Locked Inside, Part Two

A little more than two years ago, I told what I knew of the tale of the man my dad called Uncle Joe, the man who’d fought in World War I before my dad was even born and came back mostly silent and hardly present.

Uncle Joe lived in a little house – not much more than a shack – on a piece of rural property he evidently owned with his sisters, whom my dad called Aunt Ella and Aunt Minnie. The two sisters lived in a slightly larger home about fifty yards from Joe’s, and I assume he took his meals with them. When we visited them, and that happened several times during the early 1960s, all three were quite elderly. In that piece from May 2016, I estimated them all to be in their late seventies and early eighties. I wrote about my interactions with Joe:

Joe was quiet, and everything seemed a bit slower with him, and he seemed – again from the perspective of the child I was – not altogether present.

Dad told me once that Joe was severely afflicted during World War I with what was called “shell shock.” (Now we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)

Of course, I knew next to nothing about World War I in, say, 1965. I probably knew that the war had happened, and I imagine I’d seen a television documentary about it at one time or another. (Even at eleven, I was a news junkie and loved documentaries.) But even if I knew anything about Sarajevo, about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, about Kaiser Wilhelm, or even about trenches and mustard gas, I really knew nothing about war or what it does to those caught up in it. And I surely didn’t understand what shell shock was.

When we’d go to Ella and Minnie’s, I’d wander down the fifty-yard path to Joe’s house and sit with him. Sometimes – and again, these memories are filtered through more than fifty years gone – he’d talk; sometimes not. I’d greet Uncle Joe, see if he was talking that day, and make some brief conversation if he was. Then I’d make my way back down the path to Ella and Minnie’s little house, to where the old folks were at least present, to where my family was, to where things were mostly the way they were supposed to be.

Looking back this morning, I think I knew somehow that Dad’s Uncle Joe was locked inside. And I guess I knew that there was no key at hand. I guess I also knew that whatever it was that had made Uncle Joe the way he was, it had happened a long time ago and that Dad had never known Uncle Joe to be any other way. And I knew it was sad.

Over the years since, I’ve read histories and memoirs about World War I and many other wars, and I’ve learned from them more about war and what it does. (And I’m thankful that I’ve never had to learn those things from personal experience.) But knowing and understanding are, of course, two different things. And as I write this morning (having followed my thoughts and words into a topic not at all anticipated), I wonder if the only thing I ever needed to know about war was the sad fact that it had forever locked my dad’s Uncle Joe inside himself.

I know a bit more about Joe today. Not much, but a little. One of my cousins emailed a few of the other cousins and my sister this week, remembering Ella and Minnie and Joe and wondering who they really were, how they connected with our family. Knowing that I play around with Ancestry.com, my sister copied me on the email, and I went to work. We knew their last name was Nelson. My dad’s mom, Grandma Jennie, was born a Nelson, so I checked her siblings. No joy.

One of my cousins thought they might have been cousins to my dad’s dad, Grandpa Albert. So I looked up Albert’s father, Otto (from whom my dad got his middle name) and started looking at the offspring of his siblings. That didn’t get me anywhere. I knew I needed to look at Otto’s wife’s family, but I was getting a bit confused as I wandered through the thickets of the website. So I tried something else.

I’d seen a few young women in the late 19th Century named “Louella” and seen that name later shortened to “Ella.” So I searched the massive website for women christened “Louella Nelson” in Minnesota in the latter years of that century. I got very lucky. At the top of the list of possible results was a link to a page at the website Find A Grave that showed a burial in Spring Lake – a city where a lot of our family has been buried over the years – of a Louella Nelson with birth and death dates of 1878 and 1969. There was a very small picture of a headstone.

I clicked on the picture and found that Louella shared a headstone with Minnie (1880-1969). And in the same cemetery was Joseph E. Nelson (1893-1968). Find A Grave told me that their parents had been Lem and Anna Elman Nelson (also buried in the Spring Lake Cemetery). The name “Elman,” Anna’s birth name, was familiar, so I went back to the main page of my family tree. My great-grandfather Otto had married Mary Elman, Anna’s sister. I’d found them.

Ancestry.com helpfully told me that Ella, Minnie and Joe were my second cousins, once removed. I looked at the chart and did my own figuring and concluded that the three Nelsons were my Grandpa Albert’s cousins. Ella and Minnie were the eldest of nine children. Their mother died relatively young, leaving behind four children under the age of twenty, two of them younger than ten. By that time, Ella and Minnie were thirty and twenty-eighty, respectively, and had never married. I assume they just stayed home and helped their father with the children still at home, and they never left.

I went looking for Joe’s story, wondering if anyone in the broad range of Ericksons and Nelsons had ever dug into his tale. He never had children, but at least one of his siblings did and I know many of his cousins did. Given the current vast interest in genealogy – and the general ease with which research can be done these days – I thought that perhaps someone had told Joe’s story.

It seems not. So I did some digging. Born in rural North Branch in 1893, he seemingly stayed there until maybe 1915 or 1916. His draft registration card, filled out on June 5 or 6 of 1917, finds him living in Room 520 of the Y.M.C.A. at 84 East Bethune in Detroit, Michigan. He was making a living, the registration card said, as a driver for the Ford Motor Company. I saw in one of the entries that his brother Oscar, ten years older, lived his whole adult life in Detroit, so it might be reasonable to assume that Joe followed him there.

And then came World War I. And the only tangible thing after that in Uncle Joe’s record at Ancestry.com is a scan of his draft registration card for World War II, which notes that he was a disabled veteran.

I know what happened to Uncle Joe, but I don’t know how or where or when. I’m feeling like it’s very much up to me to find out. I have work to do.

And just like the other time I wrote about Ella and Minnie and Joe, I have no music for this.

Leave a Reply