Nearly two weeks ago, one of the closest friends my family has ever known suddenly passed away. Tom Riley was one of the kindest, most intelligent men I have ever met. I affectionately called him “Uncle Tom” and still call his wife “Aunt Janna” because that is truly what they are to me. Janna was saved under my grandfather’s ministry as a little girl. She and Tom took my Dad under their wings when he moved to Kentucky to go to Bible College. She took care of my grandmother for nearly 12 years. Their family pictures from decades ago are intermingled with ours.
They’re family. And when you’re family, your life is all tied up together and intertwined in countless ways…like individual strings that are all gathered into one big ball. When one string is pulled out, it hurts. While we are so very blessed to be comforted by hope found in the solid truths of God’s Word, it’s still hard to have someone snatched to their eternal home so unexpectedly.
It’s hard for me to believe that one Sunday night after church, you can be sitting across from someone at Cracker Barrel as they order beef stew with one onion on the side, speak incredibly kind words to and laugh with the waitress, and chat with bearded patrons about Duck Dynasty–and the very next Sunday at the exact same time, you are standing at their visitation at the funeral home. (Uncle Tom’s comments on death were the short and simple, but straight to the point: Be Ready.) If a funeral can be beautiful, his was beautiful because it completely summed up his life while also magnifying the grace of God.
I can’t seem to manage to write a tribute to Uncle Tom, so instead, I’ve decided to piece together some of my favorite Uncle Tom-isms. He had quite a few phrases he enjoyed using often and there a few other little special things about him that I never want to forget.
Every time I ever saw Uncle Tom, he always asked, “Any exciting news to report?” Every. Single. Time. He was interested in my life. Getting to know people was one of his very favorite things and he was so good at it. He could talk to anyone from anywhere and make them feel loved. His last job was at Amazon where he had many international coworkers who were new to the States. He would often tell me about someone new he had met, where they were from, and something interesting about their life. It was obvious that his amazing way with people stemmed from his love for the Lord.
I usually never had much exciting news to report, so I would usually follow up with “Not really–do you?” And then he would shake his head with excitement and smile, “I am so glad you asked.”
If Uncle Tom ever wanted to ask me to do him a favor, he always said, “Don’t let me take advantage of your depraved nature.” Sadly, not everyone has the high quality of Calvinistic humor we shared.
For some reason, he often called Aunt Janna his “Trailing Arbutus.” He’d call and ask to speak to his Trailing Arbutus–which I always thought was so odd until I learned that a Trailing Arbutus is a lovely little flower that also serves as the State Flower of Massachusetts.
Not only did Uncle Tom have funny little things he liked to say, he also had some hilarious trademark faces he would make: the one where his lip would quiver quickly as in a pout, but it was totally sarcastic. The one where he was waiting his turn to talk and he’d take a breath and stick out his hand, acting like he was finally going to interrupt with a point, but then he wouldn’t…he’d make the quivery pouty face instead. And my personal favorite, the Richard Nixon one, where he would put up two peace signs and shake his head back and forth. That made me laugh every time.
He had a deep appreciation for music. I’d always love it when he’d lead the singing because he always knew the stories behind the songs and would share. But he didn’t love just hymns–I could always count on him for a good YouTube video of some hidden talent. Uncle Tom had recently started taking cello lessons and was becoming quite good at it! He was very disciplined and dedicated to his practice. (If he ever sat with my grandmother for a few hours, he’d usually bring his cello to practice.) For about the past month, he had been telling me all about an accomplished cellist who had passed away at a young age–we even watched a video of her playing a concerto and he was so amused by her hair flip in the middle of the piece. 😀 He was always looking to learn from others and held them in high esteem. He also loved sharing his appreciation for music with his grandsons. I’ll never forget him and a very young Conner singing a duet of “Some Enchanted Evening” to me in the middle of Cracker Barrel one evening. So precious. (And I’m sure none of us will ever forget the excitement of Lawrence Welk’s bubble machine.)
One of Uncle Tom’s favorite things to say, especially recently, was “It’s a wonderful life.” One of his last Facebook posts fits him to a T.
Dear Friends and Family,
Thank you for your thoughtful birthday wishes. It really made my day to hear from folks from so many different areas of my life and far away places. Not only was it a good day, but it is a wonderful life. With Family, Friends, health, church, work, books, music, and our precious Maltipoo, Barney, I am reminded of a sermon that says “All this and Heaven too!” Jesus Christ gives meaning and blessings this side of eternity and perfectly completes our joy and fulfillment on the other side.
With the recent passing of friend, David A. Zegeer, (Google him) whom I assisted the last few years of his life, and watching a recent interview of the remarkable George Beverly Shea at 102, I am reminded how much one can still offer and accomplish despite age and circumstances.
On my birthday, I began my 2nd year of weekly (not weakly!) cello lessons and am enjoying it greatly. Thank you Dr. Leah Hagel and thanks to Olivia Harden (now 12?) for the inspiration and example.
Though life brings challenges, God permits them to make us stronger and more able to bless others. I look forward to the coming year to see what people, books, work and other blessings, and yes, even circumstances it brings. Again, I thank everyone of you for your thoughtfulness and look forward to seeing each of you at some point. May this be your best year ever with God’s richest blessings!
“Jesus Christ gives meaning and blessings this side of eternity and perfectly completes our joy and fulfillment on the other side.” I LOVE that! That is precisely what makes everything in life wonderful, knowing that when you are hidden in Christ, He is always working for your good and His glory in every little detail, both good and bad.
He grasped that it truly is a wonderful life. (Or…”Wunnerful, wunnerful!” as Uncle Tom would say.)
Thank you, Uncle Tom, for the way you loved the Lord, which you made you love people, which made you love every aspect of life. That’s what makes it all wonderful.
(Do you have a favorite Uncle Tom-ism?)