Growing up in a small, rural town in the deep South, you meet a lot of people that wind up playing a pretty instrumental role in just who it is you ultimately become, and also how you shape your view of that big ‘ole world out there. I had a lot of those folks in my life growing up in Start, Louisiana, and Ivy Sullivan, or “Uncle Ivy,” as I knew him, was definitely one of those people.
There were nine of my grandmother’s siblings living when I was a knee-high kid, but most of them no longer lived in Start, with the exception for the most part, of my grandmother Mary, and her older brother, Uncle Ivy. Maybe it was just the proximity, but I didn’t get to know or revere the others like I did my Uncle Ivy, until much later in life.
Now in my little world, there was a very clear “natural order” in terms of how things worked. Maybe it was more of a hierarchy. But as a five-year old kid, I’m pretty sure no-one could have convinced me that my Uncle Ivy wasn’t at the top. Yep, I was certain of it actually. Whatever Uncle Ivy said was probably the last-word, in my book. Before I learned about judges, rules of order, laws, or anything of that nature, I’m pretty sure that I was quite convinced that Uncle Ivy made the rules of life and that all the rest of us just sort of followed along.
Like for example, when he stood up at a church business meeting once, and very calmly but sternly suggested that the church vote to “never, ever again change the time that services started for as long as we were all alive.” (I still think he was on to something by the way.)
And when he sang at church, everyone heard him. He could hit a lower bass note better than anyone I had ever seen, and he was at least four-feet taller than everyone else in the choir. I’m sure of it actually. Now make no mistake, I was definitely a little scared of him when I was really little. But not in the way that some kids fear adults. It was more of a “don’t disturb the natural order of things,” or a “don’t rock the boat” kind of fear. After all, my brother Paul had made it very clear, that children were only to be seen and not heard. Maybe I just thought that Uncle Ivy was the “top enforcer” of this and other rules. Fortunately, I never was on the receiving end of any of this justice system. I knew better than to test it.
Honestly, it wasn’t until I started the first-grade at Start Elementary, that any sort of fear went away. I was little, and probably as naive as any First-Grade kid in America. But I didn’t have one fear in the world when my mama told me I’d be riding the bus home from school each day. In fact, I don’t remember being intimidated in the least about getting on that big-strange bus and riding it home. And the reason I had no fear was quite simple really. My Uncle Ivy drove the bus. Worrying about anything going wrong was simply the least of my concerns. Now Uncle Ivy wasn’t even my bus-driver. But that didn’t matter at all. Nope. Because I was convinced in my mind, that even though I wasn’t on his route, Uncle Ivy was still the man in charge. And boy was I proud of THAT. So much so, that I vividly remember marching my first-grade self right up to HIS bus that first day. Up those bus stairs I went, and then just as proudly as I could, I said, “Hey Uncle Ivy.” and then I gave a long, awkward pause, followed by “Did you know I ride the bus now?” I’m sure he was thrilled to play the part of “caretaker” looking back, (after all…he knew every family in Start; as well as their kids.)
But nonetheless, he just grinned really big, and kindly escorted me over to the one I was SUPPOSED to be on, while I made every attempt to proudly point him out to every kid and teacher we passed within 100 yards. Yep. That was MY Uncle Ivy. He saw me up the RIGHT bus steps, and off he went, back to his. I smiled as big as I could at my “official” bus driver, Ms. Priscilla Gee, and politely and as confidently as I could, I asked her if she knew that “Uncle Ivy” was MY Uncle. She just smiled, and nodded. I never did have any problems on that bus.
I guess it must’ve been 4 or 5 years later before I realized that Uncle Ivy wasn’t actually out there sitting on that bus all day long in the parking lot, keeping watch over all us kids all day. What mattered is that I thought it, and that was just one less thing a kid had to worry about. Because of where his bus was always parked, it was pretty much the only one that every kid had to pass first, unless you were on his route. I heard from the other kids at times, that Uncle Ivy ran a pretty tight ship, via that Old School Bus. Not every bus had that sort of reputation. But some of those busses could’ve probably USED a little Ivy Sullivan law and order. As for me, for the next eight years of school, it was like clockwork. He would wave at me, and I would proudly wave back. He would say “Hey There Lukas!” That was just sort of our thing. Looking back on it now, I am fairly convinced that he was parked right there at that spot for a reason. If a kid was lost, or didn’t know which bus to get on, I’d be willing to bet he got ’em straightened out and ‘situated’ before a teacher could even take notice. That was Uncle Ivy. Always keeping the worlds aligned.
