September 27, 2015
I was anxious driving around Pensacola, on my way to the Hampton Inn to meet my friend Nancy for the first time in person; so much so that I was practicing what I would say to her upon meeting. She and I had a wide-ranging correspondence history: Serious when it came to research; hysterical when it came to telling stories on ourselves. I was so comfortable as her email friend, and I believe she felt the same towards me. But what if it wasn’t like that in person?
And more importantly, would we actually like each other after spending several days together, deep into a research project?
Nancy had arrived at the hotel we were staying at in Pensacola; when my plane landed, I checked my phone and she texted she was already settled in and looking forward to our meeting. I was nervous — would I recognize her? She didn’t describe herself to me or send a photo ahead of time, but instead said she was tall and had gray hair.
It also didn’t help that I was also cruising around in a rental car with new-to-me start-stop technology; I was unnerved every time I approached a stoplight and the car cut off completely. But maybe that was a good thing — getting used to the funky rental car got my mind off my nervousness. Also, I’ve never had luck practicing communication scenarios ahead of time. So, instead, I decided to say the Serenity Prayer to myself for the remainder of the drive. At least it helped me get used to the rental car.
I made it to the hotel about 2:30, and as I was checking in, a tall, cheerful woman with a big grin walked over to the desk from the lounge, and said, “Hey Judy!”
“Oh my God. Nancy! Finally!”
We embraced and started laughing at the same time. The clerk behind the desk smiled at both of us, as she handed me the key card to my room. “You’re right next door to each other,” she said. “You guys must be good friends from way back.”
I shook my head no. “This is the first time we’ve met in person, but I feel like I’ve known Nancy all my life.”
Nancy and I spent the day driving around in her pickup truck (she insisted on driving because she knew the area well). The first thing we did? Drive over to St. John’s Cemetery to pay a visit to the guy who brought us together as friends.
We parked near the old gatehouse, and walked over to see Emmett. We walked over to the Wilson family plot together quietly. When we reached the plot, I kissed my fingertips and placed it on Emmett’s stone. Nancy smiled at me.
“You know, it used to make me sad when I thought about Emmett and the fact he never really had a family of his own, that he died all alone, sort-of homeless, if you think about it,” I said to Nancy, as we stood at the foot of Emmett’s grave, looking at the sandy, weedy plot.
“Yeah, he was, now that you think about it,” Nancy said. “He never owned a home, right? He lived on and off with friends or family, long after he was expected to settle down on his own. Goodness knows he did have the means to do that, even if he didn’t have a family to support.”
“Thing is, though, he didn’t know it, but he brought me family members and new friends I’d never have expected to find,” I said. “Emmett never could have imagined that he left this kind of legacy, if you see what I mean.”
Nancy nodded agreement. “Never thought of it that way, but yeah. I wonder what he would think about it, you and me, standing here, all because of his life, that surely his family members thought was wasted? Think about it,” she said, gesturing to the headstone of his older brother Meade, about eight feet away. “Emmett’s family and friends seemed like there were always baling him out, despite all his potential. And think about how he died — all alone — in the drunk tank of Pensacola Hospital. They’d given up on him. But you found him,” she said, smiling at me. “And despite all that, he’s brought people together, new friends, new family, just because of who he was. It’s like he had a ‘family’ of sorts anyway. Just goes to show you, doesn’t it. You never know.”
“Yep,” I said, smiling back at her. “One hundred years after his death, and here we are, his ‘family.’ I think he’d like that.”
“Yeah,” Nancy said. “He would.”
We walked up the slight hill toward Emmett’s grandfather’s grave, about 50 feet away. We stood at the marker, looking at Augustus Emmett Maxwell’s stone.
“You know, Emmett was probably here for his grandfather’s funeral,” Nancy said, her arms folded, and nodding at Maxwell’s stone. “It must have been hard on him; Emmett was his namesake, and his grandfather was his role model. They must have been fairly close,” Nancy said.
“I would have loved to have found the letters they wrote to each other. You know they must have written prolific, detailed letters back and forth, certainly when Emmett was in law school,” I said to her. “Emmett’d have regaled his grandfather about the things he was learning, maybe even telling him how the theory wasn’t always the same as the practice — especially after he’d been working with Cephas in his law firm in between semesters.”
Nancy said Maxwell probably loved that. “He went to law school too, didn’t he, at the University of Virginia?”
“He did. I wonder what kind of student he was?” I said. “I’ll bet he told Emmett all kinds of college stories from his time at UVA. Oh man, I would have loved to have known what kind of escapades either one of them got into while at college!”
She and I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the cemetery; we both pointed out significant markers to one another — Nancy knew several of the important individuals from Emmett’s time who were also buried at St. John’s — and it was nice to relive the histories we’d exchanged in emails as we ‘met’ the folks right in the cemetery.
And then, we came across Frank Mayes’ headstone.
We paused in front of it; neither one of us saying much. At this point in our correspondence, Nancy and I respected the work Mayes did establishing The Pensacola Journal as the major newspaper in the Florida Panhandle in the early 1900s, but we both believed Mayes knew Emmett was an alcoholic out of control, but used him anyway prior to his election to Congress.
“I have a hard time thinking Frank Mayes didn’t know that Emmett, though smart, was unsuited for a life in Washington, D.C.,” I said to Nancy, as I scuffed my sandal around the grassy edges of Mayes’ plot. “It also wasn’t only that Emmett was an alcoholic; he had no idea how to handle that level of political life in D.C. And Mayes wasn’t stupid. He knew people. That was his business. How could he not have seen through whatever facade Emmett showed to people in public?”
Nancy didn’t know, either. “Here’s the thing,” she said. “Everyone drank back then; copious amounts, too. Maybe Emmett, on the surface, always seemed like he had it together, you know?” We both knew people who drank heavily — too much to be able to drive home from the bars — who “looked” fine on the outside, too. It was possible Emmett could hide it from most people, until he couldn’t anymore.
After the tour of St John’s Cemetery, Nancy drove us out to a restaurant right on the beach, for an awesome dinner of fried fish and lemonade. It was sunset; a lovely day. While Nancy called a friend (and said no way was I taking a photo of her after a sweaty walk around a cemetery), I took a picture from our table, then walked out onto the sand to take in the surroundings.
“Emmett probably enjoyed fish cookouts out on this very beach with his friends too,” Nancy said, when I came back to the table.
“Just like us,” I added, as we clinked our lemonade glasses together.
We were off to a great visit together!
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