I got gobsmacked by two dead uncles today.
If you want to know why, read on.
First, the back story.
I was lucky enough to have had several uncles when I was growing up, on both sides of my family.
I loved and am grateful to them all, but two of them remain in my heart particularly.
One uncle was on my mother’s side of the family.
The other uncle had been a close friend of my father’s long before he ended up falling in love with and marrying my father’s sister.
Uncle Willis was the guy who married my mom’s younger sister Katherine.
Uncle Arch was the one who married my father’s adored baby sister Mary Elizabeth.
So, now you know the players.
In my early years, I saw much more of my Uncle Arch, because he and my Aunt “E” lived in the same town we did. But my father died when I was 8, and Mama and I moved away when I was 10.
However, during those same years, I also got to spend summers in Oklahoma, with cousins and Aunt Kate and Uncle Willis (also grandparents, and other wonderful cousins, aunts and uncles – but they are not a part of this particular story.)
What I want to point out here is that both of them knew and spent time with me from childhood, and I loved them.
Uncle Willis was a man of few words. He was a person who taught by example. He lived his life in a way that was a silent but potent inspiration. He rarely complained, never explained.
Uncle Arch was similar in many ways, although I believe he had a better “education”, school-wise. Still, although I would have to say he was more erudite, his life was his statement, just like Uncle Willis.
Finally, we come to the gobsmacking part.
One summer when I was with Uncle Willis, Aunt Kate, and my cousins, I remember Uncle Willis getting on my case because I was slacking off on my (very) few chores. I didn’t want to hear it, but he was right.
I remember VERY CLEARLY, that he said: “Hey, Kid! Life is real! Life is earnest! And time is fleeting! Now get those dishes washed!”
Cut to a couple of decades later, and my Uncle Arch is quoting from a poem, for no particular reason that I remember – but I loved it, and asked him to write it down, and he did. I carried that little piece of paper in my wallet for many years, until it fell apart. It was the last quatrain of a very famous poem, though I didn’t recognize it at the time. I just knew that I liked it, and that they were words to live by.
I must confess that although I was an English major in college, we weren’t required to read much Longfellow at the upper levels, although I had read him in junior high and high school. Still, I should have recognized the poem. It is probably one of the most beautiful ever written, after all.
My uncles, coming from two VERY DIFFERENT backgrounds – both obviously knew it. Many of the lines from it are instantly recognizable, even by those who are not familiar with the entire poem.
But I didn’t make the connection until today.
Anyway, if you have held out this long – please stick around and read the whole poem. Most of you will go “Oh, of COURSE” – but I’ll bet you anything that you haven’t read it recently – or that you remember all of it!
And in any case, I find it SO relevant to what is happening in our country today that it bears reading again.
So, here it is. Thank you, Uncle Willis and Uncle Arch. You both gave me bits of this excellent poem at completely different times, and years apart. The words resonated then, and they resonate even more now. Let us hope this poem (and the poet) gets a bit more air time in the coming four years – and long after.
A Psalm of Life
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act — act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Happy New Year – Godspeed and Good Luck – we’re going to need it!