Two Sides of the River (conclusion)

if you missed part one, you may want to begin here


In all the years under his roof, I never heard Uncle Roe disparage his brother Ben. Not even when Ben let his hair grow wild and started wearing a kilt. Roe simply shook his head and chuckled, “Guess the trees told him to do it.”

The truth was less mystical. Our ancestors rode the tides from the Scottish isles, and Ben was a man drawn to the old ways and the old land. Roe understood this. A respect for weathered truths was another quality these brothers shared, even if they each wore it their own way. Pigs would crow before you’d catch Roe in a man-skirt or a man-tail. However, a couple days a month, Ben would walk into Skyline Hardware or the Dairy King with red plaid hanging from his waist down to his bony white knees.

Ben appreciated the Scots’ music and their customs and their drinks, but it was the fire of the people that beckoned him. “Those old Scots were alive,” Ben said. And if there’s anything Ben admired, it was a woman or man who excelled at the craft of living.

Uncle Roe was just as keen on living, but the life he imagined took a vastly different shape. Roe believed Ben was an idealist, a disposition only suited for “giggly girls, priests and senile old men.” Roe believed idealism dangerous, that it kept a man from inhabiting the hardship and the joy right in front of him. It wasn’t that Roe lacked high principles, he simply believed they were naked facts, chiseled straight from the stone of hard, cold truth. Roe loved the woods and the sod ever bit as much as his younger brother, but he loved them differently. They both peered into the world, but they often gathered distinct visions. Roe had the eyes of a father. Ben had the eyes of a lover.

This schism explains why I dreaded the conversation Uncle Roe and I needed to have. Two months previous, Uncle Ben invited me to make the thirty mile ride to Renton to kick the tires on a truck for sale. On the drive, he asked if I would like to apprentice with him in his design firm. He knew I was considering an architecture degree, and he wanted to help. I was surprised at my immediate yes. Ben had barely finished the ask before I shot out my answer, and my visceral response had little to do with architecture or my career path. I was overcome by desire I hadn’t known existed only a minute previous: I longed for my Uncle Ben’s voice. I’d always admired him, but I didn’t really know him. I wanted more of him, from him, and Uncle Ben had just welcomed me to take it.

I wasn’t sure how Roe would receive the news. Since he’d always hoped I’d step into the family landscaping business, there was sure to be disappointed. Since I would be abandoning his dream in order to work with Uncle Ben, he’d probably see it as a defection. Roe wouldn’t try to change my mind, that wasn’t his way. But I expected a flash of anger or worse – the silence of grief. When we sat at the kitchen table, he asked me what was on my mind. I wanted to work my way up to it, but nothing irked Roe more than a man who wouldn’t say what he needed to say. “Uncle Ben has asked me to be his apprentice,” I said.

Roe took this in, considered it for only a moment and said, “Well, that’s an honor and you’ll be good at it. When do you start?”

I watched his face. All I found was generosity. “I thought you’d be disappointed or mad or … something.”

Roe put his strong arm on my shoulder and squeezed several times. His eyes were moist and kind. “Son, this is a hard world we live in. There’s no time to waste begrudging a man’s joy. I say you’ve got to find grace anywhere and everywhere you can find it.”

He gave me another long squeeze and poured me a cup of coffee. We sat at the table for another long while. I don’t remember most of what we talked about. Only that both of us were slow to get up. I do remember he asked my opinion about a big job he was bidding on for the new hospital in Thompson County. And I remember us laughing. I remember him asking if I planned to wear a skirt.

Two Sides of the River

I was too young to remember, but both my father’s brothers beat the ambulance to the hospital. Those three had many a scuffle over the years, but when a crisis hit, they lined up shoulder to shoulder. Neither my mother nor my father survived, but due to luck and the fastidious way my mom always strapped me into the car seat, I didn’t have so much as a bump on my noggin. Ever since, they’ve called me Tank.

Uncle Ben and Uncle Roe both wanted to take me into their family, and though I haven’t been able to get clear on all the details as to how they came to a decision, I ended up with Roe and Aunt Lucy and cousins Ron and Lilly who couldn’t have become any more of a brother or sister to me than if we’d all popped out of the same belly whistling three-part harmony.

Uncle Roe and Uncle Ben shared genes and certain family traits: wit, loyalty, broad shoulders and an ornery streak. But in most every other way, they were oil and water. Roe was Republican and Lutheran. He liked his coffee black. He lived east of the river. When the community split over the big Co-op that moved into town, Roe sided with those who believed the benefit of a couple hundred jobs outweighed the harm of outside money. I’ve never heard Roe utter a cross word to any living creature, but I’ve also never seen him back down. Once Roe drove up on the Fentson clan, along with two or three of their drinking buddies, manhandling a couple migrant workers. Roe was outnumbered, but that was no concern. As I’ve heard Roe say my entire life: “Right’s right, wrong’s wrong.” Roe grabbed a PVC pipe from the bed of his truck and went to work making things right. When the fracas concluded, he had a shattered shoulder but received a string of effusive gracias. To Roe, this seemed a fair trade.

Uncle Ben was a Democrat and a Baptist. He only drank tea, called coffee the bitter brew. He lived west of the river. Ben believed the Co-op would pervert all he knew and loved about this town of his. When the Co-op made an outrageous offer for Ben’s 103 acres, an offer that would have meant neither Ben nor his great-grandchildren would ever know another care in the world, he asked the big wigs if they’d throw in a couple pairs of flame-retardant Levis because signing that contract would mean selling his soul to the Devil. Then Ben struck a match and tossed it, with the contract, into the waste basket. Uncle Ben meandered through the woods talking to the trees. He wrote poetry and read Steinbeck. With the Co-op as a rare exception, Ben had a wide capacity for paradoxes and truths that exist in tension.

Roe and Ben shared Christmas and Easter dinner, diligently (happily, even) honored the annual July 4th family gathering and never had to guess whether  the other would be at their side in those moments when a brother must be a brother. Short of that, these two men lived at opposite ends of the county, but it might as well have been at opposite ends of the universe.


(part two)