Dear Uncle Stormy,
I’ve never met you, but I have the strange feeling that I know you.
Yours is a name that comes up during dinner time conversations. Grandma Beverly will say something about your charisma; my mom will comment on your drive. You are almost 30 years gone, yet you occupy a seat at the wooden table. There is a consistency in absence — a cohesion that arises only in the act of remembering.
I’ve heard it all. From opening Desert Devils Gymnastics to winning a silver medal at the 1974 World Trampoline Championship, there was seemingly nothing you couldn’t do. There is an air of victory as we celebrate you, yet the memories are permanently tainted with the bluish tint of loss. So, I’ve spent a majority of my life with an incomplete image, often relying on my mom to fill in the blanks.
Growing up, she kept a CD in the car of popular childhood songs. My friends and I would laugh and sing along to “Down by the Bay,” “The Wheels on the Bus” and my personal favorite “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” But a quietness would wash over the vehicle when the recognizable opening of “Puff, the Magic Dragon” took its turn. My mom would keep her hands on the wheel and her eyes on the road, but a part of her was taken back to the warm Arizona nights of her childhood.
I’ve heard my mom tell the story so many times that I can now visualize it. I can see you taking out your guitar, playing “Puff, the Magic Dragon” during those days that would seemingly last forever. While she reminisced about the past, I felt like I existed in the fast-forward — in a life after your death — yet I felt that music had the power to bridge the gap between us.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate “Puff, the Magic Dragon” even more. It has evolved from a childhood song about fantasy lands and mythical creatures into a heart-wrenching meditation on loss. Puff mourns the death of boyhood by ceasing his “fearless roar;” in the battle against time, he retreats to his cave in a moment of silent defeat. Through this seemingly benign song, I feel as though I can better understand my mom’s experience of losing you. I feel an inexplicable connection to both you and those who survived you.
I’ve since graduated from that CD of childhood songs. Over time, my music taste has grown — and so has my connection to you. I can’t listen to “American Pie” by Don McLean or “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)” by Jim Croce without summoning that all-too-familiar image of you and your guitar. I find it oddly appropriate that both songs are intimately associated with plane crashes — a parallel to your own untimely end. Beauty and tragedy intermingle in ways I cannot quite articulate. All I can do is replay the tracks over and over, attempting to make some meaning out of incidental moments.
Throughout “American Pie,” McLean laments the death of Buddy Holly as “the day the music died,” but I can’t help but disagree. The music is far from dead; instead, it is the living legacy of Holly, Croce and you. I don’t want to grieve like the Magic Dragon, receding into an eternal silence. I would much rather embrace the roaring sound.
Time passes and the landscape has changed, but your legacy continues to live through the remaining members of the Eaton family. Whether they’re expanding your business or competing in the Olympics, they approach each feat with a full appreciation for you. They possess the spirit and drive that propelled you off the steel springs and into the air. At the end of the day, you are a vital force that continues to urge our family down the path of life.
What I lack in business savvy and athletic ability, I attempt to make up for in words. Melodies reverberate through my mind and pour out in loosely formed sentences. There is something immortal in the written form, even if it just exists in my own little corner of the Internet. Perhaps, if I can reveal what I’ve learned through the music, I can recuperate some part of you.
So, I guess I’m writing to say thank you. Thank you for the love and the laughter you gave to my family, even if I cannot access it first hand. With you in my heart and mind, I will continue to sing along to the music that never dies.