My great uncle Dennis passed away this past Sunday. He was the youngest of my Grandmother Smith's siblings and the father of two of my favorite cousins. He was one of my father's favorite relatives - indeed they were born only a year a part and practically shared a childhood in Verden, Oklahoma. It is not my intention to write an obituary; rather, I write this blog as a tribute to "family."
My uncle Dennis lived in Tulare, California most of his life. He was a math teacher in the Tulare school system. He didn't start out as a Californian though. He was reared in Grady county, Oklahoma and attended college at Central State University. He met my Aunt Donna there. They had two daughters, Shelley and Lauri. They have three grandchildren between the two. After graduate school at the University of Oklahoma, they went to California to teach in the 1970s. At least this is how I recall it. During the summers, he would drive big rigs full of agricultural products. He also fixed air conditioning units. I can recall three times in my childhood, all in the 1970s, visiting my Uncle Dennis and Aunt Donna in Tulare. It was a hot little town. We went swimming in the local pool, took trips to the coast, went to Knots Berry Farm and Pismo Beach. Most of the time, I hung out with my cousins, playing games, eating Baskin-Robbins ice cream and just goofing off.
The most memorable times I had though were with my Uncle Dennis. On my second visit, he took me to "coffee" at his favorite restaurant. I don't remember the name of the place off the top of my head, but it was a "Denny's" or a "Stuckey's" or some such place. Nevertheless, he had coffee, I had a coke, and we talked about family life back in Oklahoma. My parents had divorced and life had become difficult for a 12 year old. So he went to bat for me when I couldn't bat for myself. That meant the world to me. On my last visit with him, about 11 years ago, we sat on the swing in his back yard, a swing that my father had painted for him years ago, and swung. As a matter of fact, I remember swinging with my dad and Dennis once when I was a boy. My dad was doing most of the talking and Dennis most of the swinging, until finally my uncle just laughed and said, "Well hell Jody" why don't you just...." and then stated what we were all thinking, but had never had the guts to say it! My Uncle Dennis loved to swing, talk and laugh. Usually just swing though. It was the ritual. He would swing, and if you wanted to talk to him, you would swing too.
I inherited that love of the swing from my Uncle Dennis. There are times when I like to go out on my back porch and just swing. It helps me think through the situations in life. It helps me relax. It helps me get rid of extra energy and find the rhythm of life sometimes. More than anything, it reminds me of my Uncle Dennis. When I look at new homes, I always look to see if it can accommodate a swing. Porch swings seem to be a "Whitley" character trait, if you, my readers will let me use it like that... When I swing, I swing hard too... drives Melissa crazy; but sometimes, you just have to swing until the stress melts away.
That I can recall, my Uncle Dennis was not a complex man and did not have a complex faith. He loved his family, his girls and his grandchildren. He did what he had to do. He barbecued a good steak and was fun to be around. He enjoyed his relatives for the most part... He lived and he died. But I don't want his passing to escape notice. He made a difference in my life that I will never forget. I am proud that he was my uncle and that he taught me the love of the swing. Rest in peace Uncle Dennis.