His full name was Robert Willis Jones, but of course, he went by Bob. He was bald on top, wore glasses, and had strong, muscular arms, due to physical work he enjoyed, gardening and building things. He was my mother’s cousin.
I first met Bob when I was eight, while my family was on Dad’s much-planned road trip from Maryland to California and back. Bob and his wife had two daughters who were about the same ages as my sister and I. They owned a vacation house at Lake Tahoe, their main house being in San Jose. We spent three nights with them.
In my memory, the Tahoe house was rustic, made of logs and stone. The older daughter informed, “My daddy built it.” That may have been true. Bob smiled plenty and talked to everyone in a booming voice, as if someone had turned his volume knob to HIGH. Besides, he talked a lot. The only way not to hear him was to leave the house, which we kids did, the daughters taking us on trails through the tall pines.
The third day, we said goodbye and drove off to Yosemite. For years after, I didn’t give much thought to Bob and his family. After all, I was only a little kid and they lived far away.
We were living in San Antonio and I was in high school when I saw Bob again. On a weekend, he came to see us. This time, I learned that his work was with the federal government Agriculture Department. Recently, he’d been transferred to Brownwood, a small town several hours to the northwest.
All weekend, and I do mean ALL, we heard about his new assignment. His voice reverberated through the house. “It’s a very forward-thinking project! We’re testing the climate of west central Texas, as to the viability of almond trees there. We’ve planted a grove of them and hope for a bountiful crop in a few years. You see,” he leaned in, engrossed in his subject, “meat is expensive to produce. The world needs a reliable and cheaper source of protein. Almonds could fill that need! Someday, people might be eating almonds and indulging in meat would be a thing of the past!”
My mother had no response to Bob’s monologues, except to murmur, “Uh-huh,” and grab a second to insist, “I’ll go start supper!” That was her way out.
My dad mumbled, “Interesting.” He tried to interject, anything to change the conversation. “Let me tell you about. . .” He got nowhere. Nothing could stop Bob when he was enthused about something and he was definitely enthused about almonds!
Dad viewed Bob as a crashing bore. As a child, Mom had spent summers with Bob’s family, so she tolerated his eccentricities and cared for him anyway. To me, he was amazing just to watch. When he talked, he used his whole body and everything he said was filled with emotion. His eyes would grow large, brows shoot up and down. He’d lean in, then out. He’d gesture with his hands, waving and pointing. I thought this guy could be in the movies!
In Brownwood, Bob was living in a small apartment by himself. He said, “The almond project might not last, so we’re not selling the house and uprooting the girls.” But the months went by and then the years. The almond project was still in full force and Bob still lived in that apartment. He went home to San Jose for Christmas and summer vacation.
From time to time, he’d come to San Antonio and it became obvious these little trips helped him break the loneliness of his life. Yes, we’d hear more about almonds, but he’d venture onto other things, too, government corruption, the Vietnam War, even Tricky Dick Nixon. Bob was passionate then, too, but it was angry passion.
I graduated high school, went off to college, and got married. That meant I missed some of Bob’s visits. After college graduation, my then-husband and I moved to Dallas and that gave Bob a different place to visit on weekends. We’d put him up for the two nights and he’d orate for hours. Again, his enthusiasm flowed freely.
“I have my favorite Brownwood restaurant! All the waitresses call me by name!”
“I sing in the Baptist Church choir. The choirmaster is a fine man! Excellent music training! We did the Hallelujah Chorus for Easter! It was grand!”
“There’s a young lady who works at the library. She’s astonishing to observe! I can see her mind planning every step, so she doesn’t take even one that’s unneeded. More people should be like that!”
Then he’d go around our house singing in his rich baritone.
Bob’s older daughter came to Brownwood only once and he drove the two of them to San Antonio. My husband and I made the drive, too, and I braved asking the daughter, “Why does your mom stay in San Jose? Bob’s been in Texas for seven years.”
She didn’t take offense. “It’s like this. They really love each other, but when they spend more than a couple of weeks together, they’re ready to kill. The long distance arrangement is better for them.”
That did make sense.
The last visit Bob took to Dallas, my oldest son was a year old. As usual, Bob arrived by Friday evening, after my husband had gone to a meeting.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll take us out to dinner!”
In the restaurant, he thought that other customers were staring at us and his assumed reason gave him a huge kick. “Here I am, a bald-headed, old fellow. Those people must think I’m doing quite well to have a young wife and a tremendous baby son!” He laughed uproariously. I didn’t suggest to him that, probably, those people thought he was the grandfather. Why ruin his merriment?
A year or so later, Bob retired from the Agriculture Department and finally went home to stay. Over the subsequent years, I had contact with him through Christmas cards and the occasional phone call. He was an encyclopedia of information when I was working on the family tree.
Then, he and his wife moved from San Jose and I lost track of him. Eventually, I came across his obituary online. He had passed away in 2008, just a few months before my dad. And new information, I learned that he’d received a Doctoral degree in botany. In his work with the USDA, he’d been a plant geneticist and research botanist. Never had I heard him remark about those things. He'd held hundreds of opinions, but when it came to anything about himself, he had truly been a humble man.
In the end, I think Bob was something of an acquired taste. After spending time with him, you either loved him or you ran in the other direction. I was one of those who loved him.