The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Amazing Uncle Jim

By Sandra Redding © 1986

Issue: March, 1986

In the early spring of 1949 my father's grandmother died. We were living in the Piedmont section of North Carolina at the time, and my father's Uncle Jim telephoned us. "Her funeral will be up here in Franklin," he told my father. "She's lived here all her life. This is where she wanted to be buried."

My father decided that all of us should go. "Uncle Jim has invited us to stay up there with him for a few days," he said to my mother. Then he pulled one of my pigtails. "You'll like Uncle Jim, Sis."

Despite the sad reason for the trip, I couldn't help but be excited. Franklin had been my father's boyhood home, but it had been almost five years since he'd last taken us there. I was also curious about my father's Uncle Jim. I'd overheard my father tell my mother that he was "a real attention-getter." I knew nothing else about him except that, before retiring, he'd taught school and that once he'd served a term on the North Carolina State Legislature.

My father's dilapidated old Ford chugged up narrow mountain roads the day of our trip. My younger brother and sister scuffled in the back seat, but at the age of ten, considering myself to grown up for such shenanigans, I questioned my father instead.

"Franklin?" my father answered me. "Why, Sis, there's probably still rubies in the mines and the streams are plumb full of trout - at least, they used to be." When I asked about Uncle Jim, he laughed. "That old codger?" Well, honey, you'll find out soon enough that Uncle Jim is amazing, simply amazing."

When we finally arrived that afternoon, Uncle Jim, along with the rest of his family came striding across the yard to greet us. As he led us toward his house, the biggest log cabin I'd ever seen, I looked about, marveling at the contrast of those green mountains pitched against a clear blue sky.

We had country ham - ham that Uncle Jim had cured himself - for supper that evening. Along with the ham, we had green beans, corn pudding, home-canned pickles and beets, hot biscuits, and for dessert, the best fried apple pies I'd ever tasted. Afterwards, sitting around the fireplace, Uncle Jim entertained us with humorous tales of flatlanders.

The next day at my great-grandmother's funeral, I found out exactly what my father had meant when he had called Uncle Jim amazing. Because we had already been told at breakfast that Uncle Jim would sing, we were not surprised when at the beginning of the service, he stood up. He had a beautiful voice and I thought his slight mountain twang added character to the familiar strains of "Shall We Gather at the River" and "The Old Rugged Cross." After the songs, the minister of the church read a few Biblical passages, then Uncle Jim stood up again. This time he read a eulogy he had written. Soon the eulogy became an impassioned sermon as, recalling the straight and narrow pathway his own "blessed mother" had followed, he admonished the congregation to follow her example, promising them fire and brimstone if they did not. When Uncle Jim finally wound down, we felt certain he would take a back seat for the remainder of the service, but it was not to be. After the minister's closing prayer, he came to the front of the church again - this time to assist the pall-bearers in taking his mother's body out to the hearse.

On the way to the cemetery, my mother commented on the multiple roles of Uncle Jim. "I've never seen anything quite like that," she told father. "Why, he did everything."

Though saddened by his grandmother's death, my father couldn't resist teasing my mother. "Well, I don't guess Uncle Jim did everything. He didn't make the casket, did he?"

All of us laughed but when we arrived at the cemetery, we discovered that though Uncle Jim might not have done everything, he certainly managed to get in the last word. After the minister had uttered the final prayer and while he was shaking hands with members of the family, Uncle Jim scooped up a handful of dirt. Dramatically flinging the dirt onto his mother's casket, he proclaimed: "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."