As I begin writing, the body that carried my beloved uncle’s vivid spirit is being placed in a grave. I am, of course, not there, but thousands of miles away. Uncle Abbott died October 3. He was born August 17, 1926 – 87 years were his to know and walk through here on the surface of this beautiful planet and among all of the rest of us. Those of us who had the chance to know him were touched. And I know we touched him back.
There are lots of stories I could tell about my uncle, the devout Christian, the veteran of WWII and Korea, the insurance claims professional. The theme would be gratitude – for the laughter, the quiet nods of affection, the swells of kindness that showed up in his body nearly skipping toward me in recent years when we would have the chance at a family reunion in some other chance family moment when each of us had traveled to be in Acworth or Decatur or Marietta, Georgia at the same time. In those times, I know I was returning his smile and likely skipping myself, both of us so happy to see one another – me getting to say how handsome he was, how sexy his cologne, how dapper his outfit.
Right now, in Acworth, Georgia there is a grave and a coffin. The soil revealed by the grave is redder than anyone who’s not from that part of the South can barely comprehend – earth that is the source of my uncle’s 87 years and, by extension, all of mine. Family is gathered around – his four children, my cousins; his eight grandchildren who will serve as pall bearers. His great grandchildren may also be there. My mother, Abbott’s little sister, and two of my own sisters are there. So is my aunt, her husband and most likely their two kids (super grown, like all of us of this middle-age generation). My oldest uncle, who just turned 90 last month, probably hasn’t made it clear from Jackson, Mississippi – it’s just too far for the body he lives in now. He and I talked a few days ago. He told me stories I’d never heard before.
And that’s what will happen soon, if it’s not already underway, on the red soil of Acworth. Abbott’s life was jam-packed with stories, and the telling weaves all of us together – closer in the telling and hearing, but just in the fact of each precious narration, the person telling, the shining angle of light possible through the unique blend of story teller, circumstance shared and time passed since. A rich vein of family stories runs in the land within footsteps of my Uncle Abbott’s gravesite. His wife and her mother are buried there. My grandmother and grandfather, so beloved of their descendants and their infant daughter – she would have been my oldest aunt – are nearby. I have known this cemetery and heard its stories across my entire life.
You can imagine the call of these stories. I find myself telling them in the days since Uncle Abbott’s death and I’m sure the telling will continue, inside my thoughts if not out loud. They’re great stories.
But there is something else I want to tell you about here. I want to tell you how the privilege of being my uncle’s niece teaches me and, I’d suggest, all of us about how to get to world peace – or at least closer.You can probably tell that I love my uncle. You can tell he and I are from the South – he, born and raised in Georgia; me mostly in Texas. He lived his adult life mostly in Nashville, although there were a few years early when he lived with his young wife and first two children on the edge of the Rose City Golf Club in Portland, Oregon. My mom and dad drove there to visit with their three-months-new first born (…me) in my mom’s arms or rolling about on the back seat asleep (pre seat belts and child seats).
Then, as time would have it, I grew up – through summer visits when he’d take us to the Grand Old Opry or join us in Acworth for baseball games down in the meadow followed always by all that fried chicken, fresh tomatoes, green beans and apple pie. There was a period of time I didn’t see him so much – college, marriage and career far from home (Texas) and then farther (Oregon). Over this later span of years it became often starkly apparent that Uncle Abbott and I made sense of the world socially and politically in pretty vastly different ways.
I won’t go into those particulars either except to say that lots of the stuff I’ve written in this blog wouldn’t play so well with my uncle. Other stuff would work for him just fine. And that’s the point – that’s what Uncle Abbott has taught me about the path to world peace.
Much to the great disbelief of my friends from other parts of the country – in particular the Northeast and the urban West Coast, it is completely possible to have the primary aspect of any kinship, friendship or even acquaintance be grounded in love and kindness even when political positions seem impossible to bridge. I learned this again, in a way that holds powerful empirical validation, when I drove around the country talking with Americans about change back in the early months of 2009. The interviews for 100 Voices – Americans Talk about Change showed over and over that people would rather get along than not – would rather live with other people in ways of cooperation and kindness that suspicion and hatred. On that trip and when I drove again in 2012 I had that awareness most often in the South, but I also felt it across more rural communities throughout the country. What I also realized was that I learned these things about people first from my Uncle Abbott, my other uncles and aunt and loads of my cousins.
Every one of us shares what Uncle Abbott valued so highly – the health and wellbeing of his family, his church, his community. We share the desire to be happy and at peace. We want clean water and air and healthy food. The specifics go on – they’re material and they’re ideas like wanting to love and be loved, things like that. When we initiate discussions about significant differences in the ways we think are best to pursue these values, especially at the level of community, it’s way too easy these days to fall into what we don’t really want – the suspicion and hatred that arises with moving into opposition instead of into listening.
I can’t claim that Uncle Abbott and I always got to that – to the point of deep listening that is necessary for coming up with collaborative solutions across our differences, but I can claim that those solutions were way more possible because the foundation of our relationship was more important to us than the content of our beliefs. There has never been any question that we are related first and foremost and forever. We love and care about one another. From there – from relationship and the undeniable interdependence that affection reveals – we’d stick with listening for longer, we’d both make compromises that retained the dignity of each of us and didn’t come even close to compromising the love.
This is one of the things my Uncle Abbott taught me with his life and will continue to inspire in me with his death. He also taught me how to kid around, how to laugh with abandon, how to show kindness whether it’s acknowledged or not. He had intensely held ideas of independence and freedom and what those two things look like in social and political action. My ideas were vastly different. In this way, our relationship mirrors political and global relationships in play right now. That’s how I know there is something to learn here – something about living together on the planet, in our neighborhoods and families, something about world peace.
And now, with respect for the fierce weave of independence and unflinching love that my Uncle Abbott lived, it only seems right to close this blog with his words. Anticipating this death that none of us can avoid he wrote his own obituary. In it is a listing of survivors clear down to a level referring to me, my sisters and my cousins. Here are some of the other things he wrote about himself, small story fragments from my uncle’s bountiful life.
KEMP, William Abbott – age 87, passed away October 3, 2013. I was the third child, second son of Edward H. Kemp, Sr. and Mary Venona Orr Kemp. My love of some 60 years was Barbara Ann Lunsford Kemp, now deceased. I served in the Army Air Corps in WWII and the U.S. Air Force during the Korean Conflict. I graduated from Maryville College, Maryville, TN, in 1947 and worked 55 years for Crawford and Company of Atlanta, GA. I enjoyed playing in and later watching baseball, basketball, tennis, and golf and also watching my grandchildren play soccer, volleyball, and football. I accepted Christ as my Savior and Lord and was raised in the Mars Hill Presbyterian Church, Acworth, GA. As an adult, I enjoyed membership in seven different Presbyterian Churches in five different cities. Special for me were the Good Samaritan class and several mission trips with the youth of Westminster, the Men’s Sunday School Class at Woodmont Baptist Church, the Sunday School Class at Glen Leven, and the Men’s Bible Study Group at Sugartree. Memorial donations may go to any church that proclaims Jesus Christ as its head.