Col. George K. Roberts
Department of the Army
December 30, 1918
An update – I signed my union card last Friday, and will begin work on Thursday. I have been meeting friends and coworkers in the town and have not heard any more than the usual grumblings about safety concerns.
The union is holding its first meeting of the new year one week from tonight.
I think it best if the government withholds any extra compensation for this assignment. I have not told my wife, as it would upset her greatly. Any indication that I was prospering beyond my wage would instantly draw suspicion to myself; I have even taken the precaution of mailing this letter from a nearby town.
If your supervisors wish to reward me in some way, they might see that my daughter receives a college education when the time comes.
E. R. Jarrell
Racine, West Virginia
Saturday, June 18
The rest of the family arrived Friday evening – Dennis’s oldest son, Will, and his girlfriend Hannah; Dennis’s second son, Henry, and his wife Betsy; and Doug’s daughters Shana, Lindsey and Carly and their spouses. They stopped at the house before going to their hotel in town, and we stayed up late, talking and catching up with each other.
I woke to find sunlight streaming through the slats of the blinds in the family room and heard voices outside. Pete was already gone, his pillow and blanket neatly stacked on the corner of the sectional by my head. I crutched to the bathroom then the kitchen, where I could see Henry, Will, Jeff, and Kevin setting up tables in the back yard under Toni’s direction.
Pete was in the kitchen, talking to Val and Kristen. When he saw me he said, “You’re getting pretty good at using those.”
“Gee, thanks. Will you bring some clothes downstairs for me?”
“You bet.” He gave me a salacious look. “I’ll assist in the shower, too.”
Van and Kristen laughed. I said, “Yeah, I bet you will.”
He grinned and headed for the stairs.
Once we were in the shower, Pete didn’t waste any time. He backed me against the wall opposite the spray and started kissing me. I kissed back then broke away. “I hate to spoil this potentially romantic moment, but I can’t stand on one foot for ten minutes.”
He sighed and stepped back. “Yeah, okay. It’s just – we haven’t had a minute alone together since we’ve been here. And we’ve been here for a week.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s that old woman’s fault for stepping on you.”
“She couldn’t help it.”
“I know. I’m just grousing.” Pete began to lather up. “Want me to wash your hair?”
“Nah, I’ll do it.” I dunked my head under the spray and poured a dollop of shampoo, balancing myself on my left foot with the sole of my right foot lightly resting on the shower wall.
Pete said, “You used to have family reunions like this every year?”
“When we were kids, yeah.”
There was something in Pete’s tone… I said, “Are you feeling overwhelmed?”
“Nah. Well, a little.”
I patted his cheek. “I know we’re a big, noisy group. I’m sorry. And I haven’t seen Shana for eight years. We had some catching up to do.”
“Oh, I know. It’s not that, exactly.” Pete slipped behind me and held my hips for balance while I rinsed my hair.
“What is it, then?”
“Everyone’s been fussing over you. Your aunts have been waiting on you hand and foot. That’s my job.”
I pushed my wet hair out of my face, carefully turned, and kissed Pete. “Aw, Sweet Pete. Toni and Linda are Southern women. You’re gonna have to assert your rights.”
He chuckled. “Okay. I will.”
Showered, dressed, and my ankle re-wrapped, Pete and I returned to the kitchen. Val, Kristen, and my girl cousins were all at the table, talking to Dad. The conversation stopped when we entered the room. Dad asked, “Do you guys want French toast? Or I can pour you a bowl of cereal.”
I looked around; the kitchen was scrupulously clean. “Cereal’s fine.”
Pete said, “Dave, sit still. I’ll get it.”
I smiled to myself and maneuvered into a seat at the table. “What are y’all talking about?”
Lindsey looked guilty. Carly said innocently, “Nothing. Just catching up with Uncle Dave.”
“Right. Why don’t I believe you?”
Shana said, “Because you know Carly well.”
Everyone laughed. Val said, “We’d better see if Toni needs any help.”
The women scattered. Pete sat down beside me and began to eat. I gave Dad the stink eye. “What were you talking about?”
He grimaced. “My love life. Or lack thereof, to be precise.”
He stood up and pushed his chair in. “And I’m going to the cemetery this morning while Toni has all hands on deck. I’ll be back in a little while.”
“Okay.” I watched him go, thinking, Hm.
Toni was clearly experienced at entertaining. She handled the preparations for the Lowcountry boil like a drill sergeant. Even Sarge, the career drill sergeant, was impressed. After the tables were set up she chased the males out of the kitchen. She put Linda, Carly, and Val in charge of food, and sent Kevin and Jeff to procure alcoholic beverages.
Pete and I ended up in the family room with my grandfather. He laid aside the newspaper. “Ready for another round of reminiscing?”
“Yes, sir. But can I ask you about something else today?”
“My other grandparents. The Colemans. What do you know about them?”
“Mm.” Sarge looked at the ceiling. “Your granddad’s name was Harold, but he went by Hal. He was an accountant.”
“Was he in World War Two?”
“No. He worked for a chemical company which was considered necessary to the war effort, so he kept his job. Besides, he was nearly thirty when the war started, and already married.”
“Did you and he get along?”
“Eventually. At first he didn’t care much for Dave, and I didn’t care much for that.” Sarge grinned. “But he came around. Your grandmother never did.”
“Yeah. She was a snotty so and so. Ridiculous for someone from a hick coal town.”
Pete muttered, “Sounds familiar.” His own mother had been a nasty bitch from a hick desert town.
I asked, “How did she raise an awesome person like Mom?”
