Friday, March 29, 2013

Snoop Melly-Mel

That is what I used to call my friend and coworker Mel. If you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, you are already acquainted with Mel as Roberta’s love, from the entry titled Roberta Battles a Dust Rhino posted October 2012. Snoop Melly-Mel was my play on Snoop Doggy-Dogg’s name, in itself a joke. If ever there was a character less ‘Snoop Dogg’-like, it would be Mel.

Originally I was going to edit and repost the ‘Roberta’ entry to make it more Mel-focused. Upon reading it, memories of Mel came crashing in. So many memories! “No,” I thought “Mel deserves an entry all his own.”

“What has Mel done that warrants an entry all of his own?” you might ask.

He left our world. My friend Mel died last Tuesday. All of us who knew him, at least all of us that I’ve spoken to knew he would not be long behind his beloved Roberta. Not that we were placing bets or even wishing for it to happen. We just knew, with such a love as his and Roberta’s, he would soon rejoin her. Seems to be the nature of all great loves, doesn’t it? His passing does not come as a shock necessarily, but it does leave our hearts a bit emptier, this world a bit more drab and our eyes a bit more damp. In my case, a bit flooded.

When I met Mel, he was old enough to be my father, at least. No mean feat considering I was by that time a grandmother myself. Quite the curmudgeon was Mel, his outspokenness matching that reputed redhead temperament. Indeed, Mel was red-headed. He had a glorious head of hair, a trait he passed to at least one of his three daughters. I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting one but, no doubt if from Mel and Roberta, surely they must all be as charming, vivacious and… tall as the daughter I met. As tall as Mel.

Being 6’ tall myself, not many make me feel short. Lanky, wiry, reed-thin Mel had that effect. Especially when he was fussing at me. Fussing? Remember I did say that Mel was quite the curmudgeon. He had a certain way of seeing things that, if one was not in agreement with, he could get quite contentious about. He would then ‘launch a fuss’ as I called those episodes.

As we got to know each other better, Mel regaled me with tales of his life. He would drop little nuggets of information, like: being an Alabama native. You wouldn’t have known by his accent or his manner. He once confided he has a twin brother. Other times he spoke of serving overseas. Mel was a veteran of the Armed Forces and a Veteran of Civil Service. The man was a dyed in the wool patriot with strongly held beliefs and iron wrought opinions.

Over the years, with tales accruing I formed a mental picture of Mel that, to this day, if I close my eyes I can conjure up. One after the other the impressions he left play like a mind movie.

He and his brother, maybe 7 or 8 but certainly no older than 10, bib-all clad and barefoot, stomping through the creek behind the house, in the holler or down the road apiece, shock of red, wavy hair glinting like copper in the sun. Maybe fishin’, maybe hunting frogs, maybe playing some game of brave feats and derring-do, imagination always at the forefront as the two boys took turns furnishing details that fleshed out their games. Fast forward ten years or so, to the young man in uniform with sleeves too short and steel pot (helmet) too big – because nothing ever fit quite right on a tall drink of water like Mel. In his hands, a weapon unlike the shotgun he was so used to holding back home, come hunting season. He is slogging through another river, this time with fellow troops instead of his brother. Perhaps scared, lonely and homesick. At that time there would most certainly have been a drawl in his speech, and plenty of ‘Yes, Sir’s. Those Alabama boys know their manners, let me tell you! Maybe there was a sweetheart left back home? A picture of her in his wallet or a letter from her in his pocket?

I never did get that detail from his recountings because for him, Roberta was the only woman in the world. Whether there was anyone he was sweet on prior to his life’s love is a mystery to me, maybe the one gap in the mind movie that plays when I think of Mel. Because Roberta is where the great love story began, and it continued for decades.

I wonder if Mel ever pondered the cosmic grace that saw fit to bestow upon this boy from backwoods Alabama a woman so beautiful, so cultured, so refined and yet so ‘human’ that she saw fit to love him in return? Sometimes, from the awe in his voice or the mist in his eye, I believe that, every day he was astounded at his great fortune of having won Roberta’s love. I’ll never know that for sure and it is really none of my business. It only matters to my mind’s eye picture of him, painted from the details he shared with me. Insofar as that goes, I like to think Roberta and Mel held each other in mutual admiration.    

There are other memories I hold dear of Mel. His threadbare blue pants and his worn thin at the elbows hoodie. Dust motes clinging to his eyebrows and hair after repairing a particularly contentious machine. His way of speeding out of the building after work, head leading the body in a near lurch down that long hallway. Although by virtue of his tenure at our shop and quite friendly with most of the team members, come quitting time – time to rush home… let’s just say it was best to get out of the way. Mel might holler a g’night over his shoulder on the way out, and maybe even turn and flash a grin but there was absolutely no stopping him come time to go home. I believe he even resented the exit turnstiles one had to badge out of because it cost him an extra second or two away from home.

Digging deeper: more intense, and in a way more intimate details. Like the time Roberta took a bad turn and simply would not get better. I’d like to think it was because, by that time he and I were fast friends, but, being from a generation of men who are not allowed to express feeling, I’m sure Mel ascribed that phone call to being a professional, keeping his boss informed of his status.

He called me one day at work, from Roberta’s bedside. She’d been in the hospital 2 weeks already and was not showing any signs of improvement. Starting in tones most clinical and reserved he described her condition and prognosis, getting more and more agitated. I’ll not divulge any details, but I will tell you there was an explosive outburst from him, followed by uncharacteristic sobbing.

Not many men, especially men of that moral fiber and of that generation are prone to show what would be termed ‘weakness’. On that day I realized how deep our friendship was, and how thoroughly he trusted me. For my part, I recognized I loved this man who could unabashedly sob in fear of the unknown. We let the storm run its course, as if I’d actually been in the room with him instead of on the phone. Once Mel regained himself, in hushed tones we talked a bit longer, till Roberta showed signs of waking.

Fortunately she soon got better and was released. Mel returned to work and all was once again as it should be. I never expected that incident see light of day again. So, for him to come into my office to apologize for his outburst weeks ago… well, I was just horrified.

About him was an air of humiliation, as though having exposed the depth of his feeling had caused him some great shame. “No, Mel. Don’t you ever apologize!” I was honored by his trust, you see. There was nothing for him to apologize for. In a rare turnabout I took on the curmudgeonly, chastising tone while he stood, abashed.

Now, from the other side of the world I celebrate Mel and, by extension, Roberta’ life. While this week my Chinese friends will observe Qing Ming – Tomb Sweeping Day, a time to pay tribute to their ancestors, my friend will be laid to rest.

Mel, depression era born and depression era departed, having started life in (as my mind sees it) backwoods Alabama and from there seized the world. Mel, who had for himself a great love, who had traveled the world but whose depth of character was essentially unchanged from the fine, noble being he was brought up to be. I’m sure he will be next to his beloved Roberta. I’m equally sure that their spirits have rejoined and their souls have rejoiced. Mine does, at the thought of their eternal union.


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