Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day and Uncle Jerry

Since it is Veterans Day, a day of remembrance that originated with the armistice that ended World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, it's a good time to do a little celebrating of the life of my great-uncle, Jerry Miller --- buried out here on a hillside in the Chariton Cemetery. Jerry was the only member of his immediate family to serve during World War I and when he died just short of his 94th birthday in 1986, one of its longest-surviving veterans.

Jerry, whose official name was Jeremiah (inherited from his paternal grandfather), was born 30 April 1892 on the family farm in English Township, Lucas County. Although he had a younger brother who died in infancy, he was the youngest surviving child in a family of eight. His father, Joseph Cyrus Miller, died when he was 3, so he was raised by his mother and elder siblings.

His mother, Mary Elizabeth (Clair) Miller, was a powerful woman in many ways and she forged an extremely close-knit family out of her eight orphans. All married in Lucas County and all raised their large families here. The siblings squabbled now and then, but never fought, and even when quite old could drive their descendants nuts with their cohesiveness.

I'm thinking of the time when the survivors were quite old --- all in their 80s --- and mildly aggravated at their children, who had been making helpful suggestions about how they might best spend the balance of their years. They collectively hatched the idea of pooling their resources and moving back out to my grandfather's farm to live together --- with Uncle Jerry next door. That didn't happen and I think they may just have floated the idea to torture their kids, but the process was indicative.

This is a photo of Jerry as a young man taken from a larger family photograph.

Jerry enlisted in the U.S. Army when he was in his mid-20s and World War I was at its height, serving with the 30th Infantry Division in Belgium. I don't know much about his service --- and that's mostly my fault. All of his letters home used to reside under the bed of a guest room at my Uncle Owen's ranch in Wyoming and I never bothered to look at them. Now, scared of being considered pushy and intrusive, I've become to shy to ask what the heck became of them.

But he made it home safely and on the 4th of June 1919 at Chariton married Aunt Fern, Fern Alice Griffis, and they settled down to raise a family, farming at first his mother's share of the Miller family farm, then another farm, and finally returning to the homestead which he eventually acquired.

The original Miller farm was not especially large (I've forgotten exactly how many acres), but when divided between my grandfather, Uncle Jerry's eldest brother, and Uncle Jerry it allowed both to provide adequate although by no means extravagant livings for their families. That would not even be considered as a possibility today.

Uncle Jerry and Aunt Fern lived with his mother in the house she had built for her family after Great-grandfather died. My grandparents built a new house just up the road to the west for their family.

Jerry and Fern had become the parents of four children, Velma, Ernest, Warren and Elizabeth, when history repeated itself in a tragic sort of way. Aunt Fern developed breast cancer and died of it on 20 December 1933 when she was 34 and her youngest, Elizabeth, not yet 3.

Some men, finding themselves in a similar situation, might have farmed some of the children out or acquired another spouse, but Uncle Jerry chose not to. As his obituary puts it, he "fathered and mothered" them  himself, and did it well. My mother and her elder sister, Mae, who lived just up the road helped out, as did others. Daughter Velma served as an Army nurse during World War II; son Warren, during Korea.

After Korea, Warren came home to live with his father and the future seemed assured. But Warren, too, died unexpectedly and relatively young and so as Uncle Jerry grew older, he came increasingly to depend upon his grandson, Marvin Jess (son of Leonard and Velma Miller Jess). Finally, he died 2 February 1986 at Marvin's home near Albia, back down the road in Monroe County where the Millers had come from in the first place in 1867.

Veterans all tend to have tucked away somewhere papers confirming an "honorable" discharge from military service. Although there's no specific paperwork involved, most --- like Uncle Jerry --- have or will have honorable discharges from life, too. So there's something else to think about on Veterans Day. Which do you suppose is the most important?

The surviving Miller siblings about 1960. From left in the second row are Uncle Clair Miller, Aunt Easter (Miller) Brenaman and Uncle Jerry Miller. In the front row (from left) are William Ambrose Miller (my grandfather), Aunt Elizabeth (Miller) Mason and Aunt Cynthia (Miller) Abrahamson.

No comments: