Chapter 40: Awesomeness and Context (Walking in Emmett’s Footsteps, part 2 )

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May 18, 2014, 11:40 a.m. Pensacola Historic District

Clearly, I am in the presence of awesomeness.

I can’t describe it, but  as I walk around historic downtown Pensacola with Jacki Wilson, retracing Emmett Wilson’s everyday steps, I am aware and humbled by her true awesomeness.

The awesome Jacki Wilson showing me the old houses in historic Pensacola. Photo by the author.

For the record, my relationship with Jacki grew mostly from lengthy email messages on a variety of Emmett and Pensacola topics; messages that were back and forth for several months. That can be an awkward way to start friendships, but as I walk with her, I feel accepted and totally at ease, just as one would a friend I’d known for years. What comes out in our hanging-out together is an appreciation for history and mystery, and a love of obscure facts that tell the deep story of people long gone.

And in fact, she’s introducing me as her friend and a fellow researcher as we walk about in Pensacola.

It’s humbling. In this moment I realize how precious this dual gift of acceptance and friendship really is — and I receive it thanks to the man who was pretty much shunned the last year of his life. How ironic. Yet how gratifying.

The other thing you have to really admire about Jacki is her access. EVERYONE knows here in this, downtown and historic Pensacola. She knows where to go.

Plus, she has a BADGE. That badge is power. But the lady wearing it is graceful and easy with such access. I tell this to Jacki, who beams at me.

“Yeah, well,” Jacki says with a laugh. “I enjoy my work.”

Jacki inviting me into historic Seville Tower, once known as the American Bank Building. Emmett’s office was on the top floor. Photo by the author.

Before I know it, we are in front of a tall pink building. Seville Tower, once known as the American National Bank Building, constructed in 1909. This is where Emmett had a law office with his partner, J. Walter Kehoe, on the 7th floor.

As you walk through the doors, there is a giant antique bookcase on the left hand wall. I wonder if Emmett ever saw this. Photo by the author.

Jacki says the building is on the National Historic Register, so it is mostly unchanged — and that goes also for the claustraphobically small elevator. Once upon a time, there was an elevator operator for this thing, Jacki says. Imagine how tight it was back in the day!

As we ascend to the 7th floor, I’m a bit hesitant as it is a law firm, we weren’t really coming with any advance  notice, and people were working, but Jacki is not a woman to be dissuaded for any historical fact-finding mission! That badge, you know, lends lost of authority.

(O.K. To be clear, her ‘badge’ is her Pensacola Historical Society nametag, but it has clout in this town. I digress.)

Looking out of Emmett's office on the 7th floor of the original ANBB. He used to work on the third floor of the one across the street.

Looking out of what may have been Emmett’s office on the 7th floor of the original ANBB to the old Customs House, where Emmett’s office was on the third floor. Today it is an art gallery and cultural events are held there. Photo by the author.

The doors to the elevator open to a law firm. The receptionist did not seem at all inconvenienced when Jacki explained out mission — she was very nice and let us take a look out of different windows of the office to see what Emmett may have seen back in the day — namely, his other old office building, which was (and is) right across the street.

Back in Emmett’s day, the building across the street was called the Customs House. It housed the post office, and several federal offices, which were located on the third floor. Emmett was the assistant district attorney for several years; so, his office was on the third floor of the Customs House.

The background about Emmett as the assistant D.A., I tell Jacki, was that he was the youngest D.A. in the country at the time. Also, when Emmett was named to the position, a lot of people were surprised because a) Emmett didn’t seek the job outright and b) he had little experience.

Emmett appointed acting U.S. District Attorney, until Fred Cubberly would come along in 1908. The photo is Emmett’s law school graduation photo. Source: PEN, September 7, 1907.

As we walked across the street to the Customs House, Jacki nodded her understanding, adding that not much seems to have changed in 100 years in political partisanship.

The Customs House is now an art museum. But when Emmett was a congressman in 1913, it had needed a lot of repairs. He lobbied for (and got) a $30K appropriation for the improvements. Today, that would be about $630,000. The improvements needed then were cosmetic (wall repair, painting, light fixtures, sidewalk). Unfortunately, something happened before the repairs were finished: The appropriations, somehow, never materialized, and the local party bosses (and community) blamed it on Emmett’s incompetency and/or ineffectiveness.

Editor Frank Mayes (and other political bosses) came to believe Emmett didn’t care enough about this project to see it through. Source: The Pensacola Journal, Oct 1914.

The Customs House today.

The Customs House today. Photo by the author.

Regardless, it looks as if the people of Pensacola care a lot about this historic building, because it is in excellent condition today.

One of the things I talked with Jacki about was the fact that there WAS a chance for Emmett to turn his image of incompetency around re the Customs House appropriation mess. In fact, Emmett did follow up on the issue. A mistake was definitely made somewhere in the bureaucratic document shuffling that is Washington, D.C. But in Pensacola, the only thing people understood was that Emmett said one thing, but something else happened:

The Montgomery Advertiser, October 27, 1914. Source: GenealogyBank.com

 

“But he didn’t. Or, he couldn’t,” Jacki said.

I think the political machinery was too much; that Emmett might have sold his soul, so to speak, for quick gain, to make something of himself so that he would be independent, or to feel good about himself, to feel fulfilled — and of course, I’m just guessing here at this point, I tell Jacki, as we walk along the sidewalks toward a diner for lunch.  “There’s a scrapbook that he willed to a friend, that somebody got, kept, treasured for a little while anyway. I just wish I could find it.”

Maybe you will, Jacki said. I hope so, anyway.

Lunch with the most awesome Jacki Wilson after the grand tour of historic Pensacola!

 

I hope so too.

But for now, I treasure one of the best gifts of Emmett’s research, and that is of friendship.

 

Chapter 39: Walking in Emmett’s footsteps, part 1

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May 18, 2014, 10:45 a.m. Pensacola Historic District

It wasn’t hard to find the parking lot behind the old City Hall building in downtown Pensacola. Even if my van’s GPS decided to conk out, one wouldn’t get lost. The darn thing is a hulking example of beige Spanish architecture. It’s pretty, unique. You can’t miss it.

