Of all of my uncles on my mother's side of the family, Uncle Melvin was probably the one I knew the least. I did come to know him a little better towards the end of his life, but while I was growing up, I have snapshots of him in my mind.
He was a handsome man and while he was growing up, he was one of my dad's best friends. He grew up a boxer and a violin player. Quite a mix there, but it shows how versatile and intelligent he was. He was the oldest of my grandparent's kids and so he had an effect on the lives of all of his siblings. Of his history, I have only stories as opposed to first hand knowledge.
He married young and went to Seminary to become a Southern Baptist preacher. By the time I got around to knowing him, he and my Aunt Eva had eight children. Pete, Ellen, Jean, Judy, Jim, John, Jerry and Drew. He raised this large family on a very slight income for the first several years. I knew his sons better than I knew my uncle but by the impact he had on their lives, I have a little window as to how my Uncle was.
He was a good man. He was a disciplinarian. He didn't hold his discipline to his own kids either. If you were under his roof, you played by his rules. My sister found that out one day when we were visiting Melvin and his family one time. We actually use to visit quite a bit thinking back on it. Anyway, The girls, including my sister Elaine, were jumping up and down on the beds or something that kept knocking the slats out from under the mattresses in the girls bedroom. Melvin warned them twice that if they didn't stop, he was going to do some spanking. Elaine, always one to smart off when she was little, proclaimed to my uncle that he wouldn't be spanking her, because he wasn't her daddy. Uncle Melvin walked right up to Elaine, put her over his knee and gave her a couple of swats. I think there were a lot of lessons learned that day.
What I mostly remember about my uncle Melvin are a few things that I think can describe the man from my perspective. The first thing I remember was that he was a very good preacher. He had a soft and tender voice when he preached. He was able to get his point across by, well, not talking down to his congregation, but talking on their level of understanding. As a young child I even understood his teachings as well as I did when I was an adult. There wasn't a lot of walking around, finger pointing, or anything like that. Rather he stood still in the pulpit and would move his head side to side taking in the whole of the congregation with pauses in just the right places to let something sink in that he had said. He was and still is the best preacher I ever heard preach.
Uncle Melvin had a sense of humor. For a man that was rather quiet of voice, he could find humor in almost anything. The best times that his sense of humor would come out was during the holiday season. During this time he, along with his brothers and my grandpa would gather together and talk after the meal in the dining room. Melvin had a habit of continuing to eat by picking pieces of turkey while he was talking. He would also have some pie but mainly he stuck to picking off the turkey. They would talk politics, which never made sense to me since they all pretty much agreed on the subject, but then they would slowly get into telling stories about things that had been happening in their lives as of late. Melvin loved his brothers and loved talking to them and his dad. I loved listening to them. More than once you could find me sitting on the window seat not too far away from them listening intently to what they were talking about. They would all laugh at the stories but it was when the stories turned to jokes that Melvin really began to let loose. If he was listening to a joke, and it was good enough which most of them were, he would laugh so hard his face would turn red and he would not be able to talk. He always seemed to be the last one who got themselves under control after a good joke. When Melvin would tell a joke, he would hardly be able to get it out. He would start laughing the closer he got to the punch line and by the time he finished the joke, you would be laughing more at him then the joke. He loved laughter and humor. He loved the laughter and humor that his siblings shared with him as well as his children.
My Uncle Melvin was a very sincere and caring man. He took care of the people in his congregation and they loved him for it. How do I know? I was lucky enough to have been a member of his church for awhile before he retired from the pulpit to become head of the missions program for our group of area churches. He knew I had concerns about joining his church, you know, having your uncle as the preacher, but he came over to our house one night and talked to us about it. He left me assured that he could be my pastor as well as my uncle and do a good job of both. We joined his church and enjoyed every minute of it. He was aware of when people were hurting. He was aware when things were going good for people. He was able to equally address these things no matter what the situation was and he did it with all of the sincerity he could muster.
Barb went to work for him when he moved to the missions staff and she observed the same caring and sincerity there that he had shown as a pastor. It was a good job for Barb, one that she liked, until my uncle became sick and had to resign.
