A Ray of Life
by Heather Philpot
Even though I was a weird little kid back in the ‘80’s, one with a hideous home perm, a mouthful of braces, and a compulsion to fidget – EVEN with all of that – I considered myself blessed. Blessed, because I had a saint. My saint was my uncle Ray. The name alone reminds me of summer: a time when, as a child, I spent most of my days either living it up in his swimming pool, or tearing something up in his house – after which Ray would just smile and assure my red-faced mother, “Aww, now … she didn’t hurt nothin’, ” in a voice of pure velvet. And whenever my mother caught me ransacking Ray’s pantry, he’d jump in and say, “Now you let that gal have all she wants. We got plenty.”
He was something else, that man. Tall, with high-cheekbones, a stern expression, and dark features, Ray looked more like an Indian chief than he did a postal worker – a native warrior whose tribal garb consisted of a Furman windbreaker and plaid pants. He was far from brawny, but that never stopped Ray from constantly lifting up and lugging around his disabled wife and daughter – both of whom had been cursed with the familial Muscular Dystrophy gene, and both of whom were prone to stumble and fall, arms and legs flailing. But somehow, Ray would always manage to prop them both up, his wife clinging to one arm and his daughter clinging to the other. Then they’d all trudge together, the fearless warrior bringing in his troops. Ray was born to serve. I’d often hear people say “they just don’t make ‘em like Ray anymore,” or “Ray can make a perfect stranger feel like he’s been knowing ‘em all his life,” or “That Ray just has a ‘way’ about him.”
He had a way. Whenever I’d catch a glimpse of my handicapped relatives slumped over in their chairs, I’d feel guilty that I was jumping off the diving board or running all over the place. But Ray, sensing my concern, would lock eyes with me and nod. And for a split second, I would feel the Earth stop spinning, having just been reminded to keep on living. That happened a lot those summers, the world stopping on a dime right there, right at the back door of that little cluttered house at the foot of Paris Mountain. Despite the sticky bushes and the sweat bees, it was Paradise, as far as I was concerned, and the closest thing to heaven I’d ever have. It was a place where a blue-collar man, armed with a bag of Hardee’s biscuits, would tiptoe down the hall after working all night. Then he’d check in on his tiny wife who snored like a freight train, her wig resting sideways on a Styrofoam head. It was a place where we all piled into Ray’s blue Plymouth – sometimes, just to go buy sundaes at McDonald’s, or bubblegum at Fast Fare, or take-out from the S&S Cafeteria. Other times, it was to trek all the way to Ormond Beach – a ten-hour journey with no A.C. I’ll never forget the feeling of riding in that Plymouth – with the windows rolled down, my aunt holding on for dear life to her hair, the smell of Florida asphalt mixed with Ray’s second-hand smoke, and meanwhile, never really knowing if the churning in my stomach was actually euphoria or just plain nausea.
1988 marked the last summer I ever spent with Ray. Earlier that year, he’d been diagnosed with an aggressive tumor. And in no time it seemed, my larger-than-life uncle turned pale and weak, a purple windbreaker on a stick. But the velvet voice still remained. Determined to help, Ray would do little things, like tying his wife and daughter’s shoes so they wouldn’t stumble without him, or doling out hunks of derby pie the church ladies had sent, saying little else besides: “We got plenty.”
Strangers now occupy Uncle Ray’s house. They’ve dug up the sticky bushes, filled in the swimming pool, and covered it all beneath a layer of sod. Still, it’s hard to drive by without instinctively looking for Ray’s Plymouth in the driveway. And not a day goes by that I don’t glance over toward that mountain and remember how a dorky girl discovered what living was all about through the eyes of an unlikely saint.
Who knows – maybe it’s common for folks in these parts to find saints. But like most things endemic to the rural South – like chiggers or copperheads – saints will often disappear before you ever realize what hit you, leaving you broadsided with a reminder so powerful, it stays with you long after they’re gone. Such is the case with mine. Nevertheless, it’s worth the sting, to catch a ray.
Heather Philpot is a freelance journalist in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, whose work has been included in Skirt!, Underwired, Literary Mama, Hip Mama Magazine, numerous South Carolina newspapers and a sociology textbook about death.