Tag: uncle gene

Refrigerator Shrine

Short and squatty with a handle that pulled out to open the door, Grandmother’s Frigidaire is home to an important piece of my family history, a story of a first and a last . . .

The first and only time Grandmother Hewell told me “No” was the day I – the apple orchard of her eye – reached to the back of the squatty, boxy, white-on-the-outside-turquoise-on-the-inside refrigerator intending to help myself to the Zero candy bar in the back left corner of the second shelf. Her loud, abrupt “NO” startled me. She offered no explanation, just “You leave that alone,” as she pushed me to the side and closed the refrigerator door.

I was stunned. Grandmother had never denied me anything – not a single thing. My wish was her command, and I didn’t have to clean some funny-shaped lantern to get her attention. But that fateful day, all I got was a resolute, unwavering NO.

a boy holding a baby in front of an old car parked beside an unpainted house

Crawford Jr. plays with 6 month old Baby Gene

William Eugene Hewell – was he my uncle or is he my uncle? I never know whether to use past or present tense when talking about people who are so alive inside me but aren’t readily available to hug or sit beside or laugh with.

Laugh with.

Everybody I ask to tell me about my Uncle Gene says the same three things:
~ I can’t think of him without seeing him sitting up on that tractor seat.
~ I remember him popping wheelies in the front of the school before the bell rang.
~ He was funny. Lord a-mercy how that man did make us laugh. I never knew anybody as funny as your Uncle Gene.

William Eugene Hewell was born on March 31, 1933, a mere five weeks before five armed bandits held the family hostage while waiting on the bank’s vault to open so they could relieve it of its money bags. Uncle Gene was the last of five children born to Grandmother and Granddaddy. Before him, there was Juanita who lived 4 days. Edgar and Earl were twins, one living for an hour, the other stillborn. Then there was Crawford Junior, my daddy. He was five when Uncle Gene was born.

a young boy sits behind the wheel of a tractor

12 year old uncle Gene behind the wheel of the tractor

Zero candy bars were Uncle Gene’s favorite. The morning of December 19, 1951, he pulled the handle to open the refrigerator door, placing his beloved Zero candy bar in the back left corner so it would be nice and cold when he came in later that afternoon. He kissed his mother on the cheek, said something to make her laugh and shake her head, then went out the back door. He hopped up on the tractor and headed off to spend the day pulling stumps up on the property. Though I can’t imagine how he reached the pedals, family lore – those sacred stories that remain forever impervious to logic – holds that Uncle Gene learned to drive a tractor when he was 8 years old. Two years later,  Granddaddy began renting out the tractor, sending Uncle Gene along to operate it. Details aside, it stands true that Uncle Gene knew his way around tractors.

But this day, something went terribly, horribly, unspeakably wrong.

He put the chain too high up on the stump, some tell me. Others say he put the chain too low. Either way, the result remains the same. As Uncle Gene began to move the tractor forward, it reared up and flipped over on him, crushing him instantly. I am told that my wiry, small-framed granddaddy found my rotund uncle, lifted the tractor off him, and carried Uncle Gene back to the house where he laid him on the bed he shared with my grandmother.

Granddaddy Hewell drove a silver stake in the ground to mark the spot. Grandmother kept that Zero candy bar as her private refrigerator memorial to the son she loved to immensely. Years later, Crawford created his memorial to his brother Gene by naming his firstborn child after him. He spelled her name Jeanne.

newspaper article about the death of Eugene Hewell

 

P.S. Uncle Gene died on December 19, 1951. Twelve years later to the day, Granddaddy Hewell died. He died in his sleep, and because the attending doctor couldn’t be sure whether he died before or after midnight, he chose to let Granddaddy’s death stand forever as the same day his younger son was killed.

P.S. 2 I am currently writing a book about what happened to my family on May 5-6, 1933 and having a big time as my daddy would say, learning more about myself as I look back at those who preceded me.

they helped make me who i am in ways i may never know

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we’ll never know if granddaddy died on 12/19 or 12/20. he simply went to bed on the 19th and never woke up. the death certificate says 12/19, though, on account of that’s the date his son – my uncle gene – was killed years before. the town’s doctor (the small town wasn’t big enough to have a coroner – shoot, we were glad to have a doctor there) thought it fitting that father and son died on the same date.

