Chapter 41: For once, I feel at ease

Standard

Christmas Day, 1900, The Wilson Home,
Chipley, Florida

Have you ever seen pictures of seated royalty on their thrones? The ones featuring a king, with princes and other members of the royal family seated around a central authority figure in descending order of power?

If you stood Father’s front yard that afternoon, and saw how the male members of my family were seated on the porch, you’d understand who was in power in our family — and — to a certain degree, West Florida politics.

A.E. Maxwell, who also went by “Emmett;” our Emmett’s role model & hero. Photo taken about 1900. Source: FloridaMemory.com

In the center is my grandfather, Augustus Emmett Maxwell, whom friends called ‘Emmett’. He sits in a wicker easy chair, a toddy next to him on a table, and his cane hooked over the arm of his chair. Grandfather Maxwell is tall, but he has become stooped in old age, and lack of regular exercise over the years has put weight on his frame.

Grandfather Maxwell is listening thoughtfully, with his chin in his hand, in a posture I recognize from his days on the Florida Supreme Court bench, to Walter Kehoe talking about the Florida House election this coming January.

Although Walter had campaigned hard for the Florida House seat — and won — he resigned soon after the election when Governor William D. Bloxham asked him to serve as State’s Attorney upon the death of John H. McKinne, the previous State’s Attorney. Walter, who has long eyed a congressional seat at the U.S. House of Representatives, sas this as an opportunity that would eventually lead to that higher office later on.

The Weekly Tallahassean, November 22, 1900. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

My Father is seated on Grandfather’s right, holding a whiskey in his right hand. Father occasionally glances at Grandfather Maxwell with a look of concern; he murmurs something to Grandfather now and then, to gain assurance that he is comfortable. Although my Mother had been deceased for almost 10 years, the relationship between Grandfather Maxwell and my Father remains unchanged: Close, respectful. Father does not have the same relationship with his current father-in-law, the Rev. Thomas E. Langley; nor does he try to develop it into anything more than what it is: Distant, but polite. 

Father, Grandfather, Walter.

Triumvirate.

Next to Walter is my brother, Cephas, recently re-elected State Senator for Jackson County. 

The Weekly Tallahassean, October 4, 1900. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

Ceph sits quietly, one leg crossed over the other, in another wicker easy chair on the porch, a drink in his hand, also listening to Walter, occasionally nodding at some point or the other. When Father isn’t looking at Grandfather Maxwell, he will glance over at Cephas, admiringly. Father does this unconsciously. And sometimes, when I see Father doing this, I have to look away. I desperately want Father to look at me like that: With utter pride.

My brother Percy, a physician, who apprenticed with my Father before attending medical school in Mobile, sits on my Father’s right; my brother Meade, a conductor with the P&A division of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, is on Cephas’ right. They, like my Father, also are involved in county politics, serving as election clerks, and on local Democratic executive committees — they are foot soldiers in state politics, as Cephas would says; not anything to be dismissed, because all political work eventually paves the way to important connections and positions.

Percy lives in Sneads, a small community north of Chipley, with his wife Bonnie; Meade lives in Pensacola with his wife, Carrie.

On the outermost periphery of the family circle is me, my twin brother Julian, and our oldest brother, Max.  Julian and I sit on the porch steps. Max is closer to the men in the semi-circle, but seated on a footstool, next to Meade. The older men don’t expect those of us on the periphery to say anything, because we are rarely asked to contribute.

Augustus Maxwell Wilson, oldest son of Dr. F.C. and Elizabeth Wilson. Source: Florida Memory.com

Max’s rightful place should be next to Father, or Walter, particularly as Max was a second-term state representative for Calhoun County. But Max’s position on the porch during family gatherings depends on whether he is in or out of favor with my Father — and on this day, he’s out. Father’s problem with Max is his inconsistency. Max is a good fellow but comes across as directionless — except for one thing: Max has spent his life trying to please Father. So, instead of finding a line of work he truly enjoys, he’s become a ‘chaser of rainbows,’ according to my brothers. Max also drinks heavily and has more of a reputation as a drinker instead anything else, which I know troubles Father to no end. Today, Max is seated on the footstool, mostly ignored. I think he knows it, but Max is playing the game, pretending not to notice being on the outside.

“Any progress on the new primary election law, Walter?” Father asked.