Sometime later, though still a little kid, I developed a singing bug. And why not? My grandmother…My Uncle Ivy…heck ALL those Sullivans practically INVENTED singing. So surely I could do it too? And sing I did, up until I got to about Junior High anyway. It wasn’t that I could necessarily sing well. But I’m sure I could sing loud, confidently, and with a big ‘ole smile on my face. It was easy to do, seeing my Uncle Ivy and my grandmother up there singing so beautifully. My favorite was always when they would sing together. And if it was a REALLY special day, Uncle Johnny, Aunt Lil’, Chipper, Doug, Rita, Aunt Pearl, Cousin Robyne and heck, the whole darn gang would sing. I still catch myself hearing them sing “Step into the Water,” to this day.
But just standing up there in church and singing a solo by myself wasn’t quite enough for this kid. I wanted a piece of the action. First, I asked my grandma if she would sing with me up there. And she did. And then I told my mama I wanted to sing up there with Uncle Ivy. I’m not sure if I chickened out, or what, but I never did directly ask him. And then I grew a little bit out of singing. But Uncle Ivy never did. I finally got my wish to sing with him, nearly 30 years later when we celebrated his 90th birthday this past year. I’m not sure I’d have dared to get up there and sing with all those great Sullivan cousins singing so beautifully all night, had it not been for Uncle Ivy. But I wasn’t going to miss this chance. So I walked up front, and we proceeded to sing “You are my Sunshine” and a little bit of Hank Williams. But just before we started to sing, Uncle Ivy looked over at me and quietly asked, “Luke, do you want to sing the harmony?” And then it hit me. “Harmony?! — These songs have a Harmony?!” Oh boy. And then I had to confess. “Uncle Ivy…I don’t know if I know exactly how to do that.” He just politely nodded, and as I bashfully scratched out my country tune, he joined me, singing the harmony part to perfection. I will never have that natural talent as he had it, but that’s ok. There’s a natural order of how things are supposed to be, and enough of those other Sullivans cousins got that talent honest.
Though I didn’t grow up on Sullivan Loop, I was still just a stone’s throw away. At some point I think my mother picked up on my reverence and awe that I clearly held for Uncle Ivy. And if I got particularly “out of line,” the first threat was a whipping from her. But if I’d done something REALLY awful, she would threaten to take me down to Uncle Ivy’s and let HIM whip me. It was her ever-so subtle way of letting me know I was so wrong that it wasn’t even funny. And even if I disagreed with her analysis of the situation, when she threatened an Uncle Ivy whipping, it definitely got my attention. And if Uncle Ivy might disapprove, then doggone it, I must have been just outright wrong. Moms are good like that sometimes. Aunt Bea’s threat to cut off my thumbs if I kept sucking them was an equally effective threat, and I was convinced Uncle Ivy had gotten to her about my habit. Aunt Bea, just like Uncle Ivy, would always spend that extra amount of time talking to me and she was great at showering all us kids with attention. But I knew she was serious. Its been 30 years, and I still curl my thumbs in when I see her. She was clearly my Uncle Ivy’s sister. I figured she was just following orders.
And then there was the time I asked my daddy why my hair wouldn’t lay down on my head. He ever so casually articulated that all us Letlow boys had that problem. Dad’s scientific explanation was quite simple, really. Uncle Ivy had taken each of us three boys out to his cow pasture when we were babies, and he let each of his cows take a lick of our heads. That sounded reasonable enough to me. If that was how Uncle Ivy thought things ought to be, then I would just have to be fine with it. I was probably 17 before I realized that wasn’t really the cause. And to be honest, I’m still not 100% sure it didn’t happen.
All of us that knew Ivy Sullivan have our stories to tell. These are just a few of mine. When I thought of him as a kid, it wasn’t necessarily the sort of soft, gentle demeanor, in the way that some older people are viewed. But he didn’t need to be that. Heck, Uncle Ivy was something much more the likes of John Wayne or Johnny Cash in my book.
Yep. I thought the world of Uncle Ivy. To me, he was definitely larger than life. When you’re a kid growing up in a small little town, you long for an understanding of the natural order of things. A kid craves to know the hierarchy of his little world. To know that somebody, somewhere, is keeping that world in order. A kid craves to know that no matter what happens, there is always someone that sets the rules and keeps things in line. As for me? That was my Uncle Ivy.
We will miss him, but the bass section in Heaven just got an upgrade. And when I see him again up there, you can rest assured I’ll be smiling big, while confidently pointing him out up there in the choir. “You see Ivy Sullivan up there? That’s my Uncle Ivy.”
And who knows. Maybe I will have even learned that harmony by then.