The Old City Hall, now the T.T. Wentworth Museum. Source: historicpensacola.org

Speaking of unique, I’m meeting the head archivist of the Pensacola Historical Society for a walkabout of Emmett’s old haunts this morning: His old offices; the park he probably walked through; the site of the old theatre where he watched vaudeville or maybe a picture show; the place where he filled prescriptions or bought shoelaces when his broke; the place where he probably ate, or argued with friends, or laughed, or cried in private, perhaps.

I really can’t wait — this woman is truly one of a kind. She and I have been emailing each other for months about my research. She’s been patient, helpful, and wonderfully interested in what I’m doing, though I admit having a hard time accepting the last part — I mean, Emmett as a research topic is odd and obscure.

But Jacki Wilson loves the obscure and unique. She’s someone who gets what it is like to track down disparate mysterious pieces of what seems to be disconnected information. She is also someone who understands these pieces are often connected and lead to greater understanding of who we are today, and where we’re going.

Historic Pensacola Village

The first thing Jacki and I did, after we met, was to visit the Pensacola National Register Historic District — a group of 27 properties in all — and to tour several that were specific to 1890-1920, several, Jacki said, were certainly homes that Emmett likely would have visited, because they belonged to prominent Pensacolians. And at a minimum, she said, I’d get an understanding of the decor, the home environment, the economic scale of which Emmett was accustomed. He was, after all, moving in high society circles up to the point that he was a U.S. Congressman, so that made perfect sense.

She’d reminded me in an earlier email that even though Emmett was their congressman, there was absolutely nothing of significance in their holdings about him. So, Jacki’s interested in Emmett too. She reminded me that Emmett’s grandfather, Augustus Emmett Maxwell, was hugely important in Pensacola — it seems strange to her that given the connection the archive has nothing on Emmett.

A sitting room. Photo by the author.

A quiet corner inside another Victorian sitting room. Photo by the author

One example of a Victorian bedroom. Photo by the author.

Another bedroom in one of the Pensacola houses. Photo by the author.

Calling cards on a vestibule table in one of the houses. EW would have left his card, too. And no, his wasn’t in this pile. Photo by the author.

Another house — this one Jacki said was rumored to be haunted, by not by Emmett. Photo by the author.

We walked over to the original 1832 Christ Church on 405 South Adams Street, which is still in the Pensacola National Register Historic District. Jacki tells me that this would be church that Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson and his grandfather, Augustus Emmett Maxwell, would have attended when they lived in Pensacola. The ‘newer’ Christ Church — the one Emmett attended — and was buried from — was built in 1903 and is located at 18 West Wright Street.

Side view of Old Christ Church. Photo by the author.

Inside Old Christ Church. Photo by the author.

Inside old Christ Church. Somehow we set off the alarm when we were walking around in here — but we didn’t get in trouble because Jacki Wilson is a historian superhero and knows everyone who has anything to do with historic facilities in Pensacola.  Photo by the author.

Next, we walked towards the business district. Jacki points out two sites of significance: the Blount Building where Emmett’s uncle Evelyn Maxwell worked. Jacki and I had had an email conversation about Emmett’s uncle and grandfather; both were and still are much revered in Pensacola history. She wasn’t surprised that Emmett’s family had paved the way for him more than a few times; that seemed natural then as now for established family to help those on the way up.

Uncle Evelyn gave Emmett his first job when when he moved to Pensacola in 1906 after he’d was either fired or ‘invited’ to quit from his ‘dream job’ in Sterling, Illinois,” I tell Jacki, as we look at the building from across the street. I can — and do — point out Evelyn Maxwell’s old office window on the corner, four floors up.

The Blount Building, about 1909. Source: Floridamemory.com

Blount building today. Source: Wikipedia.

“An interesting thing about Emmett — he had a lot of opportunities given to him, literally, that he didn’t seem to have to work too hard for — and it seems like he just never was able to launch successfully,” I say to Jacki.

Maybe that was the problem, Jacki says. Maybe something about him was never developed; maybe that held him back all his life.

“And maybe that was really what was at the heart of who he was, something broken that he never got over.”

Maybe there was a broken heart involved, she says, as we walk along the sidewalk towards a giant pink building that was the tallest structure in West Florida during Emmett’s time.

 

 

Chapter 38: No One Will Ever Know This

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December 22, 1900
The Dr. F.C. Wilson House, 6th Street, Chipley

When I reached the house, I was out of breath. The air was sharp and cold; I could see my breath as I exhaled.

Dr. F.C. Wilson’s house, about 1895. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Meade Howard.

I stopped on the top porch step, and took in a few slow, deep breaths. I turned to look out onto the street as one or two horses and wagons went by at a slow, steady pace; the horses snorting and the hardware making a clinking-jingling sound with the animal’s movements. The sun was sinking in the late afternoon sky, a sapphire blue, but with orange, pink, and purple clouds streaking the sky. The beauty of the sunset combined calmed me somewhat, though I was still agitated by Father’s words.

As I stood in the sunset on my Father’s porch, I reasoned with myself: I’d long wanted his approval. I didn’t even think I had his attention for years.

But hearing Father proclaim my role in the family business in front of Walter was a revelation: Father’s approval meant I could join the inner circle of my family. I would be included with my older brothers and their discussions.

I would accepted. Unconditionally.

I felt pressure inside my chest and reflexively, I put my hand there. God.

I didn’t want to work for Father. I didn’t want to live in Chipley. I’d realized this past semester while at West Florida Seminary, that I didn’t belong there, and I didn’t belong here, in Chipley anymore. What I really wanted to do was study law. So, I had to get to law school, somehow. I had no idea how to do that; I didn’t have money, and I for sure wasn’t old enough yet.

My family had already chipped in a lot for me to go to West Florida Seminary; even my younger brothers brothers had to contribute, so the idea of me trying again somewhere else on the family’s budget was out of the question. 

From the Wilson family genealogy, courtesy of the family of John Evans Wilson.

I had to become independent; someone important. Without obligation to anyone, including Father. And I didn’t know what to do about it.

I shook my head, frustrated.

I turned and opened the front door.

“Hello?” I called into the house. “Mother Kate?”

There was no answer in the house; but the light was on in the entryway, the coal fireplace was glowing.

From the back of the house, in the kitchen, I heard pots and pans rattling about and the clatter of metal spoons on porcelain dishes. I walked through the foyer, down the hall and pushed open the kitchen door.

“Hello?” I said, sticking my head around the door as I opened it.

A large Negro woman wrapped in a white apron and red and white checked dress turned around, quickly; startled, but her expression changed to a warm, welcoming smile and outstretched hands.

“Why, hello Mistah Emmett,” she said, coming over to me, gently taking my chilled hand in both of her large, warm hands. “We’ve been expecting you! Welcome home.”

“Hello Esther. Is Mother Kate around?”

“Naw suh, no one’s home right now; they’re all in town getting things for the big dinner this week, and finishing up a little shopping.” Esther looked at the clock on the wall over the icebox. “She should be home soon, though. Why don’t you put your things in the boy’s room, settle in?”

“All right.”

“Hongry?” She asked.

I nodded. The kitchen was full of good smells and was warm, welcoming. As I turned to walk out of kitchen, I asked, “Is that chocolate cake I smell?”

Esther grinned back at me broadly over he shoulder. “Sho is. Still your favorite?”

“Sho is,” I said, smiling back at her. She nodded at me, satisfied, and turned back to her stove, managing the chaos of dinner for our large family over the steaming pots and pans, and clattering about with spoons and serving platters.

My brother Walker’s room — where all the boys slept when they visited Father — was next to the kitchen; I put my bags on the bottom bunk bed. I’d be sharing the room with Walker, my youngest brother, who attended Chipley High School; still living at home.

I stood still to listen for a moment — I could only hear Esther singing hymns as she cooked. No one else was here.

I took the flask out of my coat pocket and drank the little bit that was left. I didn’t care if my breath smelled slightly like whiskey at that point. The little bit warmed my mouth, but that was it. Nothing. I didn’t feel the lightening of spirit that usually accompanied a drink — probably because it was only a mouthful. That wouldn’t do while I was here. I would need more. But for now, I needed to hide my flask. I examined the bookshelf on the wall behind the door to the room, but thought that was an obvious place. I opened the closet, and felt the ledge over the door frame — it was dusty. Perfect. I placed my flask safely on the shelf and closed the closet door.

I sat on the bed, closed my eyes. I felt anxious and stressed —  if I could only find another way to get that lightening of spirit —

I opened my eyes. I remembered.

I walked to the hallway, and paused, listening. I didn’t hear anything except Esther, still singing in the kitchen. I walked down the hallway to the parlor, and turned right. I slid open the pocket doors that led to the parlor. No one here.

The parlor was chilly without a fire in the hearth; there was a tree in a stand in the far left corner of the room, near the window facing the street. It looked forlorn without ornaments, which were in boxes next to the tree, stacked on the floor. The scent of cedar filled the room. It was probably cut just and nailed onto its x-shaped stand this morning.

I quietly closed the parlor doors, and walked back to the center hallway. I glanced towards the bedrooms on the other side. The doors were closed. I turned left, and walked towards the end of the hallway. I didn’t think anyone was in the room, but I knocked softly anyway.

No answer.

I carefully turned the opened the door. It was dark, quiet. I sighed with relief.

I pushed the light switch button and closed the door.

I was in Father’s office; rather, his old home office. He still maintained his home office in the event of emergencies, for patients that needed to see him late at night or who could not get to his office downtown. It was fully stocked, of course. That was Father’s way: Always prepared for any contingency. It felt odd being in here; Father’s office was clean, but had the feeling of disuse.

Father kept his medical supplies, including whiskey, which he was licensed to prescribe for medicinal purposes in a locked closet.

I went over to the desk, and opened the drawer. There it was, the key to the medicine closet, on a red ribbon. I took the key out, and went over to the closet door.

As I slipped the key into the lock, and turned it, the hinges creaked slightly as I opened the door. I reached up and pulled the string that turned on the closet light.

Aha!

A full shelf of Irish whiskey. I breathed out in relief. Thank God. I reached up to take a bottle….

“Emmett?”

I froze. I turned.

Mother Kate. She stood looking around the door of Father’s office.

“Emmett, are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m sorry, Mother Kate, but I have a terrible headache. I’ve had one all day, and I can’t seem to get rid of it. I know Father has a supply of headache powders, and I was looking for them.”

“Oh, of course, Emmett. You poor dear. I’m sorry. Let me get that for you. It’s over here, in this other cabinet,” she said, motioning to me.

“Thank you,” I said, hoping I sounded grateful, and not scared out of my wits.

I turned the light off in the closet and closed the door, while Mother Kate opened a cabinet and took out a Bromo-Seltzer box. From it, she withdrew a paper wrapper with a headache powder dosage in it. I relocked the closet door and handed the key to Mother Kate, who slid it in her pocket.

“Let me mix this up for you, all right?”

She waited for me to precede her out of Father’s office, then she turned out the light, and closed Father’s office door behind us.

She bustled off to the kitchen, with me in her wake. I think I covered myself adequately, as Mother Kate had me sit down at the kitchen table. Mother Kate might mention it to Father, though. I don’t believe Father would think anything of it, especially as I had turned down the drink in his office. As she put the headache powder in a glass, added water, and stirred it briskly, I thought, how in the world am I going to get to Father’s whiskey? All I need is just a bit, just enough to give me relief from my constant anxiety — at that moment, I unconsciously rubbed my forehead.

“Here you are, Emmett,” Mother Kate said.

I took it gratefully, drank it quickly. She nodded, with a tight, efficient smile.

“Better?” She asked.

I nodded. “Thank you.”

“Now. I know it isn’t quite suppertime, but I am going to fix you something to eat.  You’re tired, you’ve been working hard, and the train ride in from Tallahassee means you haven’t had a decent meal yet.”

(L to R): Lucille, Kate (“Mother Kate”), and Catherine Caroline (late known as Miss John) Jordan. Source: Lucy Gray

I nodded, not saying anything. Mother Kate was in charge here. She was the kind of person who swooped in on a problem to solve it, regardless of what it was, or if the person wanted help, and mostly by feeding it well.

