The time-worn slur that you can’t choose your relatives found no cynical endorsement in our house. In the matter of extra-family, known as kinfolks in Missouri, we children thought that we had been short-changed. Large families not only held no taint for us but we regarded them with admiration and envy. On circus days, when wagons driven by weathered parents transported collections of graduated youngsters sitting on hay in the backs of their vehicles, I looked yearningly at them and wished that we too, could have a new baby every Christmas.
Not only were we rationed on babies but on grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins as well. Father’s sisters, when they married, had settled in the lumber regions of Minnesota and Wisconsin, so they were an expensive mileage away. Mother’s sisters had remained in Ohio so only Uncle Dave – Mother’s younger brother – was within commuting distance. He had followed Mother to Missouri and lived with his wife and son on a farm in Clinton.
Uncle Dave was a pet and he made up for the loss of uncles and aunts, but even he could not compensate for the lack of grandparents. All our friends had at least one, and the books made it quite clear that grandparents were one of the most profitable perquisites children could have. They extricated them from scraps, paved their way with cookies and tasty edibles, and sent them presents and money for their banks when they were away. Other children always seemed surprised when we admitted that we were grandparentless and this shortage lost us considerable prestige.
It was this dearth of antecedent material that stimulated us to enlarge on the virtues and heroism of our redheaded uncle to our friends. Physically, Uncle Dave needed no magnifying for he tipped the scales at two hundred pounds plus, and both his shoes and hats had to be made to order. When the Civil War ended he was ill in a southern hospital, and it was nearly a year before he was able to return to the old home in Newark. His mother had long since given him over in her mind to the custody of the cemetery, and when a bearded man rapped at the door and she opened it, her keen eyes saw no likeness to the rosy boy in uniform she had bade God-speed.
It was our lurid account of his hair-raising escapes from the rebels that finally recovered for us the social standing we had lost through a shortage of kinfolks. Since he had fought for the Union, we had to be careful to choose a sympathetic northern audience when we rehearsed Uncle Dave’s heroics. In the ‘eighties’ the war was still being refought in the homes and on the streets of Springfield by northern and southern sympathizers. Sometimes irate men in heated argument cracked one another over the heads with walking sticks. Occasionally they took shots at one another, but the courts were lenient and there were few convictions for such infringements. We children did our best to refight the war also, and burbled of hats shot from Uncle Dave’s head and horses from under his body, of secret messages he had gulped down at moments of capture. He was first page news to us. We considered his running away to fight the rebels only slightly less important than Washington’s crossing the Delaware and his melodramatic escapes much more world-shaking. The pilgrimages he had made at the close of the war, to mothers of dead heroes, specially delivering locks of hair, photographs, and dying messages, crumpled us with emotion, and through the heroic haze which enveloped we saw wings sprouting from his massive shoulder blades.
When special celebrations of the Battle of Wilson Creek were staged each year in our town, Uncle Dave donned his uniform and boarded the train for Springfield. He never stayed long but his sojourns were ‘Events.’ He was hero number one, a romanticized Lone Ranger whose boots had to be hauled on and off with a bootjack. There was a fly in the ointment, however, two, in fact. His wife had to tie his necktie and he chewed tobacco. When we mentioned this last flaw to Mother deprecatingly she said:
“He learned it in the army, Dear.”
That was supposed to carry complete exoneration but it didn’t. The most charitable blackout could not erase such a vice to my satisfaction. I forgave him but wished with a holy zeal that he would trade his star plug for a beautifully colored Meerschaum pipe like Father’s.
Uncle Dave was a favorite with every one in our menage excepting Puss, our spoiled pony. Puss hauled him to town once and once for her was enough. After that, if he climbed into the buggy, she turned and gave him a dirty look and he balked like a Missouri mule. Such rudeness was not only incomprehensible, but wholly unforgivable to us children. The flavor of Uncle Dave’s visits was further enhanced by silver dollars, which he gave us as he departed. A round of story telling finished off the visit to our satisfaction while we sat glued to hassocks or his knees. Somewhere in the unravelling there was sure to be a ‘blue-stocking pulpit pounder’ (his compound for a Presbyterian minister) and when the climax was reached, the villain would be left on the sidelines ‘jist as dead’ as Julius Caesar.
When the celebration had passed and we watched his soldierly figure out of sight, we focused attention on his service to his country and how to spend the silver dollars and forgot the disturbing plug of tobacco ornamented with bright stars.