From left to right: Aunt Marilyn, my dad (Robert), Uncle Johnny, Uncle LeRoy, Aunt Carol. (Uncle Ray passed away several years ago.)
I was very saddened to learn of my Uncle LeRoy’s passing today. The oldest of six Marler siblings, he was a gentle and good man. This was reflected in his eyes, as soft and brown as my grandmother’s. I felt it in his hug, both at hello and goodbye. But most of all, I heard it in the stories he shared with all of us, tales of my father’s family that I looked forward to at every family reunion. At the last few gatherings, his struggle with dementia made the stories difficult for him to tell, but he tried.
Many who have followed my writing path know the stories of my mother’s side of the family through my book, The Red Kimono. But, I’ve also written and published several short stories about my father’s side of the family. My favorites are based on the storytelling of Uncle LeRoy. One day, I hope to publish an anthology of these stories.
He will be missed by us all. The Marler clan is a large family filled with laughter and love. I always look forward to spending time with my uncles, aunts and cousins. As the patriarch of this wonderful family, Uncle LeRoy will live on not only in his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but in the stories he shared with us–stories we will continue to share with new generations.
Rest in peace, Uncle LeRoy. We love you.
This is a photo of Uncle LeRoy’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, though more great-grandkids have been added since this photo!
If you’d like to read one of the stories my uncle shared about the Marler siblings’ childhood, here’s a story called “Marler Mischief.”
When the sun’s first light winked over the hill behind the old Missouri farmhouse, the rooster began his morning revelry. A cool rain had fallen the night before, and by the calendar, autumn had arrived. But summer was not ready to give up the fight.
The aroma of bacon and coffee followed Mother’s voice into the boys’ room. “Time to get up, boys.”
Muffled grumblings stirred from under the pillows and blankets.
“You’uns need to get some wood chopped today. Winter’ll be here ‘fore you know it.”
Robert shifted sluggishly in bed. “The sun ain’t even up yet,” he mumbled. He accidentally on purpose kicked his younger brother, Ray, irritated he was taking up so much of the bed.
Ray kicked back, reinforcing Robert’s sense he’d gotten too big to share a bed.
Mother called to her daughters in the bedroom next to the boys’ room. “Carol. Marilyn. Get dressed and come eat. You got chores to do, too.”
In the bed next to Robert’s, oldest brother LeRoy’s snores began to soften, though youngest brother, Johnny continued to breathe rhythmically, legs hanging over his side of the too-small bed.
“Boys? You up?”
LeRoy dragged himself to sit at the edge of the mattress, and rubbed his eyes. “Okay, Mother. We’re up.”
He tousled Johnny’s strawberry hair. “Hey, Johnny. Get up. You wanna cut wood with us today?”
Johnny jolted up, dressed himself and ran to the kitchen table ahead of his brothers.
Robert shuffled in next, his red hair still disheveled.
Mother hummed softly while she cooked. Her hair still wound in curlers, she wore a pink cotton house dress dotted with summer flowers. Daddy sat at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper and sipping hot coffee Mother periodically refilled for him.
Soon, the four Marler brothers and two sisters circled the table. Like a musical score, the breakfast conversation began softly and slowly, but graduated to loud, animated talk of the plans for the day. Biscuits slopped as they were dragged through runny eggs, and the percussive sound of chomping crispy bacon accompanied the morning symphony.
The boys cleared their dishes, excused themselves from the table and ran for the door.
Mother called, “Don’t let the door—”
The door slammed behind the four brothers who raced each other to the woods behind the farmhouse.
Robert and LeRoy led the way with their long, lanky steps. Little Ray and Johnny skipped behind. All were barefooted and dressed in their garb of summer – cut-off overalls, and bare beneath.
Mother called from the back porch, holding several sacks in her hand. “You’uns want your lunches?”
Robert ran back to get them. “Thanks, Mother. Guess we were in too big a hurry to cut wood.”
She grinned. “Right. Now you boys be home before dark. And keep an eye on Johnny.”
“Yes’m, Mother.” Robert ran to catch his brothers.
The early morning sun beat down mercilessly from a blue cloudless sky. The wave-like rhythm of buzzing cicadas promised an afternoon of sweltering heat.
Hey, LeRoy,” Robert said, breathless. “Let’s jump in the creek before we start cutting. It’s gonna be a hot one today.”
“Sounds good to me.”
They headed for the small creek at the edge of the woods. When they arrived the brothers raced into the knee-deep water, one after the other.
Robert stretched out in the tepid water, and gazed at the sun flickering through the leaves and meditated, while the sounds around him muffled intermittently with the water lapping in and out of his ears.
Johnny splashed him with water, breaking his peaceful spell.
“Ah, Johnny! Why’dya have to go and do that?”
“’Cause. I wanna cut some wood now.” Johnny stood over him, sopping wet overalls dripping all over Robert.
“Johnny’s right. Guess we’d better get started cuttin’ wood,” LeRoy said.
The two older boys carried the cross-cut saw to a tree their little brothers had picked and began the slow sawing dance. Zwee-zwoo, zwee-zwoo. Back and forth, back and forth, until the tree was almost cut through.
LeRoy called to his brothers. “Ray! Johnny! Get outta the way. Come over here and help us push it over now.”
All four boys pushed until the tree began to fall over. A loud, crackling sound rippled, becoming louder as it descended. The tree bowed gracefully, its snapping branches echoing through the forest. When its final curtsy ended, the ground trembled.
After a moment of awed silence, they walked to the felled tree and began to cut it into rounds, one trance-like dance of back and forth after another, until it was carved into several smaller pieces.
Johnny and Ray made a game of lifting the smaller rounds and rolling them down the hill – monster marbles.