“Mostly talk right now, nothing definite,” Walter said. “No one will ever publicly say that they were against the Democratic process, but should the primaries be turned over to the general electorate, most of the party leaders who enjoyed the perks of office would be out.”

“The masses favor it, and no man who enjoys his current place in Democratic leadership would dare come out and gainsay them,” Father said.

“And yet, the country masses are fools,” Cephas said. “They would elect some uncultured bumpkin to do their bidding. Another Abraham Lincoln,” he added, shaking his head with contempt.”

“The masses may seem foolish on the outside, but it would be wrong to discount them,” Father said, glancing over at Grandfather, who sits in silence, his arms crossed, his faced bowed, listening.

“And how does one convince the masses that the current system is acceptable?” Meade asked. “The electors are not fools. They know how candidates are made — bought, actually,”  he said, as a bottle of Irish whiskey is passed to him by Walter. Meade refills his glass, and passes the bottle to back to Walter.

“Ah,” Walter said, as he pours a generous helping of the whiskey into his own glass. “That is the key, is it not? The language we propose to use in the bill will be cunning enough….”

“And the legislature will still refuse it,” Grandfather said, quietly. “Pity.”

At that moment, footsteps were heard coming from the side yard; it was Paul Carter, who had cut through our adjoining back yards, to join the group on the porch.

The men all greeted my best friend with friendly words, handshakes. Two of my brothers stood up to shake his hand; even Cephas rose partially out of his seat for Paul.  My Grandfather clasped Paul’s hand, giving him a kind look.

“Have a seat over with Emmett,” Father said to Paul, nodding over at me on the porch step. As Paul sat next to me, he nods. “Merry Christmas.” 

“The same to you,” I reply.

Paul fiddles with his shoelaces as we listened to the men talk alternatively about saving their current positions of power, keeping the election out of the hands of the unwashed masses, protecting the status quo.

I watch as Paul shakes his head, a frown on his face, as he listens. Then, he blurts: “This is insanity.” He stands up, and faces my family on the porch.

“What is it?” Grandfather asks, quietly.

“You must be kidding — the current system can’t last forever, this committee process of selecting the candidates for election in Florida. It is insanity, and you know it,”  Paul said.

There was an uncomfortable silence on the porch, as my brothers moved in their seats, looking away from Paul. But Meade asks,“What do you mean?” 

“It will change, all of it,” Paul said firmly, looking first at Meade, then at the rest of the men on the porch. “People — the general voting public — will soon understand what the definition of a dictator is, and they will come to see that this committee selection process in Florida is nothing short of that — take a look at what is happening in Europe,” Paul said. “Take a look at our own history, if you will. When the general voting public understands that their leadership resembles that of King George, that it is for the wealthy and privileged, and not the everyday man, that it is not truly representative of our nation’s populace, there will be a turnover. And, it will happen. You ought to prepare for that eventuality. Make the change part of your platform, or prepare to lose your place.”

No one spoke for a few moments. The silence grew uncomfortably. Paul shook his head at them.

“Let me ask everyone,” Paul said. “Do you believe in democracy for all, or only when it is convenient for you and your family’s personal interests?”

Cephas put his drink down on the table and stood up to face Paul. “What the hell? Of course not,” he retorts. “Of course I  believe in democracy for everyone; we all do,” as my brothers nodded slightly, but not looking at Paul.

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.

“How about for women who own businesses and have to pay taxes just like menfolk, like Walter’s sisters?” Paul added, nodding over at Walter, who is listening to the exchange with a frown. “Don’t they deserve to have a say about how their tax dollars are spent? It’s the same dollar, by the way, not a male dollar or female dollar. I’ll bet your sister Minnie would agree,” he added.

Cephas sighs. “I see your point, Paul and I agree with it to a certain extent, but…”

“But nothing, Ceph. Democracy is either for all, or it is not. Some of the changes coming may not exactly be popular with the stand-patters, such as yourself. That’s not progressive democracy. Some of our politicians are mostly paying lip service to it.” At that, Walter shifts uncomfortably in his seat.  “Whether you truly support a progressive democratic platform or not remains to be seen. I’m afraid you are part of the problem, though, Ceph; you are looking after your own comfort, not policies that work for the greater good.”

