In South Louisiana, the Cajun French word for godfather is parrain. Good luck pronouncing that correctly. It’s one of the few Cajun French words I know that isn’t a curse word. Parrain.
Last night my parrain died. Charles Wheaton. My daddy’s younger brother.
I saw him last year at my brother Daniel’s wedding. But the last time I had any kind of extended conversation with him was a few years ago, in Opelousas. I’d swung by the group home where he was still working at the time, before the state of Louisiana decided that taking care of adults with developmental disabilities wasn’t worth its time or money. Uncle Charles had some choice words about that.
But what we actually talked about that day, and what sticks with me, was my first novel. The one about the priest. He told me he got a kick out of the book, that he loved it. And let me tell you, that’s going to go down as one of the proudest achievements in my writing career. Because Uncle Charles was the storyteller of the family. I might be able to write a story or two, but Uncle Charles could start talking and the whole house would fall silent. Only for a minute or two, though, because it wasn’t long before people were practically falling off of furniture from laughing so hard.
I seem to remember his stories starting with, “Hey, yall remember that old boy.” His stories were often about some old boy. Back in the day. That did something that was hilariously unspeakable. I remember at least one that involved a horny farm boy, an unwilling animal, and a load of one party’s excrement dropped into the other’s pants. Uncle Charles didn’t worry much about mixed company. And he often seemed to delight in making pearl-clutchers clutch their pearls just a little bit harder.
He had the working man’s hatred for polite society’s hypocrisy. And, in fact, what he liked about my first book was that the priest was a cursing, drinking, and smoking human being. But I got the impression he thought I was going a little soft on the institution. He shared a few stories about his own days of dragging the roads of Opelousas, Louisiana, getting up to no trouble in the wee hours of the morning. During those ungodly hours, he often spotted the supposedly godly men creeping out of the old hometown’s houses of ill repute. (Opelousas apparently had a dark, seedy underbelly, a sort of southern gothic Sopranos that involved the sheriff’s department, the local one-runway airport, and extremely rich oil men flying into town for “entertainment.” But that’s someone else’s story for another day.)
Now, technically the purpose of a godparent is to “participate in the godchild’s Christian life and education” and “become a model of Christian living through daily prayer, virtue and active participation in parish life and liturgy.” (I’m reading that from a card I was given when I became a godfather.)
By that measure, Uncle Charles likely wouldn’t be considered a “good” godfather. But he was a hell of a parrain. In fact, growing up, I felt like I’d won the parrain lottery. His and Aunt Brenda’s house was always barely controlled chaos. And Brian and I figured our cousins Jonathan, Amanda and Crystal had, like, the best life ever. Even when they all became Pentecostal for a spell, they still seemed to be having more fun than the rest of us.
I understand that the grass is always greener on the other side, and I’m sure there was plenty of drama in the houses they lived in. But we always wanted to spend the night there. Spending the night there was always an adventure. Over on Facebook this morning, Brian relayed the story of the time he busted his face against a barn wall diving after piglets that were going to be castrated. During one sleepover, Uncle Charles told a ghost story so damn scary that I don’t even remember it. Maybe it involved a blood-dripping head rolling across the ceiling? Maybe he then came in later and dripped water on our faces? I couldn’t tell you. Brian said it scarred him and figures that’s when I started sleeping with my head covered. I wouldn’t be surprised. Uncle Charles told us stories about his off-base antics in Vietnam. I’m pretty sure he told us once that in his younger days he’d eat a stick of margarine before a night of drinking to coat his stomach.
So, yeah, he was a storyteller. And a poet. And a singer. And songwriter.
He was a soldier, a painter, a crawfish farmer, a jack-of-all trades. He was a loving dad, and a crazy uncle.
No. No one is perfect. Yes, we have an urge upon someone’s passing to turn them into saints. Uncle Charles wasn’t a saint. As he might say, “Who the hell would want to be one?”
He could have taken better care of himself at different points in his life, but you know what? Screw it. He enjoyed a drink and a smoke. And he spent a fair amount of his life taking care of others, taking care of the sort of people that are overlooked and marginalized. While everyone else was going to Church and feeling smug around Christmas, he’d invite over one of the guys from the group home who didn’t have family to go to. That sticks with me. I’m big on ranting and writing about hypocrites and the need to be better. But Uncle Charles, for all his own struggles, went out and did it.
He was a scoundrel and we loved him for it. But in his own way, he was a better Christian role model that many of the religious people I knew, especially when it came loving the least among us. And forgiveness. That, too.
I found out this morning that he’d donated his body to science. I was glad to hear it. It doesn’t take much imagination to know how he’d feel about a priest he’d never met going on and on about what a good man he was. He was a good man, but it had nothing to do with what a priest would say or think about it. Though there is a small part of me that laughs to think that if someone had arranged for a super religious service, he’d manage to come flying out the casket to scare the crap out of us one last time.
I’m not sure any of this is making any sense. I hesitated to even write something. I didn’t want to misremember anything. Get some weird detail wrong. Did they, in fact, have a jukebox that played “Elvira” over and over? What did he do in the Army? When did he marry Aunt Brenda? At which house was the ghost story told and was it a big sleepover or just Brian and me? Is that where we had Steen’s syrup and chocolate sauce on white bread?
I also feel guilt. The guilt of drifting apart and not staying in touch. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I pieced together the dates, that last in-depth conversation I had wasn’t “just a couple of years ago.” But it’s not just drifting apart from him, but with my cousins, who are struggling with his death a lot more than I am. And they lost their mom, Aunt Brenda just last year.
But I’m sad. And I couldn’t even find a damn picture of us in any of the photos I had. Hell, I couldn’t even find a picture of him. Granted, I don’t have all the old family photos, but still, who the hell doesn’t have a photo of their own godfather somewhere in the house? (Update: I found the above photo after writing this post.)
And aside from all that, I just wanted to say something. To let the world know about Uncle Charles, my parrain.
So, there you have it. Now yall go out and hug your people.