Today marks the end of an era. I got word yesterday afternoon that Uncle Ronnie had made his transition. For a couple of weeks, I knew the call would be coming.
Uncle Ronnie is one of those men who are larger, than life. He was a legend in his own lifetime. He could spin a tall tale and keep a room full of people hanging on his every word. The tale might be true, it might not be, didn’t matter.
Uncle Ronnie was there for me since I can remember. He was just 18 years older than me. So, unlike many of my aunts and uncles, I remember his youth. He lived in Cleveland, just a couple of hours by car from us. Grandbaby, his mother, lived with us for several years. So, I saw Uncle Ronnie a lot. He was a playboy in his youth. But, he married at what seemed to me like an advanced age (in his early 30s), and when his kids were born, that Ronnie was gone. He became a dedicated father, husband, and the ultimate family man.
Uncle Ronnie didn’t just take care of his immediate family. He was there for everyone. Last week the show This Is Us did an episode titled “There”. The theme was being there for the family. I could not help but think of Uncle Ronnie as I knew he was lying in his bed in Cleveland, making his transition back Home. I believe it was that night I had a dream about him or with him, I’m not sure which. I can’t recall the details. I just remember feeling his presence, his wisdom, his grace, his love. And, I got the impression he was passing the mantle. I woke up wondering if I had been in his dream or he had been in mine.
I wonder how many hundreds of thousands of miles Uncle Ronnie drove over the years. He was afraid to fly. I don’t know how many times I heard his story of overhearing the mechanic working on engine trouble on a plane he was on grumbling “I hate to work on a plane in the rain.” and how he had gotten off of the flight and rented a car. It never got old. But, not flying didn’t stop him. Family reunion in California? No problem, give me a few days and I’ll drive there from Cleveland. Golf tournament in Florida? It’s only a 20-hour drive. Graduation in Texas? I’ll be there. Nieces, nephews, great-nieces, and nephews, didn’t matter. When Shayna passed, he was here, driving me back and forth to the funeral home to make the arrangements.
One of my earliest memories is of Uncle Ronnie. I don’t remember much before the age of 6 or 7. I must have been around that age. I know we were in the car. I was in the car with him often. I remember him telling me that everything we see and hear is stored in our brains. But, our brains only have so much capacity. If we run out of space before we die, we don’t have room to store anything else. So no more new memories. This way pre-dated hard drives in computers. And it was in the days when I took every word of every adult to be the gospel truth. So, I walked around for days or weeks closing my eyes so as to not waste any space in my brain. Finally, my parents corrected this for me. To be fair to Uncle Ronnie, he was only 24 or 25 at the time. He was probably just having some fun with me.
I was always told I looked like Uncle Ronnie, and I never minded. I was blessed to be born into two outstanding families, the Smiths, and the Englishes. While I’ve always hated my common name, Brian Smith, I’ve been proud of the Smith legacy. But, I was always jealous of my cousins who got the cool surname of English. I didn’t share Uncle Ronnie’s name, but the genetic commonality was undeniable. I was only 5’10” when I graduated from high school. I had the feeling I was supposed to be 6’2″, the same height as my Uncle Ronnie. I think I willed myself to grow those four inches in college. My grandmother had 10 children, each of them outstanding in their own ways. Today, only two are left on this side of Home.
The tears have been surprisingly sparse since hearing the news. Death is no longer the same for me.
I knew I would not see Uncle Ronnie again in the flesh. But, I was at peace with it. I knew he would not want to live in any diminished capacity. He would not want others to have to take care of him. He was a strong, proud, brave man. When I heard he was telling people in the hospital he just wanted to go home, I thought he meant Home. He was able to go home and pass in the family home he created for Aunt Melda, D’art and Myla. I’m glad he did not have to suffer long.
When I want to feel sad, I find myself feeling grateful, grateful I got almost 60 years of knowing Uncle Ronnie. I got to live with him and his family for a while when I first moved to Elyria. Over the years when he would introduce me as his nephew from Columbus to his friends, I felt a sense of pride to be associated with him. He was always the coolest guy in the room. Going golfing with him and his buddies and watching as this skinny coal miner’s son from West Virginia held his own with anybody, was gratifying. He was gracious and extremely articulate. I don’t think Uncle Ronnie paid for a round of golf in his life even though he played several times a week and all over the country. Everybody wanted to bet with him even though no one could beat him. He took their money every time. He didn’t take up the game until his 30s, extremely late in life for golf. But, he was a scratch golfer. I was certain he’d play on the Senior Tour.
I have decades of happy memories of Uncle Ronnie. I know he lived an outstanding life. He was 77 when he passed, well past the average lifespan of a Black man in America. I feel grateful when I think of his life and how he shared it with others. I am jealous he gets to see Shayna before I do. I think of the Homecoming that must be happening! I am overflowing with the joy Grandbaby and Grandaddy must feel to have him home. His baby brother, Uncle Michael is there along with six more of his siblings.
This day must come for all of us when either our passing or the passing of a loved one separates us, for a time. When some people depart, it’s the end of an era. My tears are for that ending. But, every ending is a new beginning. A goodbye here is a hello there. I can imagine the shouts of “Ronnie’s here!!!”
I’m sure Uncle Ronnie has everyone gathered around and is spinning a yarn.
I recently came across this video of Uncle Ronnie a few years ago telling one of his famous stories.
As he would say: “Enjoy!”