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.

 

Chapter 33: A force to be reckoned with

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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.”