an RV and they took care of so many details, many we will never know about, and they took care of me. What a horrendously confusing five day period that was.

My sister passed away on a Friday, May 25th, 1973 and, being Memorial Day Weekend, you weren't permitted to bury anyone during a holiday, so that meant that my sister's wake went on for two days at the funeral home and she was buried the Tuesday, May 29th, after Memorial Day. It may not sound like much, one extra day, but believe me, even with my fuzzy memory of those events, it seemed to go on forever. Our house was overflowing during most of that time with relatives, old friends, new friends, church members, friends of my parents, friends of my sister, parents of my friends...I remember feeling like I was lost in a sea of people for most of that weekend and nothing made any sense at all.

I'd experienced the death of dogs, fish, even tadpoles, but never had I seriously understood the concept, the finality, that comes attached with death. Processing that information didn't end with the funeral, not by a long shot. Even today, 32 years later, though there's so much I don't really remember about my sister, I still find myself going back to that time in my life. It wasn't simply the loss of my sister that proved so impossibly confounding, which wasn't simple at all, but the whole change in the dynamics of our family. It also kicked off a robust case of panic disorder in me which, way back in 1973, didn't even have a name yet, but until I finally found treatment nineteen years later, was a most unwelcome fallout from that tumultuous period of my life.

It's funny the small details that your mind seems to cling to for years, decades really, following a huge event in your life and I do remember a few things that stand out so vividly. I remember my cousin Peggy making me laugh when she could sense things getting overwhelmingly serious and shaky for me, in the days following my sister's death. I remember her brushing my long hair and taking care that my clothes matched and I looked presentable. I remember her soft, soothing voice as she talked to me about heaven and all of the cool things that Becky must be seeing, hearing and feeling and how, even if she could, even though she loved all of us so much, she wouldn't want to come back because heaven was just that amazing. And I remember taking comfort in knowing she wouldn't want to come back home, because to not want to return home meant that you must absolutely love where you were. It also made me feel better to know, extrapolating from what Peggy told me, that Becky couldn't possibly see all of the sadness and grieving going on at our house and in the funeral home, because if heaven was all that it was purported to be, seeing that mess wouldn't be a very happy thing at all, and from the way she patiently explained it to me, heaven was only about the good stuff. Therefore, it seemed to make sense that the painful parts must be censored out and I liked believing she wasn't looking down on all of our sad faces and wishing she could come back and make everything OK, even if we wished that she could.

My cousin Peggy has a very irreverent, intelligent and sardonic wit and she can cut through channels of staid decorum and easily point her finger at the absurd, a trait I genuinely admire in anyone. She slices through the BS and has no problem tossing aside the fluff. I come from a very genteel family in many respects, but there was always something just a little edgy, in a very good way, about Peggy and the way she approached life. I guess you could call it "pluck". Whatever it is, it will stand her in very good stead in these difficult days to come.

She has been a very hands-on, conscientious, loving, ever-present daughter to her father during his illness, taking on a lot of hard, mind and break-backing tasks for a woman that can't weigh more than 100 lbs. soaking wet. She's not had an easy time of it in her own right, but later on as she looks back at this whole period leading up to her Dad's death, I hope that she realizes that there's no way she could have handled it any more perfectly than she did. At some point, long after the wake, the funeral and as the attention wanes, I hope those memories of her performance and attentiveness to his every need, will bring her comfort and a lot of peace. She most certainly merits both.

Peggy asked my Dad to read a real life tale of getting his first car and what transpired, and her father's unique involvement in it. I love this story, all the more because it really happened. When I spoke to my Dad earlier this morning, after he had just learned that his brother had passed away, he told me that Peggy had requested he read what he wrote of his memory of this "first new car experience", but he declined, saying he would never be able to get through it. He did tell her that if she wanted anyone else to read it, that would be just fine with him.

I'm going to include this story. I love it that Peggy wanted it as part of her father's service because I love humor and what better time to have a dose of it than at a funeral? Laughing is an essential part of life, and I think it's brilliant to grab any chance you can to insert it into a something that doesn't lend itself easily to anything funny. To smile or even laugh out loud at the memory of something that the deceased did doesn't in any way disrespect or disregard the pain of the loss, if anything, I think it's a wonderful way to acknowledge the positive and delightful manner with which they lived their life. As far as I'm concerned, you should never pass up any chance to laugh, maybe most of all at a time when you think it impossible.

I believe that quote at the beginning of this entry, the one by the very wise Fred Roger,s fits so perfectly to the transition from life to death. If you happen to be a Christian, as my uncle most certainly was, then his death is a transition, but one that does bring feelings of loss and, from every thing I've read, you have to leave here to get to heaven.

Godspeed Uncle Otis. Thank you for all of the smiles. Maybe my sister Becky will be assigned to show you the ropes and get you all settled. I hope, though you will most certainly be missed, that even if you were given the choice, it's so amazing and wonderful up there that you wouldn't want to return here either.

Here is the story of my Daddy's first new car, but before I share that - here's a 1998 photograph of those same three boys - minus the chicken.

Boys to Men! A mere 60 years later and those Cook boys were still looking good. April 1998.


