Emmett’s Will

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One hundred years ago today, almost exactly a year to his death, Emmett wrote his will.

Emmett’s will, as it appears in the Florida probate documents. Filed June 1, 1918 by his brother, Cephas Love Wilson, executor. Source: Ancestry.com

I have a copy of Emmett’s original will; the document was typewritten by Emmett himself, on old Banking and Currency Committee stationery that he had saved from his tenure as a U.S. Congressman. Emmett edited and corrected the errors in the single-spaced document document himself, in pen.

Emmett’s original will wasn’t dictated to a secretary, nor was it signed by witnesses, nor was it notarized.

I believe he simply went into Walter’s office in downtown Pensacola (he wasn’t practicing anymore, but I’m sure Walter let him use the office, as they shared it once as partners), and borrowed a typewriter. I think it is particularly touching that he used his own paper — stationery from when he was at the top of his professional life — and wrote his will in solitude.

For a man who was, by now, dying of alcoholism, and likely in and out of clarity, Emmett appears to have thought out carefully how he wanted his few possessions dispersed. Emmett was solvent June 1, 1917 — the date he wrote the will — and he wanted to distribute his money and property (about $7,000) to Dr. F.C. Wilson, Jennie Kehoe, and Emmett Wilson Kehoe. According to the inflation calculator, $7,000 in Emmett’s time is about $133,400 today.

Unfortunately, by the day Emmett died, on May 29, 1918, he had run out of money and was borrowing against his life insurance policy to pay everyday bills — that’s according to a letter from Cephas, which was included in Emmett’s file in Pensacola. Somehow, Emmett went through all of his money (and then some) in a year.

It is amazing to me, during what must have been a terrible, emotional and psychological time for Emmett, that he got his affairs in order knowing for certain:

He wasn’t getting married.

He wasn’t going to have his own home.

There wasn’t going to be a new political career.

There wasn’t going to be a new law practice.

And, that the end was probably coming sooner rather than later.

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Modeste Hargis, Whistling Pharmacist

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I’m pleased to report that not only have I located Emmett’s doctors (both in Pensacola and Washington, D.C.), but I’ve also located his pharmacist. Pretty damn good History Detective work, huh?

I’ll have more on the doctors in another post, but I thought I’d introduce you to the pharmacist first, because she’s REMARKABLE.

 

Meet Modeste Hargis. The first (and youngest) woman pharmacist in Pensacola.

Modeste Hargis, about 1900. Source: womenofhistoricpcola

Modeste Hargis, about 1900. Source: womenofhistoricpcola

Modeste was born August 1875 in Pensacola, the daughter of Dr. Robert Bell Smith Hargis. She had four sisters and two older brothers, Robert and John, who also were physicians.

Modeste decided early that she wanted a medical career, too.  According to a feature about Modeste in a 1909 issue of The Pensacola Journal, she accompanied her father every day on house calls and appointments, and he taught her everything he knew. She couldn’t have had a better teacher, either — Dr. Hargis was not only a yellow fever expert, he, along with Dr. J.C. Whiting, established the Pensacola Hospital in 1868. He was well respected, well known, and considered one of the top physicians in West Florida. It is quite likely that Emmett’s father, Dr. Francis C. Wilson, at least knew of Dr. Hargis, if he didn’t actually practice with him on occasion.

Modeste was interested in pharmacy, and Dr. Hargis encouraged and supported his daughter’s plans, even though it was still highly unusual for a young woman to enter a profession dominated by men.

In the 1909 article, Modeste said:

“I simply loved anything connected with medicine and after my father’s health failed, I commenced the study of pharmacy though I did not know then it would ever be the means of my support.”

Modeste’s turning point came in 1893, at 18, when she passed the state pharmacy examination and was the youngest (and only) female pharmacist in Florida.

Source: American Druggist & Pharmaceutical Record, Vol. 26, September 14, 1893.

Source: American Druggist & Pharmaceutical Record, Vol. 26, September 14, 1893.

And less than three months later, Modeste’s father died. It is unclear what was the cause of Dr. Hargis’ death, but he died at home, at 109 E. Romana Street. Modeste’s quote gives us a clue that he was likely ill for a long time, and so his death was not unexpected.