“That’s easy for someone like you to say,” Max retorts. “You have money, position, you aren’t dependent on anyone…”

“I could lose all of that at any moment, just like anyone else,” he said, quietly. The sorrowful image of Paul’s face when he was cleaning out his father’s office flashed in my mind. I can tell Paul is also thinking of his father….

From The Chipley Banner, January 14, 1899, page 3. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

Walter raises his eyebrow, with a little look of surprise at Paul, then he looks at me. Percy and Meade have shocked looks on their faces, they turn to look at Father, who is simpassive, and then at Cephas, scowling.

But Grandfather Maxwell has a quiet, wry smile on his face.

“Spoken like a true statesman,” Grandfather Maxwell says quietly, nodding at Paul. “Your father would be proud of you.”

The tension of the moment quickly abates. Paul clears his voice, pulls the sleeves of his suit coat. “Excuse me,” he says. “I apologize if I was rude and overspoke. I’ll take my leave.”

The men on the porch, still stunned by Paul’s outburst, murmur their goodbyes and wishes for a Merry Christmas to Paul as he turns and walks down the sidewalk, towards town.

“Excuse me,” I say to my Father and Grandfather, who nod their permission for me to leave.

I start down the porch steps, and catch up with Paul, who was already halfway down the block walking at an easy, comfortable pace despite the tension back on my Father’s porch. We continue in silence to the corner of 6th and Railroad Streets, then stop at the corner and looked around. All we can see are the closed-up shops, but there are a few men further down the street near the depot, walking about. There is no traffic, everyone was somewhere else.

Paul pulls his silver case out of his coat pocket, and offers me a cigarette. We both take one, and take turns lighting our cigarettes from his lucifer.

I take a deep draw, and exhale, blowing a long stream of cigarette smoke upward into the dark blue sky.

“I can’t believe what you did back there, and what you said in front of everyone. You had Cephas speechless for a change,” I say, with a chuckle.

Paul chuckled too. “Tell you the truth, Em, I’m a little stunned myself at what came out of me in front of your Grandfather, and Kehoe, too. But I am sincere about every single thing I said. Change is coming in our political environment. We have to coexist with it, or we lose the chance to make a real difference for our citizenry. You believe that, don’t you?”

“Yes; of course I do. But I never would have said it like that in front of them.”

“Well, why not? You either truly support democracy or you don’t. We certainly debated it back at the Seminary in often enough.”

“Well…” I hesitate.

“Well what?”

“I don’t know; I would have offended pretty much everyone on the porch.”

“Come on. It’s the truth. How is the truth offensive? It’s just the truth. I doubt seriously you and I, and your Grandfather, are the only ones who think this, by the way. For instance, Cephas. He knows what’s going on elsewhere in the country, in other state legislatures. He must know it is only a matter of time before United States Senators will be elected instead of appointed. For God’s sake, Kehoe’s on the damn committee looking into the change.”

I say nothing as we start to walk down the empty sidewalk. 

“So, what it is that you believe, Emmett?”

“All I know, all I’ve learned from Cephas, from watching my brothers, from listening to Kehoe and even to my Grandfather, is that I have to succeed, to avoid failure, to make it to the top, and to do that, I have to play this political game. So, it doesn’t matter, really, what I feel, or think, does it?  How is it that I’m supposed to speak up for what it is I truly believe in, when in fact, the route to success in our chosen profession is to live a lie the entire time to get to where it is we want to be? How is that logical?”

“I don’t know. But it’s not always like that.”

“I just…. I wish I didn’t care. I hate the games playing,” I take a last deep drag off of my cigarette, exhaled the smoke, and throw the butt into the rutted dirt road.

“You know, I don’t think it is completely like that,” Paul said. “I agree that the road to the judiciary is like playing a game. But it is that way with most goals we set for ourselves. And I really don’t think you have to check your integrity at the door. I know my Father never did when he was on the bench; even his friends used to tell me that he was one of the most trusted lawyers in West Florida. It took him a long time to get to where he was, though, because he didn’t sell out to the factions and he didn’t play games.”

“I remember,” I said.

“I know that you want to get to where you’re going fast,” Paul adds. “You’ll get there. But not tomorrow. Maybe not for a few years, and that’s just being logical. I think you know this already.”

“Well. It’s all probably moot anyway.”

“What do you mean?” Paul asked.

