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.

One Reply to “Two Sides of the River (conclusion)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *