My grandpa likes to tell the story something like this: he was a soldier in World War II, on leave in Hampton, Virginia. As usual for those days, a local family came out to the church and invited soldiers back for a home-cooked meal. My grandpa went home with the nice family named Lee, and found that they had some daughters they were trying to get rid of. So, he took one of them.
The rest of the siblings, including her little brother, Henry, pictured above, spent most of their lives back east in Virginia. But Henry, himself a fighter pilot in the war, and great lover of road trips, has always been an active part of the Putnam family out west. My last opportunity to return the favor and come see the Lees in Virginia was almost fifteen years ago.
A side note. For those of you who know your American history and are putting two and two together, when I talk about the Lees of Virginia, yes, they are the Lees you're thinking of. And for the record I'd just like to say that my ancestor was asked by Lincoln to head the Union Army, and only sided with the confederacy because he couldn't bear the idea of fighting the people he grew up with in his home. Anyway, that was a long time ago, things are little different in 2010.
One thing about this branch of the family-- we keep track of ourselves. As my cousin, Regina, drove me around Hampton, she started pointing out the street named after our cousins, the house the belonged to our other cousins, the cemetery where half of our family is buried outside the 400-year old church where we have a reserved pew, where my grandparents were married and my mom and uncles were baptized. The same one where a few years ago, my grandpa visited, got to talking to someone, and told them that he and his wife had been married there sixty years before. The man responded that he'd been there and pointed to the pew where he'd been sitting for the ceremony.
Henry has a house full of history. I mean that about as literally as you can take it. I've never seen a house piled with so much old stuff. I'm six feet tall, and there were stacks and boxes I couldn't see the tops of. As we were leaving, Regina pointed to the back corner of the covered porch and said "look, there's his canon." I spent a good five seconds looking for a camera before I noticed the spoked wooden wheel peeking out from under the piles of other stuff. The one attached to the canon. The kind you fire small cannonballs with.
Henry himself is a talker. He has his way of doing things, and his way of thinking about things. Not everything he says are things you will want to hear, and if you don't agree with him, he will not let go (I wasted about ten minutes trying to explain the rationale of printing signs and instruction sheets in multiple languages in this country). But he loves his home, his friends and his family. And he loves to talk. Funnily enough, the rest of the family loves to talk about him. If there's ever a lull in the conversation in a Lee household (unlikely), just bring up Henry and everyone will have plenty to say.
Henry and my grandmother had several other siblings, including my grandmother's twin brother, Bev. I got to spend a day with Bev's kids and their families while we ate, laughed, argued, and swapped stories. Especially stories of family and friends. I've never heard of such antics performed with nail guns as when the conversation turned to the brother's work in construction. Scary. But fun.
And in case you're wondering, whatever good things you've heard about southern hospitality, it's all true. And it goes double if you're family. Regina dropped a day of work ("I'm on vacation now!") and drove me all around town, then beyond to Colonial Williamsburg, where we got to see some of our country's heritage, my favorite being an actor who sat under a tree with a cane and talked with us for over an hour in the persona of Scottish-American newspaperman Alexnder Purdie. Then after she drove us home from that, I could swim around in the pool, and was fed more food than I knew what to do with while I batted away offers of even more stuff. I might just have to come down this way more often now that I'm moving to the east coast.
No matter how long you give these visits, they always seem too short at the end. That goes for each one of the family visits I've had these past few weeks. And it especially seems true now that this round is over. I've seen most of my living relatives now. I'm writing this on a train that's taking me to Washington DC.
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