Esther handed Mother Kate a dish upon which she spooned potatoes, roast chicken, and lima beans, in heaping amounts. The dinner rolls had just come out of the oven; Mother Kate took one off the cooling rack, and placed it on the plate alongside the vegetables. It all smelled delicious; I realized that I truly was hungry, and grateful for her solicitousness.

She put the plate before me, then poured a glass of milk from the pitcher in the kitchen safe without asking me if I wanted it, and finally, handed me a fork from the cutlery drawer. I thanked her, and started eating.

She smiled at me. “If you don’t mind, I’ll go into the dining room and set the table for supper in there. You know you are welcome to join us at the regular hour if you are still hungry, or if you just want to sit with everyone if you are full. But I think you might ought to take a nap after you eat. You look worn out, Emmett.”

“Thank you,” I said, in between bites. Mother Kate nodded, turned, and left.

The room was warm, with good smells, and comforting; no talking was necessary. I could sit there and think, and just eat my supper. I preferred eating in the kitchen over the formal dining room anyway. The comfort of the kitchen was allaying my feelings of tension and anxiety, but I knew it would only be temporary — God, if I could only just relax, be at peace — I was so tired of being anxious and tense all the time. I felt my eyes stinging — this would not do. I wiped them as surreptitiously as I could with the napkin.

“Want some more chicken, Mistah Emmett?” I nodded. She put a chicken breast and a drumstick on my plate.

I nodded my thanks to her.

“Ah’s mighty proud of you, Mistah Emmett,” Esther said, gently, patting me on the shoulder. “Ah know your Momma is shore proud of you too, watchin’ down on you as she is from up in Heaven.”

I swallowed hard. My eyes filled again briefly, I quickly blinked the moisture away. I nodded, and didn’t look up at her; rather I continued to eat busily.

Esther headed out of the kitchen to help Mother Kate out in the dining room.

When she left, I wiped my face with my napkin. I took a deep breath. I drank the entire glass of milk in front of me. I was full, and felt better, thanks to Esther’s cooking. The wave of sadness that had come over me was fading.  I wiped my mouth; got up and went to the cabinet and took down a small white plate. I took a knife and carved a medium slice of chocolate cake, and took it back to the table.

Maybe it was the combination of the good meal and the Bromo-Seltzer, but I noticed I felt better. I picked up my plates and put them in the sink.

I stepped out of the back door of the kitchen, down the steps, to the yard in the rear, to get a breath of fresh air. Mother Kate kept chickens and turkeys in a pen, like everyone else did in the neighborhood. Also, a small shed which provided shelter for a cow, which was grazing in the back yard.

Along the side of the house, near the back porch, were several rose bushes. I walked over to them, touched their leaves with my fingertips; felt their waxiness, their slightly jagged edges.

As I studied the bushes, all still healthy and green even in December, I noticed one of them had a small rosebud, the only bud on all five of the bushes; a late bloomer. It was dark red, and if the weather was warm enough tomorrow, it would probably open up. I went over to it, touched it. Maybe I’m a late bloomer too, I thought. 

These were my Mother’s rosebushes.

I remember that after she died — almost 10 years ago — no one took care of them. No one seemed to want to, or had the heart to do it. So, the rosebushes became misshapen. Aphids took over, as did weeds, choking and destroying the garden my Mother tended and loved so much.

When Mother died, it was as if the life force had been sucked out of our family. And our family was dying, or so it seemed.

But Mother Kate had come along. Father married her after a decent interval, and began to set things even. 

She’d said it was a shame to let these beautiful bushes go, that they needed love and attention, as we all did, and while she would never presume to take our Mother’s place, it wasn’t right that something my Mother loved should not be cared for —

So she took care of my Mother’s rose bushes. And they became beautiful again.

I like Mother Kate. She’s a good stepmother. She truly cares for our family, and even though ours is a large one, she goes out of her way to connect to all of us, on an individual level, now and then.

For instance, she sent me small packages while I was in Tallahassee, which usually included a few local newspapers, a novel or two, some cookies, a pair of socks, a few dollars, and a letter from one of my sisters. She’s doing things for me that my own mother would do if she were still alive.

But she isn’t my Mother.

I heard voices around the front of the house; family members were arriving. I don’t want anyone finding me out here, tears streaming down my face, as I held my breath, so that no one would hear me sob. No one else will ever know this.

I miss my Mother.

Chapter 37: Coffee and a selfie

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May 18, 2014, 8:45 a.m. Pensacola

The female GPS voice crisply announces “Destination,” as I pull up slowly along North G Street, in the St. John’s Coalition neighborhood in Pensacola.  I feel my stomach know up with anxiety. It’s not logical; there’s no reason for anxiety, but it is what I feel.

St. John’s Cemetery is on my left. I see the green and white gatehouse at the intersection of West Belmont and North G. The gatehouse looks to have been built around the early 1900s, so the driveway is not as wide as a modern one would be. I drive slowly through, taking the structure in, looking up and around. The structure is solid; at least 100 years old.

Emmett drove through this back then, I realize. As I do today.

I stop about 50 feet away from the gatehouse, on the right hand side of the road. Up ahead, parked on the other side is another van, but the side doors are open and a lady with a little girl are sitting on the side, feet on the ground. The lady nods politely at me as she hands the little girl a sippy cup.  I wave, leaving my car in idle as I pull out my map and get my bearings.

Emmett’s close by, I realize, as I check the burial grid provided by St. John’s Cemetery:

Section 3, Space 3, Lot 15, in St. John’s Cemetery. That’s Emmett.

Well, here goes, I think, as I pick up my coffee cup, grab my bag.

I take a deep breath — I wonder — hope — there will be some kind of psychic pull, or jolt, or spiritual event when I get to Emmett’s plot. I psyche myself for it —

I open the car door —

and whatever I was trying to psyche for myself evaporates immediately.

Wheeeeee wheeeeeee bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Buzz buzz buzzzzzz wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee

The annoying, ear-piercing sound of a weed whacker nearby.

I look towards at the van, and from around the back comes a man who has to be the groundskeeper.

