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….


Debra said...

I just love reading biographies and truly enjoyed reading about your uncle. It is wonderful that he has taken the time to write his memoir. Can't wait to read chapter two!

Arkansas Patti said...

I am loving this story and was so relieved to see
"to be continued".
In this day of plenty for most, though some are suffering painfully from the recession, it is good to be reminded that people can and do survive hard times.

I found your words "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..." so very and sadly true.
Love this post.

Wanda..... said...

Except for the broken home...your uncle's life and stories remind me of my grandmother's and her 10 siblings raised in the hills of Viginia! Wonderful Read!!!

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Pat said...

I loved reading this, a true story of triumph, and I can't wait to read the next installment. It reminds me of my own Dad's humble beginnings, but he was forturnate enough to belong to a home with both parents.
Uncle H. is a very interesting man!

Unknown said...

This is wonderful, to see life from another's perspective, even though a long time ago. I have some students from broken families in my classes and I am always perplexed... why are they acting like thus and thus.
Not enough love and attention; my observation.

Sylvia K said...

It's good to see your post and I'm not sure how I missed it earlier, but it's very moving and I look forward to reading more. Thank you for sharing.


Grayquill said...

Debra: Thank you for the encouraging words – you are the best! I will do my best to keep them coming timely.

Arkansas Patti: I hadn’t thought of it from that angle. Thank you for showing up and thanks for you kind words. I appreciate you.

Wanda: Thank you – very kind. Grandma was one of 10? That’s two handfuls.

Old Geezer - Ron: Thanks for dropping by

Pat: Thank you for reading my blog, I am happy you enjoyed it. Are you going to tell me more about Dad?

Shadow: You’re a teacher? Who woulda thunk? What do you teach?

Sylvia: I am always grateful when you stop by – you have no shortage of blogs to spread your time between – I feel honored. Thank you! and thank for the encouragement!

Anita Jeyan said...

Perhaps such big family experiences and negligence in early childhood made the older generations so much different from us. Different in a good way.Patience is one virtue which comes with it.
waiting for part 2 :)

Anonymous said...

I got transported to a different time. Place. It felt like reading one of those engrossing books were you can picturise everything. Thanks for sharing this one GQ.

Unknown said...

??? I thought you already knew. I teach Science and Physics.

Grayquill said...

Anita: Patience, yes, that is a good description. Others I like are determination, diligence, strong character…
Thanks for the comment – yours are always thoughtful.

Choco: Thank you! That is a real compliment!

Shadow: That makes total sense, except scientist = facts, sterile, no emotion, no imagination. Whereas writer = emotion, feelings, imagination. You are complex.
Every time I hear the word Physics I think of the man who said to me about his wife. She is really smart she can explain in detail all the laws of thermodynamics but when her car starts to skid, it still hits the tree. That I think is the difference between possessing information versus knowledge or maybe wisdom.

Dianne said...

I really enjoyed reading this

I agree with your insight into how the effects of things become glossed over when they happen often, or become the norm
I suppose it's human nature

looking forward to more about Uncle H

Hope sends you a hug

Frank Baron said...

Count me among those who enjoy stories from a previous generation (both the listening/reading and the telling).

I well remember the Saturday night baths in our house. Six of us kids would be in the tub at the same time -- getting spiffed up for church the next morning.

Your uncle sounds like a salt-of-the-earth type, my kind of people. My kin were farmers too. When life got tough, they put their heads down and worked harder, longer. Hard times can embitter some but they simply became stronger for it.

Thanks for passing along his story, GQ. Looking forward to more.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

I must be very lucky for in my early years I too had to bathe in a tub in an all purpose room, the only one that had heat. We also had chickens to tend and everyone helped out. Then in 1954 we came to Toronto Canada and though we lived in a tiny one bedroom furnished apt life began to improve. I understood hard work. In retirement years now I am able to enjoy he life I strived for. Not so sure that my kids will work as hard or even get a chance to. Much has changed.