Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I Plan to Know Them

Born in December of 1918, and raised in Appomattox County, Virginia, my mother came from a large close-knit farm family. Proud of her heritage and home, mother took us to visit her sisters, her parents, and on walking tours of the farm. She loved to recount stories of her up-bringing, experiences of hard work, frugal living, and Christian standards.

 The Chilton family on the steps of Lynchburg College, 1938, my mother is front left.

By the time I was born in 1954, my mother had mourned for and buried both of her brothers. Since only one of my mother’s five sisters had married [and my dad an only child], we grew up with only one uncle, Berlin.  Uncle BW, as we called him, married my mother’s oldest sister Nancy. Aunt Nancy became his second wife and step-mother to his almost grown daughter, who seemed, by the time I recognized such things, much older than me. 

BW did his uncle duties when we saw him, and I loved his white hair, his gravely voice, and sweet demeanor, but I always longed for the uncles I had lost before I was born. I perhaps desired them because I couldn’t have them, and in my romanticized imagination, I wished to be tossed in the air, swung in circles, tickled, and loved by these men I only knew from the black and white photos adhered to black paper and held by black, adhesive corners in the pages of the photograph albums belonging to my grandmother and aunts.

With the full head of hair of young men and ready smiles, Uncle Robert and Uncle Chapman grew larger than life in my reveries, and the absence of them made me “different” than some of my friends. I envied those friends who talked of their "Uncle Walter" or "Uncle Mike" – I knew I had lost something valuable, precious, a God gift as my mother's sisters were delightful relatives full of vigor and spit and fun. I created in my mind what my uncles, and the families I expected they would have, would have been like.

 Robert, 1938

Told the story of his death when I asked about it,  I knew that Uncle Robert had been killed in a train accident in July of 1941. Having graduated from college in 1938 at the end of the Depression, he could not find work, and after several attempts at making a living, he was back at home living on “the farm.” Coming home from a dance and driving in the pouring rain, the windows of his car rolled up and the radio playing, Robert approached a railroad crossing in Appomattox -- it was after midnight. The railroad operator, who went off duty at twelve o’clock, was not there to bring down the safety bar, and Robert, peering around the buildings that backed up the road on both sides, did not see the train.

The train dragged his car a mile before it could stop. 

These facts to my young mind were both fascinating and ghoulish, and I know that I heard the story, but that it wasn’t a story that was told too many times. They simply didn’t talk about it to us much.

My mother noted, “the memory[of Robert's death] faded, but for years my heart ached when I came to that railroad crossing. A year or so after he died, I was riding the train home from St.Louis, and as we approached Appomattox, the conductor said, ‘I’ll never forget the wreck we had here. A young boy was coming home late at night and his car hit the train…’”

 Chapman, 1939

Working a night job and attending medical school during the day, only surviving son Chapman, smart and driven, appeared headed for a career as a doctor. Interrupted by World War II, the US Army underwrote Chapman’s last two years of medical school and then shipped him overseas in 1944 for duty, but not before Chapman married Eleanor, a beautiful girl he met while interning in Memphis..

When he returned two years later in May of 1946, his wife, my grandmother, and aunts saw a changed man. No longer confident in his skills at being a doctor, he felt he atrophied during his stint in the army where he dispensed pills and gave out bandages. Bored and restless, the usual busy Chapman didn't adjust well to Army life. He told my mother when he returned: “I’ve forgotten everything I knew.” Believing he would have to intern and start all over, he became depressed. He and his wife rented an apartment in Richmond, a "small, dark one," as my mother noted, and he accepted a position at nearby Stewart Hospital. At one point,  he commented to his wife Eleanor: “ I can’t even write up a chart.”

With all of his family and friends expecting him to succeed, in retrospect, they assumed he carried a weight of their expectations for him, ones of which he felt he couldn’t meet, and in September of 1946, he took his own life.

As Grandma wrote “we are taking the shock very well, I think.” My mother, who said that she and Chapman were very close, did not make it back in time for the funeral. A mix up in preferred seating on the plane from St. Louis, she arrived home late to a "stunned" family.

As happy of a childhood as I had, and I did, the cloud of my uncles’ deaths existed. I wondered about them, dreamed about them, and wished I had known them.It was not until I was an adult that my mother told me that about his death -- I always thought he had been killed cleaning a gun.

As my husband and I attended the 90th birthday celebration for his aunt last weekend, I paused to think of my own family and the “what ifs” of their lives, and it spurred me to write about my uncles, the men I never knew but so longed for in the ways a young girl would.

BTW: I plan to know them --- in God’s time.

ETA: In 1993, my mother wrote a short memoir [about 90 pages] of some of the events of her life growing up on a working farm, her family, and especially her parents. Titled Will and Mimi’s Farm, she writes of the loss of her brothers and the impact it had on her family. I used her summary to write this.

 Robert and Chapman [and Spot, lol], 1923


  1. These family stories are important. They bind the generations. They also add meaning to so many things we wouldn't otherwise understand.

  2. Oh Harriet....I love your stories of your family...they are so like my own. And like you I am mourning the ones, especially my Granddad who died of cancer when I was 2. And your poor Uncle Robert....In my mind, they are always with me, the ones who have gone before, and I am sure that sometimes you feel those loved ones near, even though you never met. Oh what a reunion we will all have someday! Lori

  3. you tell a good story, friend. and this, this longing for those we never knew, is one of many reasons i think heaven will be everything we've ever needed. a place to finally call home, surrounded by everyone we love and everyone we wanted to love. xo

  4. I am always so excited when I get a comment on my blog.. and this one came from a sweet friend through an email:

    I was just catching up on my Saturday reading, which includes your blog. So sorry about your uncles. There is always such a hole left in our families when we lose people before their time. I know that 'before their time' is our perception, as I do believe that most are called home according to God's plan. Loss always leaves the families affected in a changed state. I guess that's part of our life lessons we are to learn here on Earth. It is odd how one day you can go through a train crossing, or hear/see an airplane, visit a familiar spot, and feel the long ago loss, which was not there the last time you encountered the place or experience.

    I have no doubts that one day you will know your uncles. I'll meet up with my loved ones as well. In the mean time, sometimes God is graceful, and allows visits through dreams. Last night for example, my daughter and I were sharing ice cream cones together. Simple pleasures can warm the soul.