Chapter 47: I cannot go home again

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December 28, 1900, 8 pm
Chipley, Florida

Dr. F.C. Wilson’s house, about 1895, 6th Street, Chipley, Florida. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Meade Howard.

I have to get out of here. This is not my home. I don’t think it really ever was….

I walked through the vestibule, to the hallway, and opened the kitchen door.

In the kitchen, Esther glanced up at me and smiled, as she replaced a lid back on a simmering pot. She said something to me — I didn’t know what — but I muttered that I’d be back later, as I walked quickly through toward the back door.

She called out to me, but I didn’t answer her, closing the back door quickly behind me, as I sped down the back porch stairs, the screen door slamming behind me, and out into the yard.

I walked through the tall grass, stumbling over a few small shrubs, in the darkness towards the back yard, through the bushes along our the property line and crossing into the neighbors yard, and out onto the street behind our house — 5th Street — then I turned right, walking quickly down about a block, then turned right again to 6th Street.

I was a block away from my Father’s house.

I turned and looked back in the darkness — I could see the lights of the house in the distance.

I walked away from the house, from the town, down the dirt road. I just started walking. I walked faster.

I started to run.

If I ran, I could run away from the pressure that was creeping up my chest, the agonizing thoughts clouding my mind; I could beat this down, this feeling that was starting to choke me, bubbling up in my throat.

If I ran, and kept on going, I would tire myself out. I would be too tired to weep, to feel the anger and desire to destroy something or someone, to fuck someone, too tired to do anything to clear my head, to get these God awful feelings out of my system. I could sleep these feelings off, like I sleep off the fuzzy, buzzing, slightly nauseous sensations after a good drinking spree….Anything.

I would do ANYTHING to shut these DAMN feelings off…anything.

God.

Shut them off. Shut up. Shut up.

I kept running. I didn’t see where I was going along the darkened road; the moon was out; I didn’t choose where to go, I just knew I had to get the hell away from that house.

And away from myself, if I could.

I ran faster.

I heard nothing but the sound of my feet pacing quickly along the dirt road.

I ran until I couldn’t go anymore, and I was exhausted, spent; my side hurt and my feet hurt from running in my leather shoes; my shirt buttons undone here and there. My collar had come undone. I was sweating in the chill of the night.

Up ahead, there was a tree next to the road, an old oak tree, gnarled and twisted from years of dealing with hurricanes and storms and God knows what over the years.

Still alive, still defiant to all that nature had thrown against it, ugly, but alive. It had been suckered too, that tree, I thought. I was out of breath, my side cramped, my knees aching. I ambled up to it, I rested my hand against the tree, bent over, to catch my breath, to ease the pain in my side.

Several minutes went by as I stood there, panting; my breathing began to slow down, even out. The ache in my side was easing; I wiped the sweat of my brow off with my jacket sleeve. I looked about me; I realized I was on the old Orange Hill Road, about three or four miles out of Chipley.

I was at the driveway of my childhood home.

The house and property that were given to Elizabeth by her father, Judge Augustus Emmett Maxwell, in 1884. This is the original Wilson house on what is known as old Orange Hill Road today. Source: Elizabeth Meade Howard

The home of my childhood; the house my Father and Mother had built when they had moved back to the U.S., after they had lived in British Honduras for 10 years. 

My Father had the house built for my Mother, on 60 or so acres that Grandfather Maxwell gave her. Mother loved it; it was her first house of her own during her married life that she did not have to share with other family members. 

As I stood looking at the house, I realized I didn’t plan to come out here.

I didn’t want to come out here.

I never came out this way unless I could help it. I didn’t have a reason to come out here, ever.

And yet, here I was.

I looked up at the tree, dark, hulking in the moonlight. The old oak tree sat at the top of the long driveway that led to the house. I touched the tree, my flat palm on the trunk. It was solid. But twisted, dark. I peered into the darkness, down the driveway where the house stood. I could see a few pinpoints of light in the distance; lights in windows.

Another family lived there now. 

But no one was nearby; I am quite alone.

I leaned on the trunk of the tree.

