What’s in a name? (In which I remember Uncle Lonney)

The noise never lulled in my childhood home—the TV blared even if no one was watching it, and my father, three siblings, and I never seemed to speak in muted voices—our conversations spewed forth full volume. So when I became old enough to receive telephone calls myself, whoever answered the phone would set the receiver down and bellow my name, each syllable lasting a beat longer than it needed to, “Lonnie.”

Lonney UniformIf it was a new caller on the other end, I knew the first words they’d say when I picked up the receiver. Every friend who met my family used a derogatory tone to inform me of what they perceived as a grave offense, “He just called you ‘Lonnie.’ That’s a boy’s name. Why did he call you by a boy’s name?”

With all these reminders, even as an elementary student, I was never embarrassed. In fact, I couldn’t understand why they found it such a great misdeed. My friends saw only a little girl whose family addressed her with a boy’s name. But in my own head, the name conjured an image of a handsome man who was deeply loved by his family.

As a child, every single Sunday after church, the six members of my family would pile into a car and drive the hour and a half to my maternal grandmother’s house, and in the living room, always perched in a prominent location, was a photo box with a red velvet background. Inside was a photograph of a handsome man in military dress with two medals displayed next to the picture. Along the wall of the living room, six senior pictures hung in a downward diagonal line. As the oldest among them, his senior picture was at the top—his hair neatly combed and his eyes looking far away.

I learned at a young age to respect the reverent silence that surrounded Uncle Lonney. I was rarely at my grandmother’s home without a house full of other people as well. We lived far enough away that my family only made the drive on Sundays, the same day that everybody else came to visit, too. Every weekend was a reunion of sorts—my mother’s siblings, my cousins, whoever else happened to stop by—and the children played in the basement or outside. Grandma was always visiting or working (putting together a meal for everyone who had come to visit) and I never got one-on-one time with her. It was a different relationship than what I imagine others developing with their grandparents. As often as we went to visit, I don’t remember snuggles, or reading together, or her putting bandaids on the wounds from my outdoor adventures—my own mother was always there to fill that role. But I do remember one day—a summer day when a breeze blew through the open window—I was at my grandmother’s house and alone with her in the living room. I approached the picture of the man whose name I shared and asked her what the medals were for. The way she paused a beat too long, and then carried on with menial tasks not bothering to look at me. The way she told me to go play. I knew not to press—or to ever ask again.

Lonney Senior PictureThe heavy silence around his name, the pictures so prominently displayed, the unspoken understanding that I couldn’t ask questions—all of these things told me how special he was. He never forfeited his place in the family. He was my uncle. He was my mother’s brother. He was my grandparent’s oldest son. He was deeply loved.

And after the experience of asking my grandmother about the medals, I knew even as a young child that it was that last part—the love—that drove the silence. Some things are just too hard to talk about. Talking can be cathartic and healing, but it can also open old wounds, and sometimes the pain of opening them can be just as real as when the tragedy cut it in the first place.

As I was growing up, my mom told me stories about her own childhood. Her world back then seemed so foreign to my own, but I soaked in the stories and always loved hearing them. She talked mostly about the years her family lived in the basement of her childhood home. When my mother’s parents bought their property, they dug the basement of their home first and then lived it it while saving money to build the house on top. Apparently this was a common occurrence back then, but it seems foreign to me now.

“We lived in our basement for nine years, I think. We had a lot of fun there. Mom used to wash and wax the tiled floor in the basement every Saturday. And we would all take turns running around with a blanket pulling each other on it, shining the floor. When we first moved into our basement home, we had a wood stove and Mom would sometimes be out getting wood for the fire. We would take baths on Saturday night in a big tub in front of the stove. In the summer it was in the store room. Water had to be carried in and heated on the stove and carried back out, and at first that water had to be carried in cans from Grandma E’s. The bathroom was an outside toilet. [There was] a wash dish and water pail on a shelf by our sink in the kitchen. This sink drained into a five gallon bucket that had to be carried up the stairs and outside. . . . [We didn’t have] many toys, but never got bored. . . . . Mom got us all ping pong balls one year for Christmas and wrapped them up and put them on the tree. We had so much fun trying to guess what was in these tiny little packages. Dad showed us how to make kites out of newspapers and tree stems. He showed us how to make whistles from willow sticks. We played outside a lot. We loved playing in the ditch out front. We would catch pollywogs, frogs, and sometimes crawfish and minnows. We would dig holes in the sides of the ditch and use a pop or beer bottle to [pretend we were feeding lambs] the water out of the ditch. Our road was an old dirt road with lots of holes in it and not a lot of traffic.”

Eventually, her fun childhood stories began to include Lonney. Her stories made me think of him as a daredevil, always getting himself and his sisters into trouble with his shenanigans. I imagined him to be the leader of the pack, taking care of his sisters—sometimes he’d get them into trouble, but when he did, at least they were in it together.

“Most of our games were made up from Lonney. He made a monopoly game. . . . Lonney would take us girls huckleberry picking. We didn’t know the way ourselves. He would find us some bushes and then would go on further to where the big berries were. He always came back for us and led us back home. . . . We played in the woods a lot . . . . Lonney liked building forts. One year we made these really neat ones. Made from branches and sticks like teepees and covered them with ferns we had pulled out. Lonney’s was the biggest and best. B and I had the smaller one. You had to go through Lonney’s, a tunnel, and then into ours. [It was] very dark and scary. We were all going to spend the night in them, but when it got dark we were all inside in the house in our beds. . . .

“I’m not sure if we were picking pickles or hoeing them, Lonney found a garter snake. He liked to pick them up. I guess he thought this was a great thing to do and wanted me to take it. When I refused and started to head for the house, the threw it at me and it wound around my ankle! I did a lot of fast kicking to get it off. . . .

“Lonney taught us girls a lot. [He] liked to get us to box with him. We would put socks on our hands and these were our gloves. Lonney could punch pretty hard. He could usually talk B into doing anything. We made bows and arrows and Lonney even convinced B to let him shoot one off her head. I guess that must have turned out ok! . . . Lonney also taught us how to smoke. I caught him picking up cigarette butts from the ground at Grandma E’s and then smoking them. So he got me to try them so I wouldn’t tell. And then B was included. We had to walk around the pig pen to check for weeds or grass on [the electric fence] that would short it out and we would just sit down in a low spot and smoke. I decided that I didn’t like it and would rather have candy, but I guess Lonney continued to smoke. Mom caught him smoking in the outside john one night and he told on us, too. We were in deep trouble.”

The shenanigans that Lonney engaged in were the stories I loved to hear most. But then there were the tender stories, too. He was the oldest child. The four children that came after him were all girls. Finally, when he was a senior in high school, he got the brother he wanted.

“He was so excited and happy. He was hitch hiking home from school, which he did sometimes after playing sports. Dad and us girls picked him up and told him. We dropped him off at O’s house [they had five boys and he went there a lot]. He saw one of them in the yard and went walking up to him with his hands clasped together over his head. I remember him saying he couldn’t wait until [his little brother] was sixteen and would come to him and ask for the keys to borrow his car or a borrow a couple bucks.”

I had only heard stories of Lonney growing up, but somehow in my mind he was always old. He was a grown-up; I was a child. When I was in college, I don’t know what brought it up, but my sister asked me if I realized I was older than Uncle Lonney had been when he died. It was an epiphany moment for me. I always thought of him as a man, but then I realized he was just a boy. He was a kid. He had his whole life to dream about. And my grandparents had had to bury a child.

Lonney Family PictureUp until that time, the only thing my mom had mentioned about the war was that they tried to keep things interesting when they wrote to the boys over there—they wrote letters on birch bark or roles of receipt paper. I had always been curious about the letters they had written back and forth, but knew not to ask. I remember one day as a child at my grandmother’s house, playing with my sister and cousins in the basement like we often did, I noticed a bundle of aged letters in a bag. I knew they were forbidden, that I couldn’t even touch them, but I peered into the open bag at the bundle and wondered if they might have been his.

