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Spring daffodils elicit memories of uncle Hobert

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Dolly Withrow Dolly Withrow

Dolly Withrow is a columnist for The State Journal and the Charleston Daily Mail. Contact writer Dolly Withrow at ritewood@aol.com.

The faded photograph is dated on the back: June 12, 1920. The name "William Hobert Frame" is scrawled beside the date. The picture depicts a young man standing beside a bicycle. Wearing a no-nonsense expression and a small-billed cap, he holds the handlebars of the bike and looks unflinchingly into the eye of the camera. My uncle was 23 years old at the time. The photographer captured and held the young man immobile in a lime-green world of youth when his paths led into a distant future. 

He grew to adulthood, having side-stepped some of the most dangerous temptations and obstacles of his formative years. He married Ollie Caldwell, and they had a childless marriage, which was nonetheless a marriage filled with love. My mother told me Hobert, her brother, sang in a gospel quartet. She said a record was cut, and copies sold well. 

Most of his life story is forever lost, though. I never knew my Uncle Hobert when he was young. I remember him only as a middle-aged man and later as an old man. I came to know him best in the icy winter of his life. I remember that after the death of his wife, he sold his home on Brickyard Hill and constructed a shotgun house of cinderblocks in Goldtown, W.Va. My husband and I now live in the house he built. Although we gutted and totally remodeled the structure, living in the same home where my uncle spent what I know now were many lonely hours, he often seems close to me. Uncle Hobert unwittingly taught me much about life, especially life in old age. 

After he had lived in Goldtown for several years, he met and became friends with Shirley, a man of my uncle's generation. Shirley lived on the same hill as my uncle. Almost every day, one phoned the other as they both grew ever older. According to my uncle, they often talked late into the night. Sometimes, they called each other even in the wee hours of the morning, for old people salvage all the minutes they can. Then one day Shirley died, leaving my uncle without a single person who could remember what the world was like when he was a young man. Who would know about his singing triumphs, his courtship with Ollie, his losses and gains, his victories and defeats?  My husband and I continued to buy groceries for him. We carried them up a frozen, deeply rutted road. When we left to live our busy lives, he was left alone with only memories to keep him company.

Although he's been dead for years, I can still see him. It's a warm day with pale sunshine slanting through the green foliage of nearby trees. Sitting on the ground, he leans against the tree trunk, his arms resting on bent knees. In the shade, he watches me walk across the yard. He throws up a hand in greeting. I can no longer visualize every detail of his face or recall what he last wore. Remembering is not the same as experiencing the event itself. It doesn't matter, for as time passes, our perceptions of lost loved ones adjust to a perception more to our liking.  

When my uncle was living, I thought he was thrifty. In some ways, he was. I see him now, though, as generous. When I was young and worked at a Charleston bank, he took me to a clothing store for women. He said, "Pick out what you want." I liked two dresses, a purple wool blend and a muted yellow dress of soft wool. I was trying to decide when he said, "Take them both." Later, we dined at a restaurant that was located across from a movie theater. The clothing store, restaurant, and theater—all locally owned—are gone now. 

Sitting in my office on this pearl-gray morning, I look out my office doors and see the daffodils Uncle Hobert planted in our backyard. Reappearing each year, they survive as a mute reminder that he was here on this land, in this place, that he was once young and grew old and in between he had triumphs and failures, joys and sorrows. I watch tropism in action as the daffodils inexplicably turn their yellow blossoms toward the sun. Nathalie Sarraute, a French author, wrote that tropisms in the human mind are those "rapid sensations that skitter across the floor of our consciousness." On this spring day, as I look at Uncle Hobert's daffodils, images of my uncle flutter at the edge of my memories like shadows dancing in the wind.