07 July 2010

Uncle Johnnie

The Madisons, late 1940s
Standing: Dean Walters, Chuck Wallace, Anne Wallace, Dayrle Crabb, Loey, Johnnie, Dad
Seated: John V. Madison, Sr.; Kay Crabb, Louise Walters, Anna Madison, Abraham Beard
I dare not attempt to identify the children!

My father’s brother will be buried this afternoon; he passed away on Monday, at the age of 85. When I was a boy, we were very close: his family and ours lived in the same town, and we sometimes took trips together. For the rest of my life, the smell of pipe tobacco will recall comfort and strength, because there was always a cloud of it around my Uncle Johnnie.

But I realize that I haven’t seen him in a decade (long after he stopped smoking), and it’s been nearly as long since I got one of those exciting libertarian rants he used to churn out by e-mail for the edification of everyone he knew, including his upstart socialist nephew in the People’s Republic of Manhattan. In later years, Johnnie did develop the capacity to behave like a bit of a crank. But he seldom exploited that capacity to its fullest, and besides, he’d earned the right — by serving his country in time of war, which is more than I ever did.

Johnnie was a Seabee in World War II, and after the war he came home and married his childhood sweetheart, Lois, remaining by her side until now. These are two of the most extraordinary things anyone I know has done: I have no idea how he managed either feat. How does one join the Navy in wartime — without ever having seen the ocean? How does one meet and keep the love of one’s life — when one is twelve? Johnnie seemed to think that these accomplishments were perfectly normal, as if anybody could do the same, and I never pressed him to explain. I should have. The most he ever said on either subject was that Aunt Loey had done most of the hard work.

The Greatest Generation ... of love
Johnnie and Loey, together

Together they reared four children and created a home — several homes, actually, that felt as if they were mine, as well. Johnnie was always making us laugh, though I can’t remember any of the jokes; now his gentle humor rings in my mind like a song to which I’ve forgotten the words. I remember the music, too, of Loey’s soothing voice as she read me bedtime stories. She taught English, and also home economics, which meant that dinner at their house was a treat. Between Johnnie and Loey, there was literally nothing that couldn’t be made from scratch.

Their children, my cousins, were always bursting in with some astonishing discovery: Bill Cosby routines and MAD Magazine, rock music, and runzas, which are little meat pies. They were taller and smarter than I. They knew how to draw and to play sports. They were prodigious. They were teenagers, and therefore thrilling.

Foreign-exchange students came and went, and some of them were Swiss — affording my first inkling that real people actually spoke French and that, therefore, I might try it, too.

My father, Johnnie, and their three sisters were preacher’s kids who moved often, from congregation to congregation throughout the Midwest, and as adults they moved their families often, too. This has amounted to a diaspora, but when I was younger, the Madisons resisted it valiantly. Each branch of the family undertook long road trips to visit the others; there was absolutely nothing unusual in driving day and night without stopping, for no other purpose than to see one’s relatives and perhaps a local landmark, if any, before turning around and driving home again.

Aunt Kay and Uncle Dayrle grew impatient with automobiles, however, and bought a little airplane. They were flying it to see us when they crashed, many years ago now. For years, Kay and Dayrle had been the gravitational center of the Madison family: we always congregated at their house for Thanksgiving. We congregated just once more, for their funeral service. And then, as all the nieces and nephews grew older and scattered themselves more widely, the diaspora became a hardened, immutable fact of our lives. It became more difficult to see one another, to know one another.

And yet there were still lightning flashes of closeness, like the extraordinary moment not long after I began working at Opera News, when my Uncle Chuck telephoned to congratulate me, and to tell me that he was an opera buff, too. A performance by Risë Stevens in Carmen had transformed him in his youth. I had always known that Chuck loved music — really, I believe he became a preacher primarily as an excuse to sing once a week. But how could he not have known that I loved music, too? Then I did the math: I had only just discovered opera when Auntie Kay died. Uncle Chuck had barely seen me in the years since.

Despite the distances, I believe we would still go out of our way for one another, we Madisons, and on occasion we prove it. For example, Johnnie and Loey’s daughter, Ruth, kept a watchful eye on me from the vantage of Kingston, RI, through all the years while I was at Brown; in fact, it was at her suggestion that I first visited the campus. And so on. We don’t see much of one another, but the love of family endures. I believe it.

I think Johnnie wanted more assurance, though, and for many years he dedicated uncommon energy to the pursuit and publication of our family tree. All of us are codified now, and though I couldn’t begin to tell you what my code is, Johnnie used to address me by it, parenthetically, presumably for the purposes of his own record-keeping, rather than from any dire hope that I might learn it. Other people pursue genealogy as a means of knowing themselves. (The question “Where did I come from?” being fundamental to answering the question “Who am I?”) But in Johnnie’s case, the goal seemed not to be that he might know himself, but that the rest of us might know one another.

I have wandered just about the farthest of any of the 19 nieces and nephews, and in my travels I’ve come to depend more on friends than on family. I’d be hard-pressed to recognize some of my cousins if I met them on the New York City streets. Yet Johnnie’s plan makes sense to me. In time of trouble, reach out and find a Madison.

The generations who came before us managed to get one another through depressions and wars and bad Midwestern winters and even the good winters, which were never quite good enough for a preacher’s growing family. But that’s how it is. We’re no different from those earlier Madisons; it’s in our DNA. We don’t need to think about it. We’ll just do it.

For we are Madisons, and I know it. My uncle told me so.