It’s a faded copy of a photograph taken “sometime before 1900.” The picture of nine people in Sunday dress is part of a genealogical report on the Hugh and Rose Mallen family of Plattsburg, Missouri. Four of the five in the back row and the patriarch have relaxed expressions as if a split second later they would be curving their lips up in a smile or smirk. The others, with turned-down mouths, appear solemn. When I look at it, I focus on two of the young men. Foremost is my grandfather, Arthur, who had on a vest, a wide loosely-knotted tie, and a watch chain. He would have been in his mid-20s. He’s standing in the back row and is the calmest looking of the relaxed quartet. The other is his younger brother Edward, sitting on the left side in the front row, his grave visage accentuated with furrowed brows. He would have been around 20. With his elbows on the armrests, shoulders pulled back, and chest puffed out, his assertive mien contrasted with the temperate aspects of his surrounding kin. My grandfather died two years before I was born, but Edward lived to be 97. I last saw him 14 months before he died.
In early 1972, I stayed for a short while with my parents in Kansas City after spending the previous year and a half as a volunteer poverty worker in the South. When I signed up for that stint, my motives were quixotic. I sought a feeling of “beloved community” and “meaningfulness” by fighting poverty and doing my part to rectify injustice. But I was disappointed: The job was tedious; I wasn’t eliminating poverty; my efforts were futile. Toiling in distressed environs, I discovered I lacked resolve and saw my hopeful dreams rebuffed. Yet, though this experience dampened my aspirations, it didn’t eliminate them.
I planned to return to school in the summer, and during the interim, I was going to spend six to eight weeks with the Gulf Coast Pulpwood Association. It was a nascent labor union representing some of the lowest-paid workers in the country, pulpwood cutters. Its purpose was to “fight for economic survival in the…mammoth paper industry [in the South],” and its membership comprised Black and white workers. The prospect of getting involved with the pulpwood cutters in Alabama rekindled my enthusiasm. It laid open the possibility I would be engaged in work that would promote social good and advance my inchoate objective to become an organizer. It was a glimmer on the horizon.
While at home, I bought a used Volkswagen Beetle and made arrangements to leave in March for Alabama. I had a friend in northern Arkansas with whom I planned a two-day stopover on the way. Excited about the brief visit and new venture, I became irritated when my mother asked that I take her Uncle Ed with me to Arkansas. Bringing him along didn’t change my plans, but I didn’t relish spending a day in a cramped VW with someone I’d always known but didn’t know well. I would have preferred driving alone.
Uncle Ed had played the horses much of his adult life, and a favorite stomping ground was Hot Springs, Arkansas. He was due to fly there when he heard from my mother I’d be driving in that direction. My great uncle wanted to see a friend of his, a retired priest, who by chance lived along the route I’d be taking. My mom told him I would be happy to bring him to Fayetteville—a little over halfway and from where he could catch a plane to his destination—and then told me.
We left at about 9:00 on a cloudless, cool morning and hadn’t gone five miles when I noticed the car’s engine was misfiring, producing a hiccup or missed beat every 20 to 30 seconds. It wasn’t bad enough to stop, but not knowing the cause, I worried it would become serious. The intermittent sputtering added to the dull anxiety that had engulfed me since I woke up that morning. I kept asking myself questions such as: How do I start a conversation with my mom’s uncle? Where do we stop to eat?
Uncle Ed’s creased face was long, dominated by the big nose and thick eyebrows one attains when living through nine-plus decades. His milky hair combed back from his pale forehead looked all the whiter when he wore black priest’s attire. He had the same erect posture as the young man in the family photo, and it was even evident sitting in the passenger seat of the VW. At six-foot-two, his knees rested against the glove compartment, and the top of his head almost touched the roof.
Ordained as a priest in 1907, he remained active until 1955. He was an assistant at several parishes, calling on the laity riding a horse or in a buggy, before becoming the first resident pastor at St. James in Liberty, Missouri. Except for a four-year assignment with a new church in Tonkawa, Oklahoma, he resided in Liberty from 1912 until he retired. St. James was a small parish, though the number of members increased over the years—170 in 1938 and 255 in 1949. Even so, it didn’t have enough parishioners to fill its 400-seat-sanctuary until the 1960s, well after he had stepped down. By the time of his retirement, Uncle Ed had become the dean of the diocese.