Soon after I crossed the threshold of being older than Lonney when he died, my mom started talking to me about her brother and her family in a way that she never had before. She started sharing the whole story—the imperfections of family life growing up, the frustrations and anger together with the joys and gratitude. And she asked others to remember with her.

My mom started collecting the words that Lonney wrote himself. She brought home bundles of letters from my grandparents’, batch by batch, and made color copies of each one, capturing the yellowed paper and blue ink. She handled each letter with reverence and copied the envelopes as well—the red and blue stripes around the edges, the address, and postage. She let me read them, too. Lonney talked about coming across the villages and looking at the people’s faces, not knowing if at night they would be the ones shooting at him. I remember the tone of some letters being hopeful, the tone of others being sad.

My mom asked her sisters to write down their own memories and send them to her. She collected pictures and copied those as well. Her purpose was to collect everything in a book of copied letters, pictures, and written memories. She intended to bind and share and save it. I always hoped that she would make more than one copy and that I would be able to keep one. Eventually her determined scurry of collection faded. Now I don’t know if she ever finished it. I never saw the final product of all her labors.

In 2013, long after her scurry to collect memories, I received an email from her out of the blue—no heads-up or reason for sending it, just a subject line that read, “Lonna just thought you might like this.” I opened it up and the body of the email was a 5000-word document in which she had written her own memories of her brother—a 5000-word treasure of family legacy.

Anyone who knows me, knows I love words. The unspoken rules for silence in my family taught me the danger of them—their potential to cause profound pain. And as unintentional as it probably was, I learned that if something is painful, if it’s hard, then you can’t talk about it. Only the good. Words are powerful. We only use our words to share the good.

But a beautiful thing about pain is that it brings out who we really are. Love is more powerful when it embraces our whole self—when we know we are loved even with our imperfections. That’s what a family does. They take you for all you are and offer grace. We make a choice to love even when love is undeserved, and then they do the same for us. And in between those moments when we act selfishly human, we help each other get through the painful moments and celebrate the joyful ones. As thankful as I am for happy stories in which everyone poops butterflies and rainbows, the happy stories on their own never tell me who a person really is. And how can you love someone completely when you don’t even know who they are?

My mom’s letter included some sweet stories that she had never told me:

“Sunday was church. Grandma and Grandpa E were always there early and they would sit in the back pew on the right side of the church. Right in front of the pipe organ. We would quite often hurry after Sunday school before Mom and Dad got there so we could sit by them. I remember one of these times we were singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and I heard someone about half way up on the right side of the church singing real loud and really good. I looked and it was Lonney. I never forgot how good he sounded. I never told him that though.”

And the letter also included what it was like when they found out he had died. News of his death was sandwiched between two important events for the family. My mom had graduated the day before. When the military vehicle came, her family was getting ready for the wedding of a close cousin the next day. The house was bustling with excitement.

“I remember the day that we received word that Lonney had been killed. We all had been very excited about the wedding of D and K the next day. Lots of people coming and going. I think it was probably early afternoon, Mom was talking on the phone with Dad, who was at work. A car pulled into the yard and mom said, “oh no,” and then, “oh it must be some of the guys for the wedding.” (It was a military car.) I knew that they wouldn’t have a military car. The car pulled half way up the drive way. Seeing Mom in the window of the front door, he came there. I was standing there and could sort of hear what he was saying. You know how you just don’t want to believe what they are saying so think you aren’t hearing right. Mom couldn’t say much. Part of her died right then, too. And Dad was on the phone wanting to know what was going on. I took the phone but didn’t know what to say . . . not knowing if I had heard right and not wanting Dad to hear it at work and trying to come home. I tried to tell Dad we’d call him back. He just said, “No, no. Don’t hang up.” I remember giving the phone to the officer and telling him it was my Dad and that he was at work. The officer told him and I heard it again. I then called Aunt L and told her to come right away—that Mom needed her. She didn’t ask any questions, but her and Grandma E were right there. Grandma kept asking the officer if there couldn’t be some mistake. Things are sort of a blur for a while after that. Dad didn’t take long getting home. I couldn’t believe how he looked when I first saw him. . . . I always thought that my dad was the strong one and my mom the weaker, but that day when she saw Dad, . . . She seemed to pull herself together to comfort my dad. . . . It is so strange how life still goes on after someone you love so and is so much a part of your world dies. But it does. We didn’t talk about it much. It was just too hard, and still after all this time we still miss him dearly.”