It was on a Tuesday morning, June 24, 1958, our family left our home in Madison, West Virginia to drive to Crab Orchard, WV (near Beckley) to attend the funeral services of my wife’s Uncle Gus F. Bane. We had a 1953 model FORD Ranch Wagon, modern day terminology would call it a station wagon. Back then to get from Madison to Beckley one had to drive to Logan, then to Man, WV and up Huff Creek, across Huff Mountain to Oceana, then to Glen Rogers, across Bolt Mountain to Glen Daniel and then Route 3 to Beckley – then Route 16 to Crab Orchard. The present road from Madison up Pond Fork and across Kopperston Mountain to Oceana was still just a politician’s “dream” talk – a project which politicians espoused just before each election….But lets get back to the subject.

This 1953 FORD Ranch Wagon was a little six cylinder, two door wagon with simulated wood grain panels on each side and across the back lift gate – it was a nice one, good gasoline mileage but that wasn’t a great concern back then, when gasoline was only 24 cents per gallon. We did not buy it NEW, couldn’t afford a new car, but we had it long enough that all the payments had been made and it was OURS. The year before, July 1957, we had driven to Florida in it – plenty of room for our family of three. Storing luggage and bags of purchased Florida oranges to bring back to West Virginia was no problem. No, it wasn’t air conditioned as at that time only a very few, very expensive cars, or motels, had AIR CONDITIONERS. Sure we almost burned up but everyone else on the highway was in the same boat. It was a Good Car and it was OURS.

Since my OLDEST brother OTIS had a Ford Agency in Oceana, I decided to leave OUR 1953 FORD RANCH WAGON there for some minor brake repairs. He commented on how nice OUR RANCH WAGON looked (I’d just had it washed and shined up – no one wants to drive a dirty, dusty car to a funeral). His comments were a “WARNING SIGNAL” I failed to notice. He readily agreed to do the repair work and loaned us a car so we could proceed on to Crab Orchard to attend the 2 PM funeral of my wife’s uncle – no problem. So we proceeded on our way – (this “loaner” didn’t have air conditioning either).

That evening about 6 o’clock when we returned to COOK FORD SALES in Oceana, I noticed several garage employees standing around with grins on their faces – (and I didn’t say what kind of grins either), so we unloaded – started looking for OTIS so we could get OUR RANCH WAGON and head for Madison, 75 miles away. Finally located OTIS and inquired as to whether they had fixed my vehicle – “YES they had.” Was it a serious problem? “Nope, very minor brake problem”. Ok, where are my keys? That’s when he said “He had a problem and needed my help”. Well, I figured anybody in the “CAR BUSINESS” always had problems. “How in the heck could I help him?” That's when he laid it on me – HE HAD SOLD MY 1953 FORD RANCH WAGON. I thought he was kidding – that accounted for the people standing around with grins on their faces. He wasn’t kidding! Some guy had come in that afternoon – saw my RANCH WAGON (all cleaned up) and thought it was for sale – just what he was looking for. This brought “Dollar Signs” to my brother’s eyeballs and soon our RANCH WAGON was being driven away by some guy I’d never heard of, and to this day I have no idea who he was. How about the paper work? - No problem, just as soon as he got the TITLE from his brother (ME) he would take care of all the paper work – just drive on these temporary tags for a few days.

MY BROTHER had SOLD my car – you can’t do that, it is illegal, but he did!! He had sold our little 1953 FORD RANCH WAGON. Now what were we going to do? I was “half-mad” and “half glad”. I had traded cars with him many times – but always on his terms. NOW it was going to be on MY TERMS, which had never happened before, or since (and I have traded cars with him many times since then). Now the “SALES PITCH” – He had a NEW 1958 Green Ford, 6 cylinders, straight drive (not too many automatic transmissions then) and he would let me have it for just $200 over his cost. BIG DEAL! First he had sold our RANCH WAGON (Without our approval); and second, I couldn’t afford a NEW CAR, I’d never had a brand spanking NEW Car before. NO WAY!! He began to squirm – the employees were really grinning now. (I was too, but he didn’t know it). How about $100 over his cost? He would show me the INVOICE. I walked around the NEW GREEN FORD, opened and shut the doors, could smell that “new car smell”. Sorry OTIS, I just can’t afford a NEW CAR, my five year old RANCH WAGON was paid for, no more car payments for me. Do you think you could talk that fellow into returning my RANCH WAGON? He went back to the “drawing board” (the office) to do some more figuring – this had never happened to him before (me either). Finally, he came back where I was waiting and with a pained expression on his face asked would I be satisfied if he would let me have this NEW CAR at “his cost”? With a “long face” (in his presence), I reluctantly agreed to this deal. Now leaving Brother OTIS with a “long face” we loaded up in this BRAND NEW 1958 GREEN FORD CAR and headed for Madison, W. Va., seventy-five miles away. As we pulled out of the lot, I couldn’t help but notice the grins on the garage employees had turned into outright LAUGHTER. As we drove up Huff Mountain on our way to Madison we wondered why OTIS didn’t invite us up to his house upon Kopperston Road to eat supper with him and Lucille. Surely they would have had something they could have fixed in a hurry for supper. They had always invited us to stop and eat with them when we drove over from Madison.

That is how we acquired our FIRST NEW CAR – but it taught me a “LESSON” – the next time I took my car to the garage, owned by Brother OTIS, I would stay with it and watch, and keep the keys in my pocket until repairs were made. I kept that 1958 Green Ford Car until it too was paid for and traded it for a new 1963 Chevrolet Impala, with air conditioning, in November 1962. This is a TRUE STORY, if you don’t believe it I can prove it by my Brother OTIS.

W. Barbe Cook,

January 24th, 1992 – (My 67th Birthday)