Dust, dead grass, and small gravel bits fly around his feet as he weed whacks the dried brown turf next to the cemetery driveway. The lady must have gotten his attention, said something, because he suddenly glances up at me, smiles sheepishly in apology, and switches off the weed whacker.

He then walks toward the rear of his van and pulls out other quieter equipment, shears or something, and heads off in another part of the cemetery, to take care of something else.

As I walk along an access row, I scan the stones around me —  I’m actually above row three — I turn right.

This is the old part of the cemetery. Most of the stones around me are worn down by acid rain, dates barely recognizable, especially so with the flat grave markers, the ones that are the length of a plot. Some stones have broken edges, likely from riding mowers, and many are stained or covered with lichens, although the grounds look well tended.

Perhaps the families are long gone, and there’s no one to consider these old stones, or to repair them anymore.

The gatehouse is in the background, to the left. Note how old the stones are in this section. Photo by the author.

I see a faded plastic bouquet at the grave of a woman who died in the 1950s. And down further is a shrub someone decorated as a Christmas tree once upon a time. There’s a few ornaments still stuck to the branches, a silver glass ornament is on the ground underneath, still there even in May, I marvel….

I look at my map, and suddenly realize where I am.

Section Three.

And here he is, on my right.

Here he is. Photo by the author.

I take the bouquet of supermarket roses out of my bag; remove the cellophane and lay them atop Emmett’s grave.

I take a white plastic rosary out of my pocket — I don’t know why I’m doing that, though, he wasn’t Catholic, but it feels right — and I place it on his stone.

“Hi, Emmett. I’m here,” I say.

I try to clear my mind, to think nothing, but just to feel, to sense — I don’t know — anything? Maybe Emmett trying to talk to me? To send me a sign? But I can’t quiet the thoughts for very long. Mostly I just stand there, looking at his plot, wondering about his funeral, who kept the plot up, if anyone else brought him flowers.

As I look about Emmett, I realize this was supposed to be Meade Wilson’s family plot, and they probably didn’t expect to have to inter Emmett here when they purchased it.  Emmett’s brother, Meade, was buried here in 1914; he died also a young man, but of tuberculosis. Meade and Carrie are buried to the left of Emmett’s plot.

Meade and his wife Carrie. They had three children; two sons who are not buried here. The plot is large; perhaps they had planned everyone to be buried here at one time. Photo by the author.

There is an empty space next to Emmett. Above Emmett is Meade and Carrie’s daughter, who died in 1900 of scarlet fever.

Emmett’s niece, located directly above Emmett. Photo by the author.

The ground is covered with sand and weeds; I scrape some of the sand away from Emmett’s grave to discover a concrete slab atop his plot. I’m intrigued by the sand and the slab — then I realize that the area floods during hurricane season.

Weeds. Sand. The finality of the slab atop his plot.

I realize no one has been here to see him in decades. He’s been forgotten.

Well, at least, not by me.

I sit down in front of his stone, and I start to talk to him.

I drink my coffee, I tell him a joke; I take a selfie with him.

Selfie with Emmett. Photo by the author.

It is the start of a beautiful friendship.

 

Chapter 36: News to me

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December 22, 1900
Dr. Francis C. Wilson’s Office, Downtown Chipley

Continued from here.

===

I climbed the stairs and paused at the top; my heart was pounding.  I closed my eyes, and counted to ten; rubbed the center of my chest. Touched the liquor flask hidden in my coat pocket. After a few moments, I was calm. 

As I walked down the hall, I noticed three other offices in the second-floor hallway; an insurance broker, two lawyers. Father’s office was in the front of the building overlooking the street.

I heard male voices in spirited conversation inside; one was Father’s. I hesitated; my hand on the door knob. Get a grip, I told myself. 

I took a breath, then opened the door.

It was a two-room office, simple but well appointed. The room had a small settee and a desk with a lamp, and a file cabinet behind the desk. There was a small plant on top of the file cabinet next to the window. A nurse was seated at desk; she glanced up from the papers in front of her.  She recognized me.

“Good afternoon, Emmett. How are you?”

“Fine, Miss Tharpe.”

She stood up. “Would you like to see your father? I’ll let him know you are here.”

“Is he in with a patient?”

“No. Just a moment.” She knocked gently on the door, then opened it, excusing herself.

“Dr. Wilson, one of your sons is here to see you.”

“Thank you, Tharpe. Send him in.” 

The nurse stood aside as I passed through, then closed the door behind me.

“Well, Emmett. Here you are. How was your trip from Tallahassee?” Father stood up and shook hands with me.

“Fine, thank you.”

A photo of Dr. Wilson on call in front of the W.O. Butler House. Chipley, Florida, 1911

Father is tall, stately, dignified. He has a calm, noble bearing; always unflappable, impassive, regardless of what’s happening, regardless of emergency, when all Hell is breaking out around him. If I had one word to describe him, it would be consistent. I think that’s why he has such a large, loyal patient base. He knows how to put people at ease. He’s always been that way with everyone. But me.

I’ve always thought Father resembled his old commander, Robert E. Lee:  Father is bald on top with a fringe of white hair circling his head from ear-to-ear, with white mustaches and a beard. Father served loyally under Lee at Appomattox. Indeed, Father venerated Lee as a personal hero, unconsciously modeling himself after the old general, who had had a reputation of being unflappable in the face of danger and distress.

A friendly, jovial, Irish voice blurted out behind me: “Well, Emmett, it is good to see you!”

Father nodded cordially at his friend, who stood beaming at me, his hand outstretched to take mine.

A young J. Walter Kehoe, 1899, as photographed from the Bench and Bar of the State of Florida. Source: Florida Memory

“Hello Walter,” I said, clasping his hand. 

Walter Kehoe is my brother Cephas’ law partner in Marianna and a long-time family friend, although it has been several months since I’ve seen him. 

Walter is one of the most important lawyers and politicians in West Florida; he is also Cephas’ closest, most trusted friend. Walter often refers to me as his younger brother though we are not related at all. Regardless of the fact he is always busy, and involved in serious and important issues, Walter has always taken time to talk to me about everyday things. I’ve never asked him for advice or help with anything, but I know that if I ever needed it, he would be there for me, no questions asked. 

