I never really got the opportunity to get to know Bill’s dad, Rex. By the time we first met, he was in early-to-middlin’ stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and as is common with that awful illness, it went steadily downhill from there. We met, but he likely didn’t really know who I was or where I fit in.
But for the entire time I have known Bill, I have heard the stories – legends, really – about William Rex McLain. Enough stories that I feel as though I know the man fairly well. He was born on a farm in rural North Carolina, the youngest son (third youngest child if I read the faded handwriting in the family bible correctly) of 11, many of whom had good Southern Baptist names like Jehue and Isaac and Eula Mae. This boy, who grew up working the farm somehow made it to North Carolina State, where he majored in Engineering, and eventually earned a master’s degree from Ohio State.
He was a smart man, and worked in upper management for 40 years at U.S. Steel in Chicago. But most of the stories Bill tells of his father aren’t about his work at the steel mill, but about his work at home – both the physical work around the house, but also the work of bringing up four rambunctious kids and teaching them to be honest and hardworking.
He could – and did – fix just about anything. Anyone who knows Bill and is reading those words is now thinking, hmmm, that sounds familiar. And it’s true, because Bill will tell you himself that everything he learned to do around the house, he learned from his dad. Occasionally, when I will suggest a shortcut to a project (because you can imagine just how much I know about fixing things), Bill will look at me and say patiently for the 50th time, “My dad always said if you’re going to do something, do it right.”
In those days, at least in the Wilma and Rex household, you didn’t throw things away when they broke. You fixed them. For example, Wilma and Rex received a toaster as a wedding gift in 1940. When Wilma moved into Smith Crossing some 60 years later, she packed up the toaster and brought it along because it still worked. Oh, don’t get me wrong. It hadn’t worked perfectly for 60 years without fail; however, when it would break, Rex would fix it. Her kids finally talked her into throwing it away when it broke and Rex was no longer around to fix it, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2006.
Wilma cared for Rex at home for as long as she possibly could. One day he fell in their home and she was unable to lift him, so she called 911. The firefighters came and helped him back into his chair, and he was luckily unhurt. Still, at that point they sternly told her she needed to put him someplace where he could be cared for, and the family strongly concurred. So he was moved to a nursing home, where he died not too long after.
Not surprisingly, Wilma visited him daily, providing him comfort and bringing him foods he liked and making him laugh if she could. She would take his clothes home at night, and wash them. One of my favorite stories about Rex is that she would frequently find nuts and bolts and hardware and pieces of the windows or the shutters in his pocket. The reason that story pleases me so much is that somewhere deep in the recesses of that mind that couldn’t even remember the name of his wife of more than 50 years, he remembered that he fixed things.
This a long-winded lead-in to a simple story that I want to tell you.
When we were at Wilma’s apartment the day that the movers were going to come and pack up everything to send to Bill’s sister Kathy to sort and disperse, Bill’s brother Bruce suggested we walk through and see if there is anything we would like to take. Wilma had very nice things, and I’m so grateful that she gave me many lovely gifts over the years. But she still had Royal Doulton porcelain pieces and Lladro porcelain pieces and some Tiffany glass. She had some very nice art prints that she had collected over the years. But when it came time to select items belonging to Mom/Grandma/Great Grandma, Bill and his kids chose things like a fork and knife that she had used to cook bacon…..
…..and pieces of costume jewelry that Wilma had collected over the years…..
….and a needlepoint refrigerator magnet that says Jesus if you look at it correctly, and gibberish if you don’t.
But the thing that made me smile was the single item Alastair selected from his great grandmother’s house…..
…..a wrench that had originally belonged to his great-grandfather – or hell, maybe even his great-great-grandfather.
Guess that fix-it gene runs through the family. I may call Alastair if our washing machine starts acting up.
This post connected to Grammy’s Grid.