My uncle did get sick. He developed colon cancer so advanced that there was really nothing they could do except make him as comfortable as possible during his last days. Our family had seemed immune to death hitting us. Then the closest person to me that had died in the family during my lifetime, as far as I can remember, was my great-grandma Hill. Now, I heard that I was losing an Uncle. An uncle that I treasured just as much as I did his brothers. Everyone of my uncles were important to me and effected my life in one way or another and now I was losing one of them. It didn't seem right.
I was in the habit of visiting my grandparents about twice a week since they lived so close to my office. I would either drop by during lunch or after work. I got out of that habit when Melvin was in the hospital. Most times I would arrive to an empty house.
I wasn't given too many updates on how my uncle was doing. I knew that he was gravely ill and where he was but that was about it. I didn't know whether to go visit him or not. The room surely would be crowded and the mood would be somber. I knew that my cousins and my aunt needed to spend as much time with him as they could. I did not want to interfere with their time as precious as it was.
Still deep inside I had a deep desire to see my uncle for one last time. He had been a lot of things to me. He had been the source of humor, the source of philosophy (I still give him credit to this day for igniting my own love of philosophy), he was my pastor, and like all of my uncles, he was my friend. One day at work, I took a deep breath and decided to go visit him after work that day.
I wasn't sure what kind of reception I would get that day. I was fully prepared for the fact that he may be asleep and I would only visit with my cousins and my aunt. That would be good enough for me. I just had the need to let that family know that I cared, and that I did love my Uncle. When I arrived, my cousin Jerry met me as I walked in the room. He shook my hand and patted my shoulder. I told him I was so sorry for the way things were going. He then walked me over to the door, behind which his father was laying down. I asked him if he was sure and he said yes, go see dad.
I walked into the room and saw my uncle lying there. He smiled as I walked in and told me hi and said it was good to see me. I walked over to his bed and asked him how he was feeling to which he answered that he had felt better, but was doing ok considering. He took my hand and we just looked at each other. He still had that sparkle in his eye. After a bit, what seemed like an hour, I gulped and told him I was going to miss him. He said he was going to miss me as well. I leaned over the bed and hugged him very lightly and he patted me on the back. The last words he told me were "It's going to be okay, Bill. It'll be okay." and I walked out of the room. I had only been in there for a few minutes but it was a few minutes I am so glad I had.
I came out of the room and gave a few of the cousins a hug and gave my aunt Eva a big hug. I didn't say much, just turned and walked out the door. In my car on the drive home, I realized I would never see my uncle again and I began to choke up. Then I thought of Grandma and grandpa. I went over to their house and they were home. I told them I had just talked to Melvin. The pain that I saw in those two special peoples eyes hurt me to the core. Grandma, as always, offered to fix me a sandwich and I did a very rare thing by declining. I wanted to get home. I had felt and seen enough pain for one day. About a week later at the office my phone rang. It was my mother telling me that Mel had died. I told her thanks and hung up the phone. There was absolutely nothing I could do now.
I won't spend a lot of time on the funeral. It was big, it was painful. I don't remember much of what was said about my Uncle. The people doing the talking probably didn't know him as well as me and all my cousins did. It hurt to see my Aunt Eva hurting. It hurt to see Melvin's kids hurting. But it hurt most of all to see my grandparents and the pain they were in. I had never seen them like that and I had been missing my visits with them.
After the funeral, we all gathered at the church and had food. Grandma and grandpa were both in wheel chairs, not having the strength to move about I guess. I sat next to my grandfather and visited with him. I could tell he was hurting bad but the old man was trying to be strong and to at least keep himself together.
He was the first of my Uncles to pass away and although I didn't know him as well as I did a couple of his brothers, he had effected my life so very much. I don't think my Aunt Eva realized that fact. I don't think my cousins who had just lost their father realized that fact. But I can look back at all the times I watched Mel, and listened to Mel talk and preach. I watched Mel take care of people, some family, some not. I saw in Mel a natural love and caring for people.
Today is his birthday. That is why I decided to write this memory, this good memory. Like all my uncles, I have nothing but good memories of him.
Watching Melvin live his life, taught me a lot about how to live a life. I have often said that I am SO very lucky to have had the uncles and Aunts that I have had. Melvin was a big one on that list.