Friday, November 6, 2009

The old cowboy rides off into the sunset

One of my biggest fans left us this week

Aubrey Jay Mays was born on Valentines Day 1917 on the prairie of Oklahoma, and left this planet on a crisp November day in New England in 2009. As the ferocious fiction reader that he was, he must've been impressed by the many plot twists of his 92 years, and I'm sure he never saw coming the surprise final chapters to his life, which took him across the country to Connecticut and surrounded him with a family that he didn't meet until he was already beyond the halfway point of his life. A family that will miss him greatly.

Grandpa Jay, as he was known, is acknowledged in Painless as the first person to read each of my manuscripts (along with Christina, my great typist). And I would always say that if an 80-something year old man from Oklahoma and a twenty-something girl from Connecticut were excited about the same material, then I knew I was onto something. That didn't mean he didn't want to change things or get out his pen like a high school English teacher. This didn't hurt my feelings, since he would often get out the pen to correct what he deemed to be errors in library books, often written by some of the classic authors throughout history! And it didn't bother me that I was only his second favorite author after Robert Parker; I took it as a compliment. And when health began to decline the last few years and he was no longer able to read my manuscripts, I felt like they weren't completely done without his critique.

Grandpa Jay was never comfortable being the lead character, but that didn't make him any less important to the story or any less compelling. Many knew him as the folksy gardener who spoke in a soft Oklahoma drawl. The man who became a local celebrity in Southbury, Connecticut (click on above article) in his "retirement job" when he transformed the town grounds from a blacktopped eyesore into an exquisite garden of flowers. And created the famed "flower sign" on the hill above Main Street, in which he wrote out a sign each year in marigolds, whether it was the 100th anniversary of the local fire department or a supportive message for US troops overseas.

But like all great characters, there were many layers to him. He was fascinated by the universe and nature, and man's role in it. He would passionately teach my brothers and I about astronomy, black holes, and the speed of light, to name a few. He would read Isaac Newton and other great scientific minds like some people read Stephen King. He loved music and photography. He was always creating, whether it be his flower designs or his many quirky inventions.

Most people never got to know or fully understand all the layers of AJ Mays, and perhaps just knew him as the folksy gardener. But that was okay with him. It reminds me of when religious groups would knock on his door and he would always tell them he was an atheist. They would tilt their heads with sadness and question his lack of belief. He would always respond by raising his right hand and saying in his Oklahoma drawl, "I swear to god I am." They would leave and he would smile coyly. Nobody ever got the joke, at least initially - an atheist doesn't believe in God, why would he swear to him? But then sometime later on it would hit you, and you would suddenly get it, and then you would smile. I think that is how people will eventually think of AJ Mays. One day it will hit them, and then they will suddenly understand him and see all the layers, and then they will smile.

RIP, old buddy.