Updated December 29, 2016: Found two old pictures, one of Townes and Mikey, and one of me and my baby son Jack Berry at Unk’s place.
The other day, I was wondering just what constitutes “family” anymore? It seems that in one or two short generations, the definition of family changed from a mom, a dad, and 2.2 kids to include ex-husbands, your kids, his or her kids and your kids together. Does a relative have to be blood or marriage related? Last Thanksgiving, I had dinner with my sister’s ex-husband’s daughter from his first marriage and her children. Can’t that be family, too? And now, on June 26, 2015, I add a family of two dads or two moms to the possibilities.
This post is a very late tribute to Uncle Seymour Washington, affectionately called Unk. No, not my “real” uncle, but a treasure of a man who adopted, like family, a whole lot of folks in Austin during a time in the late 60’s-mid 70’s.
A retired blacksmith, Unk had worked on many ranches in South Texas including the famous King Ranch. He was a simple but wise, peaceful, Christian man who opened his front yard and home to a motley crew of people–hippies, musicians, elderly neighbors, and more. I’m not sure how it all started. I am sure he did not understand many of us, but accepted us into his life and his heart with kindness and some of the best smoked chicken and sausage I ever ate.
Unk came by his home in the Clarksville area of Austin, just off West Lynn, by way of his ancestors. Clarksville was land originally deeded to freed plantation slaves after the Civil War. Most of the people who lived there were actually descendants of those slaves. The streets were unpaved and many did not have indoor plumbing.
Unk’s front yard consisted of a few wooden benches under a tree, a big wash tub for icing down the beer, a really big Bar-B-Q smoker, and an outhouse. There was frequently something cooking, guitars playing, kids chasing each other and the dogs–we were all feeling the love. Unk would hang out with us until he got tired or it just got too rowdy and then he would go in his little house and take a nap. His neighbors didn’t know what to think about all these white kids hanging around, but they finally warmed up and joined the gatherings when they saw we were helping take care of Unk.
Besides musicians like Joe Ely and Jessie “Guitar” Taylor, Townes Van Zandt always came by when he was playing in or around Austin. Heartworn Highways, a music documentary, includes the late, great Townes sitting in the Uncle Seymour’s kitchen singing “Waitin’ Around to Die” tears running down Unk‘s face.
When Unk passed, his “adopted” family, along with his one nephew, packed the Sweet Home Baptist Church for his funeral.
So, what is family? I like to think it is the human family, but, I am not sure we have all caught on to that yet. I miss Unk, I miss those days; but as humans, we keep on creating our own unique family relations. How’s yours?
If you were a friend of Unk’s, please leave a comment.
Also read my blog post “And we all shine on” about a March 2020 Townes Van Zandt Tribute in Austin. Flashbacks and fun.