Last Thanksgiving Uncle Tom said, “In all these years, I’ve never so much as gone in for a check up”. Mom says it was because he sensed that something was changing with his health, and he was letting us know in his own way. For a while, he talked about moving back to Oklahoma to be closer to us. He didn’t want to be alone anymore. But then, when it really came down to it, he changed his mind again. Decided he’d just stay on his old place up in California. He’d been living on his own little plot out there for thirty years or so. Why leave it now? Oh, it isn’t anything grand in terms of wealth, as most consider that notion. But he was proud of that place. Took good care of it. Every Christmas he sent us packages of walnuts, pecans and oranges, straight off of the trees in his own orchard. He gathered up the eggs his chickens left every morning. Liked to scramble them up for his dog’s breakfast.
He was married five times or so. That wasn’t typical in our family and most of us didn’t understand. One thing about that though, he never gave up on love, which is more than some can say, I guess. He didn’t know he had a daughter until she was already grown. When he found her, he loved her like he never missed a minute of it. I hear Heather rides a Harley Davidson out on the open road these days. He didn’t raise her but maybe a streak of his independence somehow found its way into her soul.
Even greater than his physical stature, Tom’s personality demanded the attention of every person in the room. What a character. The stories he told! I’d tell you some except I couldn’t do them any justice. And you probably wouldn’t believe them anyway. He had a way with words and an ornery disposition. We never got upset by the occasional insensitive remark, we’d just say, “oh well, its Uncle Tom – he doesn’t mean anything by it”.
So many times I’ve heard people say, “I don’t really care what anyone else thinks of me”. But Tom was one of the few people I ever knew –and maybe the only one- who honestly lived his life in accordance with those words, for better or worse. I have a lot of respect for that. Takes some real guts. At the most recent family reunion, Tom cut the preacher off during his remarks, telling him to get on with blessing the food, so the rest of us could eat. Some of us were a little horrified…and secretly amused. He said what was on his mind.
Most importantly to us, the Phillips family, he was a fisherman. Like his father. And his brother. Like his nephews and like my son. Passed down from generation to generation. Love of the river, love of the lakes. Love of the campfire and the starry sky for a roof. He lives on. I really wish I could remember the last thing I said to him. But man, if I had to guess, I’m pretty sure it must have been, “I love you, Uncle Tom.”
Anyway, there’s this guy, Thornton Wilder. He wrote a book about what I’m trying to say to you all:
"But we shall soon die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning." ~The Bridge of San Luis Rey