I felt the emotions bubble back up again, warring with each other to get out first: Shame; humiliation, embarrassment, frustration, anxiety, want, emptiness, loneliness, awkwardness,

Mother….

This time, I didn’t push the feelings down, stifle them as I had been so used to doing all my life. I just felt them wash over me…overwhelm me. I knelt, next to that tree, under the weight, the avalanche of the pent-up feelings I didn’t know were there…. I buried my face in the crook of my arm as I sat under that tree.

 

 

Chapter 45: On Frank Jr.

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October 21, 2014
McKeldin Library Research Carrel

University of Maryland Campus, College Park

Francis C. Wilson Jr. Source: Bell Photograph Collection, University of West Florida Archives

Sometimes when I hit a dead end in the Emmett Wilson research trek, I try a side-road, namely, I stop looking directly for Emmett and instead dig around for information about his siblings. I figure with nine brothers and sisters, the odds of my finding Wilson descendants were good.

And maybe, I’d find out more about Francis Childria Wilson, Jr.’s story.

===

I’ve been intrigued by a comment I’d received during a phone conversation with Walker Wilson’s grandson, Jim Milligan, who had kindly sent me a copy of his family’s genealogy; namely, that alcohol was a ‘problem’ for many of the Wilson siblings.

Some of the extensive side research I’ve conducted while working on my own sobriety has shown me that alcoholic tendencies run in families. It is, statistically, more likely someone will be alcoholic if one or both parents are alcoholic. I don’t know if Emmett’s parents drank extensively; but booze was a familial presence, at least in the medicinal sense.

Source: The Washington Examiner, 1912.

I’ve mentioned the booze issue with older brother Max, and with Jim’s grandfather, Walker in previous posts. Cephas doesn’t seem to have had a problem; nor did Emmett’s twin, Julian. Still,  it wouldn’t be much of a stretch if Emmett’s other siblings had problems with alcohol. It is possible that Emmett’s older brother, Frank, was also an alcoholic.

===

So, here’s what I know about Frank Jr.:

  • He was a lifelong railroader. Frank was one of the two older brothers who helped Emmett get a job with the railroad when Emmett was a teenager.
  • He loved fishing. As a kid, he would skip church to go fishing; in fact, he loved it so much that he eventually had a boat in Pensacola, and he would take his brothers out for a day of angling in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • He was a character. You might remember an earlier post where Frank actually asked his sister Katie to accompany him on his honeymoon — Katie wasn’t exactly sure if Frank was kidding. Perhaps, though it was because
  • He and Katie were always close. I have copies of several letters written by Frank to Katie (courtesy of Elizabeth Meade Howard), in which he you can tell he cherishes his sister.
  • Frank and Emmett were likely estranged at the time of Emmett’s death. 

There’s a clue that Frank Jr. might have had a problem with alcohol; namely this:

From The Chipley Banner, January 19, 1901. Frank with an ‘abscess of the liver.’ The Wilson family genealogy mentions alcoholism among several of Emmett’s brothers.

Research on liver abscess indicates alcohol abuse is a factor. (There are several resources about it; I have several, but here are a few: here, and another is here.)  According to a timetable I built on Frank based on biographical information, he was ill frequently leading up to his collapse during Christmas, 1900. There are clues in the articles I gathered that indicate most of Frank’s illness issues were tied to alcohol.

Like Emmett, maybe Frank knew he had a problem, but didn’t know how to stop. The difference between Emmett and Frank is that Frank truly hit bottom, during Christmas, 1900. He almost died as a result of his illness — and whether or not Frank had as ‘bad’ an alcohol problem as Emmett, one thing we know for certain: Frank had to have been told that if he continued to drink after treatment, he’d kill himself.

And that seems to have been enough for Frank.

May McKinnon Wilson. Source: Bell Photograph Collection, University of West Florida Archives

Another reason I don’t think Frank drank again after hitting bottom had to do with his very strong willed wife, May McKinnon Wilson. May (pronounced with a short ‘a’, according Douglas Gillis, a direct descendant of the McKinnon family), was someone who loved with all her heart, who knew her own mind, and had unshakable faith in that which she decided to believe in.

