Sometimes I think I grew up in a family of crybabies. Actually, I grew up in two families and had a third one I didn’t know about until I was an old man. The ones I grew up in were the Chavers and Godwin families. The one I found in my old age was the Locklear family.
Luther Cherry Chavers was my daddy because he had married momma after she got pregnant with me. But my father was Issac Locklear, and I never met him. He went into the military while I was still a baby and stayed 26 ½ years. He spent 10 years and four months in Europe after World War II was over. His five brothers and sisters were half-grown when they first remember him. He was away for 12 or 15 years without ever coming home. His daddy Isiah would visit him in Texas, by himself.
I learned in 2002 from my cousin Kitty Oxendine that my baby aunt (I am 12 years older than she) Flora Jane Locklear lived across the road from Uncle John Godwin. I thought the Locklear family might not want to meet me, since I was Issac’s illegitimate son. But I took a chance and called Flora Jane the next June.
I told her when I got her on the phone that I was Issac’s son, and she started crying. She said, “I’m getting cold chills.” It turns out that all of them knew Issac had a son, but they did not know my name or momma’s name. We made arrangements to meet a couple of weeks later when I would be home.
I held up pretty well when we got to the restaurant, where about 20 people met me for the first time. My baby aunt Jeanette (I’m 20 years older than she is) showed me a huge picture album they had brought, and I flipped through several pages, with Flora Jane telling me who the people were. But I had not yet seen a picture of Issac. I said, “Where is Issac’s picture?” Jeanette got up from the other side of the table and came around. She flipped right to his picture, and as soon as I saw it I started balling like a baby. I know I cried for three minutes or more, and could not stop. My daughter Monica asked her mom Toni “Why is Daddy crying so much?”
Toni said, “Monica, you’ve always known who your father is. But your dad just found out.”
My baby uncle Boss (Ezra Locklear) turned out to be the biggest crier of all five. The first time I laid eyes on him I knew who he was and I grabbed him and hugged him. He was balling his eyes out, and so was I. After a couple of minutes he let go and so did I. But we looked at each other and we hugged again for a couple of minutes. Then we went on into Linda’s Restaurant and sat down.
My sister Gail Swineford was with us and so was Jeanette. We ordered and Gail innocently asked, “Boss, does Dean remind you of Issac?” He started crying again, harder than before. Jeanette started crying, and I started, and then Gail couldn’t stop, either. The people in Linda’s restaurant looked at us kind of funny, but I didn’t care. I had finally found my other, real, family.
Momma cried at daddy’s funeral. Daddy died on July 30, 1959 in the VA hospital. He had been hit with mustard gas in Belgium in World War I. Momma held up at his funeral until the Army Color Guard fired off their rifles; then she let out a loud scream and a cry at the same time. She cried again when Ted Brewington, one of our neighbors and one of the Army guys, gave her the folded flag.
My sister Sally Sublett cried when the Navy troops fired over her late husband Jack’s casket. She had held up pretty well at the services. But the burst of gunfire was almost matched by her loud scream. Jackie Ray was the love of her life. We lost their son John on July 31, 2015; he was only 54 years old.
My great-grandfather Angus (“Angish”) Chavers was drafted at 15 years of age in 1862. When the Yankees captured him and several hundred other troops after Fort Fisher fell, they took them to the prison in Elmira, New York. “Hellmira” had the highest death rate of all the prison camps—24 percent. It was cold as hell. They had no heat, and had only one blanket each. People froze to death there.
When the war was over in June 1865, the camp commandant, Col. Benjamin Tracy, told the troops they would have to make their own way home. Angish and this white man named Mr. Odom walked all the way home to North Carolina, about 650 miles. It took them six weeks. Their shoes wore out and they put cardboard in them to keep from walking on the ground. Angish was 18 years old.
When they got home, his father Thomas and mother Avy were outside working when they saw two dirty men walking toward them. “Who you reckon that is?” Avy asked. Thomas said, “I don’t believe I know.”
By this time Angish was close enough to hear them. He cried out, “Momma, it’s me, Angish.”
