Sunday, October 24, 2010
Uncle H - The Beginning
Recently I received an email from my Uncle H. Attached to the email was his memoir. I was anxious to read these pages and peer deeper into the heart of my Uncle. I did not tell him I had a selfish reason for wanting to read his story but I did. I knew he had gone through several tragedies during his life and I was curious how those experiences had impacted him. His story did not give all the details I had hoped for but when the story was read in its entirety, the composite of the man shouted volumes to me about the man’s integrity and my respect for him grew. It is my hope to give you a bird’s eye view of this man and I also hope his story inspires you as it did me.
Uncle H had a rough go starting out. He came into this world in 1936. At the young age of two, child number ten, he watched helpless as his family fragmented. His father left the home abandoning the family after siring child number eleven. I don’t know all the reasons the marriage failed but repeated infidelity was certainly a big part of the break up. At the time the family was a member of a conservative Mennonite community. For the time, 1938, a failed marriage was rare and even rarer in the strict Mennonite community. Great shame was attached to the family and all in the community knew something dreadful had gone wrong. Every quilting bee, every met up in the market or at the feed store released gossip and suspected evils were soon turned into truths real or not. The cloud of inward and outward shame hovered over the family. Little Uncle H, recalls being referred to as, “Oh, you are from that broken home.”
In today’s society where divorce is said to touch every extended family and occurs in one of every two homes; the tendency is to often gloss over and minimize the individual significance and the accompanying damage. We humans are interesting that way, we quickly attach more significance if something is rare but if the rare becomes common we tend to discount the damage both to the individuals affected and to our society as a whole. The cost to my Uncle was significant. He states in his writings that he never once in his life ever received a single correspondence from his father. I am not totally clear how this loss affected my Uncle but it is clear the loss carried with it obstacles. As I read his memoir the theme I kept reading was he overcame. This became a poignant trait throughout his life and maybe it is what I admire most about him. One thing is for certain, the man he became was great, nothing like his father.
In a family of eleven children I suppose it would be easy to lose track of a child now and then. My Uncle’s own words illustrate this best. “I don’t know how old I was, but I was pretty young. After church one Sunday evening I found myself alone at church and all the rest of the family had gone home. Mom had gathered her brood and gone home without me. There were so many in the family that no one even knew I was missing. I had to walk the two miles home from church in the dark. Needless to say, I was an unhappy camper. They were all eating pop corn and having a high old time. Until I came in, I hadn’t even been missed.”
The absent father did not send any monies to help support the large family and to say they were poor would be an understatement. Uncle H being the youngest boy was way down the list for hand me downs. At times his britches had more patches then pants. My Grandma was a master at stretching clothes.
Bath time was also an interesting affair and you got a bath once a week whether you needed one or not. Again my Uncles own words: ‘Every Saturday night we had to take our bath. I guess to be cleaned up for church the next day. We had a wash tub that was placed in the kitchen and Mom would heat water on the stove to pour into the tub. I remember one time Mom told me to get into the kitchen and take my bath and I really didn’t want to. It was mandatory, so I went in and just stuck my feet in the water and swished them around. When I came out, Mom said there was no way I could have taken a bath that fast. She said she would go check the water. When she came back she said, “well, I guess you did, the water is dirty enough.” Creativity is a strength my Uncle employed his whole life and you can see he came by the trait early.
To make ends meet all were expected to help out. There were many hours of working the family garden, caring for the chickens, and many other duties that Uncle H did at a very young age. The mother, my grandma, was vigilant in finding work for her boys and at the end of my Uncle’s third grade year, Grandma found him work driving a tractor. Uncle H was too small to reach the brake so he had to jump off the seat when he needed to brake. The gas was a manual throttle and employed a hand clutch, thus my uncle was able to do the work.
Today this could never happen because of child labor laws. But, the life my uncle experienced somehow grew him into a man of high integrity and I believe it was in no small part to these early lessons of hard work and doing his part to help his family.
To be continued….