This Old Man

Part I
Ervin Joseph Donahue (aka Uncle Ervin)

My beloved great-uncle, Ervin
 Ervin Joseph Donahue, 67, of St. Paul, Minnesota, died Wednesday, June 19, 1963.
Born on Sunday, March 1, 1896, in Erin Prairie, Wisconsin, he was the son of Ellen “Nel” (Clennan) and James Thomas Donahue, also of Erin Prairie.

Ervin Joseph is survived by five siblings, John Thomas, Mary Agnes “Mate” Casey, David Francis “Frank”, William Patrick “Willie” and his wife Della “Dell” (Dunbar), and Agnes Catherine “Auntie” Dean and her husband John Joseph Dean, all of Erin Prairie.

Ervin Joseph was preceded in death by his parents, one brother, Walter James, of St. Paul, Minnesota; four grandparents, Mary Catherine (Ryan) O’Donoghue, David Clennan and his wife, Mary (Martin) Clennan, all of Erin Prairie,and Thomas O’Donoghue of Plattsburgh, New York. 

I know. This sounds like one of those biblical rants where everyone begat and begot someone else. It provides me with where Ervin’s life began and ended and some of the people who were part of it. Beyond that, the hard facts are sparse. Census data, military registration cards, city directories and years of genealogical research done by my dad made the facts of his life less paltry, but not by much.

In 1910, when he was 14 years old he was at home on the family farm with his parents and siblings. Ervin’s older brothers, John, Willie and Frank, were listed as doing farm work. Ervin was not.

On June 5, 1917, 21-year old Ervin registered for the military service in World War I. The registration reveals he was working as a farmer for his father, James Donahue, at that time. It also tells me was short and had blue eyes and light hair.

My Uncle Ervin's draft card not only carries his signature, but also my great-grandfather's, who employed him.

A note in my Dad’s research mentions Ervin served in the U.S. Navy. This note raises questions for me. I have been able to verify he did serve in the Navy because I have a photo of him dressed in his uniform. But I can’t find him in the plethora of military records now online. I want to know where he was stationed, how long he served, if he was honorably discharged or a deserter. I sent a text to my brother, Tom, a Navy Captain, to see if he could help. He responded, “My buddy is the recent former superintendent of the Naval Historical Society. I’ll ask him if he has any pointers.”

That’s taught me to ask my questions out loud. I never know who might have answers for me.

In 1920 Ervin was living with his older brother, John (my grandfather), and John’s wife, Agnes, in their rented farm house in Erin Prairie. Walter, John and Ervin’s baby brother, was also living there. Ervin and Walter worked as farm laborers for John.

In 1930 Ervin was still/once again—?—living with and working for John, who now owned his farm. John and Agnes also had four children by this time. Walter no longer worked for John. He had married and moved to St. Paul, Minnesota where he went to work as a helper at Armour and Company.

In 1937 I find a Joseph E. Donahue living at 241 21st Avenue N in Minneapolis. He is identified as a laborer and looks to be living alone. I’m curious about whether this could be Uncle Ervin. According to family lore, John and Ervin had a falling out and John evicted Ervin. The implication was that Uncle Ervin drank too much. The family never called it alcoholism. 
Men born between 1877 and 1897 were part of the WWII Old Man's Draft
In 1942, on his WWII draft registration, Ervin, who is now signing his name as Joseph Ervin Donahue, identifies himself as a self-employed farmer. All of this also raises questions for me. Why did he start writing his name as Joseph Ervin Donahue? And a self-employed farmer? The Donahue family comes from a long line of farmers and we know their names all the way back to 1845. I never heard Uncle Ervin’s name mentioned in conversations about family farmers. Did he just make that up for his draft card? Who would check? The message I heard over and over again about Uncle Ervin was that he was a genius who could never hold a job.

Saint Paul, Minnesota city directories published between 1950 and 1993, list a Joseph E. Donahue living at 1910 Beechwood Avenue. A Joseph E. Donahue is also listed at 1672 Randolph Avenue in the same database.

I know he did yard work for a woman who lived on Randolph Avenue. Perhaps he did that in trade for room and board. I do know he lived at the Union Gospel Mission, a homeless shelter in downtown St. Paul. I periodically rode with my dad to pick Uncle Ervin up for dinner at our house.

Uncle Ervin never married and never had children. On the family tree software I use, his name is a ghostly gray, as though the dash between his birth date and death date isn’t substantial enough to hold the black inscription others have. Or perhaps it signifies that his death marked him as an ancestor on his way to becoming a ghost because he didn’t leave any direct descendants.

