The Uncle Jimmy Effect: The Only Tragedy In Life Is Not To Be Like Him

My mother grew up in rural poverty in the 1940s and 1950s. That wasn’t unusual for the Deep South at the time.

My mother grew up in rural poverty in the 1940s and 1950s. That wasn’t unusual for the Deep South at the time. As my father tells it, “We didn’t know how poor we were because everybody around here was poor back then.” My mother’s lack, though, was far worse than most people’s, because her home lacked not only money, but love.

Her stepfather, long dead now, was a cruel man with a foul mouth, a hot temper, and a habit of beating his children – or at least the child that wasn’t his by nature. I recalled from my own youth my mother speaking well of her Uncle Jimmy, her mother’s brother, as one of the only bright lights in the darkness of her childhood. Uncle Jimmy – James Fletcher -- and Aunt Ethel Mae lived several hours away, in far north Louisiana, but my mother cherished every moment with them.

When Uncle Jimmy died recently, I offered to drive Mama to the funeral. As we made our way north through the hardscrabble Mississippi Delta towns, I asked my mother why Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Ethel Mae, neither of whom I knew, had meant so much to her as a child. She thought about it for a moment.

“Because they didn’t drink, and they didn’t curse,” she said. “They were gentle, and they were good.”

Mama explained that as long as Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Ethel Mae were in the world, she knew that there was hope.

We pulled into the parking lot of a red-brick Southern Baptist church in blue-collar West Monroe – a mile or two, in fact, from the headquarters of the famous Duck Commander family. This was Uncle Jimmy’s church for most of his life. He had been a paper mill worker, and lived in a house on Nat Street, in the shadow of the mill.

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I had met Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Ethel Mae once or twice, when I was a small boy, but hadn’t seen either for decades. I didn’t recognize the small, shrunken man lying in the coffin. I barely recognized Aunt Ethel Mae, once so vigorous, now bent and white-haired and disappearing into the fog of old age.

During the service, people rose from their pews to testify to the character of Uncle Jimmy. There was the woman who must have been in her sixties, who said she was raised in that little church. What she remembered was that Brother and Sister Fletcher were always present in the church. Always. They were source of certainty in her life.

A quite elderly woman sitting behind me rose to say that her husband Peewee had been Uncle Jimmy’s best friend at the mill. Peewee died in a car crash when she was pregnant with their twins. Uncle Jimmy acted like a surrogate father to her boys. He never had much money, and had children of his own, but he worked and sacrificed so those fatherless boys on Nat Street could have a life as close to normal as they could.

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