May McKinnon Wilson was nobody’s fool. And she knew what she was getting when she married Frank Jr.

===

Frank and May were married October 24, 1901 in Marianna. They lived in several different places along the railroad line (Florala, Alabama; Pensacola) as Frank worked for the L&N all his life.

They had only one child, Mary Elizabeth Wilson.

Frank and May’s only child, Mary Elizabeth was five months old when she died on June 1, 1904. “A precious angel.”Source: Findagrave.com

Frank and May are buried in Marianna — and so, I reached out to my most awesome source for anything related to Jackson County, Florida history — the most awesome Sue Tindel, former court clerk of Jackson County, Florida and local historian. She put me in touch with one of her great-grand nephews, Douglas Gillis. He was kind enough to share a few anecdotes.

Here’s one Aunt May story:

I once asked Douglas if he knew if Aunt May was a strong temperance supporter; he said he didn’t, but he recalled “…Aunt May, my grandmother (a Jehovah’s witness) and Auntie [another relative] would only have a touch of wine around the holiday’s family gatherings (for medicinal purposes). So it could very well be [that Aunt May was a temperance supporter.].”

In some of the correspondence I’ve read from Frank to his sister, Katie Wilson Meade (generously shared with me by Elizabeth Meade Howard, Katie’s granddaughter), you can tell that Frank loved his family. He remembered birthdays. He caught up with his brothers and sisters with regular letters, mostly filled with humorous anecdotes. He sent amusing gifts to his siblings now and then ‘just because’. He loved his job working as a conductor for the railroad, and stayed until he absolutely had to retire. He loved to take family and friends to go fishing in his beloved boat, the “May.”

Frank took his brother-in-law fishing, along with a friend. From The Pensacola Journal, August 6, 1912. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

I often wonder what Emmett thought about Frank; a fun-loving, family-loving big-brother who appeared to live a life of gratitude and appreciation for what he had.

Despite his fun-loving nature, Frank had his share of hardships, but appears to have been the one to model how important it was to see things through to the end, without the distraction of booze. What’s more, Emmett had to have witnessed that the choice to drink or not drink, to live or die, was in Frank’s hands, and that Frank made the choice to live without a filter of liquor to ease life’s difficulties.

I sometimes wonder, having witnessed how close Frank came to dying at his own hands, why that didn’t stay with Emmett over the years, as he was faced with the choice to drink or die in 1914.

And I supposed that may have had something to do with Frank’s estrangement from Emmett in May, 1918.

 

Chapter 42: The shape of a heart

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May 19, 2014, 3:30 p.m., Fort Morgan, Alabama

The crisp breeze off the Gulf of Mexico buffets me a little as I walk westward along the beach towards the old fort. The surf is comforting, but I watch my step as I walk along the edge of the warm water, because jellyfish have been plentiful along the beach this spring.

I’m alone; there is no one else here, either. It’s uncharacteristic, I think, for both myself and this popular spot along Alabama’s coast. Today is gorgeous: A bright blue sky, comfortable temperature, perfect for teenagers to skip class, or grownups to call in sick at work. I remember then that I did, in fact, decide to take today off because I’ve been working pretty much nonstop, every single day since April of last year, the day I ‘met’ Emmett Wilson.

I crouch down to watch the bubbles that pop up after the wave recedes; the bubbles that follow tiny crabs burrowing back down into the sand. I notice an interesting little shell. I pick it up; I turn it over in my hand, trace the edges with my finger. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I see someone in the distance, walking towards me. As he gets closer, I can’t hear footsteps over the sound of the surf. It’s a tall man in a dark suit, black leather shoes, completely dressed in almost funeral attire on a beach. That alone should make me feel afraid, but I’m not. But there is something really weird about this —

He stops about a foot and a half away from me. I look up at the man’s face…

…Emmett.

He hold out his hand. He wants the shell. And then he says…

“Hey girl! Wanna take a walk?”

I start a bit, as my friend Elizabeth nudges me.

“Daydreaming?”

I laugh. “Yeah, I guess I zoned out for a little bit.”

“I don’t blame you,” she said, pulling her beach towel more snugly around her shoulders as she stood up. “You’ve been working nonstop on this Emmett project since you’ve been here. You gotta be wiped out.”

