Secrets Tied in String
When my parents died and we cleared out their attic in Roxbury, Connecticut, I took possession of a trunk that is filled with old letters and hand written church sermons. Most of the letters are daily correspondences between my Great Uncle John and his parents and his sisters dating from the late 1800s. There are literally thousands of letters in this trunk most of which convey simple day-to-day news: the cold somebody has come down with, laundry that needs doing, a neighbor with a new baby, a recipe for minced pie, promises to write more frequently.
At the very bottom of the trunk however, were a dozen or more letters of a very different kind still in their envelopes and neatly tied up in string. I saw that the letters were dated between March and June, 1914. They were addressed to and from various people, mostly names I didn’t recognize although some were to and from my great grandfather, the Reverend Walter Downs Humphrey. The letters were all about reverend’s soon-to-be son in law, my grandfather, Jim Walker whom I knew as Grampy. Carefully hidden away for a potential future need upon the advice of a New Milford attorney (his is the last letter in the stack) these letters were definitely not meant for my eyes, and I wish I never read them.
Canada, by Richard Ford, is a novel about buried secrets and the tests we face in life. One of the reasons why this book struck such a strong chord with me is because of the parallels that can be drawn to my own family history. Like the main character in the book, my grandfather was made an orphan a few years after immigrating to America from Wales with his parents and seven brothers and sisters. It was a horrific accident that broke the family apart. They were returning home from church in New Haven and decided to take a shortcut across some railroad lines. My grandfather’s mother got her boot heel caught in a switching and as his dad was desperately trying to pull her free they were both killed instantly by an oncoming train.
It was 1909 and we didn’t have the social support systems we have today – at least not for recent immigrants – so the kids were totally abandoned for months. No local authorities even bothered to clean up the mess. I read an old yellowed newspaper clipping that describes my grandfather on the day after the accident, at age 17, walking up and down the railroad tracks picking up the remains of his parents in peach baskets he had scavenged from a local market. It was the New Haven railroad that finally stepped up and took some coordinated action on behalf of the children, placing all the younger siblings into orphanages around the state and giving my grandfather a job as a baggage handler.
This was, of course, my grandfather’s big test; a frontier he needed to cross under the power of his own two feet. A few years after his parents were killed he found himself boarding in a minister’s home in Roxbury, Connecticut where he met and fell in love with my grandmother, Mary Paul Humphrey, the minister’s eldest daughter.
Grampy and Grammy went on to make a nice life for themselves, moving to Winsted, Connecticut, raising two children and sending them both to college. Grampy worked his way up to rail depot foreman. He also became the Chief of Police and served a few terms as Winsted’s representative to the State Assembly in Hartford. He started Winsted’s youth baseball leagues and when he died in 1962 they renamed the town ball fields Walker Field in his honor. I remember him as a soft spoken man who smoked a pipe while watching baseball on a tiny black and white TV sitting in his favorite chair by the window in the room they called the front parlor. I remember a gold pocket watch chained to his vest and I don’t remember ever seeing him without a tie. Neither he nor Grammy had a driver’s license which meant arriving for visits by train. I have a picture in my mind of Grampy on the railroad platform in Saugatuck. He is walking towards me through a cloud of steam billowing out from underneath the rail car with a broad smile on his face and his arms extended so that I may jump into them.
So what about the big secret revealed in those hidden letters? They tell a twisting tale that nearly put a stop to his wedding, and even though my grandfather stood up and quietly bore the consequences of his actions like the man he was striving to become, the whole unfortunate incident if made public could have easily ruined him for life. I wonder now if Grampy ever told his children about what happened, or even if Grammy ever knew. I suppose it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Walter Downs Humphrey took his lawyer’s advice to heart and hid those letters in the trunk himself, burying them deep beneath his old sermons where they rightfully belonged and where they now remain.
Grampy’s life story reminds me that we all face tests and must as lone travelers venture across some tough borders of no return. And while the secrets we snag along the journey may vary in their details, don’t we all have a stack of letters tied in string and buried at the bottom of a trunk somewhere in our attics?
In the boxes of junk my wife and I have accumulated over the years there’s yet another yellowing newspaper clipping. This one’s no secret, and includes a photograph of me as a ten year old sporting a buzz cut, unveiling the memorial stone in the dedication ceremony for Walker Field in Winsted. The few simple words etched on that stone can be heard today not just in the crack of a baseball bat but in the shouts of children playing everywhere.
They reflect a truth that Grampy both played forward and took to his grave. I believe it too, even today:
There are no bad boys.