Chapter 34: In choosing happiness

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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.

 

Emmett, Catholicism, Faith, Amends

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It was a tough time to be Roman Catholic in Florida during the early 1900s. Heck, it was tough to be Catholic anywhere in the U.S. at that time.

When Emmett moved back to Pensacola in 1906, to rebuild his career after his embarrassing tenure in Illinois, image was important. Connections were important. So, Emmett spent a lot of time during the first year making connections, attending luncheons with important folks, avoiding any opportunity or situation that might reflect negatively on his character and/or business future.

J. Walter Kehoe in 1917. Kehoe, Emmett’s law partner, close friend, mentor, Roman Catholic.  Source: Wikipedia.com

And yet, Emmett was surrounded by Catholics. Several of his closest colleagues were Catholic. His closest friends (whom he considered family, and vice versa), the J. Walter Kehoes, were Catholics. I wonder if, during this time, Emmett felt torn being around them on occasion.  Catholics were persona non grata at this point in Florida political history. Florida’s governor Sidney Catts, who ran on the Prohibition ticket, campaigned mightily against Catholics, and anti-Catholic sentiment was growing during this period in the United States. Yet, the Wilsons and the Kehoes were longtime friends, and trusted business partners.

I believe Emmett didn’t really care about the Kehoe’s Catholicism, even when he lived with them, broke bread with them daily. Emmett had to have bowed his head — and prayed along on occasion — as Walter or Jennie and their children said grace with each meal.

Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson, about 1865.

It wouldn’t have been a stretch: Emmett was Episcopalian, raised in Chipley, Florida by a mother who was devout and would spend Sundays singing hymns with her children at home when they were unable to travel to church for services (the closest Episcopal church was in Marianna). The Episcopalian prayers are almost identical to the Catholic prayers. Emmett was comfortable in the Kehoe household, regardless of brand.

When Emmett moved to Pensacola in 1906, he joined Christ Church (the same that his mother, grandfather, and uncle attended). His attendance was inconsistent, although he did give occasional financial support, and it was noted in The Pensacola Journal that he signed a parish petition to retain a minister.

It is near impossible to know what Emmett thought about God and religion; knowing Emmett, if he did have a strong faith in a higher power, he would have kept it, like his personal life, quiet. He was not demonstrative about these things, certainly not in public.

I like to think Emmett had some kind of ongoing, internal dialog with his Higher Power, but perhaps, he spent more time talking than listening — something else Emmett and I have in common.

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I’ve been putting edits into the first chapter of Emmett’s book this week, and it is going well, although it is a difficult process. The first chapter opens on Emmett as he lay dying of alcoholism in the San Carlos Hotel. It is a painful exercise recreating the end-stage alcoholic condition, its intensity, and its effect not only on Emmett, but on the Kehoe family, who obviously loved him as a son, and but could only helplessly stand by and wait for the end.

There was no Alcoholics Anonymous yet; treatment of the alcoholic was inconsistent and sporadic in most communities, and the general philosophy was to give the alcoholic drugs — which were often just as addictive. The general view was that drunks were mentally and spiritual decrepit — why else would they turn to outside substances to maintain their addictions?

So, it has been a tough 10 days — it is emotionally wrenching as I try to understand what it was like to struggle with alcoholism at a time when there weren’t many options? Emmett tried to stop at least twice — and he couldn’t do it, obviously. He needed help, and he was unable to get what he needed.

I know what it feels like to struggle with this disease; today, we have options, and programs, and (for the most part) more understanding about how to treat alcoholism. There are programs that work. One needn’t suffer alone — and that’s a foundation of AA — you are NEVER alone, and together, we can make it.

Ten years.

Yesterday, I picked up a 10 year chip. It may sound strange to say this: Sobriety hasn’t been easy, but it has been good, and the struggle is worth it.

Telling Emmett’s story is part of my program, you know. His story has helped me stay ‘on the beam’, and I often believe that doing this with Emmett is a way to help him close the circle, make amends. His message is still relevant, even 100 years after his death.