The year was 1916 and the world was at war. But all of this seemed a million miles away on that April day when Emmie Nelson gave birth to a baby boy, her first. She named him Leo Samuel. The Samuel was after his daddy. Eventually he and his older sister Glennie would be joined by 3 more brothers, Lonnie, Lloyd and Lester, and a baby sister, Anna Mae. He would spend most of the next 98 years in this hilly little corner of east Tennessee known as Catoosa. And I would have the great good fortune to be his granddaughter.
When Grandpa was a little boy going to the three room school, Catoosa was a thriving railroad town with a depot and a store. Later, when the trains stopped coming, the government would buy up most of the surrounding land for the Catoosa wildlife management area. Grandpa’s family would be among the few who refused to sell. Their little world became an island in the middle of wilderness. A magical place for growing up with hillsides cloaked in mountain laurel, deep cold swimming holes, a frenzy of fireflies, and a broad sky littered with stars.
He tells me about school. About the primer he received as a first year student. On the first page was one dog, on the second two cats. The third page had three rabbits, then four yellow ducks, and five baby chicks. I try to remember the pictures in any of my school books. My brother asks him if he ever got in trouble. He had only two switchings, he says; remarkable, for this teacher of theirs was generous with the switch. Once he got in trouble for rough-housing in the school room while the teacher went home to get her lunch. The other time, his younger brother Lloyd was to be switched because he had not learned some words assigned to him. When he began to cry, Grandpa couldn’t take it. He told the teacher to whip him instead. This does not surprise me at all.
My Grandpa is the archivist of the family. Partly because, at 98, his memory seems to be better than any of ours. Partly because the stories and the people are so important to him. In his mind they still live and breathe. And in his stories, they live and breathe for us.
He tells about a relation of ours who was about to be hung by the Union army for giving aid to Confederate soldiers. He already had the noose around his neck when he was saved at the last minute by the testimony of Union soldiers who had also been cared for by him.
He tells of a great, great grandmother Zumstein who came over from Germany. They ran out of food on the ship before reaching America, and there was serious talk of cannibalism. So far as we know, it was only ever talk.
He points to the faces in faded sepia portraits and gives their names, whose son or daughter they were, who they married, and the names of all their children. He tells of another ancestor who had left his family in North Carolina to try his luck out west. He and his young bride decided it was not for them and began the long journey back home. They lost a wagon wheel in a river crossing near Crossville, TN. That night, she gave birth to their first child. Unable to go on, they settled down and made a home where fate had dumped them.
I don’t know when it became so important to him to live to be 100, but it is. I suppose it just seems wrong to have come this far and not finish. He tells me that if his body were as fit as his mind, he might well live another 98 years. I do not doubt him. His voice grows quiet and his face clouds as he tells me, “I only wish your grandma could have had as many years as me.” He misses her so.
Their loving was not a frilly affair. It was lived out in a thousand daily kindnesses. In pre-dawn trips to the barn together to milk the cows. In warm breakfasts. In the silent sitting on the porch and this invisible something that passed between them there. In the stories and years, the griefs and joys that had irrevocably bound them together, body and soul. In talking over each other, in filling in the blanks, in picking up a sentence where the other left off.
That love flowed out from them into their prodigious progeny. Five children, seven grandchildren, fifteen great-grandchildren, and one great, great grandchild (with another due in October). We all still crave being together, that invisible web they spun around and among us tethering us no matter how far away we may be.
On Saturday we gathered to celebrate the extraordinary life of this ordinary, extraordinary man. His baby sister drove down from Ohio with her daughters. They two are the only siblings still living. Friends and family told stories and ate and laughed. The great grandkids roamed the hills and the pastures and climbed trees and found hiding places just like their parents before them.
Happiest of Birthdays, Grandpa! I am grateful to be part of a world with you in it. Thank you for the stories and the hugs. For always remembering my children’s names. And mine. For providing us such a grand legacy of quiet, tenacious love and for helping us understand where we come from. Certainly, your quiver is full of years already, but I look forward to celebrating the century mark with you in 2016. I love you.
Top: Grandpa with his 5 children, from left, Benny, Wanda, Diana, Janie, Martha
Middle: The dashing groom and his beautiful bride.
Bottom: With (clockwise)… baby sister Anna Mae, the youngest of the great grandbabies, Sophia Rose–97 years his junior and utterly enthralled :)–, yours truly, and Kelsey.