It is not clear when Modeste opened her first pharmacy. However, records from the Pensacola City Directory for 1898 (the earliest one available for now) indicate that she was on her own:

Pensacola City Directory for 1898. Source: Ancestry.com

Pensacola City Directory for 1898. J. Whiting Hargis was one of Modeste’s older brothers. Source: Ancestry.com

Just for kicks, I looked at Google Earth to see if the original house or buildings are still at 107-109 E. Romana. Alas, no — only a few modern box-shaped offices and an empty lot.

The Hargis Pharmacy moved around a few times: In 1911, it was located at 8 E. Government Street — the location of Emmett’s office — in the American National Bank Building. I can imagine Emmett stepping out of the office, taking the elevator down to the first floor, to pick up a bottle of Bromo-Seltzer, and his brand of pomade (which I have not been able to figure out yet, but give me time). He could also pick up a bottle of beer or wine there too! Did you know the Hargis Pharmacy also made and bottled beer and wine? It’s true. Pharmacies could do that back then.

Source: Mr.Bottles.com

A variety of bottles (contents unknown) bearing the Hargis Pharmacy embossment. Source: Mr.Bottles.com

By 1916, The Hargis Pharmacy had moved down the street from 8 E. Government, to 203-205 S. Palafox. Still, only a few blocks’ stroll for Emmett, should he need to pick up toiletries, or whatnot.

Pensacola City Directory for 1916. Modeste's pharmacy delivered, too! Source: Ancestry.com

Pensacola City Directory for 1916. Modeste’s pharmacy delivered, too! 203 S. Palafox, by the way, is still standing. Source: Ancestry.com

Not surprisingly, Modeste was a friend of Minnie Kehoe’s, and, a supporter of women’s suffrage. Both were successful women business owners, too. I can well imagine those two getting together and having quite interesting conversations.

Modeste’s house at 611 N. Barcelona is still standing, too:

611 North Barcelona, Pensacola, Florida. Source: Trulia.com

611 North Barcelona, Pensacola, Florida. Source: Trulia.com

Modeste spent most of her life as a pharmacist. It is unclear when she sold or retired from business. In 1934, at age 54, she was likely retired at that point, because she is simply listed in the Pensacola City Directory at home.

But she wasn’t idle.

Zora Neale Hurston. Source: Library of Congress

Zora Neale Hurston. Could Modeste have known her? it’s possible! Source: Library of Congress

Modeste signed on with the Federal Writers Project of the Work Projects Administration (WPA) for the state of Florida. She co-wrote a series of articles that appeared in a variety of publications, including the Florida Historical Quarterly. Interesting — she was probably a colleague of Zora Neale Hurston!

Modeste’s most prolific year was 1939, according to Wordcat.org. She had NINE articles on a variety of topics, including Don Francesco Moreno, and an intensive study of Greek culture in Pensacola.

By 1942, Modeste was out of retirement and the director of the WPA Writer's Department in Pensacola. From the 1942 Pensacola City Directory. Source: Ancestry.com

By 1942, Modeste was out of retirement and the director of the WPA Writer’s Department in Pensacola. From the 1942 Pensacola City Directory. Source: Ancestry.com

Modeste lived with her sister Palmire in the 1940s. Palmire died in 1946; Modeste died in 1948.


That’s a pretty decent sketch of Modeste for now; but there’s still a lot I don’t know about her. I wanted to search in the Library of Congress’ database this afternoon, but it is offline for annual maintenance until August 1.

One reason I want to dig around and discover more about Modeste was this interesting comment by the interviewer in the 1909 article: She was described as a violinist, and a ‘genius in the art of whistling.’

She must have been good at it too, because in 1927, Modeste had her own radio program about whistling!

Source: The Greensboro (N.C.) Record; February 21, 1927.

I wonder what was included in her show! Did she do all the whistling? Source: The Greensboro (N.C.) Record; February 21, 1927.

Emmett definitely had some interesting friends in his life, and which says a lot about Emmett. Getting to know his friends and what they were like helps fill in the blanks about his personal life somewhat — at least until I get my hands on his scrapbooks.

 

Circle of Family: Percy Brockenbrough Wilson

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Emmett’s brother, Percy Brockenbrough Wilson, was born in Holly Springs, Marshall County, Mississippi, on October 25, 1871.

 

Percy was the fourth son of Dr. Francis C. and Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson, only about 18 months after the Wilsons moved from Pensacola to Holly Springs. As discussed elsewhere in the blog, the Wilsons moved to Belize in 1875, hoping to rebuild the fortunes the family had lost during the Civil War.