Elizabeth and I have been friends for decades. She’s the lovely, calm, easygoing one, who always seems to have it together, and I’m the dysfunctional kook who needed a drink to feel whole. Somehow, we compliment each other, enjoy each other’s company, are always there for each other even though we live about 1,000 miles apart.

She knew I would be in Pensacola for a few days, so she invited me to her family’s beach house in Fort Morgan to sit on the beach and decompress, to catch up, to reconnect.

The view from the back porch of Elizabeth’s beach house. I’m gonna walk down that road and right onto the sand in about five minutes. Photo by the author.

This is the place where we can both recharge our psychic batteries. Elizabeth knows me well; we’ve seen each other go through job crap, personal crap, spiritual crap — and yet, here we are, four decades after we first became friends in Sr. Mary Clarissa Rose’s typing class at St. Joseph High School. Picture it: Five desks across by six rows of desks in a cinderblock 1960s school. All the desks have Underwood manual typewriters on them. The room is loud with the clacking of typewriter keys against paper and platen; hands in proper position arched properly, students focused, intent on increasing words per minute to earn the nun’s approval.

The old St. Joseph High School in Jackson, Miss. The red arrow points to the typing classroom. Source: stjoebruins.com

This went on five days a week, nonstop. It was mind-numbing.

One day, as the class was deep into typing mode, I reached into my sweater pocket, quietly winding the stem on the side of the toy. I turned around and caught Elizabeth’s eye — she looked at me questioningly. I opened my hand slightly and showed her the toy. Elizabeth gaped at me, then stifled a laugh.

It looked sort-of like this. Image source: amazon.com

I surreptitiously bent down as if to tie my shoe, and let it loose.

The result was laughter, excitement, welcome distraction as students moved their feet out of the way of the hopping chick moving randomly under desks, down the aisles, towards the front of the class. No one tried to stop it.

Except Sr. Clarissa.

She swooped down one row of desks, then another to catch it. Although the tiny toy was fast and unpredictable in its movements, the nun was agile, used to herding errant and nonconforming teenagers for several decades. Sr. Clarissa swooped down upon the little toy and held as high as she could for all to see (she was 4′ 11″ and everyone was taller than she was, including me).

“Whose is this? Whose is this?” She repeatedly shouted to the now-silent classroom.

No one answered. I dared not respond; I knew Elizabeth would never rat me out, but she was damn near choking on stifled laughter behind me. Sr. Clarissa gave everyone in the class a dirty look, then ordered us to continue typing.

Sr. Clarissa kept the chick in her desk drawer for the rest of the school year — after I’d received my final grade in the typing class and knew I was safe from her holy wrath.

“You know that plastic wind-up chick I had in Sr. Clarissa’s class?”

“Yeah?”

“I found it the other day in a box of stuff from high school. Damn thing still works.”

Elizabeth snorts with laughter. “Sr. Charisma was so pissed.”

“And it was the start of a great friendship.”

“Yeah.”

===

The thing about our friendship is that we feel comfortable telling each other anything, and we can listen to each other without judgment. I’ve always felt completely at ease around Elizabeth; I’ve never felt that kind of trust with very many people in my life. Her friendship is one of the most precious things in my life.

She knew me before, during, and after my drinking career, and she’s one of the few friends still around. And she’s never judged me for any of that.

And because we are completely honest with each other, I’ve told her everything that I’ve learned about Emmett Wilson so far, and the research itself. Elizabeth is curious why Emmett fascinates me.

“It’s the whole mystery of him,” I tell her. I’ve told Elizabeth how I came across Emmett in the first place, completely unknown to me; how we are distantly related. “Why is this story important to tell? I’m still in the artifact-information gathering stage, so I honestly don’t know him very well yet. Eventually, I’ll just put everything in front of me, and try to assemble the jigsaw puzzle of his story. Maybe then I’ll know what’s at the heart of the story.”

“Do you have a crush on him?” Elizabeth asks me.

I laugh. “Yeah. A crush on a dead man. It’s kind of a one-way relationship.”

