My sister and I nodded from the front seat of the truck that Mom fondly refers to as, “Brownie,” because it’s brown.
“And that cemetery where they buried him was nice, too,” my stepfather, Johnny added from the backseat.
Again, we nodded as we drove home from Uncle Leon’s funeral in Jacksonville, Florida. We were still a bit in shock as we listened to the steady hum of the truck’s engine and watched the South Georgia scenery pass by the windows like a movie.
My uncle, Leon Jarriel, was a larger-than-life figure in our family. When he showed up at family reunions, things got interesting. Like other members of the Jarriel clan, he was a master storyteller who could hold your attention for hours with his tales. I loved to hear him talk, and I loved to hear everyone erupt into laughter at the end of his stories. Laughter was guaranteed.
When I was a young child, I loved to see Uncle Leon’s family pull up to my grandmother’s house, because my philosophy was, “the more cousins to play with, the better.” Cousin Ricky was much older than me, but Ona, Tracy, and Amy were closer to my age, and so I spent time with them running barefooted through the freshly-plowed dirt, walking to the pond, or playing spoons on Grandmother’s large kitchen table.
But back then, Uncle Leon scared me a little bit. He picked on me and teased me, and I thought he was being mean. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I kept my distance.
“Oh, he picks on everyone, Honey,” Mom would say. “He only picks on you because he loves you. It’s his way.”
It took several years for me to understand. I grew to adore him.
He died too soon—at seventy-four.
In a large caravan of cars and trucks, our large family travelled from Collins to Jacksonville, following behind my Uncle Wallace and my Cousin David, who drove a little faster than my mother wanted to go. In the rearview mirror, I watched her crane her neck to see Brownie’s speedometer at several points in the journey. Then I heard her mumble, “Lordy, Lordy.”
We said our goodbyes to Leon, told stories, and hugged one another before getting back on the road.
“Have I ever told y’all the story about going to get my driver’s license?” Mom asked as we were crossing the Georgia state line. “I was sixteen and Leon was fourteen, but we were about the same size. He was with me the day I went to Reidsville to get my license, and somehow, we convinced them that Leon and I were twins, so they gave Leon a driver’s license, too.”
She paused for a moment.
“When Mama found out, she was mad as hell,” she added.
I glanced back and saw Mom smiling at the memory as we drove on.
Just outside of Reidsville, we passed a sign that read, “Tomatoes Ahead.”
From the highway, we saw rows and rows of tomato plants accentuated with big, red fruits, and though we were dressed in heels and our nice funeral clothes, and though June’s late-day heat was bearing down on us, we pulled off, grabbed a bucket and filled it to the rim under a beautiful blue sky. We paid the attendant ten bucks and continued home.
We sliced them with some cucumbers and my Uncle Wallace’s Vidalia onions, sprinkled them with a little salt and pepper, and sat down at the table together.
“Leon would’ve loved going to that tomato field and picking a few buckets of tomatoes,” Mom said. “I wish he were here.”
We ate through our grief. The fresh-picked tomatoes were not a cure for our sadness, but I think they helped. Uncle Leon would’ve been pleased.
Freelance writer Amber Lanier Nagle has written nonfiction articles for Georgia Magazine, Grit, Mother Earth News, Points North and dozens of other magazines. Her book, Project Keepsake (www.ProjectKeepsake.com), is a collection of nonfiction stories about keepsakes. She facilitates workshops for writers of all skill levels on topics such as freelance writing, writing family stories, and writing creative nonfiction pieces. She’s editor of Calhoun Magazine, Dalton Magazine, and Health, Mind & Body and a columnist for the Vidalia Advance.