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Uncle Corbin’s Way
Dorothy A. Bell
Word count 2,393 pages 8
For fifty years, I’ve hated being that orphan, Purdy Alton Day Pulchosky.
At the age of six, I tried to get everyone to call me Chuck. I punched, kicked and cursed those who refused. Consequently, I took a lot of hard blows, but the name Purdy Alton Day Pulchosky stuck like “crapped shorts”, as my Uncle Corbin would say.
“Purdy Al Day, Purdy Al Day”, I can still hear the childish voices taunting me, echoing in the school halls, and out on the playground. School was hell.
I hated my mother who’d slapped the moniker on me with no thought as to how it would affect me as I grew older. “It’s my maiden name, a proud family name,” she had explained a million times. But, Purdy’s all right for a baby: for a boy suffering an identity crisis, it was a rotten thing to do.
For a time I blamed my father, Alton Day Pulchosky for my name because he wasn’t there when I was born; my mother said he’d gone to war in Vietnam. I figured if he’d been there, he wouldn’t have let my mother name me Purdy. Purdy Alton Day is a sappy name, it’s embarrassing.
As a kid, I worked overtime to make a hero of my old man. I made up stuff about him all the time. I bragged about how he saved lives, leaped out of burning planes, survived tortures and earned tons of medals for shielding his comrades from grenades with his body.
After awhile though, when he didn’t answer any of my letters, I started to think he was stupid for going off to war—probably not worth knowing anyway. And in the dark of night, I knew he’d left because he’d rather go to war than take on a rotten kid like me. Who’d want a liar, a kid who was mad all the time and no fun?
To top off my Hell, when I was nine, my mother, on her way home from the tavern on a dark and rainy night got herself run down by a delivery truck at a downtown Portland intersection.
When I was ten, word reached the orphanage that my father had been declared missing-in-action. That doubled my guilt, and I hated him even more. As a boy, my emotions were all mixed up, complicated and stupid. As an adult, I do my best to understand why, although reconciling the circumstances of my childhood in my mind remains a challenge.
Reading what I’ve written so far, it sounds like a lot of hate, and maybe hate is too strong a word. And I’m not done; there’s one more person on my childhood hate list. My uncle Corbin, my dad’s brother, he’s up there at the top. The people at the orphanage found him after they got the missing-in-action notice. He was my only living relative, my only hope for a home.
I think I hate my uncle Corbin most of all. I hated him because he wasn’t my mother or my father. In my childish opinion, he didn’t have a single ambitious bone in his body. He couldn’t be a soldier because of his eyesight, and he didn’t work because while logging he accidentally cut off his left hand with a chain saw doing the only job he’d ever had for more than six months.
Okay, enough, you get the idea. Today, I am back here at this old, deserted cabin where I spent my youth. And all of the old hurts are gnawing away at my guts. I’ve reverted back to that kid who toiled away his youth on this scrub-patch of land, working like a slave for my despicable, heartless, cipher of an Uncle.
Where is Uncle Corbin today? Well, he’s warm and snug, tucked away in his nursing home. I’ve been putting it off, but today I told myself that while I’m in town, I might as well go out to the old cabin and look around. Uncle Corbin is on his last leg, and eventually I’ll be left with his property…his estate. I should see what’s left of the place.
His estate, hah! Estate my ass! One run-down old cabin, twenty acres of berry vines, moss, scrub oak and fir trees…his estate.
How the tables have turned; I now pay my Uncle’s bills, see to it he gets good care, and I visit him, and buy him new pajamas and socks, and underwear and fancy pads for his bed.
“You’ll want to see that he stays comfortable,” the administrator had said the day I admitted Uncle Corbin to Sandy Brook Assisted Living. That was right after his stroke, almost a year ago.
Everyday I ask myself, why do I care, and the same voice, which sounds very much like my Uncle’s voice, answers me, he’s the only family you have, Boy.
With a cold drizzle falling, my head wet, and rivulets of water running down the bridge of my nose, my hands thrust deep into the warm pockets of my down jacket, here I am, once again alone.
How did I stand living in this place? It’s so isolated here, the deep woods behind the cabin, the little creek down the slope, and the main road a half a mile up the lane. No electricity, no inside plumbing, one dinky, pitiful wood stove for heat, kerosene lanterns, a pump at the well by the back door, and an outhouse.
God, how had I stood it for eight long years…living here in this shack with that crusty, cold, old fart? I should’ve run away. Why didn’t I run away?
Today the cabin looks even more dilapidated and forsaken than I remember it. The roof sags and it’s listing to one side; the white paint is mottled with the gray of exposed mortar and boards.
Walking around it, tripping over the rocks, in spite of my bitterness I can’t help but smile as a memory slides into focus. Uncle Corbin called this patch of quack grass and clay dirt behind the cabin where he tried to grow tomatoes, lettuces and peas, his rock garden, because every year we harvested a new crop of rocks from the freshly tilled soil.
I hear the sound of water gurgling. It’s coming from the creek. I take off on a jog back around the cabin, making for the creek. This part of the state’s been in a big drought since the January before, so the water in the creek isn’t as high as it should be. The wall stands between the creek bank and the cabin.
Breathless, I laugh. It’s either that or cry. Inside, I’m still that helpless, pathetic, sullen kid. I love this creek. I wish I had my fishing pole. I love this wall—the look of it, solid and substantial, the feel of it on my fingertips, rough, cool and moist.
