Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"The Pick of the Litter"

Russell Aubrey Cheatham was my grandmother's youngest brother. When I was almost two years old, I attended his funeral and wake held in Spout Spring, Virginia, on March 23, 1956. I have no memory of the event, but there are pictures of my oldest brother taken after the "funeral meal" by the well on the Cheatham home place -- the home where Aubrey was born, lived, left, returned, and died.

Born on November 12, 1889, "Uncle Aubrey," as my aunts and mother referred to him in stories they told, never married, even though he was thought to be "the pick of the litter" of my grandmother's other brothers that included Hubbard and Elliott.

In my mind, they all looked "weird" with their solemn demeanor and "I don't have time for this" looks in the old fading photographs that I gazed at as a child. Many a day, I sat on "grandpa's rocker" in my grandmother's house and flipped through her "books" -- two postcard albums and one precious family album that had photos of her family and the two sons she lost, Robert, in a car accident when he was twenty-one in 1940, and Chapman, who died in 1947, from a self-inflicted gun shot wound. There were photos of Aubrey as well that she touched fondly, her beloved younger brother who died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage as he worked on his parent's farm.

The cover of grandma's black leather photograph album was worn, and the sepia and black and white photos held in place by black and white corner holders, the scrapbook quality paper already yellowing with age and use. I flipped through her album with and without her, trying to imagine knowing these people who once were young and alive.

My grandmother suffered quietly and stoically for the losses of her life; my mother told me one time that she never saw her cry, not even when her own children died.

My grandmother died when I was in second grade, and my memories of her are faint -- serving me oatmeal, holding my hand in her dry, calloused one when we walked to church, and finally in her polka -dotted blue crepe de chine dress as she laid in her casket, one of only three church dresses she owned.

As I have said before, the memory picks and chooses what it wishes.

As I cleaned out closets and drawers this week to get ready for new carpet, I discovered Uncle Aubrey's military cross, identification tag (called dog tags in WWII), and a postcard dated 1918 that he sent his own aunt from Camp Lee, a place where he was being re-trained for a different aspect of war.

I don't recall being chosen to hold onto Uncle Aubrey's "Cross of Military Service" awarded to him posthumously in 1985, but the package I found in the family heirloom chest of drawers, also bequeathed to me, had my name scrawled across the front in the penmanship of my own Aunt Harriett, my mother's sister and family genealogist.

Aubrey served with Company M. 131 Infantry of the 33rd Division during World War I. Stationed at Camp Lee at Petersburg, Virginia, he saw service in both France and Germany. His own father, my great-grandfather Robert Alexander Cheatham, served in the "War Between the States." He belonged to the Second Virginia Calvary, Company H of Appomattox County.

The Cross of Military Service is an outgrowth of the Cross of Honor and established as a testimonial to the patriotic devotion of Confederate veterans and their lineal descendants who have served in time of war.


These few mementos of my great Uncle Aubrey, a man I hadn't thought about in years, brought back memories of my grandmother and my aunts... my family, long gone.

At some point in the future, my own descendants will perhaps clean out a room or drawer and come across some reminder of me.

Needless to say, it won't be a military cross, but it could be a birthday card, a piece of jewelry, or a blog.


Regardless, I hope my 'phews and nieces pause to remember.

I'm glad that I got to think about Uncle Aubrey again. He obviously deserves it. :)

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