Live Life Large

When I was a kid, my Uncle Jim Rast held up the sky. We all loved him. He was a Rast to the bone—you couldn’t keep him inside, he kidded relentlessly, he was strong, could fix anything, loud as thunder, worked like a mule, and had a wide streak of artist. He talked about everything—what he knew about, and what he didn’t--with certainty and humor. He was a farmer, busy from dawn to dusk. Late at night, he would sit up making his planes, working on his old cars, making wine and preserves and cane syrup, smoking a pig for a feast the next day. He was always busy, always creating, always moving.

But this isn’t why we loved him. We loved him because he loved kids. And he loved us. And when we got grown, we realized that he just loved people.

He would step out of his grownup world of machines and crops and worry to lean down and tell us a joke, give us a pointer, and ask what we were doing and show us how to do it right. He spent time with us, making life fun. He took us tubing, driving in the command car, running around the farm, on crazy scrapes. He always had time to spend with us. He had a tenderness under his rough exterior. Just sometimes, you would see his eyes shine with a hint of emotion as he talked of someone, or said goodbye and come back.

When you visited him, you thought that all he had to do that day was drive you around to his various fun spots—the two pond houses he built on different small ponds on the farm, the watermelon field (loading you up with watermelon), the dock where he called the fish for you, the woodshop where he stopped to make you something, like a pen or a turned bowl. He’d crank up his old model-T and give you a spin, or take you up in his plane. He believed he should give every guest a rush of adrenaline and scare them within an inch of their lives, always trying to brush “the city” off of us. So planes cavorted and swooped and did flips, vehicles spun through the old farm roads at top speed, we got taught to shoot a gun. If we visited him at the mountain house, he’d organize picnics on Burned shirt, the top of the mountain, or tubing expeditions in the rocky stream behind Red’s store.

We didn’t know which we liked more: when he was with us, or the other times, when he just let us ride crazy over the farm like bandits. He was not a careful man, and his basic axiom of childcare was that if it didn’t kill you, it would make you stronger. He let us do anything. (Years later, my four-year-old son would turn to a great-cousin and nod his head seriously: “He really does let you do anything.”) Kids under his supervision, uh, well, weren’t. If you could reach the pedal of the golf cart, you could drive it, no matter if you were only five. We had endless scrapes and adventures climbing farm equipment, driving tractors for the first time (into ponds), sliding down soybeans in grain silos, parachuting off roofs with inadequate, makeshift parachutes, packing ourselves into jeeps and running crazily through rutted fields of harvested cotton.

When his fourth son, William, died at three and a half of a rare disease, we all reeled, but Uncle Jim was struck at the heart. He always carried that grief with him.

He was generous to the bone. You never left his house without a gift of something he had made. Something to eat, or drink or wear or use. Endless pickles and jams, syrups, and homemade wines, boiled peanuts. Stones and gems fashioned into jewelry and ornaments. His own farm produce—pecans, watermelons, cantaloupe, strawberries, corn—he picked fresh and pressed into your hands. (“Well, don’t just take one watermelon, Dee Dee,” he admonish as he filled my trunk. “You need at least seven—give them to the girls and your mom.”)

He lived life large. If something was good, more was better. He canned by the case, not the jar. If he liked it, he mass produced it until he got tired of it. “It” could be wine, wooden pens, bolo ties, cane syrup. It wasn’t enough to have Clemson bumper stickers—he steeped himself in orange and purple, looked for any chance to put USC down, and painted ten-foot wide tiger paws on his barns. It was always about the abundance.

He and my Aunt Jessie lived next door to my grandmother, seventy feet from the house his father had built (and then rebuilt when it burned down two months after the family moved in). To visit her was to visit him, Aunt Jessie, and my cousins (Jimmy, Clarke, Wayne, and for his few years, William). When grandmama moved to the nursing home, and then later died, he carried on the family tradition of gathering with occasional dinners at the pond house. He was the family glue. I last saw him three weeks ago at one of those dinners. Despite 100-degree heat, he and my Aunt Betty, his sister, pulled a cousins gathering together while my sisters and I were back in South Carolina together. Lots of us made it, and he had worked to get it all together. He was happiest when hosting, giving, and extending hospitality.

He was never a saint, and you didn’t think that of him for a minute. I’ve seen him lose his temper, or fly off at the mouth, and he’s voiced political assertions that would be hard to back up with facts. He was a tough taskmaster on the boys in his life (though he indulged his nieces), and he didn’t apologize, but dug himself in. You couldn’t tell him anything. (It’s a family trait). And he always wanted to have the last word.

So when a massive stroke came in the middle of the night and knocked him down, I felt it was a strange grace. He never wanted to be confined at all, but especially to bed, sick. The night before he had talked to two of his sons, and told both of them separately, “I feel good. See you tomorrow.” He went to bed feeling good and never woke back up to himself. All of us want to go that way, and Jim Rast was given that great mercy. He died the same day, August 20, as his son William had forty-seven years before.

Strong people leave a hole when their lives are uprooted, and family anchors send our family units spinning to adjust when they release us to our own histories. If Uncle Jim is not here, what happens to that place we loved which was his kingdom—the farm, the land, the web of bonds that he strengthened regularly by bringing us together? What to do with the ache that we now know will always be there when we turn into his driveway and  know he is not and never will be at the other end to stride toward us, smiling wide in greeting, dogs trailing underfoot?

When you left, he’d always stand there on the porch, and holler at you..“Now come back to see me.” And we always did, his strength of will and welcome drawing us like a magnet. We came because we loved him, and we loved him because he loved us with a generosity we will be hard-pressed to carry forward as brilliantly as he did.

There are many powerful ways to live life, but living it whole and with such generosity of heart is one of the most powerful. That is what my uncle taught me. I hope I can be one-tenth as generous as he was.

 

 

Some of the 13 cousins (including me) at the last family dinner Uncle Jim threw for us at his pond house three weeks ago.

And here we are, all packed in for another farm adventure! Circa 1968--just a guess.  

And here we are, all packed in for another farm adventure! Circa 1968--just a guess.