My Aunt Thelma died a few days ago. I am pretty sure she was my last relative of that generation. Thelma lived until just a few months before her one hundredth birthday. And she was a jewel.
Aunt Thelma had a lot going for her. She was beautiful, had a glorious smile, a sweet personality and (best of all) was married to my favorite uncle. My uncle Gano Hartsough Redding was my mother’s brother. I didn’t get to know him until later in his life. They tell me he was a changed man when I showed up on the scene. I am pretty sure I would have loved him even before he changed.
Hartsough’s history was that he was a drinker. Not hard to believe since he was a Redding. The Redding booze gene is dominate. There are a couple of great stories the family tell about his drinking days. Mom’s family grew up in Owenton, Kentucky. My grandfather, Walker Redding, was the local undertaker. They say that Hartsough would “borrow” his father’s car for trips to Frankfort or Lexington to do some serious partying. Not wanting his father to know he had taken the car, Hartsough would back all the way home to run the odometer backward so the mileage he had racked up would not show. Brilliant. Only I have driven the road between Owenton and Frankfort and found it tough to do going forward in drive. I can’t image driving it looking at the road over my shoulder and in reverse. But they swear it is true.
Another “Drinking Hartsough” story was told by a cousin that went drinking with him. The cousin swears he dropped Hartsough off at his house after a full evening of partaking in the “good stuff” when Hartsough circled the car twice and headed off to the wrong house. The cousin ran up on the steps of the house Hartsough was about to invade and stopped him. Hartsough looked up at him and said, “Excuse me sir. Could you direct me to the Redding’s home?” He did. And they say that is the night Hartsough took a wrong turn on the way to bed, ended up in the maid’s room, fell in bed with her and she pulled a gun on him and treated to shoot him. Ah, the joys of drunkenness.
Hartsough lost his arm in an automobile accident. He also lost his sobriety. On one of his trips to the big city he was run off the road into a ditch. His sister, Perk, was with him. Perk was one of those people everyone adores. She was pretty, perky, warm and loving. You just wanted to be around her. As a result of the accident Perk was severely injured. Hartsough rushed her to the hospital. When he carried her into the emergency department he was met by a nurse who looked at Perk and said to Hartsough, “We can’t help you. She’s dead.” After that Hartsough disappeared into the bottle for a few decades. He remained there until he met Thelma Cook. She changed his life.
I met Hartsough before he and Aunt Thelma were married. He used to come out to the house almost every Sunday afternoon for dinner and a visit. He attended a Baptist church where he was a Deacon – obviously he had stopped drinking. My uncle had a wonderful smile, a marvelous sense of humor (He couldn’t help it. He was a Redding.), a glorious laugh, a shock of wavy white hair and one arm. I was mesmerized by him. He was a wonderful story teller and had a million jokes. He told me the first “dirty” jokes I ever heard. Uncle Hartsough teased me incessantly… about everything… all the time. I loved him with a passion. I was his favorite nephew. Adults like to pretend they don’t have favorite children in their lives, but the children are never fooled. My sister Kae was my dad’s favorite. My brother Bob was my mother’s favorite. And I was Hartsough’s favorite.
One of the reoccurring themes in Hartsough’s teasing was about my work ethic – or lack thereof. He would call me “Hard work” and tell me not to work so hard I might hurt myself. One Christmas he gave me a bottle of Sloan’s Liniment. I remember how pleased with himself he was as I unwrapped it. He didn’t laugh but he was grinning so hard I thought he might pull a muscle in his face. I, of course, threw a fit (for his benefit), treasured that gift, put it in a safe place and the next Christmas wrapped it up and gave it back to him. It was one of the few times I really got him. He was pleased beyond belief. Guess what I got from Uncle Hartsough the next Christmas… that same bottle of Sloan’s Liniment. Unfortunately I did not hide it well enough and someone in the family opened the bottle and used it for its intended purpose. I was so livid I thought I was going to have a stroke. How dare anyone touch that sacred bottle of Christmas joy? The gift exchange ended.
In my preteen years I was into electronics. One Sunday Hartsough brought me a box of Army surplus electronic stuff. It was junk but I was ecstatic. He, of course, teased me and said he wondered how long it would take me to kill myself with that stuff. He was pretty close to right. That Christmas my parents gave me a kit to build my own shortwave radio. In the process I just about electrocuted myself. I was using the chest freezer as my workbench and failed to realize that the metal freezer was serving as a ground for the radio. As I was testing the radio before putting it in its cabinet I picked it up and just about jump-stopped my heart. I bounced around that room for what seemed like an eternity before I managed to set the radio back on the freezer. I never did that again.
I don’t know if Uncle Hartsough attended AA meetings or went through the twelve steps. All I know is he met Thelma and fell madly in love. Thelma was not only beautiful (see picture) she was smart. She, too, loved Hartsough but refused to marry him until he gave up drinking. He did. To make sure the cure took, Thelma insisted they give it some time. And give it time they did. I understand Thelma and Hartsough dated for another twenty-five years before marrying.
Unfortunately it was not long after marrying that Uncle Hartsough was diagnosed with cancer. He did not live long after that. Uncle Hartsough died on June 10, 1965. I had just finished my first year in college. I was devastated by his death. It was around that time my mother did one of the only overt acts of kindness toward me I ever experienced. When they arrived in the mail, she hid my grades from me. Not being an outstanding scholar and following in the Redding tradition of hanging around the bottle way too much, my grades were not stellar. Not wanting to upset me more, Mom intercepted the letter with my grades and hid it from me.
Aunt Thelma lived for another forty-nine years… alifetime. She lived them well and fully. She was a peach. She was a lady. And she saved my uncle’s life and gave me the opportunity to know him. Thanks Aunt Thelma. I love you for that.
Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved