In one of my recent essays, I bemoaned the fact that one of the reasons I did not like growing older (among many) was seeing the number of members of the generation that came before me rapidly diminish, and that the deep resource of their experiences and wisdom was disappearing as well. Somehow my parents and older uncles and aunts always seemed to have the right answer coupled with the wisdom of Solomon, and I have drawn on the resource of their lives many times over the years.
But that rich resource of life is rapidly vanishing. My father had fourteen brothers and sisters, and only one, whom I will talk about momentarily, remains alive today. My mother’s family, which in looking at her siblings was a relatively younger lot, has in the last few years begun to see the dwindling of their flock as time takes its toll.
The fallen soldier for this essay is Bonnie Laverne Williams Downing…”Aunt Bonnie” to me. She was the wife of Dad’s last surviving brother, Thurl E. Downing. Her story is very similar to my own mother’s story. Both were born into modest families in small towns, and both married poor Oklahoma farm boys who happened to be brothers. Both couples lived in the same Houston area and over a nearly 65 year period managed to create homes, enjoy measures of success, raise children and grandchildren, and create legacies that hangs heavily over the descendents of these two marriages.
Bonnie was born in 1926. She and her family moved to Baytown, Texas, in 1940, where she met a young man and gave him her heart on October 10, 1941. She was fifteen years old and he was twenty one. Her age at marriage sounds shocking in today’s society, but during the Great Depression of the twenties and thirties, young people by necessity grew up faster than now. Many even in their early teens left home and attempted to earn their living because there was no work at home with the family. Today we have twenty-five year olds who have the maturity of twelve year olds because they’ve never had to want for anything. (But that’s another story, and I digress.)
What with marrying brothers, Aunt Bonnie became good friends with my mother, Ethel, who was married to R.L. Downing. My mom and dad had married only a couple of years before Thurl and Bonnie, and all soon became close friends. In late 1942, Aunt Bonnie and Uncle Thurl had their first child, Carletta, and Mom was there to help Aunt Bonnie adjust to motherhood. She was the ripe old age of sixteen. Aunt Bonnie was able to return the motherhood favor in May, 1943, when I was born. Mother had a few problems after I was born, not the least which was a high blood pressure condition which she would live with for the rest of her life. But Aunt Bonnie was there for her on a daily basis, and, in fact, was the first to point out to my mother a peculiar characteristic of her young infant son.
My mother told me this story many times, and it goes like this: Bonnie came to her one day and said, “Ethel, have you ever noticed what your baby does when he’s sleeping?”
Mom said, “Well, no, not really. What is it?”
Bonnie said, “Most babies when they get ready to turn over just sort of roll over to one side or another and they’re happy. Bobby uses his hands to flip himself up and then spins his body around to get to his new position. He shakes the whole bed!”
I have a confession to make: I still do that. During many a restless night I have awakened for some reason and found my wife gone, only to discover she was in the living room recliner or on the sofa asleep. She has said on my restless nights it was like she was sleeping on a trampoline. We have solved the problem with a bed that doesn’t transmit movement, but I’m still a spinner to this day.
In the early years the two Downing families lived on the same street, and as far as us kids were concerned, we practically weren’t sure which house was ours; we felt comfortable in either one. The rules were the same in either house, and we kids knew that respect, courtesy, and good behavior were expected in either home. Though our fathers played critical roles in our upbringing, in those days it was the mother who set the tone for the home. Like my mother, Aunt Bonnie established a legacy of honesty, character, and integrity in dealing with her husband, children, and relatives. Our homes offered to us kids foundations of solid rock where we knew where we stood and offered us places on which to build.
We, the offspring of T.E. and Bonnie Downing, Robert L. and Ethel Downing, Lawrence and Blanche Downing, and Orville and Reba Downing and the other siblings of that generation, are bound with a responsibility to pass to our children the redeeming qualities which were taught to us…and which are so lacking in many families today. Our children need to know they have a tradition and a legacy that must be treasured and practiced.
On August 28, 2009, in a simple, elegant ceremony very similar to my own mother’s service on December 24, 2004, we laid Bonnie Laverne Williams Downing to rest in a small country cemetery. Surrounded by a loving family and friends we bade farewell to a stalwart of faith and love. She had survived the Great Depression, World War II, sixty-seven years of marriage, five children, fourteen grandchildren, nineteen great-grandchildren, seven great-great-grandchildren, and eighty three years of life. One more link to the past had been broken.
Finally, she could rest.