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i still ache for them – all of them, even though uncle gene died before i was even an idea. i’m named after him, you know. there are still people around who actually knew him, and when i say “tell me about him,” the first thing they all say is “he was funny.” i have two lamps he made from turned wood, i have his wallet (complete with the photo of his girlfriend), and i have photos of him on a tractor – probably not the tractor he was using to pull up stumps when it flipped over on him, killing him. but maybe. i don’t know. granddaddy reportedly found him, shoved the tractor aside, then my wiry little granddaddy picked up my rotund 18 year-old uncle and carried him all the way back to the house. the next day, in a fit of grief, granddaddy drove a silver stake into the ground to mark the spot.

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when i ask people what they remember about my granddaddy, they all – every one of them – say there wasn’t a dishonest bone in his body. that he was a good man. some even tell me about a time when he (the town’s banker) loaned them grocery money cause they left their checkbook at home. i have the clock that sat on his mantle; the tag he kept on his key chain asking finders, should he lose his keys, to return them to brooks bank; and i write sitting in the chair he sat in at the bank. it still has the original green leather.

nobody seems to know my grandmother very well. they tell me she was quiet. i remember her arriving home from a vacation, getting out of the car and walking straight across the street to see me – even before she went in her own house. later memories are of her being still, quiet, and lethargic, which i now know was a condition resulting from a series of strokes, but back then i didn’t know what was wrong until the day i was converting the pump house into a studio and got stung by wasps several times on each hand. by the time i got to the front door of our house, my hands had swelled up so much i couldn’t bend my fingers, and hurt – oh my goodness how they did hurt. then just like that, my little girl brain knew why grandmother sat quietly in the chair with a washcloth over her hands that were always idling in her lap. i spent three days like that, but the swelling went down, the pain subsided, and i was back out turning over bushel baskets upside down to become stools. grandmother never saw the results of my labor.

granddaddy and grandmother . . . well, if i ever walked as one who was once cherished, it’s because of them. they adored me, their first grandchild, and the feeling was mutual. they clothed me in ruffles and lace (i could seat 6 on the petticoats they bought me to wear under the dresses they bought me); shoes in every color; frilly fold-down socks; dozens of pairs of gloves. i even remember one dress – brown plaid. white collar with piping to match the dress fabric. sash. one of daddy’s favorite stories is of little me driving nails into the floor at granddaddy’s feet as he (granddaddy) sat in his rocker watching the news on tv. “JEANNE,” daddy said loudly, startling me out of my reverie. “junior,” granddaddy told him firmly, (daddy was named after granddaddy, and he hated being called junior, probably because he spent a goodly part of his life working to distinguish himself from his dad) “jeanne is in my room now. she can hammer wherever she wants to.” i rest my case.

i have lots of stories starring grandmother and granddaddy stored in my memory bank, but there are still stories i long to hear, questions i’d love to ask – questions and stories i didn’t know to ask back then.

i’m told that the internal voice that scolds me, saying i should not be living in the past or grieving because these people died long ago and besides, they weren’t my spouse or my parents or my children, they were only my grandparents. i’m told this is actually a caring voice, a voice that just wants to keep me safe. i’m told i should love this voice, thank it for protecting me, for caring so much about me . . . but i’m feeling more like thanking it through clenched teeth (by way of suggesting, you understand) to shut up and leave me to my grief and remembrances. i don’t care how long it’s been, i still miss them something fierce. and i don’t care about any alleged hierarchy of appropriate grief, they were my grandparents and we adored each other. and i don’t care that i never met my uncle, i can and do still love him and mourn him sight unseen.

maybe it makes sense on paper that i should be over this grief all these decades later . . . but on my heart, this grief will not be denied.

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Jeanne Hewell-Chambers has spent most of her life collecting photos, stories, and information about the day in May 1933 when bandits knocked on her grandparents door and held the family (grandparents, midwife, newborn gene, and 5 year-old crawford) hostage overnight until the bank opened the following morning. next year she intends to pull it all together, and she’s very excited about that because she knows that event somehow impacted her life, shaping her into the women she is today even though her daddy was only five years old at the time and not even thinking about girls and raising a family.