Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Baptism of Uncle Bill

So, my brother made me cry this Christmas. Well...crying doesn't exactly describe it. I'm told I made "animal noises."

You see, at some point in December, he found Mama and Daddy's old slides. From these, Kevin created a 10-minute-long digital slide show, complete with songs that seemed to perfectly fit the memories captured by the fingers that had snapped all those pictures--most of them, no doubt, snapped by our Mimi. (That's her in the blue dress. That's my adorable cousin Patty with her hands over her eyes. I'll tell you more about the man in the picture as I go.)

Mimi was my daddy's only sister. She was born into a houseful of boys. She loved them all.

Her real name was Callie. But everyone called her Mimi. To this day, she remains a bit of an enigma to me. I sometimes find myself wondering how...why...a beautiful young lady who put herself through nursing school... served as a nurse in World War II... spent holidays with girlfriends in such places as Miami, FL, and Havana, Cuba...would then just...come home and devote herself to that same family of brothers and later...to those brothers' children. Not her own.

Family rumors have it that a handsome Army captain broke her heart, and she never quite recovered. (I discovered a picture of him once--he looked like Clark Gable.) But...I never asked Mimi about him. I was afraid it would make her cry.

When I was 6 and my brother was 3, Mimi started hanging out with a man who would drive her to Kimberly in his truck. He was a widower, who had no children.

My first memory of "that man" took place in my mama and daddy's darkened bedroom, where we were watching Mimi's latest Kelley-Family-Movie installment on the white bed sheet Mama had hung on the wall.

I guess my then-three-year-old brother thought he better find out a little more about this guy who had started driving his Mimi around. So, Kevin crawled up in his lap and asked, "Uncle Bill, do you have a tally-whacker?"

Well, this question caused my Mama to scream...my Daddy to chuckle...my Mimi to laugh out loud...and my Uncle Bill to reply, "Well, buddy, last time I checked I did."

I've always thought of that moment as "The Baptism of Uncle Bill". Why he ever said "I do" to that wild, country bunch of nieces and nephews simply remains a mystery to me! He must have loved our Mimi even more than we did.

From the moment Mimi and Uncle Bill said, "I do," that quiet house in Hueytown, which had originally belonged to him and his first wife, was never quite the same. About every other weekend, some group of nieces and nephews--sometimes all 15+ of us--would descend on it. Every room filled with noise.

My brother's favorite room was the study--he loved to look at the old pictures hanging in there of Uncle Bill's life before the invasion of the Kelley clan. But my favorite room was NOT even a room--it was the bathroom closet. From that closet, you could crawl into Mimi & Bill's bathroom. I remember sneaking in there, hoping to....Well, come to think of it, I'm not quite sure what I was hoping. But, I felt sneaky and powerful. Almost every time, one of my cousins, Lisa or Denise, would find me, and I'd quickly hold up a finger to my lips and motion for them to squeeze in with me and listen to the mysterious, grown-up bathroom talk just on the other side of that wooden closet door.

Of course, Mimi would always fuss when she found me, which was almost every time. I guess chubby girls sneaking around in closets make more noise than we think. But, her anger never lasted long, which is probably why I kept crawling back in.

That Hueytown house became an extension of Kimberly, only more magical, more exotic. I can remember asking my friend, Julie Reno, "Wanna go to Mimi's house?" in the same way you'd ask a child now, "Wanna go to Disney World?"

Looking at pictures of that house, I don't see a thing that made it so special. It was just your standard, 1960s 3-bedroom brick rancher.

But...its living room was the place where Mimi tried her darndest to teach this little Pentecostal child how to dance, while the rest of my cousins (especially Gary Paul) were cuttin' a rug. (The boy could dance!) I can still hear Mimi telling me, "It's just like pickin' apples--reach up and pick 'em from the tree...then reach down and put 'em in a basket."

This living room was also the place where a 3-foot-tall silver aluminum tree became the stuff of Christmas magic. I can still hear the "wwhhssshh" as the older, more "responsible" cousins--Kenneth, Gary Paul, Dawn, Patty--would pull those silver branches out of their paper sleeves and insert the red-tipped branches into the red-tipped holes and the blue-tipped branches into the blue tipped-holes...until every single branch was in place. Then...once the tree was decorated, Uncle Bill would plug in the color wheel, and all of us would go running into the front yard to look through the picture window as the silver tree changed from red...to blue...to green...to yellow...and back again.

And, of course, this living room was always the place where we watched Mimi's latest installment of "Kelley Family Movies." But, in this living room, we didn't have to resort to moviewatching on wrinkly sheets hung on the wall--she and Uncle Bill owned their very own portable movie screen! I loved to run my hand across that screen--it looked and felt like somebody had sprayed it with shiny sand. Between reels, some cousin inevitably felt compelled to entertain us with his or her latest anatomically-correct shadow puppet discovery. (I guess we got that part honest--our Mama Kelley delighted in making anatomically-correct teacake men. But that's another story for another time...)

So many memories were made in that Hueytown house. Of course, they had nothing to do with that house and everything to do with her...with them--Mimi, Uncle Bill, my brother, my cousins--sometimes even my mama and daddy and aunts and uncles were allowed to join in the fun. They are the ones who made it feel like Disney World, and Mimi will forever be the perfect Fairy Godmother.

Even now...some 40 years later...her pictures, her captured memories...were magically transformed into a treasured Christmas present by the last nephew born to her...one she adored.

Watching my Christmas gift reminded me of just how much I miss the people who created those memories with me...for me. Of how much I miss her.

We all have sad little places inside. One of mine is that my honey and sons and nephews and my one beautiful niece never got to be loved by Mimi....at least not yet...

I have this daydream about seeing her again. In it, all the "Kelley" babies who've been born since she went Home line up to meet her...all the way down to the newest little Callie who was born into the Kelley-Cummings-Beasley clan just last year. In my dream, Mimi scoops each of them into one of her from-the-heart hugs and issues her standard blessing...the one pronounced over each of us every time we saw her, "You know your Mimi loves you."

"But the love of the Lord remains forever with those who fear him.
His salvation extends to the children’s children
of those who are faithful to his covenant,
of those who obey his commandments!"
(Psalm 103:17-18, NLT)


  1. Beautiful, Karen! Thank you for writing this! Love you! -Nicole

  2. Cole, SO happy you enjoyed it! Weren't we blessed? And didn't even know it.