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Word Butter: Remembering a life well lived - and the giggles
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This week, I celebrate my birthday. I’m (places hand tactfully over mouth as I speak) years old.

I was thinking the other day about what birthdays used to mean. When I was a kid, it was all about the presents. Forget the cake and ice cream. I didn’t even care about the little friends at my party. I just wanted to see what was underneath all the sparkly wrapping paper.

I was a selfish little booger, wasn’t I?

In my teen years, it became even more about the presents, which became more and more expensive.

I remember on my 16th, my mother arranged a party during a youth retreat I was on. In front of everyone, she gave me a ring – but not the diamond cluster ring I had asked for. She gave me an onion ring with a note attached. It read:“Due to financial embarrassment, this is the only ring we could get.”

I’m still living that one down.

Once I reached adulthood, I realized that birthdays are not about the presents. It’s about the presence – my presence in the lives of those I care about, and making sure that presence counts for something.

It’s also about the presence of those I allow into my life, and the influence they have. I’m picky about these people. I choose very carefully.

One such person passed one year ago this week – my uncle, Ned Conner. He was 83, and was married to one of my mother’s sisters, Julia.

Uncle Ned was one of those special characters that just got to your core. He was a simple and small man, but he had a big personality. When he was up to something, his eyes twinkled.

I remember those eyes. Isaw them up close a lot whenI was very young. Uncle Ned wore dentures, and he loved to poke them out at me to make me laugh.

Heck, he was still doing it the last time I saw him.

Our families had, at one time, a campsite that we shared. We spent lots of time there each summer, fishing, hanging out and eating lots of the fish we caught, including catfish stew, courtesy of Uncle Ned. He was also our breakfast captain.

On one particular morning, my brother, Greg, and I awoke to hear Uncle Ned singing the oldie, “Me and Mrs. Jones.” We could tell from the sound of his voice that he didn’t have his teeth in.

We crawled to the window of the camper and looked out, and there was Uncle Ned in all his glory. He was wearing a T-shirt and boxer shorts, and was barefoot. Without a tooth in his head, he was swaying and singing while stirring a cast iron frying pan full of scrambled eggs.

That image still makes me giggle. But not as much as my favorite photo of him.

There’s a picture that my mom has of Uncle Ned in our kitchen, holding his hands up to his chest. The photo makes it clear that he has something under his shirt that gives the illusion that he has breasts. And he’s grinning from ear to ear.

I can just hear him laughing every time Ilook at that photo.

When my Granny died, Uncle Ned was the one that made me forget my sorrow for a while. Not by anything he said or did directly to me, but by watching him with the little kids in the family. I was 17 when she died.

After her funeral, I heard Uncle Ned talking to some of the younger kids at the cemetery, and I looked around for him. I found him, down in the dirt, in his suit, playing with the kids. He had every one of them giggling and, well, filthy.

It made me forget the pain of losing my Granny for a few precious moments. I loved him for that.

I didn’t get to tell him how much he meant to me. I didn’t get to tell him that I loved his laugh or that twinkle in his eye. I didn’t get to tell him how much I loved how much he loved my aunt, and his children.

I didn’t get to tell him how much I appreciated him being there for us when we were little, and didn’t have a father figure around.

So Uncle Ned, thank you everything. Thank you for helping me, my mom and my brother laugh at a time when there was precious little in our lives to laugh about.

I sure will miss that rascal.