For my whole life growing up, I never lived in the same town as any of my relatives—no cousins, aunts, or uncles close by. Both my parents were from small towns in Texas and all of their siblings grew up, married, had kids, and lived within about a 50-mile radius of where they were born. To my knowledge, my parents were the only two to move far away from their birthplaces. After I was grown, an aunt, uncle, and cousin did move to the same town I lived in but not having been close to them growing up, I wasn’t that close to them even after they moved to town.
Since this is all I had known, I never knew what it was like to live close to my cousins, aunts, and uncles. We did go to visit them in Texas at least once a year, but not having more frequent interaction prevented us from really getting to know each other very well. I probably never would have known what that was like if I hadn’t married the woman that I married.
In stark contrast to my experience growing up, my wife did live in the same town with almost all of her mother’s relatives. She would tell me stories of them going on vacation together, going water skiing together, getting together for parties and holidays, and celebrating many of life’s little events. She still interacts with many of her cousins either weekly or monthly. I in comparison, interact with my cousins probably every few years or so at the most.
Knowing that my parents lived close to many of their relatives growing up, I don’t know if they ever consciously considered what it would be like for their children, my three siblings and me, to grow up away from close relatives. But one fact stands out that makes me think they must have.
The year I was born, my parents were already living in their third town distant from their birthplaces, just seven years after they were married. And starting in that town, very close friends became adopted aunts and uncles. Whether this was an ingenious way to avoid us children having to call their dear friends “Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so,” to us, they were “aunt” or “uncle” followed by their first name. Since they were the only adults other than my parents that I saw on a more frequent basis, it seemed normal to refer to them as “surrogate relatives.”
So my first memory from the town I was born in is of Uncle Jack and Aunt Lois, two loving individuals I can still vividly picture in my mind’s eye. Since we moved away from my birthplace by the time I was four—an age very difficult for me to recall—my memories are based on home movies and tales my parents or siblings have told me. And one thing I have been told was that I was very special to Uncle Jack.
Uncle Jack only had one daughter who was older than me. But I’m told his eyes would light up whenever I ran into the room. And he would sometimes show his delight by bringing me gifts which no doubt, reciprocated my delight in seeing him as well.
If you are a follower of my blog post, you know that I love Cars and have so since a very early age. There is one home movie of me with a small car. I think I would have been either three of four years old at the time. There was a lever on the side that when you flipped it, the car would speed forward several feet. In the movie, I repeatedly flip the lever and then quickly chase after the car to flip the lever again. What I wouldn’t give to have that little car today, a talisman connecting me to my childhood? But I do have the home movie and the memory that this was one of my favorite gifts from my Uncle Jack.
Even after we moved away, we would occasionally return to my hometown and always would get to see Uncle Jack and Aunt Lois, although later in life we sometimes referred to them as Mr. Jack and Ms. Lois. As an adult, we would visit him at his gift store where we would buy Christmas ornaments, all of which we still have.
In the second town I lived in growing up, we again took on adoptive aunts and uncles.
The second “relatives” I have the most vivid memories of are Uncle Lloyd and Aunt Alline. It seems Uncle Lloyd was a part of our lives even after we moved away from this second town because just like my dad, Uncle Lloyd was a Presbyterian minister.
My main memories of Uncle Lloyd are of Montreat, watermelons, and cigars. Growing up, we always went to Montreat for our main summer vacation. And on many of these trips, we would ride in Uncle Lloyd’s car with my dad driving. I don’t think Uncle Lloyd liked to have to drive that far and so my dad drove while Uncle Lloyd provided the car and paid for the gas. On some of these trips, we might have taken our own station wagon but it seems like Uncle Lloyd was with us as well.
Our family would stay in a family lodge in Montreat while Uncle Lloyd would stay in College Hall, I assume college dorms converted to hotel rooms for the summer. Whenever we would see him there, he would be puffing away on his cigars.
During the time that I knew Uncle Lloyd, he lived in a red brick house near Camp Alabama. Camp Alabama was a Presbyterian Church retreat center that we occasionally went to since it was about 30 miles from where we lived. And behind Lloyd’s house, he had a farm where he grew a variety of produce, but in particular watermelons. My mom and I loved watermelon and it seemed like whenever we went to see him, he was loading us up with watermelons for our return trip home.
Whenever times were tough, a common occurrence for ministers back then, my parents would say with strong faith and conviction, that the Lord would provide for us. And it seems like after Lloyd would visit us, extra money would suddenly be available. It was as if, Lloyd and the Lord were the same to us small children.
I knew Uncle Lloyd for 20 years, up until his death in 1980. He was a very special man to our family. But what I didn’t realize was that he was connected to my parents even before they were married and years before I was even born.
I found this out because my parents wrote and published a book about him after he died. I recently reread that book knowing I wanted to write about my “surrogate” uncles. What I learned, or maybe relearned was moving, so much so, it deserves its own story.