“Yes, but you know, he did kinda reach out to you. Maybe it isn’t as one way as you think.”

“I’m skeptical, but I will remain open minded,” I say, as we continue walking along the beach.

And then, we stop and admire the small shells at our feet. One of them catches my eye. I pick it up…

…and it is remarkably like the one that Emmett seemed to reach for in my dream.

“Oh, that’s pretty,” Elizabeth says, looking at the shell in my hand. “It looks like a heart.”

 

I still have it.

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 16: The end and the beginning

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I have to forget the sanitized, clinical image in my mind about Emmett spending his last days in a hospital bed. You should, too.

His last days weren’t tragically romantic. It wasn’t pretty, despite the fact Emmett was tended to in Pensacola Hospital, by the Sisters of Charity, nun-nurses hovering nearby in their stiff white coronets and black habits; angelic figures giving consolation to patients writhing, dying, in their hellish final days.

Emmett probably thought he was already in Hell, though, that last week of his life.

Emmett’s room was down this hallway. Taken at historic Pensacola Hospital a few years ago.

=====

End-stage alcoholism is nothing like what is portrayed in movies.

Attend a meeting in a psych ward sometime; you’ll see what it is like to really wrestle a demon that has hold of you by chemistry, the pitiful shaking, screaming, vomiting all at once by friends, loved ones, or strangers.

It’s not something you can just ‘get over’ or let go of; the disease absolutely has you, until YOU let go, absolutely.

It is too much for those who don’t know the person behind the alcohol; it is too much for those who do.

My friend Donna the Nephrologist once told me that when an alcoholic stops drinking, the human body tries to correct itself internally right away, to expel the ‘poison’ from the system, but the patient has become so used to living with booze in the system, that the damaged body cannot handle the transition, and so the patient often endures terrible delirum tremens — the last stage of alcohol withdrawal, with a mortality rate up to 37 percent if untreated.

Note that modern treatment of delirium tremens has a lower mortality rate; this table assumes the patient has access to medical help. Still, even with medical help, a 5% mortality rate is reported from DTs. Source: http://www.grepmed.com

That’s a 2018 statistic, by the way.  Mortality from delirium tremens was probably higher in Emmett’s day.

===

I didn’t want to make Emmett’s biography about him as an alcoholic, but the disease was the launching point into his life story.

We know that alcoholism is a family disease   but it also affects those in the alcoholic’s immediate circle — friends, coworkers, neighbors, and so forth. We don’t really think about how others (not just immediate family) have to adjust their lives, work around, enable, or whatever to ‘deal’ with an alcoholic’s illness.

Emmett’s friends and colleagues likely did that with him too. In fact, I’m sure they did. And, I know they went to great lengths to keep it out of the public eye.

And, there is the issue of alcoholism heredity. Several peer reviewed articles indicate that genes are responsible for about 50 percent of alcoholism in a family (I have many other resources; here’s one; here’s another); but addiction is a complicated science. Not everyone inherits the predisposition (Emmett had nine siblings), and some members of a family can be more susceptible.

This would set the framework for Emmett’s research:

  1.  Where and when the drinking problem started with Emmett?
  2.  Was Emmett’s family also alcoholic?
  3.  What is Emmett’s family story anyway?

The best place to begin was with Emmett’s obituary.

Next: Dissecting the obit.

Chapter 15: Irony and Uselessness

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You want to hear something funny? Or more honestly, ironic?

As I sat with my newfound information about Emmett Wilson, I was angry. Pissed, actually.

First, this guy. Emmett Wilson, who (from what I had read so far) was from a privileged family; a family who held respectable jobs in the community, a family who lost everything more than once, reinvented themselves, survived abject poverty, educated themselves, saved every penny — and gave those pennies willingly to Emmett so he could go to college not once but twice…

Second, a family with connections who went out of their way to bail him out of more than one or two bad career choices and help him obtain jobs of prominence, which Emmett did an honestly average job about…

Third, Emmett, a man with family and connections that gave him places to live, opportunities no average Joe or Josephine could have dreamed of back then, resulting in national prominence….

….only to throw it all away before his 36th birthday.

What an asshole.

