Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wish You Were Here

Stephen's senior picture, from the 1972 Glasgow Scottie

Many years ago, when I worked for the denominational college near Smalltownland, my cousin Stephen came to town to talk to the county and city fathers about a tourist magazine, the kind you find in hotel rooms and at tourism offices. The morning he was to meet with them was the same day that the sewing factory, the largest employer in the area, announced that it was shuttering two large plants, effectively gutting local industry.

I managed, after several attempts, to reach Stephen's secretary to warn him. She got through, and a few hours later, he turned up at the college library to thank me for the heads up. He said it was the shortest meeting he'd ever held; he walked in, said, "Gentlemen, I'm sorry, but we only work in proactive situations. I understand that yours became reactive this morning. When your economy recovers, we will be happy to work with you in future." That was it. He came home with me that evening to visit my mother and father, who hadn't seen him in quite a while.

About a year ago, we buried his mother, and then mine, six months later. The big shocker came when his baby brother suffered a stroke and died in the early spring. The memorial service is the last time that I saw him- I had found his personalized senior yearbook on Ebay and bought it for him. It's still on my kitchen table; now I'll be giving it to his sons.

When I was a small child, we went to visit their family almost every week. Of my father's siblings, my aunt and her family lived closest, about forty-four miles from us. I've written about how I adored my uncles on both sides- the boys' father gave me the run of his enormous interior design firm, where I could frequently be found hiding in the batting loft of the sewing room. My life in Glasgow was sort of magical (to a little girl, it was); my three boy cousins trundled me up and down their street in a hooded English perambulator buggy. They let me get away with blue bloody murder. They were my childhood idols.

Stephen was a gifted musician who was chewed up and spit out by the country music industry long before it gained its most recent commercial momentum in the late 1980s. He left professional music and returned to Western Kentucky University where he finished both a bachelor's and master's degree. He was instrumental, during his tenure with the Glasgow-Barren County Chamber of Commerce, in the establishment of the Glasgow Highland Games, alongside his much-beloved band director, the legendary Charles Honeycutt. I suppose that the Games are his legacy now. He also made a brief return to the music industry, appearing as the father in the Raybon Brothers' video of their cover of Butterfly Kisses.

There was a dark side, though. Stephen was a sickly child whose health remained fragile as he grew. As a young man, he underwent neurosurgery on his spine that was botched, leaving him in long-term chronic, debilitating pain. The additional surgeries meant to correct it further injured his back and led to irrevocable changes in his personality. He became someone I felt that I no longer knew; when I would see him at family functions, I found myself searching for the "old" him, the one I remembered. When his mother died- and he was the one who found her body- we all began to worry about what would become of him.

I had hoped that this speculation would not be so soon answered, and I hope that in death he has finally found the peace that eluded him in life. 

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