Walter’s bio from the biographical information provided by U.S. Congressional Archive. Note the fact a special act of the Florida State Legislature was necessary to allow him to practice law because of his youth.

Walter is truly brilliant. Even Cephas is in awe of Walter’s intelligence, which is saying something, because Cephas is often too busy thinking about himself. Don’t get me wrong: Cephas is very smart, too. But with Walter, the brilliance is innate; his practice of the law feels completely natural, comfortable, and effortless. The other thing about Walter is that he wants to become a U.S. Congressman. And it will probably happen. “He may not be very quick about it, and he can be irritatingly deliberate,” Ceph once told me, “but if he wants something, he doesn’t let anything stand in the way.”

Father gestures at me. “Have a seat, Emmett. Care for something to drink?”  Father and Walter both had half glasses of Irish whiskey on the desk.

“No, thank you,” I said.

Father nodded; gives me a brief smile of approval. I involuntarily exhale — I didn’t realize I was holding my breath. I quickly glance over at Walter; he pretends to study his glass of whiskey instead of observing the dynamic between Father and me, but I know he was watching. Walter doesn’t miss much.

“How long will you be in Chipley?” I ask Walter.

“I’m heading back this evening. Ceph has been busy doling out political favors this week, and not getting much done in the way of law,” he answered with a chuckle; Dr. Wilson gave his rare, tense smile in his white beard, nodding with satisfaction. Ceph had just been nominated for a second term as Florida state senator, and had been traveling the circuit this week.

Cephas Love Wilson in top hat; Lula Wilson below his right shoulder, 1906. Source: http://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/143975

In Father’s eyes, Cephas could do no wrong. With all of his political experience and connections, I think my brother would also be a good U.S. Congressman, but Cephas doesn’t want to leave Florida. Besides, Cephas has a reputation as a philanderer. I think that my sister-in-law, Lula, who has been publicly embarrassed by his antics more than once has put her foot down about Cephas going to Washington. 

“How is Minnie’s stenography business? I understand she’s quite successful and busy these days,”  Father asked. 

“Fine. She’s busier than ever, and is even thinking about a turn at the bar herself, one of these days.” Now it was Walter’s turn to be proud. His sister Minnie had written a bill – a unique piece of legislation – to secure regular compensation for court stenographers, and to enable counsel to have the services of a stenographer in serious cases other than capital ones (which had been a problem in Florida courts).  This was remarkable for a woman who was not a lawyer. 

Minnie was a trailblazer for professional women. She knew she had to keep her cool even in the face of cads, whereas I would have just told them where to go.

Minnie was smart, driven, progressive, and was keen on making her own way in the world, without being dependent on a husband, or father. Minnie was carving out a career slowly, surely, and against all odds. Everyone was in awe of her; encouraging her, but not really coming right out and supporting her. The idea of a woman lawyer was still too odd, foreign; it had the taste of Yankee corruption, although that was the furthest thing you could think of to describe Minnie. She was a lady; she was aggressive, but not obnoxious about it. We were all watching to see if she would make it or not. I secretly hoped she would; if Minnie could make it, against those odds, I knew I could too.

“And what about you, Emmett?” Walter said, kindly, changing the subject. “How is school?”

“Fine.”

“Staying busy with lessons, or are there too many female distractions?”

I blushed and looked away from both of them and fidgeted with the button on my jacket sleeve. “No, no distractions,” I said, a little uncomfortably. Both Father and Walter chuckled.

“Too busy with schoolwork, are you?”

“Yes. Busier than I expected. But I like it very much.”

Father nodded. “We expect big things from Emmett once he graduates from school. He has a lot of intelligence; he’s a quick learner and thoughtful. I think he’d do well running a pharmacy for me, once he’s out of school,” he added.

I look up quickly, surprised: First at the unaccustomed praise coming from Father, publicly like that – and then, I felt my stomach plummet when I realized what he said.

“Oh, you are pursuing a business degree?” Walter asked, interested.

“F.C.” stood for “Freshman Class — Classical Studies” and “S.C.” stood for “Sophomore Class — Classical Studies.” The end result after four years with this curriculum at WFS was the Bachelor of Arts degree. Source: FSU Digital Repository

“Well…” I started, glancing first at Father, then Walter, still a bit in shock at Father’s comment.

There was a quick knock at the door, followed by Nurse Tharpe opening it. 

“Excuse me, gentlemen. A patient is here to see you, Dr. Wilson, and it seems serious. Can you see him?”

Father stood up, reached over to the coat rack to put his suit jacket on to receive the patient. “Yes, Tharpe. Give us just a minute here, please.”

“Yes, doctor,” Tharpe said, closing the door behind her.

“I’m sorry Walter,” Father said.

“No need to apologize, Frank,” Walter said, as he shook Father’s hand. “We’ll be on our way.”

“Please give my regards to Jennie; we’ll see you on Christmas Day for dinner and festivities,” Father said, as he buttoned his jacket.

“Indeed you will,” Walter said, warmly. “Come, Emmett,” he said, as we moved to the door. “We can walk and talk as I head over to the station to wait for the next train out.”

“Goodbye, Father,” I said, before I walked out with Walter.

Father nodded, and turned back to his desk to prepare for the incoming patient.

 

Walter and I exited the building, and we walked together, without speaking, toward the depot. He paused for a moment on the corner.

“Emmett, would you like to stop off at the hotel dining room for coffee or something to eat before you head home? I’ll bet you didn’t eat lunch on the train, and if you did, it wasn’t much of a meal.”

“No thank you. I’m fine,” I said.

“Do you mind if I ask a question?”

“No,” I said.

“Your father’s mentioning that you are going to work for him, in his pharmacy. That was news to you, wasn’t it?”

I turned slightly away. “I don’t know, “I said, careful not to look Walter in the face.

“I’m sorry, Emmett. I don’t mean to pry.”

I didn’t say anything; instead, I stood on the corner, fidgeting with the clasp on my satchel to camouflage the embarrassment and irritation that I could not hide in my expressions. I can’t hide anything from Walter. I look up at him, exasperated.

