You know that term “salt of the earth”—when you’re referring to a fine, upstanding individual? Well, my uncle Tom Bryan was more like “salt of the universe” or “salt of the cosmos.”
He was also the embodiment of a dichotomy—given his perpetual low-key ebullience or the fact he was often inquisitive, but wildly set in his old-school ways. When my Uncle Tom passed away earlier this week after an on-again/off-again battle with cancer, the world instantly got a little less salty. He was a kind, compassionate, caring man—with an ornery streak a mile long. (See what I mean? Dichotomy.)
James Brown always claimed to be the hardest working man in showbusiness. Meh. My Uncle Tom was the hardest working man in the entire free world. He was a sun-up to sundown, get ‘er done kind of guy. And when he wasn’t working on the family farm, he was busy fixing/building/repairing/rebuilding things. A handyman with a heart of gold. Come to think of it, he wasn’t just a handyman, he was the handiest. Need your mower blades sharpened? Call Tom. Got a problem with varmints tearing up your yard? Call Tom. Ceiling fan on the fritz? Call Tom. I’m not a technically minded individual, but the wealth of random, fix-it knowledge inside my beloved uncle’s brain was legendary. He’ll change a diaper and the oil in a ’57 Chevy while installing a new carburetor—and that’s right after helping a cow give birth.
The man was unstoppable—until cancer started to slow him down a bit. He fought it off countless times. He was never one to complain or grumble about the cards he was dealt—instead he’d simply go take a nap. After 65+ years of working his fingers to the bone, he deserved a few minutes of restful, midday shuteye, dammit.
My Uncle Tom and Aunt Barb—who makes mean desserts, goes bowling, quilts and personifies everything you would ever want in a loving aunt—were like two peas in a pod. They were high school sweethearts who had a collective affinity for each other from Day 1. I always watched how Uncle Tom would treat people—especially Aunt Barb. It was always with an air of grace and adoration. When people say “that boy was raised right,” I naturally assume they’re talking about my uncle.
He was also super-particular about things. He wouldn’t let anyone mow the “back 40” because it was “never up to snuff.” I never saw him hire a roofer or painter or plumber. If Uncle Tom couldn’t do it himself, he’d figure it out—or call in a buddy for minor assistance. The only thing he couldn’t do? Cook. Good Lord, that man would have starved to death without Aunt Barb. Oh, and he was a huge proponent of sub-par coffee. When I bought him a “fancy-schmancy” Keurig, he seemed a little flummoxed. Always a creature of habit, I think he enjoyed his daily jaunt to the local gas station for his morning joe. Once he realized he could make a killer cup of java simply by pressing a button, well, he was sold. He didn’t need the finer things in life, but endlessly enjoyed them, nonetheless. (Dichotomy!)
Born on December 24th, our family would always make a big fuss out of Uncle Tom’s birthday before any Christmas festivities would take place. The only hitch in this scenario? Uncle Tom would often like to go out with his cronies on December 24th and tie one on ahead of our family’s Xmas Eve shenanigans. When your birthday and Christmas are one day apart, you might as well make the most of it, yes? My Uncle Tom worked hard, so it was always fun to see him blow off steam when warranted. The man loved beer, pool and fishing as much as I love Starbucks, Botox and dance music.
Speaking of—one of my funniest, most sentimental Christmas Eve memories of Uncle Tom? It was circa 1999 and someone had given me Cher’s newest CD for Christmas. I was sitting next to Uncle Tom when I opened it. (He, meanwhile, was opening up his 16th pair of Carhartt gloves. You can never have too many work gloves, he’d say.) I remember him spying the CD, elbowing me in the ribs and announcing to no one in particular, “I like Cher. Don’t nobody mess with Cher.” But because he’d imbibed a bit celebrating earlier that evening, Cher sounded like “Shar.” To this day, I always call Shar by her correct pronunciation. He then told me to go put on my new Shar CD. That’s when I knew my Uncle and I were square, er, sq-war.
I will miss you, Uncle Tom. You were always quick with a quip, a solution to any problem or insight into the inner workings of NASCAR. You chuckled at my squirrely jokes and enjoyed a good cinnamon roll nearly as much as me. Not only did you own every single tool ever known to man, you knew exactly how to use ‘em for powers of good. Thanks for making the world a kinder, gentler, more well-oiled place. I hope you know you were one of my favorite people.