Thursday, August 7, 2008

the coolest old man i know

This weekend I met the coolest old man I know.

Technically I already knew him, because he's my great-uncle. But after this weekend I realize that I never really knew exactly who my great-uncle Robert Lowery is.

Uncle Robert lives in the heart of small-town America: Warsaw, Virginia. 124 Sunset Lane is directly across the street from my grandmother's house, the house I always considered my home away from home. The house no longer belongs to us; we sold it about a year after my grandmother's death sophomore year. I haven't been inside since before she died. The exterior of the house has fallen into disrepair, but my memories of the life within have only grown sharper since my grandmother's death. I want to keep it that way.

Ping-pong and sherbet. I always looked forward to Sunday afternoons with Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Robert because I knew there would be rainbow sherbet with those little flower cookies waiting for us across the street. In his 80s at the time, Uncle Robert was still quicker at PingPong than Victoria and I at 9 and 10. Their house smelled of smoke, and once I asked Aunt Charlotte "are your legs so skinny because you smoke so many cigarettes?" We played Uno, Labyrinth, and Pokeno at the booth-like kitchen table over countless blue willow bowls of sherbet and cookies. I was always reluctant to go home.

Another few months spent with my grandmother, this time in sixth grade. I borrowed Uncle Robert's typewrite to write the poems I'd hand-written for English class, but that had to be typed. I had never even heard of Microsoft Word. Later that year I interviewed Uncle Robert for a class project. He talked with me about his experience in WWII. Somehow I had always known that he was in the war, but he never talked about it. Mommy said he had always shied away from answering questions about his experience. Maybe he had finally accepted his experience. Maybe time had just eased the pain. I'm just lucky he answered all my questions.

Drafted in 1942, Uncle Robert was in the 103rd Regiment, in the United States Army. He volunteered to be in the Paratrooping Company, and became the communications officer for Company C. He landed in both North Africa and Anzio, though not at Normandy. He was wounded before D-Day. By the time the war was over he was back at home in the post office with his Purple Heart as the eternal evidence of his service to his country. I asked him if he had his uniform; they took it from him at the hospital. At the time he wasn't too concerned about keeping it for curious grandchildren.

He worked for the post office for 40 or 50 years as a rural mail carrier. In his free time he volunteered for the fire department and rescue squad: until he was 92 years old. Only this past October, with the failing health of my aunt Charlotte did he resign as a volunteer and treasurer for the Richmond County Fire Department. I remember hearing the fire alarm and watching him jump into his truck and as he was backing out of the driveway asking my mother where he was going. "The fire station." In his 80s.

The house doesn't smell like smoke anymore. Aunt Charlotte died this past February. I couldn't go to her funeral, like I couldn't go to Grandmommy's, because I was at school and last-minute flights are so expensive. This past weekend I saw both of their headstones for the first time. Aunt Charlotte was my Grandaddy's sister. They looked in on my grandmother as her health failed, soon after my Grandaddy died. Now who is left to look in on Uncle Robert, with his only son in Seattle?

At 92, it is he who still looks in on other people.

He has been the treasurer of Warsaw Baptist Church for I don't know how many years, and still counts the money every Sunday. He was also the mayor of the Town of Warsaw for 15 years - from 1975 to 1990. They are re-elected every two years. That's seven reelections. Warsaw loved Mayor Lowery.

We met our cousin (everyone in that town is my cousin) Rusty Brown as we were visiting the Sanders gravesite that is on his property. It's his hobby to fix up the gravesite and replace the common headstones with engraved ones. Uncle Robert was with us.
"Well, didn't you know Mr. Lowery had a building named after him?"
"What? No! Robert, why didn't you tell us?"
Silence. Uncle Robert is staring at the ground.
A building is named after him and he is still as modest as ever.

We drive by the Robert W. Lowery building and make him get out and take a picture next to the sign. He is a good sport. Only now am I realizing how much Warsaw loves its Mr. Lowery.

Only now am I realizing why everyone else calls him Mr. Lowery.

With our visit this weekend, my respect for him has increased tenfold. I always knew he was one of a dying breed of Southern Gentlemen: honest, humble, self-sacrificial, and reserved. But I never knew exactly how much service he offered his community - precisely because of how humble he really was.

As much as I respect him, and although the rest of the town calls him Mr. Lowery, he remains my Uncle Robert. And while it is awesome to have such a well-respected man as my great uncle, his quiet smile revealing his true enjoyment from our visit is imprinted on my heart.

1 comment:

ashley joy said...

Wow, that's cool, Ashley!