He had everything and threw it away.

And who was this guy anyway? OK, yeah, so hooray, he’s my cousin. A distant cousin whom I’d not gone looking for; someone who just showed up in the middle of another project, who thumped me on the head in the middle of the night asking me to do him a favor.

Man, does this Emmett guy have some nerve, reaching out from beyond the grave for yet ANOTHER favor. I mean, what the hell? You have to be kidding, I remembered muttering to myself. And to him, if he was actually listening.

“Does this photo make me look like I have all the answers? Maybe I’m just uncomfortable in a stiff collar?”

I looked at his photo — the official one of Emmett posed with kind-of a frown/stern expression.

I said to him: “You have all the answers already. What more do you want? What do you want from me at this point?”

For two days, I was too pissed to work.

Instead, I went to see my sponsor, Courtney (who is also a genealogical researcher, by the way. Ironic?).

I recounted to her exactly what I found about Emmett, how I felt, what I was thinking, how used I felt by this Emmett Wilson, who seemed to use everyone and everything in his life, too, to get what he wanted, and then to just fucking die in the end, a useless, wasted life….

She listened quietly, patiently, as I ranted for probably about 20 minutes. Then she asked:

“Why are you so angry about Emmett? What’s he done to you, exactly?”

“Well, look,” I said, displaying the folders of information I’d collected. “This is just infuriating. This guy is a loser. He threw his life away; he didn’t care. How can you be given all sorts of opportunities to do well and just throw it away? It’s insane,” I shook my head at her.

“You sure are worked up over a guy who has been dead almost 100 years. I ask you again: What’s he done to YOU that makes you so angry?”

“I don’t get it,” I muttered defensively.

“Judy, don’t you see? None of this is about Emmett. This is all about you.”

I just shook my head, incredulous.

“Don’t dismiss the idea. Think about it,” she said. “You came from nothing; you had a family and friends who would and did give everything to help you, willingly. Or unwillingly,” she said with a chuckle. “But still, you had the resources. And what did YOU do with your resources during your early career? And when did you say you did most of your drinking?”

I didn’t look at her. I couldn’t actually because I felt my face burning.

“Did you appreciate them, your advantages?”

“I do now.” I said, sheepishly.

After a few quiet moments, she said: “They called you useless too. How did that make you feel, or do you remember?”

I did remember. I shifted uncomfortably; I started to assemble Emmett’s papers back into their folders.

“You’re angry because you are reliving your helplessness when you were literally, mentally drowning when you are reading all about Emmett and what he threw away in his life,” she said nodding at the papers in my hands.

My sponsor had my full attention.

“No. Just like Emmett, you didn’t appreciate what you had in those days because you couldn’t. You were out of your mind, insane if you will, putting the need for a drink first. Just like your cousin. And, this story you are writing. Think about this: Is Emmett’s drunkalogue the entire life story?”

“No, of course not,” I said. “His life was more than just being a drunk.”

Courtney smiled at me, kindly, and nodded.

“There is more to Emmett’s story than just ‘he drank, he died.’ I think you know this, too. How did he get there? What did he do about it? What lessons can we learn from his life that can help you today?

“And,” she continued, “would you still consider Emmett useless for having reached out to you, asking you to tell his story, if his story actually informed your own?”

Before I left, Courtney reminded me about being self-righteous in all of this: “We are lucky and blessed to have found AA, and that it works for us. But remember, there are plenty of people who can’t or won’t accept this program or any other program out there, for whatever reason. We’re powerless over other people, places, things…they have to do it for themselves.

“There’s another gift in the program that I think you need to work on,” she added, looking at me over the rim of her glasses.

“What?” I said, with surprise. “I appreciate all of the gifts of the program, truly…” I started. She shook her head.

“Really? What about humility?”

“What about it?” I asked.

“You’re also mad at Emmett because he couldn’t ‘get it’ and you did. A lot of people don’t, can’t or won’t get it. It’s a daily struggle, you know. And just because you could do it — and I know you work hard to stay there — not everyone can. Your self-righteousness is getting in the way of your own program,” she said, sitting back and looking at me pointedly.