But, I’d hated building this old wall. Uncle Corbin and I worked on it for years. Every Saturday I gathered rocks and Uncle Corbin mortared them in. “To keep the cabin safe in flood,” he’d said.
When I’d grumble, he’d ask, “This is our home, Boy. You wouldn’t want it to wash away?”
Yes! I remember screaming in my head, God, yes, and I hope it takes you with it, Old Man!
Closing my eyes, cringing in shame, I remember my hateful curse. I recall the floods, the wall held. The cabin wasn’t touched. Uncle Corbin and I stayed warm and dry. This wall and my Uncle Corbin kept me safe.
Every year the wall needed reinforcing and care. Sometimes, to my way of thinking, my uncle gave more care to this damned wall than he did me. I had enough food, he kept me clothed, and he took care of me when I was sick. I even saw a doctor once when I had an earache and a temperature of a hundred and six.
When I was fifteen, I wanted to go out for basketball. I studied and got my learners permit. Uncle Corbin had an old pickup, but he wouldn’t let me take it to get my driver’s license, so I rode a rusty old bicycle I’d found in a ditch to and from the school, which is about three miles into town.
Rifling through my memory, I don’t recall minding that long ride home in the dark through all kinds of weather. Clearly, I recall despising my uncle’s callous attitude about it. Not once did he come to a game, nor did I receive any credit for doing a good job keeping up on my studies and doing a sport, all on my own.
That hurt and still pinches.
At sixteen, I wanted a car. I wanted a car real bad, so I put the notion to Uncle Corbin one summer while we worked on the wall. I can see him—he stopped and wiped his balding head with his faded red handkerchief and sat down on the cool stones we’d just laid. “Well, I guess that’s up to you, Boy. You know what you got to do.” He wiped his neck and that was all he said.
I can see myself, skinny and lank, watching him turn his attention back to laying the stones, leaving me hanging out there on a limb with no hope. Then, as now, when I visit him in the nursing home, I long to see some sign of warmth in his eyes, blue eyes, flat blue like mate crepe paper, no spark in them. These days there’s not even a glimmer of recognition.
And yes, damn-it-all-to-hell, back then, at sixteen, I did know what I had to do.
I got a job working at the hardware and a job on weekends at the gas station. I pulled weeds for Mrs. Watkins. I mowed lawns all over town, and the year I graduated from High School, I had a damned car of my own, paid for with my own sweat. And I was righteous, and mad as hell about it. I took damn good care of that car. I had it for ten years, and I kept it running like a top.
Back then, I thought of this cabin as my prison and Uncle Corbin as my jailer. Ten years of work getting through college and grad school, and at last finding my dream job as an Industrial Engineer, and here I am, right back where I started, reliving the past. I’m fatter. I have less hair, yet inside I’m still a mulish kid when I look at this wall and that pitiful old cabin.
It’s funny, but today, this place, looking at it through my adult eyes, I can almost turn it into a haven, a place far removed from the highly technical, challenging world where I have to compete to make my living.
By comparison, this place is quiet, uncomplicated, and somehow, although very run down, it’s clean and uncluttered. Inside the cabin, I sit down on the bench at the table where we ate every meal, and I look outside to that wall, that wall that we built together.
Near my Uncle’s cot, I find a stack of books. He read the same ones over and over: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Iliad, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Henry David Thoreau’s, Walden Pond, plus a twenty-six volume set of 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
The one room cabin smells good, like moss and earth. I flip to the inscription on the inside cover of Walden Pond; Uncle Corbin often showed me this when I wanted him to tell me stories about my dad. His little brother had given him this book and he’d printed an inscription: To a fellow hermit, happy birthday, March 10, 1963.
Today I discover, folded neatly between the pages, my Uncle Corbin’s will. And it hits me. Shaking my head, I try to deny it but I can’t, surely I can’t be thinking of keeping this place? Turning around, I squint hard. My head cocked to the side, I look at this place, really look at it, and I look outside to the creek and to the woods and try to see this place though the eyes of an investor.
I’ve never brought my family here. I guess I thought my boys to be too sophisticated for this rustic old place. But I wonder if there’s something here for them to learn? We could fix this cabin up, put on a new roof, slap some paint on it, maybe stick in some insulation. But, no plumbing, electricity or running water; no, that’s the lesson to be learned here.
Back at the nursing home, sitting beside Uncle Corbin at his bedside, his rough, leathery, boney hand held fast in my own white hands, my tears come hot and salty down my cheek. His last breath is a shuddering sigh, his fingers tighten and in death, as in life, my uncle has a grip on me. We were, after all, all things to each other. We built that wall together, built it against that ever-present danger, the flood.
His will is as straightforward and simple as the man, his ashes are to be planted in the streambed below the wall and this quote read: “Do not lose hold of your dreams or aspirations. For if you do, you may still exist but you have ceased to live.” Henry David Thoreau.
Which causes more disquiet within me rather than instill peace of mind, and I wonder at my Uncle’s dreams, what were they? Why had I never asked?
With the sun over my shoulder, I stand on the bank alone, watching his ashes drift into the current of the cold creek. My resentment fades. Hate is a very strong word.
I don’t hate. Uncle Corbin did a lot for me. I can see that. He wasn’t mean, he didn’t beat me, he never yelled at me, he never preached or accused. He gave me the minimum of what I needed, allowing me to decide for myself.
The last of his ashes I pour between my fingers and let them go and I wonder; can I give as much to my boys…Uncle Corbin’s way?