Looking for Uncle Ervin taught me that finding the hard truth is hard work. And that hard truth is not always rock hard, because it’s often circumstantial and taken out of context.

Part II 
In her writing, Sister Joan Chittister, OSB asks: “What one snapshot will the world remember of you? For what human memory of greatness are you responsible in your little corner of the world?”
This is a snapshot of a man I barely knew, taken through the filter of my memory. I don’t think you can call it a story—it’s really more of a vignette. Those of you looking for factual inaccuracies may find them because the intent of this is not to share the hard truth, but to share the heart’s truth.

Uncle Ervin rolled his own. It was an amazing thing to watch. Balancing a Zig Zag cigarette paper, delicate as a butterfly’s wing, on the cracked and yellowed fingertips of his left hand, he would pour a neat row of tobacco from a brown leather pouch down the center of the paper. Before tightly cocooning the tobacco in the butterfly paper, he cinched the pouch closed with his tobacco‐jaundiced teeth, and stashed it in his inside suit coat pocket. Then, giving the tissue‐thin paper a quick lick with his coated tongue, he twisted each end and lit up.

Uncle Ervin was an old man when he came into my life, at a time I can’t even pinpoint in memory, until he left, when I was about 12. The thing about looking old to kids when you meet them, whether or not you are, is that in their eyes, you never change. You’re always the same. That’s the way Uncle Ervin was. Always the same. Well, almost always.

His brown tweed suit was always the same. Unpressed, but not wrinkled, his white cotton dress shirt, dulled to a hardwater gray, opened at the collar revealing the same shade of t‐shirt beneath. I don’t remember ever seeing a tie around his neck, but I do recall he occasionally sported a light brown fedora.

To me, Uncle Ervin was just one of the old uncles who you were polite to and engaged in conversation with when they visited. He was more of a prop than a person, to me, until the summer of 1962.

You should really know a bit more about Uncle Ervin before I tell you about that summer. And a bit more is all I can tell you because it’s all I know. You see, Uncle Ervin is a family member who other family members have always kept behind closed mouths. But once in a while a probing question could open them.

For instance, I remember riding downtown St. Paul on Thanksgiving Day in 1961 to pick up Uncle Ervin from where he lived to bring him to our house for dinner. Because of my inexperience and naivete, it wasn’t until some years later that I realized that we had picked him up from the place where men, who we called “bums” then, lived. “Hey, why was Uncle Ervin living at The Mission when his whole family was around here?” I asked once.

That question opened a few closed mouths. “Uncle Ervin had a problem,” they told me. “He was a genius.” I was puzzled. Somehow the word problem just didn’t seem to fit with the word genius. I couldn’t recall anyone ever telling me that if I got straight A’s that would be a problem. They detected my bewilderment and went on to explain.

Uncle Ervin apparently was so smart he had never been able to find a job that was worthy of him. So, he didn’t work at all and sometimes when he was depressed about that, he drank too much. His brother John, my grandfather, had taken him in but got fed up and kicked him out.

So, Uncle Ervin ended up at The Union Gospel Mission because he was a genius. But he was just kicked out of Grandpa’s house, not the family.

That’s why he probably seemed more like a prop than a person because he usually only showed up for the holidays. Someone always picked him up. It was as much a part of the holiday routine as taking decorations out of the closet. But John’s daughter, my mother, saw Uncle Ervin as more than a prop. She never focused on problems, only possibilities. So, she started having Uncle Ervin over for dinner, even when it wasn’t a holiday.

That was really uncomfortable though. It felt as out of place having Uncle Ervin over for an off‐holiday dinner as it would have felt to have a Christmas tree in our living room in July. Besides, having relatives visit our home was a real love‐hate proposition. Mom loved it; Dad hated it.

“Bill, I want you to pick up Uncle Ervin after work tonight and bring him home for dinner. I talked to him yesterday and told him you’d be there at 5:15,” I heard Mom direct Dad one early summer day in 1962.

“Again?” sighed Dad. “That’s the second time this month.” It wasn’t that Dad didn’t like Uncle Ervin. It’s just that the daily crowd around the dinner table was already eight and he was feeling a little cramped.

“Uncle Ervin’s all alone,” Mom replied to the sigh. “He needs to feel wanted and there’s no one better to do that than family.”