I didn’t say anything because now I was mad at Courtney for calling me out — and correctly. We sat quietly for a few minutes; I couldn’t stay mad at her for very long because I always knew that she’d tell me the truth whether I wanted to hear it or not, and Courtney is precious to me. Eventually, I looked at her in the eye and nodded.

“I have a lot of work to do, and not just with this story. And I am sorry for being so rude.”

Courtney nodded.

“It’s fine. But don’t be angry because Emmett couldn’t or wouldn’t get it while he was alive — his death and story serves a purpose for you, now, today. His story, and how you found it or he found you or whatever, is a wonderful gift and opportunity to learn and grow.

“So, I wouldn’t call him or his life useless. But your reaction is pretty ironic,” she said with a chuckle, as our session together ended, and she walked me to her apartment door.

“Keep coming back,” she said, as she kissed me goodbye on the cheek.

Next: Emmett’s story, from the very beginning.

Chapter 14: What is he to me?

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That was the question I kept asking as I dug deeper into this stranger’s — Emmett’s — story. I couldn’t keep calling him a stranger, though.

For such an obscure guy who didn’t leave much of a mark while he lived, I was turning up dozens of tiny blurbs about his life almost daily from newspaper microfilm. I spent hours (courtesy of faculty privileges and InterLibrary Loan) at both the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library and The American University’s Bender Library, scrolling through hundreds of microfilmed pages from the past, newspapers searching for anything Emmett Wilson. The small pieces would have to come together to illustrate the coherent whole as best as possible, because I lacked true primary sources at this point. This was literally the needle-in-the-haystack approach, but it was the only approach available.

McKeldin LIbrary, in the heart of the University of Maryland campus, College Park.

 

Over time, the small, often one-line items about Emmett’s life grew together into an extensive 4.8 megabyte chart. Essentially, I’d created Emmett’s Almost-Everyday Planner in reverse, a calendar overview of his life which included an incredibly detailed map of what the man did on a regular basis, folks he hung out with, where he went for entertainment, venues he visited regularly. Ad infinitum, or as close as I could get to it.

A sample shot of Emmett’s Almost-Everyday Planner. Information based on newspaper reports, journal entries, family documents, and the like. Location of the original information is in the far right column.

Good research, right? Except that I didn’t have an ‘off’ switch with regard to Emmett. I’d have to be asked to leave the microfilm readers at closing. I’d look up at the library clock one moment, 9:25 a.m. and the second time I’d look it was 3:45 p.m.

Pity the librarians and archive workers; pity the research assistants at nearby tables: I’d chat Emmett up with anyone who asked me what I was working on at the university, whether they were interested or not.

And that was when I noticed I’d embraced a whole other -ism.

As an alcoholic in recovery, I don’t have a desire to drink anymore, but the desire to escape whatever it is I need to focus on at the moment, to procrastinate from living in the current world, is always there. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to escape or to feel better about; I was doing research, and damn good progress too, I thought.

But my husband, who never complains or comments on my work unless something seems truly over the top or awry, actually spoke up: “This is taking over your life. What is it about? What is this to you?” he said.

I didn’t know, I said.

“Then what’s the point of doing the research? What do you hope to get out of it? If you figure that out, then your path in pulling all this information together will be clear,” he said, gesturing at the piles of files stacked on my desk, hundreds of pages of handwritten notes, transcribed notes.

I literally have hundreds of pages of notes about Emmett. While I transcribe everything to electronic files for safekeeping, I am most comfortable taking notes traditionally with paper and pen, complete with notes to self, on the text, on hot pink Post-Its, and note cards.

 

 

There was one other thing I hadn’t checked — I’d purposely put it off. It was time to find out for sure. So, I typed his name into my Geni.com account — Geni.com is a genealogical research tool.

Lo and behold:

And there it is: Emmett and I are related. Note the common ancestor, Graves. The Graves ancestor was mentioned in the Jim Milligan genealogy document mentioned in an earlier post. Source: Geni.com

 

Oh man.

Now I knew who Emmett was to me. For sure, I couldn’t say he was a stranger anymore.

But I wasn’t sure if I wanted more than that.

Next: Acceptance is the key.