Not a Modern Man

Uncle Herm and me at his home in the McCoy Bottom summer 2015
Uncle Herm’s phone number hasn’t changed in sixty-some years. The ten digits are rooted in my childhood. Should I ever forget them, the end of my productive life is nigh.
Until a decade ago, his phone number first connected me to Aunt Dean, his beloved wife. It seemed he felt awkward talking to a phone. Of Mom’s five daughters, I was my aunt and uncle’s “pick”, the term Southerners use for their favorite people, places, and things.
According to Uncle Herm’s account, this affection began the night of my nativity. As he rounded the mountain on foot in pitch dark after courting Aunt Dean, he saw lights in our homeplace.
“That was dif’ernt,” he said. “I hurried on down the runoff.”
Dad backed the car out of the garage. Uncle Herm opened the door for Mom.
“Get in the backseat, Herm,” Dad said.
They waited in the Matewan Hospital until the doctor announced, “Mr. O’Brien, you have another daughter. Your wife is resting well.”
I dial Uncle Herm and regret again the loss of my hardwired landline to WIFI. I listen for his voice—my anchor to the world I once knew.
I sing “Happy Birthday to You” with all my heart.
He’s silent.
“Do you know who this is, Uncle Herm?”
“It’s Arus.”
Music to my ears.
“I’m 88 yurs old. The doctor says I’ll make it to a hunderd.”
His fellow senior center cronies tipped him off about the doctor asking him to count back from twenty to one.
“I practiced and didn’t miss a number. But I couldn’t remember what the doctor asked me to remember before I counted backwards. He said I did good.”
As usual, my uncle recalls the past. “Grandpa Lark made a mistake when he sold the land across the creek to Uncle Frank. He and his boys made moonshine. Once Daddy helped Uncle Frank make a run. Mommy said ‘Now you can’t do that, Floyd.’”
He recalls the wormy chestnut his daddy and Grandpa Hunt cut down to build his mommy’s church. “A thousand feet of board timber cost $12 to mill.”
The last patriarch with accurate memory, Herman Glen McCoy lists the names and dates of the children his parents begot. The most grievous of all stories are the deaths of two babies who preceded his birth, his sister Sarah Jane’s death, and the mining accident that crippled his father in 1933.
“Daddy helped put Uncle Doc through dental school.”
“He paid for his brother’s degree while raising a family?” I ask in wonder.
“No huney, that was before Mommy and Daddy was married. Daddy was almost twenty years older than Mommy.”
Long and short memory in tact, he tells me that he replaced the back and front brakes on his daughter’s car this week.
Dear Reader, with each conversation, my uncle imparts a portion of his resilience to my spirit. I determine again to sustain my old phone number—to write until I cannot remember how to count from twenty to one.
At heart, I am not a modern woman.