“Father has this idea I’m going to work for him in the pharmacy as soon as I’m done at the Seminary. The idea of working for Father day in and day out here in Chipley…” I shook my head. “I can’t do it, Paul. I can barely stand being here for the Christmas break much less the idea of living here permanently. I’ll go out of my mind.”

“How did he come to that decision?”

“I don’t know. But he told me, in front of Walter, that it was an ideal situation, and he’s pleased. And for the first time, I feel like I have my Father’s approval.”

“Emmett, for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve done what other people have told you what to do. Where to work, because they think it is a good opportunity for you. What to study, because they think it would be useful for you. What to think, even…”

“Now wait a minute…”

“You do what a lot of other people — mostly your family — say, because they have your best interests at heart. But, I don’t think they really know you, or what you want, or what makes you happy.”

“They think I can be happy once I get settled down and become successful.”

“Look, Em, I can see you as a lawyer. You definitely have the intelligence and mindset for it. Your Father may not be thrilled about it at first, but you’ll eventually have his support. I know your Grandfather would approve. Cephas would; certainly Walter. You won’t be alone, you know.”

“Father would think that I’ve wasted time and money.”

“What if you went all the way through, for four years at the Seminary, then figured out you wanted to go to law school? Think of all the money you would have spent on a degree that you really didn’t want.”

“True,” I said.

“I take it you’ve decided what you want to do.”

“Yes. Finish out the Sophomore year — and transfer to Stetson.”

He nods. “We’ll be there together, you know. We’ll have a grand time.”

I grin at Paul. “We will.”

I chuck him on the shoulder as we walk toward the Chipley depot.

For the first time since I’ve been home, I feel at ease.

Chapter 37: Coffee and a selfie

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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.

 

Chapter 33: A force to be reckoned with

Standard

May 17, 2014, Montgomery, Alabama, about 1 p.m.

I’m in a car Carol B., whom I met in person five minutes earlier. She’d picked me up from my friend Margaret’s house in Montgomery. Carol’s taking me to meet her mother, Jule Wilson Perry, whom I found about six months ago — and, still, even though has been several months since I made first contact with Jule, I remain in a sort-of shock and awe about it.

I’m surprised I found her.

Heck, I’m surprised she’s even alive.

Jule, you see, is Emmett’s niece. The daughter of Emmett’s twin brother, Julian. As of today, she’s a healthy and spry 97 (check) years old; clear, coherent, sharp. As a whole, the Wilsons were not exactly long-lived people; but Julian and Jule seem to be exceptions to the rule.

Jule & Emmett’s twin brother, Julian A. Wilson, about 1940.

What also rocks me about this whole upcoming meeting is the understanding that she is the only person alive today who would have laid eyes on Emmett, if she could remember it.

She would have shared the air with him in the same room. She knew the family stories. She is one-quarter Emmett’s DNA….

… and the idea of all of this, that this woman is the closest living connection to Emmett Wilson, dead since 1918, is only minutes away, thrills and scares me at the same time.

That’s probably coming out in my demeanor as we ride to Jule’s apartment. I’m sitting stiffly, my seat belt across my chest and lap; clasping my hands a little too tightly. I have a potted flowering plant for Jule next to my briefcase at my feet, all a bit crammed awkwardly onto the floor of Carol’s car. Carol glances over at me and gives me a friendly smile.

I smile back.

I have nothing to fear, but I am afraid. I don’t know what to think; this flood of existential questions gushes forward:

‘What am I doing here? What the hell am I supposed to be getting out of this crazy, self-imposed, self-directed project that has taken over my life? How in the world did I wind up in the car of a lovely woman who is distantly related, but also a stranger to me at the moment?’

Make no mistake: Both Carol and Jule know why I’m here. When I contacted them six months agoI made no pretense to either Jule or to Carol about how I got here in the first place; that I’m chasing information based on some strange and oddball request (that I very well may have IMAGINED) one late night as I had stared at a man’s photo, a voice asking me to tell his story…

…what the hell. Perhaps my discomfort is simply the fact I did not sleep well last night at my friend’s house, and I drank way too much coffee with little to eat all day.

Carol’s cell phone rings. “Excuse me,” she said, as she pushed a button on her steering wheel to answer it.

“No, sorry,” she says.  “I can’t be there this afternoon. I’m driving my cousin to see my Mother at the moment….”