“Hey, you guys,” yelled LeRoy. “Someone’s gonna have to go down there and get them pieces now.”
Johnny shrugged at his oldest brother.
“Hey! I wanna cut the next one!” Ray exclaimed, grabbing for the saw.
“Nah…you ain’t big enough.” Robert grabbed it back.
Johnny rubbed his stomach. “I’m hungry. When’re we gonna eat lunch?”
“Yeah, let’s take a break and eat,” LeRoy said. “Where’re them lunches, Robert?”
Robert pulled them out of his overalls. “I got ‘em right here.”
“Ah man. They’re gonna be all squashed now.”
“Well, what’dya expect?” Robert looked a little irritated. “Where was I supposed to put ‘em? At least I took ‘em out before I jumped in the creek.”
“Let’s just eat,” said LeRoy. “I’m hungry.”
Johnny ran over and grabbed a sack from Robert. “Yeah. Me too. This cuttin’ wood is hard work.”
“I think it’s boring work,” said Robert, opening his sack.
“What’dya mean boring?” replied Ray. “At least you and LeRoy are doin’ somethin’. All me and Johnny get to do is stand around and watch.”
“Yeah, and stay outta the way. That ain’t no fun,” said Johnny, his mouth full of butter and pickle sandwich.
Robert rolled his eyes and took another bite. Suddenly an idea came to him. “Hey LeRoy,” he said. “I know how we can make cuttin’ trees more fun. What’dya think about riding one of them trees down?”
A smile lit LeRoy’s face. “Yeah! Great idea!” But the smile dimmed. “But who’s gonna ride the tree? We’re the only ones who can do the cuttin’.”
Robert said, “Hey Ray! You ain’t big enough to saw, but if yer bored, we got an idea for you!”
Ray looked at them, wide-eyed. “What d’ya mean?”
LeRoy explained. “You climb to the top of the tree. We’ll push it over, then comes the fun part. You get to ride it down!”
Ray gulped. “Uh, I dunno,” he said hesitantly. “What if I fall off?”
“Just hang on tight and you won’t fall,” said Robert. “Anyways, you ain’t chicken, are ya?”
“Course I ain’t. But what will Mother say?”
“Ah, we ain’t gonna tell Mother about it.”
“Well, okay. As long as Mother don’t find out.”
Robert and LeRoy winked at each other and searched for the perfect tree. Adrenaline filled Robert with new energy, and they soon found the perfect tree for Ray’s ride.
Once again the older boys began their sawing duet. Back and forth, back and forth. Zwee-zwoo, zwee-zwoo.
When the tree was almost cut through, Robert called to Ray. “Okay Ray. We’re ready for ya. Let us know when yer up there and we’ll push. Then just hang on tight.”
Ray ascended while his brothers watched. They gazed upward, mouths agape.
“Okay!” Ray yelled. “I’m at the top. Uhhh, I…I…don’t know about this. Hurry! I can’t hold on for long.”
LeRoy and Robert pushed until they heard the crack of the breaking trunk. They stood at the base of the tree and looked up, shading their eyes with their hands. Although Robert’s heart pounded with excitement, his body froze with anticipation.
The tree began its graceful plunge.
“Yeehawwww….” Ray yelled.
Robert and LeRoy grinned and smacked each other a high-five. Johnny jumped up and down, clapping his hands.
The tree started to fall faster – too fast.
The boys hadn’t considered the change in the speed of descent with Ray at the top of the tree. Nor had they anticipated another problem: the branches of surrounding trees clawed at Ray like a tiger’s paws trying to grab him off the wild ride.
LeRoy murmured to Robert. “I think we done messed up.”
Robert’s mind was plagued by the terror of what might happen to Ray, and he prayed harder than he’d ever prayed before.
“HANG ON FER DEAR LIFE, RAY!!” Robert shouted.
Johnny stood back and cried a mournful wail.
Robert could hardly stand to watch, yet couldn’t tear his eyes away. He wanted Ray to be off that tree. Wanted them all to be home with Mother and Daddy and Carol and Marilyn. Wanted to be hauling water or shucking corn or hanging laundry or feeding chickens – anywhere but here, helplessly watching his little brother on that falling tree.
“AAAAHHHHEEEEE!!” Ray’s scream pierced above the buzzing cicadas.
The three brothers ran to where the top of the tree might land, but froze in their tracks at the sound of the familiar thud.
Robert watched with new dread as the tree bounced up, tossing Ray off.
Dazed, Ray stood up and looked himself over. He was still in one piece – and alive.
“Thank you, God,” Robert whispered to himself.
“Why Ray, you look like an old tomcat done been in a fight,” said LeRoy.
Fire shot from Ray’s eyes, and he took off after his older brothers. “I’ll punch yer lights out,” he yelled.
LeRoy and Robert laughed so hard they could hardly run.
Robert turned around to remind Ray of their promise. “Hey, Ray! You can’t tell Mother about this!”
He walked back to Ray and put his arm on his shoulder. “You know we was just havin’ some fun. We didn’t mean for you to get hurt.”
Exhausted, Ray surrendered. “Yeah, I guess.” He looked at his brothers again, a spark of anger lingering in his eyes. “I might still punch yer lights out someday. But I ain’t gonna tell Mother on ya.” He looked down and softened his voice. “We’re brothers after all.”
Johnny contributed to the ceasefire. “Yeah, and brothers don’t tattle on each other!”
The four brothers dropped to the ground, stomachs aching from laughter.
“You reckon one day we’ll laugh about this, and wonder how we survived?” LeRoy asked.
“Yeah, I reckon,” they replied in unison, sparking another round of laughter.
The light of the sun dimmed and cast a pink light through the leaves, as the gentle song of crickets replaced the nagging buzz of cicadas.