On March 10 my Aunt Ola died. She was the last of my father’s siblings to go, the last of what I might call “old school McCollaums.” Aunt Ola was a good McCollaum. She had (I almost wrote “has”) many of the qualities that mark the “McCollaum” from my father’s side. It’s a mixed blessing. My father’s mother (whose maiden name was Green) used the name in a confusing way. Whenever one of her kids did something scary or mean or pointed or rude or mysterious, she would say, “He let the McCollaum come out.” Yet, she adored both her husband and her sons. Contemplating that and my dear aunt, I decided to try to understand why I continue to admire both the name and the quality that is “McCollaum,” why I try to emulate them.
First, understand that though some members of the family were and are physically attractive, that quality was never particularly prized by the McCollaums. Things built by my grandfather have been described as “short on beauty, but hell on stout.” My father taught Industrial Arts for some years, and part of the test he put his students’ projects to was he would stand on them (the projects, not the students). My father was a big man, commonly over 200 pounds. He required his students to produce “stout.”
That quality my father admired came directly from the McCollaum Ranch and his family. One thing they definitely admired was strength. Every member of the family, man and woman, had to be strong. Gender didn’t really figure in it. My Grandma McCollaum could lift a twelve inch cast iron frying pan full of gravy with one hand and pour it as lightly as if it were nothing. Every member of the family has that quality of physical port, even the thin ones.
Mental strength, intelligence, also counted for a good deal on the ranch. By intelligence I am not referring to intellectuality, that rarified pose of knowing chemical bonds and Newton’s laws and foreign languages and Shakespeare quotes (though almost every one of the current generations has understanding of some or all of these). The brains admired on the ranch were those of insight, observation, and reflection. They did not put much stock in charm (big talk) or artistry (showing off). Some could play music or sing or dance or draw. Big deal. What mattered was excellence. That’s what they valued–high quality. If you were a good story teller, that was fine. If you were a good cook, even better. If you were able to survive in the wild with only an axe, a gun, and your wits–best of all.
Their pursuit of these qualities combined to make the McCollaums valuable to others, especially those who lived in the wilderness. If the s–t got deep, their courage never faltered. They would make a plan, lightning quick, and execute it. If plan “A” didn’t work, they would move on to plan “B” and “C” until the problem was solved. They almost never failed and absolutely never panicked. The people around them in times of crisis came to love them. The McCollaums could be insensitive, rude, prickly, and curt, but they were the real deal. A person could depend on them.
To illustrate the way this worked in the day-to-day, I will tell one of my brother Brian’s stories about our Aunt Ola. My dad’s family and Aunt Ola’s family got together pretty often. On our way to one of these gatherings, my mom told Brian, who was fifteen at the time, “Don’t bring up politics.” Brian nodded in agreement, but he wasn’t really listening. When we got to Aunt Ola’s house, everyone greeted each other but soon there was a lag in the conversation. At that moment a political ad for a wildly redneck candidate came on. Brian had been working on witticisms to make fun of this hick for weeks, so he grabbed the moment and launched into his material. He only got one good zinger out when Aunt Ola went hard about the eyes and let him have it. Evidently she knew this man, and she felt he was a worthy candidate, a man of conscience and integrity that Brian was dismissing for superficial and prejudiced reasons. Brian thought, “Oh, yeah, Mom told me not to mention politics.” After Aunt Ola finished, Brian mumbled an apology and headed out to the yard to visit with the younger cousins.
That was pure McCollaum. McCollaums say what they think, and they treat young people the same way they treat peers. They will not pretend for even the sliver of a second to believe something they don’t or to dismiss someone because he or she disagrees. They have decided opinions, and they will give them. They will also turn stony silent if the moment requires it, which can be even more unnerving than when they express their thinking.
McCollaums make great teachers because they do nothing lightly or without consideration. My Aunt Ola was a teacher, and I know she was a good one. She taught me half of what I know as a cook, and knew twice as much as I ever will. It’s a lonesome feeling, knowing that she isn’t here anymore, but I know she is better now, back to her old powerful self. Godspeed, Aunt Ola.