I remember Saturday, June 8, 2013, as one of those glorious late Spring days in Maryland — the sky was clear blue without a cloud in sight, the temperature around 72, the trees were (finally!) all full with fresh green leaves. The plants I’d set out a few weeks earlier after a long hiatus inside were full and lush on the patio. My kids were on a scouting trip in St. Mary’s County with my husband — so I was in my home office, grading final exams so as to meet the 72 hour grade posting deadline at the University of Maryland.
My cell phone rang — an unrecognizable number on caller i.d. — I was deep into work and loathe to interrupt progress, but something told me to answer it anyway.
“Is this Judy Smith? I’m Jim Milligan in Florida. You wrote to me on Ancestry about my uncle, Emmett Wilson.”
Uncle. Emmett Wilson.
I remember my adrenaline shot up — Omg. Omg. Omg.
I shoved the gradebook out of the way, pulled the research notebook in front of me and started scribbling madly, to capture everything Emmett’s blood relative was saying.
First contact with an actual Wilson family member.
This was gold! This was better than gold!!!!
Jim said he was interested in my research, and was glad to help out in any way.
“I have a document to send you by email — a family genealogy. It’s rather large, though. It will take a little while to upload. ”
I told Jim that was fine — to go ahead — and while I was waiting for the file to appear on my end, he filled me in on Wilson family facts:
- Jim is the grandson of Walker Wilson, Emmett’s youngest brother. Jim never knew Emmett personally.
- Jim was not certain how Walker died exactly; family members would not talk about it, which always led him to believe something curious or unusual about Walker’s death.
- Drinking was reported to be a real problem in Emmett and Walker’s generation of the Wilson family.
And then, Jim said,
Emmett “was an alcoholic, you know. He drank himself to death.”
I felt an internal jolt — I stopped writing.
“I didn’t know,” I said. “The death certificate I received says kidney disease was the cause of death, but I’ve also learned that the symptoms of kidney disease looked an awful lot like end-stage alcoholism in those days.”
As Jim talked about the genealogy, something came over me — clarity, actually — as if a piece of this strange puzzle materialized before me.
I told Jim that if Emmett was an alcoholic, that shed a new light on the information from the Christ Church burial record. But still, what we have at present is anecdotal, and Emmett was an alcoholic, we needed a medical record.
Jim was positive the story was that Emmett drank. “And he might have been gay,” he added.
I doubted seriously I’d ever find a confirmation about Emmett and homosexuality — not that it mattered — but Jim’s comment gave me the idea that perhaps if Emmett was, indeed, alcoholic, there was an underlying ‘thing’ he was trying to escape, since drinking to excess is a means of escape….
As he and I continued to talk, Jim’s file appeared in my email. I asked if I could follow up with other questions later after reading the genealogy, and that I would send him clips he might want to add to his own research. He said that was fine, contact him anytime.
I settled down with the document; it took three days to read the entire thing.
Next: The family genealogy reveals tantalizing clues
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