“Thanks to the Colemans, mostly. Hal grew up on a farm, on the Ohio side of the Ohio River, near a town called Gallipolis. A couple of his brothers still had the farm, and Julie spent a lot of time up there, summers and weekends.” Sarge nodded, reminiscing. “The Colemans were okay. Hal wasn’t a bad guy, but Caroline ran the show.”
“Dad said Mom looked like her.”
“Yeah, Julie favored Caroline. Hal was blond and blue-eyed. Julie had more of his personality, although not entirely. She was her own person.” He smiled. “If your mom had been around, she and Kevin would have butted heads when y’all were teenagers. He is so much like her.”
Pete chuckled at that. I said, “Was she not close to her parents?”
“She and her dad got along fine. Her mother – no. I remember Julie saying once that she loved her mother, but she didn’t like her.”
“Mom wouldn’t have wanted her parents to raise us.”
“That would have been the last thing she wanted.”
“Was there ever a chance of that?”
“Hell, no. No judge would take two toddlers and a baby away from their dad and give them to folks who were nearly seventy.”
Pete asked, “What happened?”
“After the funeral Caroline offered to raise the boys, and Dave sent her packing. A couple of months later she came back to town with a lawyer, who saw our situation and told Caroline he wouldn’t represent her. By the time she found someone who would take the case, it had been a year and a half since the accident, and we were making it work just fine. They called us to come to mediation, and they wanted us to bring you three. I’m carrying you, Dave’s carrying Kevin and has Jeff by the hand. We get into the conference room, and Caroline jumps to her feet and charges Jeff, saying, ‘Oh, you poor thing, come to Grandmother,’ or something like that, and Jeff screams bloody murder. She tries to pick him up and he won’t let go of Dave’s leg, and he won’t stop screaming. Then you start to cry.” Sarge chuckled. “Quite a scene.”
I asked, “Did Jeff ever calm down?”
“Not for a while. Caroline’s lawyer tells her, ‘You said you were close to these kids. This doesn’t look close to me.’ Caroline’s trying to BS the lawyer, Hal’s over in the corner looking miserable, and all the time Jeff’s screaming his head off and you’re crying. Finally Dave sets Kevin down and picks Jeff up and gets him to calm down. The mediator points at Caroline and asks Jeff, ‘Who’s this?’ Jeff was five by then, remember. He says, ‘I don’t know.’ The mediator says, ‘You don’t know this lady?’ Jeff says, ‘NO. And I don’t LIKE her.’”
I laughed. Pete said, “Good for Jeff.”
“Then while Caroline’s arguing with Hal and her lawyer, we hear a clattering sound. We look around, and Kevin’s gotten Caroline’s purse and dumped it upside down on the floor, and he’s sorting through it all. Caroline screeches and yanks Kevin by the arm, hard, and smacks his butt. Kev yells, ‘Ow!’ and hauls off and headbutts Caroline in the knees. Then she slaps him.” All these years later, Sarge was still outraged. “Kev didn’t know what to do. He’d never been treated like that. Dave and I would swat his butt occasionally, but we’d never jerked him around or slapped him.”
“Dad must have been furious at Caroline.”
“Beyond furious. He told her he was going to have her arrested for child abuse, for hitting Kev and nearly yanking his arm out of its socket. Then the mediator said there wasn’t any point in going on. Based on what he’d seen, Caroline wasn’t a fit parent for anyone, much less three active boys who didn’t even recognize her, and he was going to write a report that he would never recommend any level of custody or unsupervised visitation. He said, ‘We’re done here. Sgt. Brodie, you can take your children home.’ Then he left. We gathered you guys up and followed him out.”
“I wonder if Jeff remembers that?”
“He does. We’ve talked about it.”
“Wow. How did Mom come from someone like that?”
Pete said, “How did Tanner come from your aunt and uncle? Kids come with their own personalities. Some kids turn out for better or worse in spite of their parents, not because of them.”
“So how was it that they came to South Carolina to see us? I know that happened a couple of times.”
Sarge said, “First time, you guys were around six, seven and eight. Caroline had written to Dave, asking to see you. He and I talked about it, and decided it would be okay if they came to Beaufort while the whole family was there. They came down with another couple; they’d been on vacation to Myrtle Beach. When they got out of the car you kids were playing in the back yard – you three, Will and Henry, and Doug’s girls. Jeff saw Caroline and ran in the house. He locked himself in the bathroom and wouldn’t come out until they left.”
“He remembered, all right.”
“Hell yeah. You and Kevin ignored them. You didn’t have any idea who they were, of course.”
“Kevin didn’t remember getting slapped?”
“He’d forgotten it by then. We sat on the back porch and let them watch you guys play. I guess Caroline had been filling her friend’s ears with tales about how neglected you were. We’d been sitting there for a while and the friend said to Caroline, ‘What did you mean by what you said on the way down here? Because these boys look as healthy and happy as they come.’ Caroline got all red and said they had to go.”
I laughed. “Caroline was a piece of work.”
“Yep. You probably remember the next time you saw them. The last time.”
“I remember you throwing them off the property. I didn’t remember why, but Jeff told me.”
Sarge shook his head. “She was persistent, I’ll give her that.”
“Do you have any idea what they died from?”
“Hal had a stroke. He was a smoker, like your Gramma Brodie. We got a note and a clipping of his obituary from one of his brothers. He was 81. Caroline passed about a year later, from some kind of female cancer. We got another note from Hal’s brother, and he sent us a bunch of pictures that Hal and Caroline had left – some that we’d sent them over the years of you guys, and some of Julie as a kid. Your dad has all that somewhere, I reckon.”
“Thanks, Grampa. So far I’m not having much luck finding out anything about the Jarrells.”
He smiled sympathetically. “A family’s easier to trace when it’s got a castle to its name, I guess.”