The following is the script I composed for the speech I delivered on my uncle’s funeral, February 22nd 2014:
Before Uncle Clay died I told him he would be well spoken after… In the months before his hospitalization we had the opportunity to develop a long latent relationship that challenged as much as it benefited both of our characters which, at one point, seemed so different in my eyes. But for whatever reason, our reason, week after week, we carried on our awkward dance, stomping over the other’s toes towards a unified goal of adult friendship. I learned a lot about my Uncle Clay over those few short months, perhaps the same things that many of his family and friends here today may already know him well by.
All of us here knew and loved William Hutter, Uncle Clay. Some of us knew him as a father, as a husband, a brother… But as much as we knew him in our individual way, we also knew a communal Clay, that we passed around, mouth-to-ear; and it is this common Clay; the Clay that belongs to the story, to the family, which define the characters in our group.
Every family has its stories that define its character’s; the sentimental aunt, the strict uncle… the smelly cousin with the scraggly beard. An old Indian saying suggests that a family without its stories is no more than wind passing through the Buffalo grass.
The Uncle Clay I knew growing up would be anxious not to arrive a good three hours early to local flights; relentlessly challenged his son to feats of manhood, which I had no practice in with my own absent father, that were often sweetened with a bet; and he kept his domain so clean and organized, that I felt like Pigpen walking into a white cartoon panel every time I visited his obsessively clean house with my circus of a family.
The story I want to share is important to me, not only because it illuminates these old assumptions about Uncle Clay and exemplifies his appropriate virtues, but also because it taught me a valuable lesson.
It was Uncle Clay’s turn to pick the task. I had just taken him shooting for the first time and after, at lunch, I had mentioned something about never having been golfing; something I normally wouldn’t have brought up so directly, but that was me and Clay and this time; putting ourselves out on a limb for each other and going for it. So the next week I get the invite to go golfing and I can’t help but feel a pain of anxiety run down my spine. I loved my uncle very dearly, but I believed my lifestyle was to abrasive for him because of the sort of man that I knew he was; because of the stories that we all know and repeat. And while I wouldn’t have put the time or effort into building a relationship with my uncle if I did not care, I made the task harder for myself with the amount of thinking and anticipating I did in the hours before he picked me up. How would I act this time? What would I say? It felt like elementary school all over again. And I got the distinct feeling it wasn’t just me. I’m sure I’m not the sort of man my uncle had a history of friends with, and in his retirement, with his kids moved away, beginning a new life, I can imagine the beginning of our relationship being something very much like elementary school for my Uncle Clay as well.
Well, I couldn’t take just sitting around and waiting, so I ran an errand with the kids on the afternoon Uncle Clay was to pick me up for Golf. He was to pick me up at 2, and it was 1:40, but the store was just down the street, and anyway, I couldn’t sit still. By the time we arrived back at 2:15, Uncle Clay had been sitting in his car for half an hour, waiting for me, and I was gripping my buzzing phone in my pocket and complaining that the lights weren’t changing fast enough. I knew he would be annoyed. Now I was embarrassed and reluctant to face an awkward hour of golf after being so rude. I pulled up to my house in my big muddy truck that he was always telling me to wash, Uncle Clay is waiting in a little white sedan. My palms start to sweat when I see him; “Why is he still in the car?” I mumbled. “Isn’t he hot?” “Oh man, he’s going to be so annoyed.” “I should have just stayed home and waited.” “This is going to be rough.”
I wrangled the kids into the house. I even had to ask my uncle to wait, while I changed my clothes, settled the family, and even smoked, the white plumes vaguely visible from his VW on the street just out front…
When I finally slipped into the sedan, I couldn’t look my uncle in the face. He shook his head at me. Yup. He’s pissed. I thought.
Then I felt a hard Whap! on my shoulder and heard a soft chuckle. “Eh, How’s it goin’ there Bubba? Tee time was at 2:15—Ehh,” he waves his hand, “but they can change it.” And just like that, my Uncle Clay reached down, turned the ignition, and I was off to my first round of golf.
When we arrived, I was still surprised about Uncle Clay’s reaction to my slight to him, but my anxiety about the game being too awkward had lessened somehow. Since I’d never played the game, my uncle took me to the driving range first to teach me how to hit a golf ball and hold a club.
Do you know how to hold a club? Let’s see if I remember; now, the most important thing, if I remember, he said was to keep the elbow straight and locked. Link the pinky and the forefinger like this; line the thumbs down the shaft of the club; take a nice seat (he was a little more colorful with his metaphors for illustrating this part for me, it was actually very helpful), take a nice partial seat; and you want to keep that stoke. on. a straight. plane. you see? Because if I angle the head of the club here or here, the ball is going to be cupped by the club and go whizzing away. So let’s put this all together… And swing! And I missed… Oh! “You have to keep your head down,” my Uncle Clay said, “stop thinking about where the ball is going to go, and keep your head down…” That was the most important thing. And on the second stroke, Smack!
The last thing I remember on that day was also the most moving for me. We were probably halfway through the game. I had made several mistakes that Uncle Clay had observed and mentored with grace and patience, but golf is the most deceivingly relaxing game I’ve ever played. Because of my delay’s we built up a line of players behind us. I don’t know if this has ever happened to any of you playing golf, but it so happened that on one of the holes I was stuck in a particularly sandy sand pit and I’m down there, whacking away. Sands flying up in big “V”s. I’m sweating and huffing. And my Uncle Clay is standing over me, not even bothering me with his stare, just, taking in the rest of the course, wholly unbothered that I managed to turn a day of golf into a strange sort of baby-sitting and dog training. I’m telling you, If I was anxious or self-conscious about making a connection that day, it was peaked when I looked up from that pit, all sticky and gross and lopsided and pathetic, into the disapproving faces of the three men that I single handedly had been delaying hole after hole.
I heard Uncle Clay shout “get out of there!” so I scrambled out and came trotting up to my uncle, head down in defeat. Then he asked me. “Where’s your ball?” I held it out to him. He shook his head at me and picked up the score card. “I didn’t say get out of there, I said knock it out of there! Now I’m going to have to put you down for double par. But that’s better than what you were racking up.”
“But, what bout the golfers?” I asked pointing to the men in the tee box.
“They could have waited. Next time, keep swinging, alright? Just keep swinging, okay son?”
“Okay, I said. I understand.” And we finished the rest of the game, I lost several more balls, Uncle Clay knocked one into the lagoon, and In the end he won the game, and beat me something awful.
But Plato said we’d learn more from a man in an hour of playing a game, then in a year full of talk…
I learned that not all the stories I know about Uncle Clay weren’t wrong. They just weren’t complete. And this applies to the stories our families holds about all of it’s beloved characters.
It was the Jewish Philosopher Martin Buber, that inspired Martin Luther King Jr., that proposed no man can look another man in their entirety, and not see themselves. And I think Uncle Clay and I were able to accomplish this together. We were able to put ourselves aside, and look at each other for who we were, and in that, create a real connection, a lasting relationship.
And So I offer this little story to Clay’s family, to all our families, in honor of a noble man, in order to complete his portrait and reform the Clay we knew of the past with the Clay that was his present.
May we all find strength in ourselves, and accept love between us, Amen.