Percy was about four years old when he and his family emigrated to Central America. There is very little information about his childhood — except that we know he was considered ‘the angelic one’ of the Wilson children!

According to a narrative written many years later by Percy’s younger sister, Katie Wilson Meade:

Percy and Frank Jr. decided to go fishing on a Sunday, which wasn’t allowed (Katie said her parents preferred to dedicate Sundays to church and related activities). The boys snuck off to a river, caught at least half a dozen fish, and kept them on a line in the water, until the next day, Monday.

The next day, the boys asked their father permission to go fishing. When they returned, he knew they hadn’t been gone long enough to catch that many, and so asked them directly if they had gone fishing on Sunday. Frank said no. Percy said yes. Dr. Wilson knew that Percy was not one to tell lies, and so Frank received a punishment (a spanking). Katie tells us in the narrative that Frank later got even with Percy (we aren’t sure what happened, but she hints that it involved fisticuffs).


Sometime around 1882, when Percy and Frank were 12 and 13, respectively, their parents put them on a steamer for a two-week trip through the pirate-infested Gulf of Mexico headed for New Orleans. Percy wanted to become a doctor like his father; the Wilsons knew the small settlement schools in Belize were fine for primary education, but as the Wilson children got older, the teachers were not equipped for the higher grades. That’s when the Wilsons made the tough decision to send their children back to the United States for schooling.

Percy and Frank Jr. were sent to Pensacola via the port of New Orleans, where Elizabeth’s father, Judge Maxwell, would take care of them, and where they would attend school.

This plan only lasted a few years: The Wilsons didn’t like the idea of sending more of their children back to the U.S. It was a difficult, dangerous trip for a child on his or her own; also, they didn’t like being separated from their children for so long, and at such a great distance. Finally, the sugar plantation in which Dr. Wilson had invested his family’s savings was not doing well. The family decided to cut their losses, and return home.

Manifest of the passengers on the City of Dallas, June 1884. The Wilsons only had a few trunks of possessions and clothing to take back to the United States, not much more than they had brought with them on the original trip to British Honduras back in 1875. Source: NARA, via Ancestry.com

Manifest of the passengers on the City of Dallas, June 1884. The Wilsons only had a few trunks of possessions and clothing to take back to the United States, not much more than they had brought with them on the original trip to British Honduras back in 1875. Sons Percy and Frank Jr. were not passengers on this trip. Source: NARA, via Ancestry.com

When their parents emigrated back to the U.S. in 1884, they reunited with their sons in Pensacola; then moved to Chipley, where Dr. Wilson established his practice.

Eventually, Percy would attend medical school in Mobile. Frank would attend school in Pensacola, and eventually get a job with the L&N Railroad.

Percy graduated from the Medical College of Alabama (which was in Mobile) in 1895. He established practice in Sneads.

Lulie Butler Wilson. A child bride. Source: findagrave.com

Lulie Butler Wilson. A child bride. Source: findagrave.com

He married Lulie Butler in June, 1897.

Lulie Butler Wilson died October 23, 1897, only 17 years old. Percy’s great-granddaughter once told me that the family story is that she died in childbirth — which is possible — I tend to doubt it because they were only married four months. Of course, she could have been pregnant when she married Percy, but we’ll never know.

A news item in The Chipley Banner makes me think it was most likely tuberculosis, which was a problem in West Florida at the time. (Interestingly, tuberculosis is what eventually killed Percy, and several other Wilson family members too). Percy was devastated by her death.

Percy remarried in 1900, to Bonnie Bessie Stapleton. They had six children: Irene, Elizabeth, Percy Jr., Bonnie Jr., Katie, and Robert. Interestingly, Percy and Bonnie were twins!

Their first child, Irene Elizabeth, was born November 20, 1900.

Irene Elizabeth Wilson, the first child of Percy and Bonnie Wilson. Source: Findagrave.com

Irene Elizabeth Wilson, the first child of Percy and Bonnie Wilson. Source: Findagrave.com

An article in the February 12, 1903 issue of The Chipley Banner mentions that one of Percy’s children became critically ill in February, 1903. The child is not named in the paper, but it was Irene.

Percy brought Irene to Chipley from Sneads in the hopes that his father could help treat her, but unfortunately, the child died on February 6, 1903, and was taken back to Sneads for burial.