For me, he personified a hard-shell man of the cloth rather than a gentle, country vicar. I recall a priest, Father P, from my parents’ church visiting him a week or so before the trip. They were in the basement apartment Uncle Ed had built a year before. Since it was below my bedroom and Father P spoke in a loud voice due to my great uncle’s hearing difficulties, I became an unwilling eavesdropper. They both enjoyed horse races and compared notes on the tracks in Hot Springs and Omaha. They also belittled priests who grew beards and railed against “heretics.” I don’t remember the specific impious behavior, though I suspect it was related to clerical participation in social protests such as the civil rights and antiwar movements. Or it may have had to do with women playing more active roles in the liturgy or other modernizing developments. Uncle Ed continued to say Mass in Latin and found any ritualistic or social change unnecessary, or in some cases, an apostasy.
My mother’s uncle was a presence throughout the first two decades of my life. My parents named me Thomas, ignoring his lobbying for Edward as my given name. They compromised, making Edward my middle name, and asked Uncle Ed to baptize me. When my mother got the baptismal certificate, she was irked but not surprised to see it showed “Edward Thomas” as my name. From age four or five, he directed me to look him in the eye and shake his hand whenever we met. And to this day, I can hear him, in his unhurried, resonant voice, tell stories: being chased by a longhorn bull and escaping by climbing onto a hayrick; riding a horse into little Missouri towns like Paradise; traveling by stagecoach and train to California; and when he was in his 80s, advising a woman not to marry a ne’er-do-well suitor who he faced down in a subsequent confrontation, even though the man was half Uncle Ed’s age.
When I was growing up, Uncle Ed wore black cowboy boots and smoked cigars. He had given up the footwear for more comfortable loafers a decade before and smoking cigars two years before our trip. I don’t know the genesis of the cowboy boots, but I surmise his time as a young priest who traveled through rural Missouri and Oklahoma on horseback was a factor. As for smoking, he said that, in his forties, a doctor suggested he take it up to deal with nerves (it was hard to imagine someone as self-assured as him being nervous). He smoked several cigars a day for over fifty years without ill effect. However, he started having respiratory problems, so he stopped smoking, and to satisfy his nicotine addiction, he began using snuff. Because it made him spit every ten or so minutes, he carried a tin can. I was familiar with dipping snuff; it was popular in the north Georgia mountains, where I was a poverty volunteer. Still, it made me queasy to sit inches away from him as he sporadically spits a brown stream of saliva into a small can.
Uninterested in betting on horses or smoking tobacco, I had different affinities than Uncle Ed. And we diverged in another, more profound respect. Up until age 20, religion was an essential part of my life. While it did little to shore up my lack of confidence, it was a source of security in that as long as I was good and adhered to my creed’s requirements, I’d survive if not flourish. I didn’t miss Mass, even when I had to work on Sundays, and I went to confession every two weeks. However, when I left home, I lost my faith, but it wasn’t from reading philosophy or becoming devoted to science. I was around a different group of people who accepted me and gave religion little if any thought. Many in the anti-poverty project were from Catholic families, but skipping Mass didn’t unsettle them. Decades later, I formulated an intellectual rationale for my irreligion, primarily based on the problem of evil. Yet, my skepticism was fortuitous: a consequence not of personal exploration but socialization.
About an hour and a half after departing, Uncle Ed directed me to the rectory where his friend lived. He had an Irish name I don’t recollect, was tall with dark hair, looking to be in his 60s. Not long before, he retired as pastor of the congregation. There were a couple of other people there—a young woman staffer and another priest. We gathered in the kitchen, where Uncle Ed’s friend offered us a beer. After we declined, opting for ice tea (it was about 10:30 in the morning), he opened a can for himself—it wasn’t his first for the day. His companions, who went to another room, took his insobriety in stride—shrugging their shoulders and snickering behind his back. But I knew Catholics believe becoming inebriated, if intentional, is a mortal sin condemning an unrepentant soul to hell, so I found their behavior perplexing. Despite their nonchalance, they had to see the former rector wasn’t trying to rein in his drinking and was drunk.
