Thursday, February 7, 2013

Remembering my witch doctor, Uncle Jimmie

Christmas Day 2012 with my soon-to-be-born nephew in belly!
In the summer of 1998 I was 12 years old and heading into the eighth grade.  My sister, Lindsay, was 10 and my brother, Michael, 16.  Dad was transitioning from one position to another in his work and was required to take off a year in between his two positions and so he took the opportunity to take our family on the trip of a lifetime.  We headed to the wild, wild West.  

We packed our bags and spent six weeks traveling from our home in Virginia Beach, VA to Seattle, WA via Philadelphia, PA to Vancouver, Canada, San Francisco, CA to Catalina Island, Monterey and Carmel, Tijuana, Mexico, Las Vegas, NV and finally to Vail, CO before returning home.  We traveled by plane, train, automobile, RV trailer and walked trails in the Grand Canyon.  We slept in hotels and YMCAs and ate rye sandwiches with mustard and bologna.  We saw a meteor shower sitting on the hood of our rental car and Siegfried and Roy's show and the painted desert while standing at the intersection of four states.  

The trip was remarkable and Dad & Sheri spoiled us in every meaning of the word - especially in experiences.  I can see the pictures in my mind now of Dad, his shirt off and his white skin blending in with the snow behind him with his t-shirt tied in his belt loop - Mt. Rainier looming in the background.  I can see another one of us kids standing on a rock formation in the Grand Canyon - my short hair looking like a baby chick's sticking in every direction and Lindsay's short bob and toothy grin with Michael standing with his arm's raised above his head like a body builder.  While many of the details of the trip escape me, the feeling of the journey remains.

The trip was memorable for more than just those experiences and the pictures that remain in my mind like blurry, vintage photographs.  The trip has become a legend in our family because of my Uncle Jimmie and his endless recounting of the journey - to those who were on it and near strangers alike with whom he would share parts of the trip at parties and family gatherings.  

While my Uncle Jimmie was technically my Uncle - my Dad's half-brother - he was more like a grandfather since he was 30 years older than my father.  As my father often says, Jimmie was his "brother from another mother."  My grandfather's second wife, my Granny, refused for my father to know his brother while he was growing up.  Instead, Jimmie (and his sister, Anne) lived a 30 minute drive away in nearby Chesapeake, VA while my Dad grew up in Virginia Beach.  
Maybe my favorite picture of both Jimmie & Lindsay - her bob grown out and still with a toothy grin :)
Jimmie, like many grandparents are wont to do, would often repeat the same stories.  One of my favorites was when he met my Dad for the first time.  He said he had been following my Dad's professional life through newspaper stories that he'd collected in a folder and had passed the bank where my Dad was working numerous times before he finally decided, one day in the 1980s, to go inside.  He said he asked my Dad's secretary if my Dad was available and she said he was busy with a call.  Jimmie said, "I'm his brother - can you let him know I'm here?" and she went back to get my Dad who came out and then they talked for over two hours in my Dad's office.  I can't imagine what it would be like to meet a sibling for the first time in my mid-thirties - especially since Jimmie was the spitting image of my grandfather who passed away in 1976.  

Another story Jimmie often reminded Lindsay and I of was how he was our 'witch doctor' who could make anything bad go away.  On our trip out West when Lindsay and I, sensitive souls that we were and are, would get our feelings hurt Jimmie would soothe us and say that the witch doctor was here - we didn't need to worry.

Two weeks ago, on January 27, 2013, our witch doctor passed away.  His precious wife, our Cathleen - who filled our lives with joy in her own special way, passed away in 2009 and the pain of her loss seemingly compounded for him every day.  At 93 years old - he was ready to join the Lord - as he often said himself toward his last months with us.  

Sometimes people would ask Jimmie the secret to his marriage to Cathleen, which lasted over 63 years, or sometimes he would offer his secret unprompted.  He would lean in, cock his head to the side and with a twinkle in his eye reply - "I learned early on to say 'yes m'am and no m'am.'"

I am thankful for a lot in my life.   The ups and downs and all arounds make for a beautiful patchwork of memories, experiences and stories that I love to reflect on as I start my own journey with Abdoulaye.  Jimmie was truly a link to a piece of history that I would have known little to nothing about had he not made himself a part of our lives by going to meet my Dad over 25 years ago.  Dad equally changed all of our lives when he embraced Jimmie and Cathleen's presence by including them in our family vacations, outings and celebrations.  

It's now February 2013, I'm 26 years old, recently married (soon-to-be married again in May to the same lovely man :) and entering my second year of graduate school.  Lindsay just turned 25 and Michael and his wife Courtney are about to welcome their son into the world (I can't wait!!).  I'm learning that life, like the weather in New England, changes quickly but that being with ones you love, like Jimmie always showed, is one of the most beautiful blessings life can offer.  

Abdoulaye and I are now snuggled up in Vermont as I take part in the on-campus portion of my studies kicking off the second year of my Master of Arts in International Education.  We flew to Vermont via Boston after Jimmie's funeral on February 1st and made it onto a standby flight with separate seats.  My seat was next to a man returning from a trip to the Bahamas with his wife while Abdoulaye's seat was near a rowdy family of five.  The man next to me asked about my husband and when I said we'd been married just over a month, he smiled and looked at his wife before looking back at me.  "Marriage is easy," he said.  "All you have to do is learn to say 'yes m'am and no m'am.'"  I'll carry that memory with me always - I know it was Jimmie's way of letting me know that from the wild, wild West to the wild unknown of my future, my witch doctor will be with me wherever I go.  

With our witch doctor on Valentine's Day 2012


  1. what a touching tribute to uncle jimmie. i love that you always do such a great job of capturing your experiences through photos and stories. thanks for sharing both with us here. thoughts with your family. glad you were all together to celebrate his life.

  2. thank you, kate! i love writing these posts because it helps me hold on to these tender memories - i want them kept somewhere i can find them :)


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