We don't know the cause of death, but at this time, several Wilson family members had come down with scarlet fever, and Dr. F.C. Wilson had recently gone to Pensacola to help treat Frank Jr.'s daughter, Clara for scarlet fever. Unfortunately, Clara died. Source: The Chipley Banner, February 12, 1903.

We don’t know the cause of death, but at this time in 1903, several Wilson family members had come down with scarlet fever, and Dr. F.C. Wilson had recently gone to Pensacola to help treat Frank Jr.’s daughter, Clara for scarlet fever. Unfortunately, Clara died. Source: The Chipley Banner, February 12, 1903.

An aside: There’s still no vaccine for scarlet fever (today called ‘scarletina’, which originates from strep-A bacteria), but it is treated with antibiotics. Interestingly, in the early 1900s, scarlet fever itself wasn’t always deadly , but it often led to other more serious illnesses, such as meningitis, pneumonia and/or kidney or liver failure.

Percy led the typical Wilson family life: Active in community service and politics, effective in his chosen profession.

Percy was named State Medical Examiner for the Florida first judicial district in 1901. Source: 1901 Florida Secretary of State's Report.

Percy was named State Medical Examiner for the Florida first judicial district in 1901. Source: 1901 Florida Secretary of State’s Report.

Apparently, he did well enough in his rural practice to purchase an automobile. In 1910, according to a record in Florida Memory.com, Percy owned a Brush Runabout.

A 1910 Brush Runabout. It cost $495. Source: http://www.brushauto.net/

A 1910 Brush Runabout. It cost $495. Source: http://www.brushauto.net/

In 1913, he took a step up to a Hupmobile!

1913 Florida Secretary of State's Report. Percy had a Huppmobile! I'm not sure if the certificate number was the same as a 'tag' number; but I do know you could purchase your car tag for only $1 back then! Source: Florida Secretary of State's Report for 1913.

1913 Florida Secretary of State’s Report. Percy had a Hupmobile! I’m not sure if the certificate number was the same as a ‘tag’ number; but I do know you could purchase your car tag for only $1 back then! Source: Florida Secretary of State’s Report for 1913.

A 1911 Hupmobile. Source: Theoldmotor.com

I couldn’t find a photos of a 1913 Hupbmobile, but here is the 1911 model. Source: Theoldmotor.com

After Emmett became a U.S. Congressman, in 1914, he had Percy named Postmaster for Sneads, Florida. The postmastership was a plum political appointment in the early 1900s — it was a sinecure, and, depending on the size of the postal grade of each district, paid between $1800 to $2400 a year. That was big money, given the average income of a family of four was between $400 and $600 a year.

Percy was appointed Postmaster of Sneads, Florida, Marcy 18, 1914. Source: U.S. Appointments of Postmasters, 1832-1971, via Ancestry.com

Percy was appointed Postmaster of Sneads, Florida, Marcy 18, 1914. Source: U.S. Appointments of Postmasters, 1832-1971, via Ancestry.com

Yeah, this was definitely nepotism, but Emmett was also doing it because Percy was failing.

The one letter I have from Emmett to his sister Katie Wilson Meade, dated summer of 1913, states that Emmett had had a letter from Cephas telling him that they feared Percy had tuberculosis, that Percy was not doing well at all. By 1914, Percy was probably not practicing medicine anymore; he was that ill.

Percy had been spending time in San Antonio, in a sanitarium, for tuberculosis. Source: The Pensacola Journal, August 29, 1917.

Percy had been spending time in San Antonio, in a sanitarium, for tuberculosis. Source: The Pensacola Journal, August 29, 1917.

I think the writer was being kind in the article, because Percy’s health never improved, and he died of tuberculosis on March 10, 1918.

The quote on the headstone says: "We knew no sorrow, knew no grief, till that bright face was missed." Source: Findagrave.com

The quote on the headstone says: “We knew no sorrow, knew no grief, till that bright face was missed.” Source: Findagrave.com

What’s great about Percy’s story is that I have been in contact with his descendants; specifically, his great-granddaughter!

Although the descendants report that they don’t have any anecdotal information or photos of Percy, I think this brief essay paints a pretty of the man who was Emmett’s big brother.

I’d love to have more anecdotes, and even photographs, if they exist, to include in Percy’s story, and to share with his descendants. We never know — the photos may come to light one of these days!