After he sat down, Uncle Ed chuckled, though it sounded forced, at his friend’s condition. Their conversation touched on people they knew, a few anecdotes, and my great uncle’s upcoming excursion to the horse races. The tenor of their talk was amiable, conveying the warmth generated from confidants being together, and Uncle Ed listened more than usual. Unlike Father P’s visit, they didn’t denounce anyone. The priest finished his beer and opened another as we nursed our ice teas. Our host was garrulous, though some of his slurred utterances were incomprehensible. He slumped in his chair as his mood went from buoyant to melancholy. He was like someone who had climbed down an abandoned well to pick up a dropped article and couldn’t climb out; the stones in the wall too smooth or unstable for him to get a good grip. He was one of the lost souls the nuns told us to remember in our prayers.
As they were winding down, Uncle Ed sat with his left arm resting on the table, his hand on the base of the tall glass of reddish-brown ice tea. He eyed his friend with a steady gaze as he gently turned the drink between his thumb and forefinger. Then Uncle Ed lifted the moist glass to his lips, his eyelids almost closed, and took a short sip. He slowly put the tea back on the table, his eyes now on the glass, his face rigid. He appeared to be concentrating, and I wondered if it was on what the muddled reverend was saying or something else. They said nothing memorable, yet I wouldn’t forget their meeting.
Back in the car, my mind wandered: the sputtering engine, organizing in the Southern pines, summer school. I figured Uncle Ed was thinking about the visit, but after an hour or so, the silence became disconcerting. I regarded his gangly body crammed into the seat: his head angled away from me as he stared at the pastures and scattered buildings rushing by. The tin can was in his left hand, resting on his knee, and the afternoon sun illuminated his weary features. Every so often, he would hold the can under his mouth and spit. While he looked tired, he didn’t try to sleep; his motions were deliberate, not sluggish. Discouraged by his brooding countenance, I didn’t disturb him.
Notwithstanding my efforts to suppress them, Uncle Ed’s colleague kept returning to my thoughts. His image haunted me because even though my faith had slipped away, I still maintained a somewhat elevated view of the priesthood. But I had learned clerics weren’t flawless. I first became aware of their humanity at age six when I heard an aunt say a policeman had stopped Uncle Ed for speeding. I assumed the officer must have been surprised and abashed to see he had pulled over a priest, and I said so. My aunt gave me a startled glance and made it clear priests have to obey the law, like everyone else. Her response bewildered me. She had disabused me of priestly perfection, making me feel like I was standing in a small boat adrift on choppy water. But within the church, these men retained their preeminence: I continued to address them as “father” and stood when they entered a catechism class. Knowing they were still special calmed the water. Seeing a confessor drunk in mid-morning was jarring.
We got to Fayetteville in good time. The flight to Hot Springs wouldn’t be taking off for another 90 minutes. At first, I was undecided about leaving Uncle Ed at the airport by himself, but he encouraged me to go, and I didn’t argue. After he purchased a ticket and got settled, I called my friend Tommy to get directions to his house. On my way out, I recall looking at Uncle Ed sitting in the small waiting area on a cheap plastic chair; his stooped shoulders gave him an uncharacteristically humble profile. Holding his snuff can and gazing out on the runway, he struck me as disheartened, and I felt a qualm for not staying until he boarded the plane. He was almost 96. His singular self-confidence didn’t decline as he grew old: He painted a church steeple when he was 70, rode horses in his 80s, and traveled to out-of-town race tracks in his mid-90s. But an uncertain person was sitting in front of me. From my standpoint, he represented a way of life centered on implicit faith; I knew his beliefs would re-instill his certainty. I envied him for his convictions—but only for a moment. Tommy was waiting for me.
Tom Wade is a retired state government employee. He lives in the Atlanta area and volunteers with the American Civil Liberties Union. His essays have been published in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Communion, Jenny, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Wilderness House Literary Review, Squawk Back, Canyon Voices, Dr. T. J. Eckleburg Review, Lunch Ticket, Inlandia, and Harmony Magazine.
Grace Schwenk is from the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. This is her debut art publication.