by Julia Robb
Our family sat in my mother’s dining room a few years ago, after finishing supper, and listened to Uncle Cleveland play his harmonica.
Sound echoed in the small, yellow dining room, and wheezed through the darkening house.
Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul, Thank you, Lord, for making me whole, Thank you, Lord, for giving to me, Thy great salvation so rich and free.
When he finished, music vibrated in the silence.
No matter who played the harmonica, that scene could end a movie.
But Uncle Cleveland, 95, a life-long Marshall, Texas resident, made it unforgettable because he is unforgettable.
Cleveland is six-foot-six, his hair has never turned completely white, his Southern drawl would make a Georgian envious and his hands are so big they look like shovels.
He still plays a mean forty-two game (a dominos game confined to Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico) and he does not like to lose.
When he shuffles the dominos, Cleveland slaps his big hands down on the table and rattles the dots like a minor earthquake.
Until a few years ago, Cleveland kept his racking horses in his back yard and won blue ribbons.
He had twelve horses. Some he sold, some died.
“Flash of Coin” won a 1991 world championship for speed racking. Cleveland fondly remembers “Flash,” “Lucky” and “Midnight George.”
Passing his street, before he sold the last horse, I often glanced over and saw Uncle Cleveland driving his buggy on the elementary school property near his house, his long back straight, his hand pointing the buggy whip toward heaven.
The horse whizzed around on the grassy red dirt, the pine trees lifted against the sky, the horse’s legs lifted up and down like a dancer’s.
Decline is not in Cleveland’s vocabulary.
He gets up at dawn and cooks a full breakfast; eggs, bacon, biscuits. Then he drives to Whataburger and visits with other regulars, a group of men who, I understand, gossip about town goings-on and politics.
“The best thing, for anybody, is to know about Christ,” he says.
Aunt Elsie was Uncle Cleveland’s devoted companion. They were married 70 years, from 1939 until 2011.
Aunt Elsie was born with red hair and kept it. When her hair turned gray she just laughed and went to the beauty shop.
Aunt Elsie was almost deaf but she loved forty-two and played in determined silence. She won a lot of games.
Sometimes the couple bought barbecue and took it to the Kroger parking lot, people watching while they ate.
Elsie was sick many years before she died and it was Cleveland who nursed her.
Cleveland made a good living with his furniture and appliance store.
And like many men of his generation, he served in World War Two.
He was a tech sergeant in the U.S. Army and was wounded by artillery fire at Anzio, when the allies invaded Italy.
He calls me “Dear one.”