“I don’t want to work for my father.”

“All right. Well, do you know what you want to do?”

“I want to get out of Chipley,” I said.

Walter nods. “And do what?”

At that moment, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to tell Walter everything on my mind at that; I didn’t want to expose myself as vulnerable. I looked away for a moment.

“If you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk about it right now, Walter. I’m just beat after the trip from Tallahassee. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll head on home.”

“All right, Emmett,” Walter says, kindly. “I’ll see you in a few days.”

He pats me on the arm, then crosses the street towards the Central Hotel, to get something to eat, then to wait for the evening train to Marianna.

At that moment, I just wanted to get away, to be by myself.

I walked as quickly as I could up 6th Street, almost running the five blocks towards home.

Chapter 35: Thoughts on the Road

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May 18, 2014, about 6 a.m., Leaving Montgomery, Alabama

I have a lot to think about on my way to Pensacola. It’s to be out and about, especially since I don’t have a specific date or time with the person I’m meeting, but I wasn’t been able to sleep much the night before.

The drive is 164 miles, two hours and 39 minutes, according to the car’s GPS:  Down I-65, then to U.S. Route 29. As I near the Alabama-Florida state line, I see the signs for Flomaton and Century. I remember reading about both towns in Emmett’s old hometown paper, The Pensacola Journal; that Emmett visited Century once during his campaign in 1912. I’m not enticed to stop; at least, not unless I uncover some cache of Emmett Wilson memorabilia hidden in future research adventures.

But today is a special adventure, and I want to be keep my focus there. This is something I’ve looked forward to ever since I found Emmett. I don’t want to be distracted from it.

My stomach rumbles — I had breakfast, but more coffee than anything to eat. The result is that I’m wired and edgy. I’m driving safely, but I’ve never been this far away from home by myself, and it is a highway I’m unfamiliar with.

The air conditioner is cranked up — the air outside is already heavy and uncomfortable in the early morning. Steam is rising from the dew on the grass alongside the road as the sun hits it.

I’m trying not to speed, but for months, I’ve felt impatient about the need to be here, today. For so long, it seems, I’ve felt as if I was missing something being so far away from my research subject. It doesn’t matter that I have done a lot of the work thanks to technology.

The sense of impatience is something I know well; it is my main character defect among many defects. I want to get to an answer to a question, a solution to a problem, the final data of longitudinal research yesterday.

I realize: I’m anxious about the need for personal interaction with a dead guy.

I laugh out loud at the idea. I ease my foot off the accelerator.

A little.

====

I think back to my meeting with Jule yesterday, and our conversation about Emmett and Julian. Jule wasn’t able to tell me if she thought the twins were close, although certainly several of the other Wilson siblings were.

We talked about the census records from the 1860s and the Wilson family genealogy that said Emmett and Julian’s father’s family were wealthy property owners and slave holders before the Civil War.

The introduction to the genealogy, by John Evans Wilson. Copyright 1990; used with permission of Wilson family descendants.

Still, that was a lot of money in 1860. Content by John Evans Wilson. Copyright 1990; used with permission of Wilson family descendants.

Jule believed that although the Wilsons never regained anything like the pre-Civil War wealth, they seemed to be economically comfortable, at least. But she did think it was odd, the mention in the genealogy that the younger children had to help pay for the older children’s college education — in essence, the entire family would chip in.

I’m not one to criticize, but this seems to be a very weird way of doing things, especially with older children already out of the house with jobs. Jule thought so as well, and thought it also may be one reason Julian didn’t go to college, as his twin Emmett did. Content by John Evans Wilson. Copyright 1990; used with permission of Wilson family descendants.

It was a great visit — some questions were answered, but there were still many left to figure out:

  • Why did Emmett seem to have a lot of opportunities given to him that the other Wilson children did not, and several do-overs, considering he didn’t handle them so well?
  • What was the relationship between Emmett and his family, especially between the twins?
  • Did the Wilsons knowingly cover up Emmett’s alcoholism?

And Jule offered the most thought-provoking question at the end: She’d had the impression from her father that Emmett never was able to find real happiness — but was there ever a point when Emmett might have happy, when he might have been able live his life and not try to escape it through booze?

I remember saying to her, “I wish we knew.”

===

Before I left Jule at her apartment, I promise to make as much progress on the book as I can, and along the way, send copies of clips, articles and other items about the Wilson family when I find them.

She tells me that I’m a blessing to her, and that she has no idea what I mean to her at this point in her life. I feel my face flush; I have no words.

As she walks with me to the elevator in her apartment building as we say goodbye, she turns to me, and takes both of my hands into hers.

She presses my hands. Her sharp blue eyes look directly into mine.

I love you, she says.

I love you too, I say to her.

We embrace.

As I step onto the elevator, she smiles warmly at me; raises her hand in a wave.

“Come see me again.”

===

The gas gauge on my car chimes — 25 miles to empty.

There’s a sign on the road ahead — next stop is Cantonment, Florida — not that far from Pensacola.

Yeah, I’m anxious and impatient. But first things first, as we say in the program.

I pull off Highway 29 onto Old Chemstrand Road — a gas station and a Winn Dixie — fuel and nourishment await before the next stop.

Chapter 34: In choosing happiness

Standard

May 17, 2014, Montgomery, Alabama, about 3 p.m.

Her eyes.

They are so blue, piercingly blue. I catch my breath audibly. But it isn’t just her eyes that get me —

it is the moment. I can’t believe it.

And in response, she laughs, kindly, cheerfully at me.

I am taken away by the very fact that here before me is the only living connection to the man long dead, the man I want to know more about than anything, the man whose research has consumed me for months. Finally, impossibly it seems, a living connection.

Still speechless I walk towards  Emmett’s niece. She reaches out her hand to me. It is warm, friendly; still holding my hand, she covers mine in both of hers.

“I am so happy to meet you,” I say.  But then, as the intensity of the moment washes over me, “I’m sorry,” I say, turning away slightly, and self-consciously. “I feel like I’m going to cry.”

Carol chuckles as she looks on the counter for a box of Kleenex.

“I’m fine,” I say to her, with a slight chuckle. “I am just so grateful and appreciative of the chance to meet you.”