— and just like that, I feel relief wash over me. I’m not a stranger anymore.

“Sorry about that,” Carol said, smiling at me as she disconnected the call.  “You said you had a funny story about Mama?”

I tell Carol about how I had come across Jule’s information initially from census reports, but then, her name was mentioned in an obituary about Julian, so that is how I was able to find her. There was a telephone directory listing from a few years back; I didn’t know if this was the same person, but I took a chance and made a cold call.

“I asked to speak to Mrs. Perry, and a lady answering the phone was very formal and polite, and said she wasn’t there. I asked if I could leave a message, and the person said yes, a little hesitantly.

“So, I told her my name, that I was with the University of Maryland, and gave a very brief description of the research project about Emmett.

“The suddenly, all formality is swept aside. The lady said, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m actually writing my own father’s story! You know my father was actually Emmett’s brother, don’t you?”

Carol laughed. “That’s Mama. She’s a force to be reckoned with; I guess you realized that right away.”

“Yes. But I also know someone calling out of the blue from 1000 miles away can be off-putting. I get that. That’s why I asked her to give my email and phone number to you in that call, so you could check up on me.”

Carol nodded with understanding. “I appreciate that.”

As she turned into the parking lot of the assisted living apartment complex, and pulled into a parking space, I felt my stomach tense up. “I’m nervous,” I admitted to Carol, with a laugh.

She briefly touched my hand. “Don’t be. The letters and clippings you’ve been sending Mama this past year have been wonderful. She had no knowledge at all of her father’s family before this — she really has enjoyed getting to know you through your research. This has really been good for her, and I appreciate it, too.”

 

 

Chapter 32: That tingling sensation

Standard

Friday, May 24, 2014, 2 pm, 6th Street, Chipley

The May afternoon is brilliant and dry, but the porch is cool and shady, just as it would have been when my cousin, Dr. Francis Wilson, sat in his rocking chair, smoking his pipe, reading The Chipley Banner in 1913.

One of my favorite things about this house — the porch swing. I can see Emmett sitting there, rocking back and forth, perhaps seated with his father, talking. Photo by the author.

Closing my eyes and breathing in the stillness of his ghostly footfalls across the porch, I stand absolutely still on the steps of my ancestor’s home, facing Main Street. I’m here, in search of his stories. I know there are no Wilson artifacts in this house, but I am secretly hoping to absorb something about him through spiritual osmosis; to connect with him in some way, as I am told much of the house — including woodwork, fireplaces, hardware — are the same that his hands touched over 100 years ago.

One of the original doorknobs of Dr. Wilson’s home. Photo by the author.

The chains of the swing creak as a breeze moves across the porch. I turn and open my eyes expectantly — but of course, he’s not there.

A photo of the house dated 1899 reveals charming gingerbread trim and a seat on the front porch. There’s also a calf in the front yard tethered to a picket fence, and two young trees. The house appears cared for, beloved.

The house in 2017 looks similar to the original photo, except the porch now covers the entire front of the house. The yard is well manicured; the fence, trees and the calf long gone. But you can tell that the house is still well cared for, beloved.

I step off the porch and walk around to the right side of the house, where Dr. Wilson had an office with a separate entrance still intact; with a small porch with room enough for three or four patients to wait.

Popular and competent, Dr. Wilson’s medical repertoire was expansive: He extracted teeth, delivered babies, amputated limbs, fumigated houses stricken with yellow fever, counseled the alcoholic, embalmed the dead. His finger was constantly on Chipley’s pulse; what Dr. Wilson heard and saw remained within the walls of this office.

This house holds many untold stories. I wish I knew what they were, I say to my hostess.

Just beyond Dr. Wilson’s office was — and is still  — a simple door separating the office from his home, opening into the dining room. Morbidly, I wonder if the dining room table was occasionally brought into service for emergencies. My hostess has no idea; but she points out details about the cabinetry, and an odd little nook where prescriptions were filled. As I pass through, I touch the old-timey doorknob in the doctor’s former office, and a small spark pops at my fingertips, the jittery, tingling electric sensation running up my arm.

Static electricity?

Or, are you here, Dr. Wilson?

====

As originally published in Saw Palm: Florida Literature & Art
http://www.sawpalm.org/places-to-stand.html


May, 2017