“Oh Lord,” she cried out. “Son, I thought you was dead.” She had had no communication with him the whole time he was in prison. They said people could hear her crying and hollering for miles. He was only 18 years old when he got home.
My grandma Jessie Chavers Godwin’s brother Thomas left home before World War I and landed in Sylacauga, Alabama. My uncle Angus Godwin, the opera professor, remembers him coming home for a short visit in the late 1930s. I remember him coming home for a short visit in the late 1940s. But neither time did he bring his five kids or his wife Lottie.
I asked grandma for his address in 1965 when I was stationed at Turner AFB, Georgia. I wrote him and asked if I could visit, and he said he would be glad to see me. I went to visit him and Aunt Lottie three times in the next couple of years. But grandma had still not seen her four nieces or her nephew.
Finally, three of them, Marion, Edith, and Ruth, wrote grandma in 1973 and asked if they could visit her at her home in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. They went to D.C. for the Cherry Blossom Festival and stopped by to see her on their way home. Grandma’s daughter-in-law Ramona “Bootsie” Godwin was there when they drove up, and she told me about it.
Here were these three elderly women (Marion had been born in 1911) coming to see this little elderly brown woman, their aunt, for the first time. Grandma was 78 years old, and had been wondering for over 60 years what they looked like. All of them looked remarkably like Uncle Thomas. She was crying when she stepped out of the house to meet them, and all four of them had a good cry.
But grandma died never having seen her other niece from Uncle Thomas, Clara Howard, who lived in Marquette, Michigan. And she never saw any of their children or Clara’s daughter Liz.
When I was stationed on Guam, Okinawa, and Thailand during the Viet Nam War, I wrote regular letters to grandma and momma. But when my buddy Swede Brown crashed his B-52 at Da Nang, I knew grandma would be worried thinking it was I. So I arranged for an Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) in our squadron to let me call her over his ham radio, the only way we could call home. It took a while, but I finally got her on the line.
“Grandma, it’s Dean,” I said. She said, “Are you all right? I thought you might have been on that plane that crashed.”
“No, ma’am,” I said. “That was our buddy Swede Brown, and Swede and five of his crew members were killed. The only one who got out was the tail gunner.” “Thank the Lord you’re safe,” she said.
My grandpa Purcell Godwin banished my Aunt Chris in 1947 for marrying the wrong man. He had a streak in himself that was virulent and that could not be controlled. Even though he finished raising me, from the age of 16 to 22, I knew about his terrible temper and his lack of forgiveness.
My sister Gail went to see him when he was on his deathbed in 1972. When just the two of them were in the room together, she asked gently, “Grandpa, would you like to see Chris?” He started balling like a baby, Gail said. When he stopped, he said, “Yes I would like to see her. Can you call her?”
Chris packed her suitcase in Charlotte and drove to the hospital in Petersburg, Virginia. When she walked into the room with Gail, grandpa started crying again. When he finally stopped, he simply said, “I’m sorry about all that mess.” Chris said, “It’s all right, daddy.” And they both had a good cry. They had not seen each other for 25 years. Chris was his favorite.
Cynthia Ann Parker, a white girl, was captured by Comanche Indians on May 19, 1836. The Parker family were settlers in Texas in the early days. Cynthia was 8 years old. She soon learned the Comanche language and forgot most of her English language.
She was recaptured on December 18, 1860 by Sul Ross and the Texas Rangers, 24 and a half years later, in the Pease River Massacre. She had married one of the Comanche chiefs, Peta Necona, the love of her life, and had three children. He was killed in the massacre. She remembered very little of her English, but to save herself she told her captors, “Me Cincee Ann. Me Cincee Ann.” She was denied the right to live with the Comanche and had to live with her sister. She died of melancholia a few years later, only 43 years old. She refused to eat. Her son Quanah Parker became the most famous Comanche chief of all time.
Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship program for Native college students. He invites students to contact him at CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com. They do not have enough applicants.
This story was originally published August 24, 2015.