Things I Learned from My Uncle
In Memory of my Uncle Jim Parrish who passed away on October 4th, 2013.
I wake up early to prepare for work. I eat a breakfast of warm eggs and hot coffee. I load up my truck and prepare for the hour-long drive to my uncle’s house.
As I weave through the city to avoid too much traffic, I think through the tasks of the coming day. My favorite part of this drive is getting to cross the long bridge that splits the lake. The moment the ground drops out from underneath me and the water spreads in each direction I feel free. As if I suddenly had no limits and could simply fly off in any direction I choose.
Between the lake and my uncle’s house are mostly old farmhouses and open fields. As I drive down the narrow two-lane highway I watch as old tanned farmers use old green tractors to slowly till up their dry brown fields. The sight of them fills me with a longing for permanence; a connection to the land and an escape from the endless call of a world that’s too big for me to understand.
I don’t mind this long drive, but not just because of the lake or the fields or the time to listen to music. I don’t mind because my uncle has created an elaborate arrangement that pays me for my drive time as long as I work at his house for more than six consecutive hours.
But I know that he didn’t do this because I was such a valuable worker to him. He did it because he knew that I was saving that money for college.
When I arrive at his house he tells me that we will finally be building the fence around the property. I say that I’m glad but I am a little overwhelmed by the prospect.
The first step is to sink tall, rod-iron fence posts into the ground exactly three feet deep. To do this we use an industrial auger that tears violently into the ground, pulling you down like supercharged gravity. But the crumbling red dirt does not want to leave the comfort of its home and no matter how hard I pull up on the auger it magnetically finds its way back into the hole.
We spend two long, frustrating days on the first five posts. I make the passing comment that I wish we could simply vacuum the dirt out and my uncle’s face lights with inspiration. Moments later he brings out his shop-vac and we’re digging perfect, clean, and straight holes in no time.
We finish the whole rest of the property line in two more days and at lunch, my uncle tells everyone he talks to that his “genius” nephew can solve any problem that they have.
We spend the next few weeks welding the heavy iron fence panels between the anchored posts. I hold them in place while watching the level we’ve attached to each one and holding up a windscreen as my uncle works on mastering the perfect welding bead on each seam.
He bought this new Mig welder specifically for this job and I can tell that he’s having a lot more fun than he’s letting on. About a week in he asks me if I want to give it a try. I adamantly decline but he won’t let me off that easy.
“Every job is easy if you’ve got the right tool,” he tells me.
He explains how the inert gas shields the wire as the heat melts it into place. He shows me how to mark my starting point before bringing down my welding helmet and how to move in a long smooth motion so that we don’t get any bubbles.
I take a deep breath and give it a try. It’s not the pretty, clean bead that he has been making, but the bond is strong and he is pleased. I suggest that we could grind down the uneven bumps to make it uniform and he refuses, saying that there’s no way that we’re going to destroy such a perfect junction.
I do a few more seams but we switch back so that the job can finish on schedule. I resolve to always try new things, even though they are daunting, but never before I get the right tool for the job.
My Uncle and I didn’t need to spend a lot of time together for me to know that he believed in me. It came through in every passing glance, smile, and nod.
He and I never had any long, heartfelt conversations. We never talked about our insecurities or the meaning of life. He never felt the need to pause and share his vast wisdom about growing up or being a man.
Yet somehow these are the very things that I learned from him. Generosity, humility, and the importance of having the confidence to try things that are outside of my comfort zone.
These are the things that every man needs to understand.
These are the things that I want to pass on to my sons.
These are the things that I learned from my uncle.