Maxed Out

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Here’s a list of the Wilson children (from oldest to youngest) and my find/contact progress thus far:

  • Maxwell Augustus Wilson (‘Max’) — eleven children, no contacts yet.
  • Cephas Love Wilson (‘Cephas’) — two children; a son and a daughter. No contacts yet with any of Cephas’ descendants.
  • Percy Brockenbrough Wilson (‘Percy’) — three children (twins and a daughter). Have located & contacted granddaughter & great granddaughter of one child.
  • Everard Meade Wilson (‘Meade’) — two sons; both deceased. One son did not have children. Unknown about current descendants.
  • Francis Childria Wilson, Jr. (‘Frank’) — one child, died in infancy. Have located & contacted a nephew on Frank’s wife’s side of the family.
  • Eudora Neely Wilson Smith (‘Dora’) — two daughters; located grandson of one daughter. Waiting to hear back from grandson.
  • Catherine Elizabeth Wilson Meade (‘Katie’) — one son. Have located & contacted granddaughter.
  • Emmett Wilson — never married; no known descendants.
  • Julian Anderson Wilson — one daughter. Have located and contacted the daughter.
  • Walker Guy Wilson — two children. Have located and contacted a grandson.

I think I’ve done pretty well for almost three years’ worth of digging around in an obscure Congressman’s past — I’ve made contact with descendants of most of the original Wilson family members. But I certainly don’t think I’m finished by a long shot.

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

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

The obvious gaping research hole in tracking down Wilson descendants is with the oldest child, Max Wilson. And believe it or not, it has been incredibly difficult to find anyone descended from Max Wilson. Eleven children and dozens of dead ends. I kid you not.

And honestly, I haven’t really focused on Max that much. It isn’t that I’m ignoring Max, but I’ve been spending my research time tracking down sources I estimate closest to Emmett during his lifetime; namely, his twin brother Julian, his older sister Katie, his younger brother Walker, and, his law partner, Cephas.

Max doesn’t figure into Emmett’s story that much, mostly because there’s 12 years’ difference in their ages. When Emmett was a boy, Max was already in school, had a job. He wasn’t exactly Emmett’s playmate and peer. I could be wrong, but for now, all information indicates that Max was not around much in Emmett’s formative years.

Augustus Maxwell Wilson was born in 1867 in Pensacola, and died in 1925, in Pasco County, Florida. According to an item on Find-A-Grave, a Times-Herald Obituary reported he died on January 30, 1925, and he was living with his oldest son (that would be Max Jr.) at the time.

Max’s wife, Belle Fannin Wilson, wrote a wonderful family genealogy, which is located in the special collections section of the Miami-Dade Public Library. But in that genealogy, I got the idea that that Max was unstable. Maybe I read it wrong. Maybe a family member can shed some light on it.

The genealogy said Max was a ‘chaser of rainbows,’ and if you look at his career track, you get the idea that Max never really knew what he wanted to do with himself; that when things got really tough, he’d stop whatever he was doing and begin all over again, not weathering the natural ups and downs that happen in any career.

For example, at different times, Max was listed as a bookkeeper, a railroad employee, a farmer, a newspaper owner and publisher, a pharmacist, a postmaster, a salesman. There were other careers he sampled along the way; meanwhile, the many different job switches had to be tough on his large family. No one is taking this man’s inventory at this point; he’s long gone. No one is saying he did a bad thing, changing jobs so often. But, it does look somewhat unstable from an outsider’s perspective.

Max is buried in the Dade City, Florida, cemetery. His wife is not buried with him. It is important to note that Belle was alive at the time of Max’s death — no one wants to jump to any conclusions, but the fact that he was living apart from his spouse is curious. The obituary said he died of a long illness.

Belle Fannin Wilson's genealogy. The original document is in the archival holdings at the Miami-Dade Library.

Belle Fannin Wilson’s genealogy. The original document is in the archival holdings at the Miami-Dade Library.

The genealogy was published by Belle’s son, Francis. That son became a journalist; so, my plan is to locate Francis’ descendants. Journalists and writers tend to keep notes, journals, stories — I’m hoping that Francis did the same.

But 11 children — surely there must be someone of Max’s family out there who holds Wilson memorabilia. Or photos. That would be wonderful.

What trips me up in finding the original Wilson family’s descendants is that several of Dr. Wilson’s children named their sons “Francis”, and then, those children also named Dr. Wilson’s grandchildren “Francis.” Oy. I’ve encountered about 12 “Francis Childrias” in this research project (but no Archibald Emmetts!). In several cases, I can’t tell who belongs to which descendant. It’s nice to honor one’s ancestors, but reusing exact names in a family makes it difficult and confusing for researchers 100 years in the future.


