My cousin Sid Paine died the other day while on a trip with his wife Elaine up in Vermont, pursuing their common passion for travel, meeting other folks, hearing their stories and telling, oh, I would guess about 1,000 stories of their own. He was a spectacular human being, and I find myself recalling that he has been my idol since I was age 5 or 6.
Sid was everything I wasn't: good looking, great hair, a million-dollar smile, a terrific athlete in every sport he ever took up, and equipped with that rare ability to make friends with just about anyone, anywhere. He should have been an ambassador, but what he was was an educator, a historian, and oral storyteller who knew people around the world, and knew their kinfolk back in places like Haw River and Monck's Corner and Ninety-Six and South Bend and Chapel Hill and Columbia and any city or county in the South named for Nathaniel Green.
I'll put his formal obituary at the end of this post, but the thing that always made me feel better was just being around Sid's and Elaine's good cheer. The world might be caving in around you, but they'd be telling you about some fisherman in Wales or a castle watchman in Salisbury or a wayward student at Darlington School or the time in high school when Sid had to guard future basketball All-American at UNC, Lennie Rosenbluth. And Sid's punch lines always had you in stitches: "Yep. Held him to 40 points," he would say with a grin. "All I saw that night was Lennie's armpit."
Sid and Elaine were career teachers who taught their students about life, not just about the course of instruction or what they needed to know to get through the school year. They were walking Encyclopedias of what it means to be a citizen any place on the planet. Oh yeah — they also knew the best places to eat wherever you were going, or the best place to find a good Scotch, or their favorite place at Augusta National to watch the Masters, or who to talk to when you wanted to do something different on vacation.
Sid had a little bit more than a decade on me, and it was his idea to go to England and rent a narrow boat, as they are called, to navigate along the hundreds of miles of restored industrial-revolution canals across that country. Sixty feet long and six feet wide, with a little bitty diesel engine and a long tiller to steer by. There is nothing like locking yourself through scores of hand-operated locks on those old blackwater canals, poking along at 3 m.p.h. through the English countryside, stopping every few miles to stake the narrowboat fore and aft to the towpath and pop into a pub and pass the afternoon with his new best friends of, oh, about 10 minutes' acquaintance.
We didn't see one another every year, but when we did, we had to allow two or three days just to catch up on the family stories. Our mutual grandparents, Mary Atkinson Monie Betts and Dr. Joseph Shawen Betts of Greensboro, N.C., were characters in their own right — fascinated by the history of generations of family going back to places like Kilmarnock, Scotland, and the Towles Point Plantation on the Rappahannock in Virginia, and tales of growing up in the South in the late19th and early 20th centuries. We'd tramp around the battlefields of Yorktown, explore the yonder reaches of the Blue Ridge Parkway, replay long-forgotten football and basketball games, tell outrageous jokes and carry on late into the night, exploring unanswered family questions that we never thought to ask the grownups about.
I've thought about this a time or two: I don't think I could've invented a more likable, cheerful, knowledgeable and always-ready-to-talk-though-the-night-if only-you-could cousin, as Sid Paine. Everyone in our family will miss him greatly, but I especially will miss those moments when he'd remember something, get a sly grin on his face, hunch over the bar and ask me, "Say, did I ever tell you about the time……" and then we'd be off on another lively Betts family tangent, digging up something from long ago, and wearing it out over another wee dram of that MacCallans he took with him in the trunk of the car. Oh, the stories. Rest in peace, Sid, and the next one's on me. See you.