My first memories of my Uncle Rowan were when I was a small boy of about four or five. My mother had taken me with her to visit relatives in western Kentucky. I was to spend my summer vacation there, with Uncle Rowan’s family.
I remember that it was to be my first time away from home, and I did not like the homesick feelings I was starting to have. I was teary-eyed as my mother kissed me good-bye, and even more so as I watched her car going away and leaving me there…
That was the first of the summers that I spent as a guest on my uncle’s farm. After that first season, I couldn’t wait to get back down there each year. It seemed that life went slower there than in the big city. There were always new things to learn and plenty of time to do them.
Also at my uncle’s home, I had two cousins who were both younger than me. The age difference didn’t matter very much, since I was only seven years old myself. My cousins’ names were Randall, who was six, and Winona, who was five. Winona was nicknamed “Wennie,” and she used to tag along with us boys. We were mean, I guess, because we used to run and hide from her.
After awhile, she stayed at home with her mother. Randall and I would go with Uncle Rowan and help him as he mended fences or worked in the fields. It was a life that he knew, as had his father and grandfathers before him. He was a country farmer and didn’t have much of a formal education, but he was far from ignorant.
All during the day my uncle was showing and telling “his boys,” as he called us, about the woods. He told us names of all the trees and educated us about nuts and berries we could eat. He showed us snakes that were poisonous and snakes that were man’s friends and should not be killed.
I soon learned the names of all of the trees, and I could find north on a cloudy day by finding the mossy side of an oak tree. In the daytime I could find my direction in the deep woods by watching the sun, and I could guess pretty close to what time of day it was by the overhead position of the sun.
We roamed the woods and fields when we were not doing farm work or chores. My uncle made us slingshots, and we carried them with us everywhere we went. We shot at trees, cans, bottles and poisonous snakes. We were told by Uncle Rowan not to ever kill or maim a bird or animal. He taught us that God’s commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” meant not to kill except for food or self-defense. He said that man did not have the right to kill animals unless he needed the food, and that animals had the same right to live their lives as men did.
Uncle Rowan lived his life that way. It was a good life, and I am glad that he told me of his beliefs. Even if he had been wrong in his thoughts or in the opinions he passed on to us, it was still a good way to live. Rowan’s parents, along with his grandmothers on both sides of the family, were part Cherokee. He remembered the Indian ways as they were passed down to him when he was a boy.
Some of that blood had been passed down to me also, and I was always interested in Indian artifacts: arrowheads, tomahawks, spear points and rifle shot. All of those items could be found right there on my uncle’s farm. Whenever it rained, we walked the rows in the plowed fields, looking for Indian things. We gathered oatmeal boxes full of arrowheads, as well as pieces of broken flint and rifle shot.
In the late summer, the small creeks would almost dry up, and we would find arrowheads and round gravel rocks for our slingshots, as we waded and walked for miles in those soft and cool sandy creek bottoms. In the cool of the evenings and the early part of the night, when the skies were clear and full of stars, Rowan would tell us stories of how Kentucky had once been the home of many Indian tribes. He told us that one such tribe had lived on the high hill up behind my uncle’s house.
We lay on our backs and looked at the starry skies, as Rowan told us about the stars. It was cool and we enjoyed listening to this learned man. He would point out and name various stars. He told us about the Milky Way, Beetle Juice and other galaxies. He showed us the Big and Little Dippers. Look for the Little Dipper, and when you find it, follow the stars until you reach the tip of the Dipper’s handle. That star is named Polaris; it is also called the North Star. Those particular stars were used to travel across large land masses and to navigate the great oceans and seas for hundreds of years before the compass and sextant were invented.
Uncle Rowan taught us things in a way that we could easily remember. He used to tell us riddles and then help us solve them. He knew and told us Indian stories and the lore that had been passed down from tribe to tribe.
Each school year when I went back home to the bustle of the big city, my teachers would ask me how I had come to know so many of the things that I shared at our classroom show-and-tell sessions. My answer was always that my Uncle Rowan, who lived in the state of Kentucky, had taught me many things.
It was many years later that I was told my favorite uncle had passed away. He had lived a good life, but he died from being a cigarette smoker. The smoking caused him to have emphysema. I will always have memories of him and the time that he spent with me as we sat and talked together. He asked my opinion about things and seemed really interested in my reply. To Uncle Rowan, I was a person; not just a little kid. He was always eager to tell me something that I asked him about.
I had not only lost an uncle, but also a friend, a teacher and a companion. I think back now to the days I spent with him. The passage of time has placed my memories back in the past. I am no longer a small child with a mind full of questions for a man who never said, “I don’t know.”
My time spent with my Uncle Rowan was worth more than I could ever put a value on. His patience and understanding helped me to develop a stronger character. His truthful assessment of the real values in life have helped to bolster my own sense of morality and goodwill. He had a way to level the playing field in the game of life, to face problems with calmness. My uncle’s great sense of serenity gave him strength and a drive for fair play.