One of the first things I remember learning about my extended family was the story of my cousin Bonnie. She was the daughter of my father’s sister Evelyn and her husband, Wes. They lived in Hamilton, Illinois, the town where my father and all of his siblings were born and the town where they all grew up. Wes was my father’s best friend in high school, and it was natural that he and Evelyn fell in love and married. My father left Hamilton for Tucson, Arizona, after he graduated from high school in 1936. It was the depth of the Great Depression and no one in his family had a job. One of my father’s uncles was living in Arizona, and he said he could find my father a job if he came to Tucson. My father made the trip, got a job, and the rest of the family soon followed. Except for Evelyn, who stayed in Hamilton to marry Wes in 1939. In 1941, they had a daughter they named Bonnie Jean. This is the only picture I have of Bonnie.
I don’t know much about Wes and Evelyn’s lives in the early years of their marriage. Although Wes registered for the draft in 1940, there is no indication that he served in the military until late in the war, in 1945. The details on Bonnie’s death certificate, coupled with the stories I heard about Bonnie, may explain this.
Bonnie’s death certificate says she died as the result of congenital heart disease and other congenital “malformations.” The symptoms my parents described to me relating to Bonnie sound like what we would now call some form of hydrocephaly and the resulting impairments to her growth and development. She lived to be nine years old, but had lost (or possibly never had – I’m not sure which) the ability to walk or even to sit up on her own. My parents described Wes pushing Bonnie along on a tricycle, with her resting her head on the handlebars because she could no longer hold her head up.
My cousin Cathy gave me more information about Bonnie. This is what she wrote to me today:
One thing to note about Bonnie is that she was very smart. She even would help my dad with his homework when they were together and had great conversations. I don’t think it was hydrocephalus. The death certificate is hard to read, but I think it might say malformation of the pituitary, which might make sense. Mom says that there was talk about the spleen, but she doesn’t remember particulars. But, the thing to memorialize is that she apparently was a very smart, talkative little girl. Aunt Ev and Uncle Wes came to Arizona several times, even bringing another couple once — who we also knew from Hamilton — to stay with my mom and my stepfather Jerry. Mom and Jerry also stayed with them in Hamilton during a road trip. They always remained family. My dad and Aunt Evelyn also talked weekly on the phone, which made me happy.
Within a year or so after Bonnie died, Wes and Evelyn came to visit my family in Virginia. My older brother was 7 or 8 years old, and I was 3 or 4. I don’t remember this visit, but my parents told me that Wes and I quickly bonded. To Wes, I was the little girl who could do all the things that Bonnie had never been able to do, and I reacted positively to someone who thought I was wonderful. [My cousin Cathy’s comments make me realize that Bonnie had been able to do lots of things before she died. I didn’t realize this.]
Wes and Evelyn were heartbroken when Bonnie died, as you can imagine. Evelyn told how she fixed Bonnie’s hair after Bonnie’s death, saying she didn’t want to let anyone else touch her. After Bonnie died, Wes and Evelyn thought about having another child, and Evelyn’s doctor told them that there was no reason to anticipate that a second child would be born with the problems that Bonnie had. But they decided against having another child, because they couldn’t imagine facing the prospect of losing another child.
We and Evelyn continued to live in their home in Hamilton – Evelyn worked for the Post Office and Wes held a number of jobs in local industries. In the 1980s, they decided to move to a new home “outside of town” – about five blocks from their long-time residence. When they settled in their new home, Wes went out to stand in their front yard on the first day they lived there. Looking around, he commented to Evelyn, “We can see Bonnie’s grave from here.” Wes visited Bonnie’s grave every Sunday for decades.
Bonnie’s death certificate tells one more story. The informant is Chloe Harding, Wes’s mother. I conclude from this that neither Wes nor Evelyn were in any condition to provide information about Bonnie’s death.
Wes died in 2007 and Evelyn died in 2012. They lived fairly quirky lives, as I remember my mother telling me. Wes didn’t trust banks, so he stashed money all over the house – in mattresses, under floorboards, and behind walls. After he died, Evelyn was always worried about throwing anything out, because she never knew if Wes had stashed money there. They always went to bed early – like, 7:00 at night – and got up before dawn, sometimes roaming the house at night. Wes was fastidious about his lawn – it had to be mowed at just the right angle. After he got too old to mow the lawn himself, he fussed at the people he hired to do it until they got it right. They used one bay of their two-car garage as an outdoor living space — they put down indoor/outdoor carpeting and furnished it with patio furniture. The rest of the interior was still a garage — open walls with visible studs, garage shelving and lighting.
In her last years, Evelyn developed a pretty bad tremor in her arms. This was a familial tremor – my father had it, my brother had it, I have it, and my daughter has it. Evelyn found that drinking wine helped calm her tremor, so she routinely drank several glasses of wine as she cooked dinner. The resulting dinners were sometimes interesting, I’m told. She loved coffee (which may have had an effect on her tremor), and she drank it through a straw when her tremor worsened.
I know that people who don’t have children can be very happy. I know that people who lose children can go on to have productive and happy lives as well. But I think Wes and Evelyn were broken by Bonnie’s death. Their graves flank Bonnie’s in Hamilton’s Oakwood Cemetery, and their grave markers identify them as “Mother” and “Father.”
I’ve known this story for a long time, and I’ve written about it often. It still brings me to tears.