One of my many shortcomings as a man is that I don’t usually do a good job of telling the people I care about how I feel.
I’m always surprised when it’s pointed out to me, and I think it’s because I tend to assume that my actions speak for themselves.
That was certainly the nature of my relationship with my uncle, Walter Richardson Jr., who died this week after a long battle with heart disease.
Uncle Junior was a major influence on my life, probably more than he ever realized.
We shared a love of the outdoors, and he had a lot of wisdom that he was always eager to share.
He taught me how to turkey hunt, and he took me on the hunting trip where I killed my first deer. He taught me a lot about fishing, and he was the kind of guy you could call for advice on what kind of lures to use on a particular day with confidence that he would be right.
He taught me how to search for arrowheads, which remains one of my favorite hobbies that I’m now teaching my own children. His knowledge of native American artifacts was incredible. Later in life he even learned to make beautiful arrowheads out of glass and other materials.
Cooking was another of his specialties, and you could tell that he took great pleasure in watching someone enjoy a meal he prepared. That was a blessing to me because I always loved his cooking – even the oyster dressing he brought to Christmas dinner one time. I may have been the only one who liked that particular dish.
He taught me about cooking wild game, and he carried on the old family traditions of canning vegetables that he raised and making pickles and jellies.
I loved the pepper jelly that he made, but my favorite thing was his homemade hot sauce. I have a high tolerance for spicy food, and it’s a good thing, because Uncle Junior handed me a quart jar of his hot sauce just about every time I visited.
When I was a student at Delta State University some of my friends tried his hot sauce, and they wanted some for themselves. Uncle Junior was delighted to hear that, and before long I was taking extra jars back to Cleveland with me.
Like all of us, Uncle Junior had his flaws, but he owned up to them. At a period of time in my life when I needed to hear it, he talked to me about some of the mistakes he had made in life hoping that I would know better. He never sugar coated anything.
After my first year of college, I was at a point in my life where I didn’t know what I wanted to do and lacked direction. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to continue going to college.
Uncle Junior gave me a summer job that helped make that decision a little easier.
He was a contractor for Mississippi Valley Gas in Yazoo City. All of my life I’d been told by older folks that if I wasn’t serious about school I’d end up “digging ditches.” That’s kind of what I did that summer. Whenever there was a leaking line or a trench needed for a new gas line that couldn’t be accessed by the backhoe, I grabbed my shovel and started digging.
If anyone thought that I was going to have it easy because I was his nephew, they were wrong. He made sure I stayed busy.
If there was no digging to be done, I’d ride around town painting gas meters. I received several cussings from customers who thought that I was there to cut their gas off.
That was a long hot summer, and I slept well every single night because I was always exhausted when I got home. I may not have had everything figured out yet when the summer was over, but I had no doubt that digging in the hard ground under the hot sun was not going to be included in my future plans. I think that was Uncle Junior’s intention when he offered me the job.
We had some time to talk when we weren’t working that summer, and he gave me a lot of good advice. I was pretty hard-headed and didn’t listen to all of it, but eventually I discovered that he was right about everything he said – especially the things I didn’t want to hear.
As I said before, I’ve never been good at telling people how I feel about them, and in the four decades I knew my Uncle Junior I never told him that I loved him. That’s just not something that we would do.
He didn’t have to say that he loved me. He showed me in countless ways.