12 August 2012

Theophilus and Ralph: I

Ralph Moore Shelton Sr.'s military-issue New Testament

A note from a friend reminded me that this blog has not been updated in approximately forever.  It’s been one of those assignments subjected to a rigorous program of deferred maintenance. In 10 words: travel, life, work, nothing wrong, everything hectic, deadlines whooshing by. In a few more: drought, fires, good friends in town, good friends across the country. We put 4000 miles on the van during the first two weeks of June, an adventure that still needs to be documented once the statute of limitations elapses....

There has been a breakthrough (maybe) on the family history front. That’s as good a place as any to start for a catch-up post.

When I started this project, it was for my father as much as anything. I’ve gone through my whole life to date telling people that, no, I don’t know any Shelton relatives outside my immediate family of origin and my father’s parents.

My mother’s family and my paternal grandmother’s family were people I could understand. They talked to children, usually nicely. They were involved in the world. The relatives I knew and grew up with were a hugely varied lot, from the last gasps of the Deep South/East Texas would-be aristocracy to hard-scrabble homesteaders and half-dugout dwellers.  

My paternal grandfather, Ralph Sr., was the silent man, not silent in a strong way, but silent in a deeply withdrawn way. I doubt that I heard him say more than 20 words in my lifetime. My father is an only child, and left home for good when he left for college. My grandfather’s silence was deep and irrevocable.

I knew he had relatives whom he never saw. The story from my grandmother was that, when he left to fight in World War I, his family decided that he was not coming back, so they sold his things and cashed his checks as they came in. I have no way of checking the truth of this, but it is certain that he had almost no contact with his family once he returned. He went to Detroit to train as a mechanic, then returned to Dallas for the rest of his life. His orbit grew ever smaller. By the time I came along, he was apparently locked into the silence.

I’m a poster child for oldest sibling syndrome. I take responsibility for everything, and every time something goes wrong, I assume it’s my fault. My grandfather’s silence was puzzling and uncomfortable. I always thought that he didn't like me. Or children. Or my family. Or all of the above. Since I didn't know what I had done wrong or how to make things better, I tended to edge away from him. I wish now that I hadn't. 

We visited my Shelton grandparents a couple of times a year or so. My grandmother always had places for us to go and people for us to visit, so we didn't sit around the house very much. On one of these visits, when my brother was perhaps 4 years old, my father overheard something amazing. My grandfather was telling my brother about the battle in the Argonne, and how only two or three of them came back, and then had to go out again the next day. That’s all my father heard, and my grandfather stopped talking after that.

That’s all we knew. All we know. 

Next: Theophilus. 

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