Uncle Des

Easter morning, bright and clear, just a skinny line of haze over the horizon just above a crystal blue sea, I sit quietly on my veranda, overlooking a peaceful Pacific.  Festive colored beach umbrellas sprout here and there like little flowers, heads are bobbing in the surf.  Mornings at the beach are the great equalizer.  Who’s rich, who’s not so, who’s suffered pain, who’s gained the world, who knows? All is right with the world.  The sand is warming, the perfect morning is sliding into the perfect day.

My phone, however sadly always at my side, vibrates against the tempered glass table.  Now wait.  I’ve heard from my kids, my husband is inside taking advantage of the quiet, is it really someone I NEED to talk to?

Sighing, I make the grand gesture and check the number.  Hmmmm, vaguely familiar.  But the town of origin?  Cottonwood Falls, Kansas!

Uncle Des.


No thought, only action, I press the “Hello” button.


“Well, Lizbet, how are ya?!”  a gnarled, nasal voice bursts into my ear.  “Happy Easter to ya!” 

Oddly, I want to giggle.  You’d have to know my Uncle Des.  He was always my favorite uncle….and least favorite, too, as the old joke goes.  He is my ONLY uncle and one I spent hours and hours of my childhood following and irritating and admiring. Unchanged, well maybe a wrinkle or two, but I’d be hard pressed to recognize the old from the new, guessing most were the ones I’d given him so many years gone.

I’ve got him pegged in my mind’s eye. Lean and lanky, blond squiggly hair like corn silks, Uncle Des was born just outside Cottonwood Falls in 1925, born to an itinerant farmer, one of four boys and three girls.  Hardscrabble as they come, them boys and girls and their mama and daddy, they worked hard day and night, building up some savings.  Never enough to buy their own land, but enough to use that lived upon land to plant and grow and harvest and open their own Feed and Seed right there in Cottonwood Falls.

Known as Williams and Sons, and later Williams Brothers once their daddy passed on, they found their business acumen was solid, as was their melding of skills.  Made a name for themselves, and while the girls all got married off and planted themselves elsewhere, the boys stayed put, the Feed and Seed was who they were.    For years it was the biggest enterprise in the county.

Des’s oldest brother Earnest, he was the bossman, impeccably organized, and self-annointed.  Second in line was Engal.  He was the numbers man.  Hours with too little light and too may columns of digits gave him a permanent squint and shoulders hunched nearly to his ears.  But he could make those numbers dance and the profits fairly leap off the paper.  Number three was Everett.  Now he was the salesman, the kind who put his arm around your shoulder while picking your pocket.  His smile was big and his swagger was bigger.

He didn’t like us kids much.

Last in line was Uncle Des, short for Desmond.  Always a little on the scrawny side, a little too sharp in the features to be considered handsome, , britches always on the sagging baggy like hand-me-downs,   the older fellows turned a blind eye and a cold shoulder his way.   He’d trouble understanding in school, and folks considered him just a little on the light side of smart.

He knew he wasn’t dumb,  he could build anything, raise anything, fix anything, figure out anything, but ask him to read the instructions, he’d lose all confidence and turn to his tools, silent and defeated.

Dismissed at home and in the family business, he lied about his age, left school early,  and enlisted in the United States Army at seventeen.   Given a uniform fitting snug and tight and sharp like it was made just for him,  he was shipped immediately to Germany to finish the fighting there.

And never told us story one about that.

Came home with a sack of medals and commendations, proud he’d served with honor. Ernest and Engal and Everett, they took him out for a fine dinner, and according to Uncle Des with a sardonic grin, it was the only time.    Came home to a job, too,  sweeping the floor at the Feed and Seed, a menial employee while the Brothers split the profits three ways.

Back in his baggy britches, Uncle Des’s manner was nearly always certain and sure, especially in front of us kids.  Newly confident, we always thought it was the bag of medals,  he’d not allow those brothers defeat him, not anymore.    He’d grand ideas of improving the business, and sure as not they’d implement them and profits would rise.  And he’d still be sweeping the floor.

He’d cleverly advanced the seed production and storage and again, profits would rise.  And he’d still be sweeping the floor.

He’d visit local farmers, tout the enhanced yield of a particular crop and advancements in fertilization,  sales increasing.  And he’d still be sweeping those floors.

He found the love of his life, Dinah, and sweeping floors kept food on the table. My cousins were sprouted.  Not particularly patient, genes prevented that, he was still grand fun just to follow around.  Don’t remember once him putting his feet up, or even sitting in a comfortable chair.  He’d a massive garden whose produce he shared with neighbors and family and clergy of all denominations. He’d inventions he’d meticulously explain and demonstrate and then just give away.  He built houses and barns and chicken coops and went to swap meets and taught Sunday School and plowed the snow from the Cottonwood Falls streets.

Promises were made, he’d tell my folks during those quiet grownup discussions when we cousins were supposed to be catching lightin’ bugs outside, and he was hopeful he’d get a full partnership, or some piece of the Williams Brothers Feed and Seed pie.

Maybe next year.

Or maybe the next.

Never did happen.  At least not that I heard.  Cousins grew up and married, just like me, and moved hither and thither.  Uncle Des and Aunt Dinah found themselves a small farm  for sale just about an hour outside the Falls,  sweet little lady lost her husband and her desire to live alone in the country.  Uncle Des, having squirreled a little away here and there, though who knows how, put a down payment on the place without even consulting Aunt Dinah.  And after sweeping those floors once last time, he gave the Williams Brothers his notice of resignation and retirement.

The brothers were aghast at his impertinence, considering him selfish and an ungrateful brother, if never really a Williams Brother…..

They would not be planning a retirement dinner.

Happy and free, Uncle Des now had a perpetual smile on his fox-like features.  He learned to cook, trial and error.  I’ll admit to tasting both.  He taught himself how to sew and planted pumpkins, with children dragging parents  from far and wide to play in his corn-stalk mazes.  He built birdhouses out of old fence wood.  He cared for Aunt Dinah through years of illness and cantankerousness. He collected old glassware and became a fixture at local auctions.

And after a proper mourning time once Aunt Dinah passed away, he’d hop in his old Ford pickup on a whim and travel the countryside, just because he could.  Well, he’d not go more than a half a day away, as he like to sleep in his own bed come nighttime.  Kind of particular about that.

Uncle Des even found his learning issues stemmed from classic symptoms of dyslexia, easing his mind on many fronts.  Got himself a written diagnosis, made copies, and lawsy if he didn’t send an individual copy certified and signature required to the other Williams Brothers, to Earnest and Engal and Everett, the only time I sniffed just the littlest bit of orneriness.

And now, looking out over the calm of the California coast, Uncle Des, nearly ninety, he’s calling me just to shoot the breeze on a clear and bright Easter morning.

Him still near Cottonwood  Falls and me right there with him.



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