In other news, my street got dug out last night about 10:30 pm. It looks like my dear children will be headed off to school tomorrow! Snowzilla 2016 is now in the history books.

UPDATE: I found the Francis who published Belle’s genealogy; he also became a “Dr. Francis Childria Wilson”; as in, a journalist-turned-Methodist minister.

The kids will be home yet another day, despite the fact the roads have been plowed. DC schools are open, by the way (and I live a mere 1500 feet over the DC-Maryland state line). Go figure. 🙂

Honoring Mother, Mom, and Mamaw

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I often wonder about the relationship Emmett had with his mother: Was it formal or relaxed? Was it “Mother” or “Mom?”

Elizabeth Virginia Wilson, at Glenwood Cemetery, Chipley, Florida. Source: Find-a-grave.com

Elizabeth Virginia Wilson, at Glenwood Cemetery, Chipley, Florida. Source: Find-a-grave.com

At this point, even after two years of research into Emmett’s life, I still don’t know much about Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth Virginia Maxwell Wilson. I’m still looking for family records, church records, or anything else about her. I’d love to find a photograph of her.

Elizabeth’s name was not in the newspapers as much as her more public sons, Emmett and Cephas; or her congressman-father, Augustus Emmett Maxwell; or her prominent physician husband, Dr. F.C. Wilson. During Victorian times, there was an unwritten rule for women of Elizabeth’s social standing with regard to her name appearing in print: Only with regard to her wedding, and only with regard to her funeral. Additional publicity was considered uncouth.

The inscription at the base of Elizabeth's tombstone.

The inscription at the base of Elizabeth’s tombstone.

But, I get a strong impression that Emmett and his mother were close; that perhaps, he was the apple of her eye.

I have a photo of Emmett as a child. In that photo, he is standing left of his youngest brother, Walker. Emmett’s twin, Julian is on the other side of Walker. On the reverse of the photo is a message, written in Elizabeth’s hand. The photo was taken in December, 1890, and several copies of the photo were made for keepsakes (I’ve seen more than one copy of this particular photo; Emmett’s niece Jule has two actual copies from 1890). The message reads: “Happy New Year. A New Year Card for Grandma from Emmett, Julian, Walker. 1891.”

Emmett in a fancy bow tie, courtesy of Elizabeth Wilson.

Emmett in a fancy bow tie, courtesy of Elizabeth Wilson.

The boys are dressed up; hair carefully combed. Emmett has a really fancy bow necktie. It is big and flouncy. I’m sure Emmett didn’t tie that bow himself; I can see Elizabeth carefully adjusting Emmett’s tie under the stiff collar he had to endure, tying a neat bow, and adjusting it just so under his chin. The loving touch of Emmett’s mother.

Call it a stretch, but in just looking at Emmett’s fancy bow tie, put into place just so by his mother, I sense that Emmett and Elizabeth had a close relationship. Even though it wasn’t a stiff, formal relationship, I don’t really see him calling her “Mom.” It seems more likely he called her “Mother.”

I wish I knew more about Elizabeth.


Mom, 1962. This was her engagement photo.

Mom, 1962. This was her engagement photo.

I called my mother “Mom.” We had a complicated relationship; we were not close. I wish we had been closer; but to be honest, we had completely different temperaments.

Mom was a fine lady; she was a good person and a generous, compassionate friend. I did love my mom; I know she loved me. But we did not like each other. I remember trying often to forge a closer relationship to my mom, but it felt phony and forced.

I often wished our relationship was otherwise, but sometimes, even in close family relationships, the chemistry just isn’t there, and no one can help it. I didn’t find this out until a few years in sobriety; I wish I had known it sooner. I think I would not have psychologically beat myself up so much over the lack of relationship with my mom.

Once, after my mom had been drinking a lot, she called me and tried to discuss the odd relationship she and I had. But she was so blurry and incoherent on the phone, I told her that I’d talk to her later after she sobered up, and hung up on her. Mom then called my sister, who lives on the opposite side of the country, and complained how I once again sabotaged her attempts to build a relationship with me.

Unfortunately, the only times mom really tried to talk with me about our relationship were times when she drank heavily. She never once sat down to talk with me about our relationship, either in person or on the phone, without booze involved. I guess mom felt like she had drink to face the reality of the relationship we had.

