By Bill Skiff
July 11, 2013
My Uncle Will Cox was a consequential old Vermont farmer. He was six feet tall with a barrel chest, round face and a fierce biting wit. He always wore bib overalls and considered them a badge of hard work.
Uncle Will was also fond of Vermont’s various forms of libation, particularly dandelion wine and blackberry brandy. Both of these he made himself, thus maintaining a constant supply for his consumption. A tumbler full of either one would turn his round face a vibrant red.
Aunt Hattie Skiff was Uncle Will’s wife. They lived in a small house in Monkton. Their house was a wonderful meeting place for family picnics and holiday gatherings. Aunt Hattie was the complete opposite of Uncle Will. She was 4 feet 8 inches tall and never weighed more than 95 pounds. Aunt Hattie was soft spoken, kind and never said a bad word about anyone. They were as different as syrup and molasses but together they made a formidable couple.
They did, however, have other differences. Aunt Hattie was very religious and loved to go to the old borough church on Sundays. Uncle Will, on the other hand, hated preachers and had to be dragged to church. The only way he would agree to go was if he could have a tall glass of his blackberry brandy before entering. Aunt Hattie would allow him this one transgression to get him through the door.
Family stories regarding Uncle Will and his religious activities are legendary. Here are a couple of my favorites.
One of Uncle Will’s finer qualities was his beautiful baritone voice. It was loud, clear and always in perfect pitch. One day, he was asked to sing with the choir. He loved the old hymns with his favorites being “The Old Rugger Cross” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.” On this particular Sunday, after being fortified by his tumbler of brandy, he was in perfect form, perhaps a little louder than usual.
After church, one of the grandmas of the congregation cornered him outside and took him to task for his loud and un-Christian-like behavior. Uncle Will looked her in the eye and said, “Madam, I can go home and take a nap and when I wake up I will be as good as new, but you, my dear, are a damn fool and there ain’t no cure for that.”
Uncle Will despised preachers. Following another summer service, he was out in front of the church after the service talking with his male companions. Although he did not like church services or preachers, his knowledge of the Bible was extensive. On this particular day, he was expounding on some of his religious thoughts while quoting extensively from the Good Book. He was giving his buddies chapter and verse all from memory. As the preacher came out he heard Uncle Will quoting Bible verses and was very impressed. Seeing an opportunity to get in good with one of his reluctant flock members he said, “Why Will Cox, I didn’t know you could quote from the Bible like that. You should have been a preacher.”
To which Uncle Will replied, “I would have if I’d known how little it took.”
Bill Skiff grew up on a farm between Cambridge and Jeffersonville. After a career in education, he now lives in Williston, where he is a justice of the peace and Fourth of July frog-jumping official. In “Places I’ve Played,” he shares his experiences of growing up in Vermont. Comments are welcome at [email protected]