It's difficult for me to even begin to think about all the things I could say about my 'Uncle Melvin.' First off, to make it easier on myself and others I've been referring to him as my grandfather for a number of years. This is not accurate. He was, in fact, my grandfather's uncle-in-law, and married to my great aunt (i.e. my great grandfather's sister), Edna Harris. The explication of this blood tie, however, doesn't really do him justice because he and Edna were my main 'parents,' raising me here in Baltimore from when I was three years old. "Grandfather" while not to-the-letter true, comes closest to the mark. "Father" has some level of accuracy as well.
I would joke sometimes that underneath his somewhat gruff exterior -- a friend from high school still recalls the rough-voiced grilling he got from Melvin on the phone the first time my friend called our house -- was an equally gruff interior. Because under that, the man was a real pushover. In his later years his edges smoothed somewhat, so most people knew his softer side -- although he still had a tendency to ask you questions that made you uncertain if he was concerned or just wanted to get in your business.
To the end he looked to be in his 80's, perhaps 90. He always credited his religious faith for this (Heathen that I am, I feel moved to add that it's not clear how much credit for his being 'well preserved' should also go to his occasional shots of 100 proof Old Grand Dad as well). He managed to live on his own very well up to last fall, cooking his own meals, traveling on senior citizen bus trips to Atlantic City (where he'd spend his $10 in quarters, walk the boardwalk, eat at a buffet, and be ready to return home), complain about the Orioles and the Ravens. His wife of over 50 years, Edna, died a few years ago (at age 102), and he had a '90-something' girlfriend, whom he would talk to on the phone once or twice a day between their visits to each other's senior apartments. Many of the women in his building would cook for him: later after his move to a nursing facility where his great granddaughter works, all the women on staff there fell in love with him as well, calling him 'Pop Pop.' One of the last big events in Melvin's life was to meet his infant great great grandchild. He held her for a while, then both decided to take a little nap together.
Melvin decided to wait until after age 100 to become 'famous': he was part of an article on "Hack" cab drivers in the Baltimore City Paper; feted by the Pennsylvania Avenue Branch of the Pratt Library during their "Salute to The Avenue" for his reminiscences of that once bustling entertainment hub (I still remember him calling Billie Holiday, "That girl who used to live around the corner"!); appeared in a film on Baltimore Past and Present directed by teen members of the Wide Angle Youth Media program
; and, this past March, cut the ribbon to open Maryland General Hospital's Acute Care for the Elderly (ACE) Unit.
Melvin slipped away very quietly last Friday, July 6, 2007. The women at the FutureCare facility where he'd been living since February said they had gone in to check on him early that morning and he said he was fine. When they went back into the room, they thought he'd just drifted off to sleep. And so he had. Although 'expected' his loss was still a surprise for all of us. He seemed perfectly capable of going on and on forever
I cannot repeat Robert Hayden's famous lines from "Those Winter Sundays" here -- many of us were able to thank Melvin for all he had done and meant to us over the course of his many years. For that I am grateful. Things got a little tense around the time I came out to him in the '80s (some friends even questioned why I would do that, since people his age 'Wouldn't Understand'). Years later, as he became more comfortable with who I am, he told me that he considered my life-partner to be like 'another grandson' to him. I nearly cried.
I am also grateful to have grown up around someone from the Old School, even if I did hate it when I was younger, as well as someone who so easily navigated between the "Saturday night social and the Sunday morning service," to borrow a phrase from Albert Murray's Stomping the Blues, listening to jazz and pop on Saturday night (with a set up of scotch, braunschwager, Limburger cheese and crackers), then listening to gospel or going to church Sunday morning. This was the range of Life, and neither contradicted or canceled the other out. Quite obviously my continuing love of all forms of music comes in large part from him.
My sister sent this along after hearing of Melvin's passing:
When you called me this morning with the news regarding Uncle Melvin all I could do was smile. There is a feeling of peace and calmness that fills my heart when I think of his transition to the future.
He enjoyed GOOD MUSIC, GOOD FOOD, GOOD COMPANY, GOOD HUMOR, GOOD LIQUOR, AND GOOD WOMEN..........Uncle Melvin LIVED!
He truly shared his life with all of us and gave us "little pearls of wisdom" just when we needed them. Whether we thought so or not!
Uncle Melvin was the only person I know or will ever know in my lifetime with a total re-call from memory every street and intersection (including the Beltways) of the City of Baltimore. He took with him the grid to the City of Baltimore.. and I mean how it was back in the day and how it is today! I know this for a fact because I called him one day when I was downtown trying to find the Maryland Board of Nursing office that is located out near Baltimore County somewhere. I called "Unc", told him where I was, where I needed to be and he talked me through the city all the way out to where I needed to be.
I am humbled and honored to have known a man such as Uncle Melvin. My life has been enriched so much having known him. I thank God for the Father, Uncle, Griot, Confidante, and Friend. I will carry in my heart through eternity.
God has allowed me to hold court with a King and be in the presence of Royalty in my lifetime.
A wake for Melvin Harris will be held on Thursday, July 12, 2007 from 4-8 pm at Miller's Metropolitan Chapel, 1639 N Broadway, Baltimore Maryland (410-327-2777)
Services will be held Friday, July 13, 2007, (wake at 10:30 am, funeral at 11 am) at Macedonia Baptist Church, 718 W. Lafayette Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland (410-669-5776). After the service, we'll be traveling to Annapolis to place Melvin next to Edna.
Here's a 'Melvin poem' from 10 Tongues which I last read at the American Library Association Convention's Many Voices One Nation reading in Washington DC this past June:
Words remain a mystery to him,
forced to turn from one-room school-
house to fields after Grade 8.
Words came from preachers,
God, some unseen
And now this boy
approaching middle age,
reading him a poem
about the past:
the years of bouncing vans
across the South,
eating in the back of restaurants,
pissing in the woods,
sleeping in the truck or with strangers
while the white owner settled into a hotel;
the taxi driver playing ferryman
for others across the city,
called first Colored, then Negro, then
Black (he hated that),
now African-American -
(We are a People of Color he still insists);
the ones who never tipped,
the whites who called out Nigger from the window,
then turned and said, Oh,
I don't mean you;
the women gone:
mother lost to madness,
first wife lost to madness,
second wife consumed
by old age uncomfortably
son in California,
daughters dead, grandchildren
seeds scattered on a shifting breeze.
One alone is left,
not even his blood,
her kin, dropped
on them like Isaac
on Abraham and Sarah past the age
when both could think of flowering,
one who returns
with increased infrequency,
to talk, cook,
watch a ball game,
half-listen to his stories,
the cast them later into lines upon a page -
for all his book learning
dumbstruck before the wisdom of this man
behind his back.
The voice reading quivers,
You write that?
A nod and shrug,
a whispered Yes. Pages fold
with a sound like cracking eggshells.
He nods and clears his throat.
Read another one, he says.