My mom and I had different interests: She was an artist. I hated art. I loved to write. She hated writing.

My mother was a lot closer to my sister, who is a professional artist. They always seemed to have a lot more to talk about. They always seemed to ‘get’ each other, and I grew up feeling a tad like an outsider in my own family. I always used to suppose it was because I was an air sign (Aquarius) and they were earth signs (Taurus and Virgo). Air + Earth = Tornadoes.

The interesting dynamic in my family was that my mom and her mom (my grandmother) were also not close at all — but Mamaw (that’s what I called her) and I were really close. Mamaw and I were also both Aquariuses (our birthdays only 55 years and six days apart).

Me with my grandmother about 15 years ago. I was telling her this really dirty joke, and she was laughing so hard the swing started to crack. She died not long after this photo was taken. I miss her terribly.

Me with my grandmother about 15 years ago. I was telling her this really dirty joke (she enjoyed a good dirty joke), and she was laughing so hard the swing started to crack. She died not long after this photo was taken. I miss her terribly.

I could talk to Mamaw about anything, and she’d never judge me. She’d just listen. We knew how to talk to each other, and even we were decades apart in age, we really connected well. I loved and respected Mamaw; I was also a little afraid of her, because she would say it like it was, whether I wanted to hear it or not.

Once, she said to me, “I know you and your mom aren’t getting along too well. Sometimes, even in families, people don’t connect well. Try to accept it for what it is; don’t beat yourself up over what you can’t help.”

I said to her that I thought mom and me just didn’t connect well, and I was tired of trying. And Mamaw said, “Well, one day you’re going to be a parent. You might have a similar situation with your daughter. Just remember what this was like with your mother; take what you can from it.”

Mamaw at the IRS, about 1942. You didn't mess with her, or she'd audit your ass.

Mamaw at the IRS, about 1942. You didn’t mess with her, or she’d audit your ass.

My grandmother was a smart lady. She was the first female IRS auditor in the Jackson, Mississippi office, and she eventually was in charge of that office; she retired in 1965.

She was tough, too. My grandfather (her husband) was a big-time alcoholic. Mamaw loved him, but she would not tolerate his bad behavior, and threw him out more than once. Interestingly, Mamaw was the only adult in my immediate family (parents, both sets of grandparents) who did not drink AT ALL. I wonder how she put up with all of us as she did.

Eventually, my grandfather stopped drinking on his own, sans AA. I don’t know how he did it on his own without the program; living with Mamaw probably had something to do with it. She inspired strong character.

My grandparents were married almost 60 years. “Tough love,” she used to call it. “The reality of being married is that it is not all a bed of roses,” she said. “Don’t forget that.”


It is Mother’s Day weekend, and my mom has been gone almost six years. I didn’t think I’d miss her, because of the lack of closeness all these years, but I do.

With the passage of time, I certainly understand my mom a lot better:

She worked full time and my dad worked full time, but he was mostly away in another town, always working on some big construction contract. He traveled a lot in those days for his job, so, mom was single-parenting my sister and me for months at a time. She would come home, exhausted from her job (which was at a law firm and highly stressful), and just want to relax and have a drink. That’s mostly what she did after work for years. Both my parents were high-functioning alcoholics; that’s how they dealt with stress.

That was how their parents dealt with stress. It was just a ‘tradition,’ handed down, so to speak. Of course, I did not see this while I was growing up. At the time, I only saw that my mom and I didn’t ‘get’ each other, and after 7 pm (when my parents were already deep in their cups), a normal conversation with them was impossible. They’d be out of it already.

If my mom didn’t drink at all, it might not have made any big difference in our compatibility. But I think, perhaps, if booze was out of the equation, at least we could have discussed our dysfunctional relationship with clarity, perhaps reaching some understanding and better appreciation of the differences between us.


Two weeks before my mom died of cancer in 2009, I wrote my mom a long, heartfelt letter, expressing my sadness that we were not as close as I’d had hoped over the years, and asking her forgiveness and understanding for my part in making our relationship less than what she’d have hoped for.

I had to write that to her; I was nine months pregnant and unable to travel to her bedside. Also, at that point, cancer had spread to her vocal cords and she was unable to speak. My sister told me she did get the letter, and she read it.

I don’t know what my mom’s reaction was to it. She shooed everyone out of the room while she read it.

I get the feeling that things were made better between us at that moment.