Jule gestures to the sofa behind a coffee table; she takes the chair on the right; Carol sits next to me.

The first moment is a bit awkward; but Carol says she’s seen the letters and articles I’ve sent Jule, and is amazed at how much information I was able to find about the Wilson family. “We’ve really known nothing about them.”

“And my grandfather’s picture,” Jule says, nodding at the framed sepia-tone photo prominent in the living room. “I’ve never seen a photo of him before. It’s a miracle, really, all of this,’ she adds, gesturing at me, my briefcase, the fact we are all together.

Dr. Wilson on call at the W.O. Butler house, in Chipley, Florida, 1911. Original photo is courtesy of Jule Wilson Perry.

“I have so much more to show you, and to send you,” I say, opening my laptop. Carol leans forward expectantly. I show them the folder on the desktop with several articles from contemporary media that I found a few days earlier. Jule doesn’t have a laptop computer, so my habit has been to print out articles and mail them to Jule, then copy them in email to Carol.

“Two articles are interesting because they talk about your Father,” I tell Jule. “They describe what he looked like compared to Emmett. I was surprised to find out the twins didn’t look anything alike.”

Source: The Daily Northwestern, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. May 29, 1914

And this:

The Daily Northwester, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, February 12, 1913.

“So they were fraternal twins,” Carol said. “And Mama probably got her blue eyes from her father.”

Jule then reaches into an envelope on the table, and hands me a cardboard photograph of three children.

“I’d always thought that the two blond headed boys were the twins, but now we know better,” she says.

Emmett (left), Walker (center), Julian (right), in 1890, taken for New Year’s Day 1891. Source: Jule Wilson Perry, used with permission. Copyright EmmettWilsonbook.com

It is unmistakably Emmett. I turn it over and read the beautiful copperplate handwriting — Emmett’s name is on it, and the year 1891. I smile up at Jule, so full of gratitude and appreciation.

Emmett’s hand is not exactly clenched and not exactly relaxed. Maybe he didn’t like being dressed up with a fluffy bow around his neck, I say to Carol and Jule, who nod in agreement.

“But what’s incredible is Emmett’s expression. Every photo I have seen of him so far is the same look — serious, focused, maybe a little uncomfortable. And here it is again, even as a child,” I say.

Jule says this was the only photo she knew of with the twins together as children, though there probably had been other photos taken of them.

I ask Jule to talk to me about Julian — she’d already told me some things in our correspondence — but I am interested in hearing about Julian’s personality, if he had any hobbies, what he did for relaxation, his relationship with other members of his family.

While she talks, describing her father, she shows me several other family photos, starting with a group photo.

The summer place in Perdido Bay that Frank owned. Left to right: Everard Meade (son of Katie and Emmett Meade), Frank Jr., Katie [behind the dog], Emmett Meade, Julian Wilson, May Wilson (wife of Frank Jr. behind Julian), Jule Wilson Perry about age 11), and Jule’s mother on the end. Photo courtesy of Carol Ballard. Used with permission.

Jule remembers one aunt and uncle in particular, Uncle Frank Jr. (who lived in Pensacola and had a fishing boat) and Aunt Katie Meade (who lived in Virginia with her cousin Everard Meade). Fishing was a very big deal for Julian, she says and that was the thing he liked to do most for relaxation.

Carol says that Jule attended The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s, and that her cousin Everard and Aunt Katie were kind to her; seeing her often when she was in college, so Jule didn’t feel alone so far away from home.

Jule and Julian Wilson in the 1940s. Jule still has that lovely smile.

“The only time I saw my father cry was when he put me on the train from Montgomery to Washington, D.C., to go to school,” Jule says softly, as she hands me a photo of her with her father at a national park taken in the 1940s. “But he was always such a kind, quiet, peaceful man. I can say he was a happy and satisfied man; he loved our family very much.”

One of the packets of clips I sent to Jule a few months earlier included a copy of Emmett’s death certificate, along with two other corroborating reports that his death was directly related to alcoholism. I pull up the digital copy of Emmett’s death certificate on my computer while I ask Carol and Jule about it.

“I don’t remember that I met Uncle Emmett, but then, I was only a six-month old baby when he died,” Jule says, pointing at the date of May 28, 1918. “I might have, but I don’t know.”

The genealogy from Walker Wilson’s grandson mentioned alcohol as a problem with this branch of the Wilson family; but  did Jule know about this?

She shakes her head. “No. And that was probably the big reason why my father never mentioned his twin brother in any kind of conversation.” It wasn’t that Jule thought Julian didn’t love his brother, but it was probably overwhelmingly sad; frustrating. People even today don’t know how to deal with family members who have drinking problems, even with all the science and information available — imagine what it was like over 100 years ago.

Jule closes her eyes, rubs her forehead in thought as we talk about the relationship between Emmett and Julian. I’m worried if this is too much for her. She says no, it’s fine.

“Now that I think about it, with Daddy, it was more what he did not say about his brother than what he said.” She pauses a moment to gather her words carefully; she opens her eyes.

“Truth is, Daddy rarely drank, and now we know there was probably a reason for that. I know that there was also a sadness about Daddy when it came to talking about his family — and he never talked about Emmett, which seemed odd given that they were twins.”

I tell Jule and Carol that my own grandparents never talked about their family either — and I knew that several family members died of alcoholism.

Carol says that her grandfather would have an occasional beer, but only one, and that was it. Jule nods. “I imagine it was because of what he’d seen happen to Emmett.”

In the end, Jule said, it just didn’t seem like Emmett was a positive force in her father’s life, that he wasn’t happy, and perhaps that was behind her father’s choices to distance himself from a relationship with his twin brother.

I imagine this may have been a hard but necessary thing to see, much less live through in any family. I remember that Jule’s experience in social work throughout her career probably helped her understand the logic at Julian’s choice to set this boundary in his family, because there was nothing anyone could do to save his brother. It wasn’t just that Emmett couldn’t help himself — but according to addiction science, saving oneself only works when the addict decides to do whatever it takes to save himself.

“My father chose his family, and happiness, in the end,” Jule said.

And there’s a lot to be said for that.