Well, I took him for granted — strong, strapping and chiseled from the black coal of Chattaroy, West Virginia, as he was and had always been.
If ever there was an embodiment of Affrilachia — that nexus of Africans in America intersecting Appalachian ways and culture — it was my Uncle John.
Our shared family joke is that Uncle John was a ’bama, a country boy who only needed a patch of dirt to grow his own food and a good, down-home church to make him happy.
He and my mother, Gladine, who died 10 years ago, were great friends, and she teased him mercilessly about his country-ness, his penchant for cheap, Chinese-made goods he bought off TV and his “rubber shoes” and too-big suits.
But Uncle John could take it.
Because he was tough-skinned, tough-spirited; really a man’s man in the old-school sense. We felt safe when Uncle John was around. We were kept and cared for. We laughed a lot at him, but we laughed more with him.
Family lore has it that when my grandparents Ed and Mary Alice Hill started moving their nine children — most of them grown except Uncle William and Aunt Victoria — from Chattaroy to Hamilton, Uncle John was such a catch, none of his sisters thought any of the big-city women were good enough for him.
He was muscular, having finished a tour in the U.S. Honor Guard where, he once told me, he’d escorted former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
He was the first black officer hired by the Hamilton Police Department and he started the first-ever black Boy Scouts Troop in Hamilton.
I didn’t even know this until two of his former Scouts who’d traveled all the way to Chicago told me at his graveside.
Settling into his Hamilton life, he’d been raised to find a good wife, have kids, provide for and discipline them and keep everyone safe, and that is precisely what he did.
He married Dorothy Rumph, and together they raised Mary Catherine, Karen and Lisa.
Uncle John and Aunt Dorothy were married 30-plus years.
When Aunt Dorothy died of breast cancer, I didn’t think I would ever see Uncle John crumble and cry.
This man was a body builder who walked around Hamilton in his off-duty hours wearing tie-dyed muscle shirts, de rigueur double-knot pants and Chuck Taylors.
For sport, we’d hang onto his bicep while he did curls, or we’d punch him our hardest in his stomach.
When he was shot during a police run to a bar and was flat on his back recuperating, I held no doubts in my young mind that Uncle John would be back, as strong as ever.
But when his “Dot” died, I worried some part of his spirit was also dead.
My mother, sister and then-stepfather had moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and, as usual, my mother landed in a black Baptist church where she played piano and worked as secretary. She got my uncle to come, to get out of the house he’d shared with Dorothy.
Thank God he did.
In 1991, he married Rosetta, a good black woman with a quiet sense of humor, two grown children of her own who never once tried to change Uncle John or belittle him for who he was.
My mother warned him about his shoes and suits, telling him Rosetta, a corporate manager, was not accustomed to country boys in cheap clothes.
They were a handsome couple who’d found one another and courted the old-fashioned way. It was Rosetta who saved Uncle John from growing old alone on his homestead in Trenton: They traveled, worshipped and tended to their children and grandchildren.
But Rosetta not only welcomed Uncle John into her life, she accepted all his loud, storytelling, I’m-sicker-than-you, territorial sisters who never thought any woman was good enough for good ol’ Uncle John.
I can see why.
This dude was simply a good man; he helped all his nieces and nephews and did not hoard his own goodwill simply for his own children.
When my oldest brother, Randy, was getting his bearings and moving back to Cincinnati from Fort Wayne, it was Uncle John who helped drive Randy’s belongings back here.
Whenever I needed a ride to see my mom in Fort Wayne, it was Uncle John who’d call me, and together we’d ride — all the way on two-lane country roads through Amish country because he preferred them to expressways — to Fort Wayne, and he would, without fail, have bags of greens, tomatoes, potatoes, yams and onions in tow for my mother. And that food would be on the table after church on Sunday.
Like any good father worth his mettle, Uncle John did not always agree with his daughters’ choices.
He was hardcore.
When cousin Mary Catherine was flowering into a young woman in Hamilton, she was gorgeous, talented and stacked, and Uncle John kept an unfailing eye on her.
“He was hard on me,” she said in his church basement this past weekend.
I can recall Lisa riding to Fort Wayne with us and keeping his car to drive on to Chicago to see a guy she was dating — but not before she got the Come-to-Jesus talk from Uncle John.
Still, he loved them and bailed them out.
We buried him in Chicago dirt Saturday.
They say he’d died several months ago in the emergency room but came back to, they say, make sure everyone and everything was in its proper order.
Funny, my mother did not let go until we were all gathered around her bedside, where she asked: “Is that my home? It’s so big. There are so many rooms.” (John 14:2: “My Father’s house has so many rooms...”)
So Mom had seen the other side waiting for her.
I told cousin Mary before the funeral that I started not to come. I am squeamish of funerals and hospitals since our mother died.
But then I sat alone and thought long and hard about what Mom would have wanted, requested and expected of her four children as duty, respect and responsibility to her brother John, and I got myself together and piled into Kenny’s truck with my siblings and my dear Aunt Janice and rode to Chicago.
And when my Uncle William, now the only surviving boy of Ed and Mary and one of five living of nine, opened his mouth to speak a testimonial to Uncle John, to dying, to living, to family, to Christ, I wept so mightily I could barely breath.
I felt our mother in that place and she was proud.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]