Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Black Sheep

Every family has at least one member for whom conformity to the perceived norm is simply too much of a stretch. In our case, there was one quite memorable black sheep: my Uncle Clay.

Clay Wells was a Navy man who married my great Aunt Mary and thereby became part of our family. There's no denying that Clay marched to the beat of a different drummer, yet he was an upright, honorable man with a dry sense of humor and a passion for good living. But from the beginning, it wasn't all peaches and cream for Clay and our family.

According to Grandma Estelle, our family historian, her younger sister Mary had fallen in love with a man sometime during the late 1920's or 1930's, and they became engaged to be married. No one was really clear about exactly what happened, but shortly before the wedding was to take place, Mary's fiance committed suicide. Mary, gentle and kind to a fault, was devastated. Our family was close and offered constant support, and eventually, Mary's spirits were lifted. A few years later, she met a young man named Clay Wells, and they married.

Estelle's accounts of Mary and Clay's early years together made me realize that from the beginning, Clay was something of an outcast. In good Southern tradition, there was never anything said directly to either of them in that regard, but there were stories. One of my favorites involves an incident that occurred some time during the 1940's. 

At the time, Uncle Clay was selling automobiles at a large dealership on Union Avenue in Memphis. Union Avenue was, and remains, a major thoroughfare in the city. There are few times when the road is not busy with crosstown traffic. As the story goes, my grandfather Leslie, Estelle's husband, purchased a car from Clay one day, and everything was going well until he headed out onto Union Avenue on his way home. Before he had gone even a mile, smoke appeared from under the hood, followed by flames -- the car's engine was on fire. Leslie, furious by this time, had the car towed back to the dealership and gave Clay a piece of his mind. From that day forward, my grandfather was convinced that his brother-in-law had intentionally sold him a bum car.

Eventually, Mary and Clay settled into a comfortable life in Memphis. They became successful real estate agents and owned a beautiful home on North Trezevant Street in Memphis, only steps away from Overton Park, the city's lush in-town greenspace. In the early 1960's, we would visit with them often. Oddly enough, my kindergarten teacher and her husband lived next door, so on occasion, we would drop in there as well. Mary and Clay loved fishing and often would travel to Florida to pursue their hobby, always bringing back fresh catfish, which would be served with fried chicken and hush puppies at one of our favorite regular family gatherings, the back yard fish fry.

Fish fries were absolutely delightful, and once we had our fill of fish, we would retire to the living room, where one family member after another would tell stories. Clay was an excellent storyteller who just happened to possess a rather far-reaching knowledge of serious literature. Often, when just he and I were talking after a big dinner, Clay would ask if I had read books by authors whose names I was beginning to hear in junior high school, people like John Steinbeck and James Conrad. I found that I was beginning to develop a strong interest in literature, so I relished the opportunity to talk about it, and Clay always seemed to offer yet another author or book to explore.

Despite his somewhat intellectual bent, there's no escaping the fact that Clay, like all of us, had his unusual habits, and one of them I found especially entertaining. Back in the day, due to less than perfect preventive dental care, many people were fitted with dentures as they approached their later years. Clay was no exception, but his dentures did not fit well enough for him to make it through a meal without incident, so he generally opted to remove them prior to eating. The result of this was that he often mixed up the contents of his plate into a singular mushy entity, which he would consume while the rest of us methodically ate our easily identifiable meal elements. Behind his back, Grandma Estelle would say, "Honey, I just hate what Clay does with his food." But being good and proper Southerners, we never said anything directly to him; instead, we simply looked on in befuddled amusement.

The flaming car incident remained a stumbling block in the relationship between Uncle Clay and Grandpa Leslie. One weekend in the late 1960's, I was staying with my grandparents. By this time, Leslie had suffered two severe strokes and was confined to a wheelchair, where he would consume six-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola and Pall Mall cigarettes nonstop as he sat by the front window of their North Hollywood Street home. Early one afternoon, Mary and Clay pulled up in the driveway, and Leslie said to Estelle, "Maw...get my gun." At that point, it was clear to me that the feud would never end until either Leslie or Clay had passed from this earth.

Despite the fact that people always saw Clay as something of an outsider, he and Mary appeared to have lived full and happy lives. From my youthful perspective, I appreciated his eccentricity, and I think that Clay was good for us -- he brought to our family a wonderful sense of humor and tons of delectable fried catfish. Intentionally or otherwise, he provided a bit of comic relief during the turbulent days of the 1960's. I miss him, and I never see a Steinbeck book without thinking of him.

Oh, and just for the record, I have a cousin who sells cars. Several years ago, we bought one from him. It has never, ever caught fire.