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Rayford West, an important man

I never really knew Rayford West very well. To my detriment, I don’t know his story or our family’s connection to him. He was not related to us but we called him Uncle Ray.

What I know is that he amazed and frightened me. Cerebral palsy confined him to a wheelchair. The way my Uncle Bill describes it, Ray, with ligaments that quivered like rubber bands, went into the world chin first. He leaned a little forward in his chair. He spoke with a guttural quavering that made most of his conversation unintelligible to those who didn’t spend much time with him. But he was whip-smart and had a lively brain on the brink of genius.

Ray lived in Palmyra, Missouri, where he looked after the one-room public library located in City Hall. My mother’s family had a long relationship with him, and he came to visit and stay with my grandparents many times during my childhood. My seven uncles, my mom’s brothers, knew and grew up with Ray. They helped him around the house and got him out into the fresh air. They spent time with Ray in Palmyra, often visiting nearby Hannibal, where Ray liked to watch the river.

But my contact with Ray was limited. My dad wasn’t a social man. He didn’t like going over to my mom’s family’s house very much, it strikes me now. We visited the Bauers as a whole family on holidays almost exclusively. My dad used to sit in the living room and read books, whatever was there. I think Grandpa subscribed to the National Geographic, and dad paged through them until time for dinner.

Ray would be in the living room with him, sitting over to one side, sometimes, it seemed, in the dark. I don’t know that my dad ever said a word to Ray, though one of my uncles reports my dad used to make fun of Ray to his face, thinking somehow this lessened the distance between them. But other than this, Ray just wasn’t the kind of guy dad could preach to. Outside of this, my dad had problems understanding Ray. You had to focus and listen to Ray to make conversation with him. My dad was never a listener.

Between holidays, mom used to take us over for Grandma Bauer to look after us and for me to spend time with my uncles Chris and Phil. Chris was five years older than me, and Phil six months. Christ moved out of the house as soon as he could, I think when he was 16 or 17. Then it was just me and Phil.

When Ray was at the Bauers when I went over to play with Phil, we always spent a little time with him. He would tell us stories, sometimes. But, and I’m still ashamed of this 50 years hence, I couldn’t much make out what he was saying. I don’t think Phil much understood, either. But we would listen until Ray stopped and smiled at us and signaled it was time for us boys to play.

Ray came over to our house on 84th and Belleview a couple of times. The Belleview house is the first one I remember, and it was the house where we lived before mom and dad bought the house on Stateline in 1967. I don’t have recollection of Ray coming to the Stateline house.

This one time, at the Belleview house, it was a sunny day, late spring or early summer, just as the humidity begins to climb. My dad had just cut the grass and the smell permeated the air outside the house and floated in through the open windows. The Bauers were over for some holiday, maybe Memorial Day. Mom was cooking ham and potatoes for dinner, my favorite. The obligatory glass tray with black and Spanish olives and those little gherkins sat on the kitchen table. Out in the dining room, where the adults would eat, the table was set with the good dishes.

I was out back with Phil and some adult shouted out a window to tie one of my shoes. Well, I didn’t know how to tie my shoes yet. So, I must had been young. I went up the back steps into the kitchen and asked mom to tie my shoe. She said she was busy and that I should get Uncle Ray to help. He sat in his wheelchair by the table. I asked, “Uncle Ray, can you tie my shoe?” He said, “Sure, I will,” in that special voice. I sat down on the chair and we both looked at each other. I didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t get out of the wheelchair to get down to my shoes. I tried to put my shoe on the arm of the wheelchair, but then that just presented him the sole. He laughed.

I’ll never forget his smile. He squinched up his face and hunched his shoulders forward when he laughed. His head arced from “Adam’s apple first” to his chin setting on his chest. He looked up at me from under his hat. His eyes were bright. It struck me at the time that I really wanted Ray to like me. There was something stately and dignified about him. He was from another, statelier era, almost. He seemed important and, while dependent on others due to his condition, was self-contained and mature like no one else in the family.

Despite our clumsy state, he didn’t shy from trying to help me. He told me to take my shoe off and maybe he could tie it and I could slip my foot into it. I gave him the shoe.

You can well imagine how that went with what what Uncle Bill called his “rubber-banded ligaments” and “bulbous knuckles.” He took that shoe and set it on the wheelchair arm, and tried to tie it. He grasped the shoe with one disobedient hand and pulled the laces with the other. After struggling for a few minutes, he asked me to hold the shoe and with those ropy hands attempted to put the laces right.

He did everything he could, gave it the yeoman’s effort, before he told me he was sorry. “I can’t tie your shoe, Patrick. (He always called me Patrick.) But it’s nice out, why don’t you take off your shoes? Then, nobody will bother you.”

“Go barefoot, you mean?”

“Yes. Barefoot.”

It seemed like a great solution to the problem. After all, with no shoes, no one was going to worry me about having untied laces. I remember going out in the newly mown yard and feeling the soft coolness of the grass. Of course, no one was going to let me sit down at the table without shoes on. But I slipped the one tied shoe on. I tucked the laces of the untied shoe in around my ankles so no one would say anything.

When I came through the living room on my way to the kids’ table in the kitchen, Ray saw what was up. I caught his eye, worried I was going to catch hell from my dad. I so didn’t want Ray to say anything. He winked and motioned for me to come over. I stood by the side of his wheelchair and he motioned again for me to come closer. I leaned in. Ray always smelled like new-baked bread and I could smell him.

“Good boy,” he said into my ear.

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