Remembering Uncle David (1932-2016)

Reading this old poem “Two Little Children” today, I actually cried. And I remembered how many times I heard it sung to me as a child, first by my grandmother.

Two little children, a boy an' a girl
Sat by the ol' church door
The little girls feet were as brown as the curl
That fell on the dress that she wore

The boys coat was faded and hatless his head
A tear shown in each little eye
Why don't you run home to your Mamma, I said
An' this was the maidens reply

Mamma's in Heaven, they took her away
Left Jim an' I all alone
We came here to stay till the close of the day
For we have no Mamma, no home

We cain't earn our bread, we're too little, she said
Jim five an' I only seven
There's no one to love us since Papa is gone
An' our darling Mamma is in heaven

Papa was lost out on the sea, long ago
We waited all night, on the shore
For he was a life saving captain, you know
But 'e never came back anymore

Then, Mamma got sick, angels took her away
They said, to a home fair and bright
She said, she would come for her darlings sometime
Perhaps she is coming tonight

Perhaps there's no room up in Heaven, she said
For two little darlings to keep
She then placed her hand under Jims little head
She kissed him, and both fell asleep

The sexton came early to ring the church bell
He found them under the snow white
The angels made room for two orphans, to dwell
In Heaven, with Mother that night

A cousin posted a video clip of our Uncle David singing a part of this Traditional Irish song at a family reunion held this past summer. Uncle David too, had it sung to him many times when he was little by his mother, our grandmother, and over the years he carried on the family legacy of recitation of songs, poems and stories to anyone who cared to listen. Long after Grammy and Papa were gone, Uncle David kept the family history alive and well - recollections and oral traditions passed down to the remaining generations and those to come, with maybe a bit of artistic license thrown in to keep things interesting. Let's not forget "The Hand in the Pork Barrel".

I was unable to attend the reunion due to work and finances and it was the first one in years. Although many dear, familiar faces were gone, there were some new connections to be made and I was sorry to miss it. 

I’m sorrier now.

Uncle David passed away a few nights ago and how I wished that I had gone to that reunion.  I should have.  David was a storyteller - something I relate to now as an adult.  Something I think is in my blood. It's a powerful force and those original storytellers are leaving us.

I have just a photo-like impression of Uncle David now, having spent years away from home I missed out on many adult visits to the farm where he lived - the childhood homestead of my mother. If only. I could have replenished those memories with more mindful visits and an ear for “a voice”. The man was a goldmine of stories and family history - of the grisly and the local lore of the land. He could quietly tell a tale and speak so low (the "DuPlessis murmer") that you were literally on the edge of your seat…you just KNEW he could be leaving the best part out.

Original sketch by Heather Phillips  Uncle David, inspired by a video clip taken by my cousin Faye Armstrong during the DuPlessis Family Reunion July 2016. He is actually mid-song here.

Original sketch by Heather Phillips Uncle David, inspired by a video clip taken by my cousin Faye Armstrong during the DuPlessis Family Reunion July 2016. He is actually mid-song here.

If only I could have somehow harnessed his storytelling and written it down verbatim there in his presence in the old kitchen where so many of my own memories still dwell in the shadows.

We always talked about recording Grammy too, back in the day. Her sharp recall and capacity for details and visuals astounded us all and stayed a part of our collective memories, and until I heard Uncle David sing on that video clip, I had forgotten that power. That power to transfix and quiet the listener. And let me tell you, after a rambunctious day spent playing in a haymow, a little transfixing at bedtime was just what we needed.

I listened to Faye’s recording and thought to myself ”I know that rhyme. I know what that is but I can’t place it…”  And so, at least an hour of Googling over coffee took place as I searched scraps of phrases for a hint until I found it:  “Two Little Orphans aka Two Little Children” a traditional Irish song. Grammy came from Irish long had that song been floating around our family tree?

And how could I have forgotten it? I can still hear Grammy’s voice. As I mentioned above, I read it and actually had tears in my eyes. The impact of those destitute tots set in today’s day and age is somewhat harsher and more real to me as a grown up. Maybe because I am on speaking terms with the wolf at the door.

As a kid listening to that little ditty, I was sad but not sad. I think kids view death as something temporary and reversible - a little softened and blurred around the edges. Not living in an adult world, with adult problems and concerning ourselves with socioeconomic woes and poverty, and also living fifty years ago in a different time and place likely helped. That, and the gift of being little in itself - we were still so young, fresh and new that we were already close to heaven, having just left there.

We listened to that poem and the gentle tones of our grandmother and saw two little children who might have been someone we played with. They simply went to sleep in a warm, white comforting blanket of clean snow on a church door step (practically already in God’s living room), safe in the arms of angels. They woke up in heaven. What brought them there was of no concern. We heard that there were angels and heaven. That was enough. We slept well.

Uncle David, I know how you missed Grammy and Papa and living there alone at that farm, you were embraced by their presence and memory every day of your long life. You were the lighthouse keeper of their legacy. Lonely and perhaps somewhat isolated in many ways, you were those “two little children”. 

I like to think that you simply went to sleep the other day, safe in the arms of the angels and woke up in heaven - with Mama and Papa to welcome you home.

Perhaps that is why I cried. With loss and grief but safe in the knowing of where you are now.