Tuesday night I was rummaging through all the family history stuff I have tucked away (actually, scattered about the building) searching for something to occupy our daily Facebook post, when I came across an embalmer’s license, neatly framed in black, stained by water and time, with signatures faded to the point of illegibility. It had been issued on January 9, 1958 to C. C. Roberts. I made pictures, emailed them to myself, cropped them on my handy computer, and posted one to our page.
But that little discovery brought back a flood of memories that are literally decades old. I never knew this man as anything other than Uncle Charlie. I’m not sure how that happened since he’s not my uncle, and although he was “Uncle” Charlie, I never knew his wife as Aunt Pearl. When I was in first grade, she was Mrs. Roberts, the ancient pillar of knowledge (at least she was to my five year old self) who took up our milk money every morning, insisted we nap every afternoon, and generally attempted to advance my education in age-appropriate ways. As I grew older she became “Miss” Pearl and the two of them became fixtures in my life.
Uncle Charlie worked for our family for almost 44 years, beginning with my great-grandfather, Robert E., and ending with my brother, Robert the third. Of course, Robert the third was a mere child when Charlie decided to retire; they sent the two of them on a funeral together so he could add the fourth generation to his resume. Not that Charlie needed a resume. After that many years, everyone in Hardin County knew and respected him.
In his younger years he drove the ambulance, just as most rural funeral directors did for the towns they served. And whenever he made a trip to Memphis, once he’d delivered his patient, he’d swing by Goldsmith’s downtown and visit the Russell Stover candy counter. Back then you couldn’t buy that just anywhere. Russell Stover candy could only be found in the finest department stores and he always came back from Memphis bearing a box of orange jelly sticks. You know—the ones that were about two inches long and a quarter inch wide, a ribbon of orange flavored jelly that had been dipped in luscious chocolate. Only we called them “Charlie Sticks” because . . . well . . . what else could they be?
Uncle Charlie and “Miss” Pearl were really not a great deal alike, as near as I could tell. He was a Baptist; she was a member of the Church of Christ. She was a strong Republican; he was a staunch Democrat. She was well educated; he didn’t know how to read or write when they married. But they loved each other dearly, a love they continuously demonstrated over their 50 plus years of marriage.
He always seemed glad to see my brother and me when we would venture into the funeral home, possibly because he and “Miss” Pearl were never blessed with children. So he just kinda adopted any who came his way. Their childless status was probably the reason my parents hosted their 50th anniversary celebration in our home. It was why, when they were discussing where they wanted to be buried, they approached my dad and told him they wanted to be in Memory Gardens, hopefully close to where my family owned spaces. Because they considered us family . . . and we felt the same way about them. So now, when I visit the graves of my parents, I can walk just a few more feet and say hi.
I was in the second quarter of my freshman year of college when I got the call telling me Uncle Charlie had died. His retirement hadn’t kept him away from the funeral home; every day he would arrive at the office and all the men would go out for coffee. But on February 28, 1975, something happened as he made his way down the stairs to the basement. Something happened and he fell, landing on the concrete floor. Dad always thought he’d had a stroke first because of the way he behaved right beforehand. Of course he was within feet of an ambulance and after a stop at the local hospital they began the frantic trip to Memphis. I can only imagine how hard they must have worked, how fast they must have driven, trying to get him to the people they hoped could save his life. But as they entered Somerville, my father realized there was no reason to go any further. They stopped at Fayette County General where the attending physician confirmed my father’s belief. Dad didn’t want to take Charlie into Shelby County if there was no reason to. The ER physicians could have chosen to order an autopsy and Dad couldn’t stand the thoughts of his friend and mentor being subjected to that.
The funeral was two days later on Sunday, March 2nd in the funeral home chapel. It was a 3:00 service presided over by Jim Osborne from the Baptist Church with Hilton Royster from the Church of Christ reading the 23rd Psalm and praying. Merrell Wormack’s taped vocals filled the crowded chapel with In the Garden and Does Jesus Care. And the Shackelford staff served as his pall bearers, carrying one of their own to his final resting place.
You don’t forget people like Charlie Roberts or his wife Pearl. Those are the everyday folks that make the world a better place by simply doing what they’re called to do. Charlie’s portrait still hangs in the foyer of our chapel in Savannah, joining those of R.E. and Loura Paisley Shackelford and my parents, Bob and Bobbie. On the days when my presence is required in that space I’ll take a moment and spend it fondly gazing into the face I loved seeing for my entire childhood. I’ll remember the pats on the head and the kindness of a man who took time to pay attention to a young child. And those wonderful boxes of Charlie Sticks from the Russell Stover’s counter in Goldsmith’s.
About the author: Lisa Shackelford Thomas is a fourth generation member of a family that’s been in funeral service since 1926. She has been employed at Shackelford Funeral Directors in Savannah, Tennessee for over 40 years and currently serves as the manager there. Any opinions expressed here are hers and hers alone, and may or may not reflect the opinions of other Shackelford family members or staff.