Today, my grandfather is in his early nineties, my grandmother her late eighties. They’ve been in and out of the hospital several times and can only manage to stay at their home where they raised their six kids because my mom and her siblings take turns staying with them. When their health first began to deteriorate, during one of the first trips to the hospital, I couldn’t be there to visit them, so my sister told me on the phone how they were doing. She told me about her visit, in which my grandparents recounted to her how they met all those years ago. Apparently my grandpa knocked my grandma down while she was ice skating.

Imagining this sweet elderly couple in the hospital, my grandmother not wanting to leave my grandfather, I was able to see the stories all wrapped together into this incomprehensible power of relationship—seventy years of marriage, seventy years of commitment to love the other through both the hardships and the joys.

Learning about their challenges—the pain of losing a child and all the other stories my mom finally shared with me—made them human. My mom’s change in attitude—her willingness to talk about the hard times as well as the happy ones—it didn’t make me love them less. It made me love them more, admire them more, respect them more.

We are fallen and imperfect creatures. We hurt each other—sometimes intentionally sometimes unintentionally. My grandparents are no different. They have loved and hurt each other. There were moments when each one caused the other to cry, but there were other times when each supported the other as the world disappeared beneath their feet. And through it all, they remained true to their commitment to offer each other grace.

I mentioned in another post that we can’t have our present or future without the past that goes before it. All the events surrounding Lonney’s life and death shaped my family—they’ve made them who they are, which in turn, has made me who I am. This handsome man I’ve never met—the one in a military suit with medals displayed next to his face—he is an integral part of my family legacy. I wouldn’t be me without him.

In my mind, Lonney will always be a handsome man in a photograph. That will always be the first picture that comes to mind when I hear his name. But he’s more than that. He’s more than a nineteen year old boy who got a job at Buick and who never got to marry his sweetheart. He is more than a boy who was drafted and died four months into his Vietnam tour. He’s more than a boy who loved riding horses and making mischief. He is a son and brother who is deeply loved. He’s a boy who made the people who loved him into something better than they could have been without him. He is a boy who, in less than twenty years, made a legacy strong enough to change the lives of people who came later—the lives of people like me, who never even got a chance to say thank you.

All of the words in italics are written by my mom, taken from the email she sent me that described her memories of Lonney. I’ve only removed names and added information in brackets. I have published this post with her review and permission.

9 thoughts on “What’s in a name? (In which I remember Uncle Lonney)

  1. Very well written account of your family. All to often a family’s history is forgotten by the younger generations. My mother has the written words, pictures, and pasted down memories. When I visit we take time to revisit a portion of that collection. My brother and I are the last “Smith” in our branch of the genealogical tree. The family history will continue as Furlongs and Martins.

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    • I have always loved hearing about family history. I love hearing the stories and looking at pictures. When someone pulls out an old photo album and shares their stories, I’m in heaven.


  2. My dear friend and sister… this post is so very moving. So well written… the joys, the sorrow, the memories… all of it… what an amazing tribute to your family. Gives me insight ino the woman named Lonna who is such a dear friend and loves me unconditionally too!

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  3. Your Uncle continues to change lives by living through your words, which keep him alive in the hearts and memories of those who knew him and in the imaginations of those who didn’t.

    This was a powerful personal tribute to your Uncle, Lonna (or should I say Lonnie), but also a potent universal testimony to the power of words and what internal silence takes away from our ability to understand the depth of a family and its members.

    Thank you, beyond words, for sharing.

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