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Mr. Aikley, hired man, and Chubby

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By Janny Wilcke

When I was a young girl growing up on a farm in upstate New York, my folks had a hired man named Shel Aikley. Given the custom in those days and the fact that he was probably 40 years older than I was, I always politely addressed him as “Mr. Aikley.” He gave me the feeling that he was fond of me, and, sure enough, years later at my wedding, he wept openly, as if he’d been my uncle.

My early memory of Mr. Aikley is somewhat hazy. In the self-absorbed ways of a child, I took his presence on our farm each day for granted, neither paying a lot of attention to what he did nor wondering much about his life apart from us. He and I were always friendly, exchanging pleasant greetings whenever we crossed paths, but memories of any extended conversations and other interactions are few. It was through my mother, who ran the farm daily while my father worked in town, that I came to know Mr. Aikley. She kept me up to date on his colloquialisms and folksy wisdom, and also told me what little she knew of his past.

Mr. Aikley was a character. He was of medium height and build, but, while I distinctly remember the scruffiness of his face and his work clothes, nothing else about his appearance comes to mind. He was not an educated man, and his speech was laced with odd combinations of syllables and mispronunciations. Montgomery Ward was always “Monkey Ward,” and poison ivy was “poison ivory.” He never teased me, but he enjoyed getting a reaction from my mother and regularly made comments to get a rise out of her.

My mother told me that he had been married once and had a daughter from whom he was estranged. Yet, from the time I first knew him, he had a common-law wife named Mrs. Parks. On several occasions when my parents had to go away, she stayed with my brothers and me, and I can still remember, after all these years, the absolute ecstasy of her homemade ham soup. I have never been able to duplicate it.  She had a most interesting button collection displayed in glass cases on the walls of the house she shared with Mr. Aikley. I can’t pinpoint when she passed away, but it was sometime during my teenage years.

I cannot think of Mr. Aikley without his little dog, Chubby, coming to mind. He was a scruffy, taffy-colored little mongrel, not given to barking or otherwise making his presence known. He accompanied Mr. Aikley to the farm each morning in an old truck, and he spent most days sleeping under it until it was time to go home.

It was Mr. Aikley’s deep attachment to Chubby that reinforced a lesson that has served me well in ensuing years. Chubby was a central part of Mr. Aikley’s life for years, and, whatever he may have felt about losing Mrs. Parks, it seemed to me that Chubby’s passing affected him far more deeply, perhaps because Chubby was his last companion. In any case, I’m pretty sure the little dog died of old age and not as a result of an accident. Mr. Aikley became depressed. My mother tried to help by offering to get him another dog but he would have none of it.

It wasn’t very long after Chubby died that Mr. Aikley began to act and feel old, developing diabetes and other health problems, as if his mourning had weakened his body and spirit, exposing the prospect of his own death.

Mr. Aikley held on for some years, but it has always been sad to me that he opted to live the rest of his life with only his memories of Chubby rather than open his heart to the possibility of a new companion. He once admitted that his rationale for refusing to get another dog was fear of another loss. That attitude struck me as self-defeating because I believe that living life in the constant fear of possible grief diminishes the potential for a great deal of happiness.

The last time I saw Mr. Aikley was in the hospital before he died. We were in the area and I took him some magazines. Just as when I was a little girl, we didn’t say very much. He was a sad and lonely man. I can’t help but think I might have seen him again had he only been willing to risk one more little dog.