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The Uncle And The Pendant (And Some Berry)

Image hosted by Photobucket.comI had an uncle that my father claimed to be of another generation. My father was the oldest child in his family and managed to be born into what he talks of as a more conservative and traditional time. His siblings managed to be born into a time when there was a greater movement for social and political change, and that the siblings were split between the relative conservatism of the 1950s and the more revolutionary spirit of the1960s was obvious. Being Mennonite, though, meant that the pacifism that was becoming fashionable in the 1960s was already accepted and practiced by our family for generations, so my father never rolled his eyes over his younger brother's work to bring peace to communities through agricultural education or my aunt's work with poorer northern communities.

This generation gap between my father and his younger siblings was important to me when I was a kid. My father was highly rational, heavily involved in sports (he taught highschool phys. ed., played hocky and softball, and coached numerous teams), read westerns and spy novels, listened to religious country music, and avoided emotional discussions with an air of disgust; my uncle and two aunts were what my father deemed "hippies": their hair was long, my aunts went braless for most of the seventies, my uncle did peaceful missions work in the mountains of Vietnam during the Vietnam War, they smoked pot, they wrote poetry, and they played music other than church hymns or gospel country. I, of course, felt naturally inclined toward the latter set.

When I was a child, almost all of my spare time was spent creating: I played make believe, made up songs, wrote poetry and short stories, drew and painted, sculpted with papier mâché, built dioramas, made jewellery, read books, and spent hours sitting deep in thought. I had no interest in sports or any of the other things that my father was so engaged in. It's not surprising, then, that I was always excited at the prospect of getting to see either my uncle or one of my aunts. Although I was too shy to be as close to them as I wanted, especially when it came to my uncle, even just being near them made me feel like I belonged somewhere. At home, I was an alien, but with them, the world and I made a little more sense together.

My uncle was particularly fascinating to me. He was often quiet, but not in a meek sort of way. HIs presence was strong whether he was engaged in conversation or sitting quietly by himself, which is probably why I was so fascinated by him. If he was in the house, I could always feel that he was present. At the same time, there was a gentleness to him, or an effort toward gentleness. Even when he came upon me being a complete idiot on his farm, screaming my head off like I was dying and scaring the bejeezus out of him, his body taut with aggravation, his voice remained slow and calm as he instructed me to quit what I was doing. I did, and I did it immediately despite my stubbornness, such was my respect for him.

I wanted to be close to my uncle, but I did not know how to go about it. There seemed to be this unbridgeable chasm between us, a divide composed of our differences in gender, age, locality, and family structure, but I was determined to feel that I knew him in some way.

So, I did what any kid would do, because kids are sneaky little buggers. I was at his farm visiting my younger cousins, and I was left alone for a bit while everyone took a quick trip into town. Truly, my first instinct was not to be sneaky but to walk through the house experiencing every room. The house had been built by my great-grandfather, and all fifteen of his children grew up there, so it was full of history in my young mind. I still remember the glow in the yellow kitchen from the sunlight coming through warbled lead glass windows and the feel of smooth 1950s-era linoleum against the baby-soft skin of my ten-year-old feet. After that, though, I was as sneaky as sneaky comes.

After wandering from room to room, taking in the resonance of the house, it dawned on me that I was free of supervision, so I tiptoed up the stairs to the second floor and down to the end of the hallway where my uncle and his wife's bedroom was. Funny thing how when I was a kid I still felt compelled to tiptoe even if there was no chance of being caught. Keeping my feet in the hall, I peered around their bedroom doorframe and scanned the room. I felt that I was looking for something. What that something was, I did not know, but I knew that I would know what it was when I found it.

On their dresser were a few small containers. They held the usual odds and ends of necklaces and rings and bobby pins, but lying in the middle of one of them was a silver pendant. That was it. I knew it. It shone, managing to reflect light even though the room was dimmed with drawn window shades. It looked like something he had owned for a very long time, and I wanted to touch it in the worst way.

Struck with a strong aversion to actually crossing the threshold into their bedroom, as though that thing in particular would be going too far, I hung from the doorframe with one hand and fished for the pendant with the other. I could barely reach far enough out along the wall, but my fingertips managed to dabble in the tray of jewellery enough to grab a hold of it. The pendant was rectangular and cool against my palm, its surface unrefined and lumpen. I turned it over to see what was stamped into it. There was a tall flower with words written around its stem and leaves: war is not healthy for children and other living things.

I didn't know then that this image had become cliché, not that that matters in any way, but it was entirely new to me, ingenious in its simplicity, striking in its truth. I loved it immediately. I pressed it to my cheek. I did not consider how anyone viewing my actions might take me for being a little unbalanced. I smelled it and pressed it to my face, enjoying its weight against the pads of my fingers. It was then that I heard the heavy front door thunking open and six feet pounding dirt from their shoes in the foyer. My aunt and two cousins had returned from town. I panicked mightily and shoved the pendant deep into the right front pocket of my jeans. I had no time for the logic that would have had me actually step into the room and put it back in its container.

My afternoon was spent feeling alternately trapped and kind of comforted-secretive-joyful with my possession of the pendant. I loved the way it pressed through the thin linen of my pocket against my thigh, but I knew that I had to give it up at some point, albeit reluctantly. I may have been a tad bit obsessive, but there was no way I could thieve from my uncle. The guilt would have wracked my conscience for years. I bided my time and managed to slip it back into its container on his dresser while my two cousins were outside and in the bathroom respectively just before supper late that afternoon.

Aside from my temporary stealing of this hippy pendant from his youth in the 1960s, I never became close to that uncle. He and his family spent quite a few years doing missionary work overseas in Laos and the Philippines, and when they were living in Canada, they lived an hour-and-a-half away. Then, when I was seventeen years old, I was out at a party one night playing drinking games and wearing a stupid Bavarian hat when I received a telephone call from my father that my uncle had died suddenly from heart failure at the age of forty-three.

Despite the fact that I never got to know him well, he did contribute to my world view in a striking way that I am sure he never would have suspected. I've always carried that silver peacenik pendant in my mind, and rolled it's simple sentence around on my imagination's tongue. That memory has helped to bring my mind back time and again to the ideals of pacifism that the religion I was raised in held so high. When I am of the mind to lump the whole of the religion I was raised with into one wad and throw it away, this memory reminds me that all things are too complex to throw away whole. In keeping that one small thing, I have kept something larger, something worth holding on to if I do not yet know its place.




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"The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Berry

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