Dad never fought Mom’s humanitarian crusades and so Uncle Ervin came to dinner that night. It’s the night he announced he had a job. “I’m cutting grass once a week for a widow on Randolph Avenue,” he said. “I take the bus over and back. She might even have me start walking her dog for her three days a week.” It wasn’t exactly Dad’s idea of a job, but he kept his opinion to himself.

However, Mom didn’t. She never did. She made Uncle Ervin feel as though he had just been named president of the First National Bank.

“That’s wonderful, Uncle,” she told him. “You should be very proud of yourself.”

Uncle Ervin became a regular dinner guest that summer and it became less uncomfortable—for him and us. He became more of a participant and less of a prop in our family, trying to help out whenever he could.

The house we were living in at the time was a work in progress. Dad was finishing the upstairs. He had installed a half bath and the rest of the space would be turned into one big bedroom for the five girls. That past winter he had sheetrocked the rafters and announced at dinner one night that he was getting ready to tape it. It wasn’t long after that Uncle Ervin happened to notice that some of the nails had popped out of the sheetrock and knew the taping couldn’t be done until the nails were flush with the sheetrock. He got a hammer from the garage, took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and went to work.

Unfortunately, although he may have been a genius, Uncle Ervin was less than competent with a hammer. When he was done, the sheetrock wasn’t even flush with the sheetrock anymore. He had left mule tracks all along the seams that would have to be filled before taping could begin. Once again, Dad kept his opinion to himself, at least verbally. But no one, including Uncle Ervin, needed to be a genius to detect some of the non‐verbal messages that Dad’s breathing and facial contortions expressed.

When Uncle Ervin left, I suspected subsequent visits would be uncomfortable. In fact, I don’t remember him coming back again until the end of the summer.

He arrived with a friend who he had convinced to drive him to the suburbs from St. Paul. He had called and told Mom he was coming and to be sure we were there because he had a surprise for us.

Mom didn’t tell us Uncle Ervin was bringing a surprise, just that he was coming. And that was enough to keep us there. Our regular dinners earlier in the summer had a created a bond between us and we missed him.

When he got out of his friend’s car, he was leading a beautiful German Shepherd dog on a long leash. “Uncle Ervin, you got a dog,” I shouted, running down the driveway, trailed by the siblings who were able to keep up.

“Yes, I did,” he said, smiling widely. The lines around his eyes creased so much from his grin that his eyes disappeared somewhere deep within them. “I got her for you kids.”

“What’s her name?” I asked.

“You can name her what you like, but I think Belle would be appropriate. It means beautiful in French,” he said softly.

Later, when I learned he was a genius, I wondered if he had spoken fluentFrench. We kept the name Belle for the dog. It’s the first French word I ever learned.

That evening, when Dad arrived home and learned about the surprise, he just couldn’t keep his opinion to himself. Luckily, Uncle Ervin wasn’t there to hear it.

“I’ve already got six kids; why would I want to add a dog to that?” he barked.

“The dog was his pay for mowing that woman’s lawn,” Mom told him.

“For the entire summer?” said Dad, almost too astounded to believe it. “Is that all she gave him?”

“No,” said Mom. “That’s all he asked for.”

We kept Belle for two years and one litter of puppies. Then one dark day Mom announced the dog would have to go because it was making her asthma flare up too often. No protest or argument could change her mind.

Sobbing dramatically the day Belle was turned over to her new owners, I ran upstairs and threw myself on the bed. Trying to console me, one of my sisters came up and handed me a bag full of hair she had brushed from Belle’s coat. I threw it right back at her.

Deep down in my heart I always knew I wasn’t really crying about losing Belle. I was 11 years old and I had lost an argument. It was simply pre‐adolescent hysterics because I wasn’t getting my way. At least, that’s what I thought.

But recently when I was out for a walk, I saw someone walking a dog that looked just like Belle and I felt a swelling in my throat and a rush of melancholy flood through me. That’s when I realized that losing Belle was not about losing a dog or an argument. It was about losing my last connection with Uncle Ervin.

I don’t remember ever seeing him again after the day he delivered the dog, not even at holiday dinners. I don’t know when or how he died; sometimes I’m not even sure he has. I really don’t want to know so I haven’t asked the questions that would open the closed mouths who know.

I looked at him through a lens of love, not logic. And some lenses we look at life through are better left unchanged. Maybe he didn’t know how to handle a hammer, or keep a job, but he sure knew how to name a dog.


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