Next spring marks the fifteenth anniversary of the death of John I, a second cousin whose middle initial stood for nothing, like the "S" in "Harry S Truman." I've been thinking about him of late, talking to others about him, reminded all over again how much I miss John, what an under-valued treasure he was.
John had a memory that, once it held a piece of information, never let go. When he hadn't seen my sister in ten years, during which time she grew out of early adolescence to become a married woman with three kids, she challenged him at a family reunion: "You don't know who I am, do you John?"
He looked my sister over and said, "Well, on the fifteenth of April in nineteen and fifty three your mother had a little girl," and went on to tell Sis how much she'd weighed at birth, what time of day she came into the world, other details of her arrival. And finished with "Your mother decided to name her little girl Joy. And here you are."
Birth dates weren't all John remembered; I came to appreciate his other recollections far more than simple dates. In my middle twenties I had serious troubles with alcohol, and my first trip home after finding something in the way of resolution for those miseries was for "Decoration Day." Me and my guilt rode along when Pop carried John to the graves he wanted to visit.
There's a great high oak twenty or so yards from the house where one uncle lived. Under the tree is not cemetery, but Uncle George asked to be laid away there, and so he was. Standing beside that uncommon final resting place John looked from me to the homemade head- and foot- stones and confided, "You know, whiskey's taken an awful toll on our family."
"Say what?" I asked, without a clue as to the well kept secrets an old man was about to expose.
"Oh it's killed a mess of us." A dreamy look, the sign John was dredging up distant memories, softened his aging eyes.
"Like who?" I said. Reactions of my folks and their siblings to those of us who'd grown up "bad to drink" suggested my generation was the first in all our family history to explore alcohol and other recreational intoxicants.
Pausing to arrange his thoughts, John delivered a five or six minute account of blood kin who lived hard, even died, figuratively swimming a sea of whiskey. I knew one of my father's older brothers died crank-starting a Model-T engine attached to a grist mill, injured internally when the motor "kicked," driving the crank handle hard into his belly. No one before John ever mentioned the man was staggering drunk, that another brother and several cousins tried to get him to leave the machine alone. I don't recall how many names were included in John's sad litany, but they all had intimate relationships with liquor I'd never imagined.
Somewhere in his recitation I glanced at my father, whose eyes were fixed where he moved dust around with the toe of one shoe. When Pop looked up, I read in his face he would have never delivered this old news. I couldn't help smiling, and turned back to John, who seemed near the end of telling how grievously alcohol beat us up decades before me or my cousins were born.
The old man paused, took a long breath. "And on your mother's side..." he began again.
Later on, John let me know my generation wasn't the first to discover premarital sex either. Even in the old days "love children" were a consequence of such behavior, including a wonderful old man whose relation to our family I'd never understood until John explained it... Seems in the years before he met grandma, my paternal grandfather knew a lady up in Cincinnati.
Knew her Biblically...
Then brought home and raised the son who was a product of that knowledge.
I came to know which aunts were pregnant when they married, though some still don't know I know. John told which uncles were "bad to fight" and who among them carried personal awareness of what lay behind the iron doors of the old County Jail.
John was a wonder, a well of information freely offered just because I was family.
Until I asked about the Driscoll House...
It's a marvel of a place, just over the county line, and lately it's for sale. The property won't come cheap, but it includes an income producing trailer park. If you've got the money, everything's there to create a memorable bed-and-breakfast. Cousin Fred deals in real estate so anyone seriously interested can let me know and I'll have him tell you all about the deal.
Fred called a while back, said he'd been offered a tour of the Driscoll House in advance of its going on the market. When he asked if he might bring along a reasonably well behaved cousin, the lady organizing exposure of the house to real estate agents said that oughtn't be a problem. One recent Saturday I walked through rooms which loom large in family stories.
The Driscoll House was, in the thirties, the sort of "house" where every bedroom had (still has, for that matter) its own sink, conveniently near the bed. My father talks about being there as a small boy. After delivering a load of timber, with a few dollars in their overalls, Pop's older brothers and cousins sometimes stopped on their way home. Pop had no idea what was going on, but the sweet smelling women, more beautiful than anything on Holly Fork, coaxed him off the mule-drawn wagon with candy, while one-by-one in turn his brothers and cousins disappeared inside for a time.
There's one tale about the house whose entirety I'll perhaps never know. Twenty years ago Pop reminisced about "the best looking redheaded woman I ever saw," said she and John might have had "a serious thing going." There was talk they might even get married, until a man running the "house" stabbed her to death. There was speculation she'd been carrying my cousin's baby at the end.
Supposedly, the man who cut her was murdered himself, though no one was ever arrested, let alone came to trial.
A couple of years before John died, I asked about the redhead. For once, a man happy to tell secrets in which family - - including himself - - played embarrassing roles, the man who told me things aunts and uncles don't know I know, the man famous for "telling it all" had almost nothing to say about "that redheaded woman." Later, the little John did say, leavened with imagination, became a short story published in a Syracuse-based literary quarterly a few years ago.
Once a week Cousin Fred and I drink a beer together, most often at my kitchen table or beside a truck parked by the cemetery where John I's buried. Lately we've speculated about him and that so far nameless redhead, wondered which kin, reference book or brittle yellow newspaper pages might yield answers.
We're not sure, not yet. Nearly all John's peers are dead. An old man who might know something is deaf, and if you ask him about one thing you'll likely hear a long, fascinating narration about any number of events and people completely unrelated to the question.
I don't know where or what the answer is, when or if me and Fred will find it.
That's why I can't get all that interested in genealogy. People on both sides of my family can tell me where and when certain seventeenth century someones were born or buried.
But I can't find a soul to give me even the name of a beautiful woman whose red hair yet shimmers in memories of those met her as children, a lady gone longer than I've been alive, still talked about by men who saw her.