“Colonel Rapp, this is Captain Simmons reporting for duty.” Thus I began my final “conversation” with my uncle, John Rapp. It’s a stretch to call it a conversation because he was heavily sedated and sleeping. Nevertheless, I thanked my uncle for his importance in my life and stroked his hand. I don’t really know whether he heard or understood anything I said or did; I didn’t even know, of course, that these would be among my last words to him. About an hour after we were together, he took his last breaths. After ninety years of life, my favorite uncle had, as it says on so many early cemetery stones in our southern Indiana homeland, “gone home.”
Even as an adult, I addressed my uncle by the name I used for him as a child, Uncle Pood. He had been diagnosed in December with a brain tumor and given up to six months to live. He lasted less than a month. After hearing of his diagnosis, my wife Mary Ann and I made plans to travel to his home in Virginia to spend time with him, my cousin Lindy Rapp Uehling (his daughter), and others in the family. We knew it might be our final opportunity to all be together.
My Uncle Pood was one of the most significant figures in my life. We never lived close to each other, but I shared many formative experiences with him when I was a child during the 1950s. Some of those occurred when, along with my brother and cousins, we roamed the Jackson County, Indiana, farm that was owned and operated by his mother (my grandmother), Christine Lebline Rapp. Uncle Pood and his family usually came to visit her at the farm during summers in the 1950s, and my family often went there at those times to be with them.
My uncle loved to camp with us children during those visits, and to take us swimming in the nearby White River or wading in a small brook that flowed through the farm. He got as much joy from these adventures as we did, and his playfulness when we were together made it seem like he was more of a brother than an elder. I especially recall with fondness our hikes together as we sang old-time songs he taught us such as:
Wait ’til the sun shines, Nellie,
And the clouds go drifting by;
We will be happy, Nellie,
Don’t you cry.
Down lover’s lane we’ll wander,
Sweetheart, you and I;
Wait ’til the sun shines, Nellie,
Bye and bye.
Those were idyllic times for us all.
Uncle Pood was serving as an Air Force officer on active duty during that same time period. He’d previously been a B-17 pilot and flown bombing missions over Germany during World War II. He later piloted B-50 and B-47 bombers for the Strategic Air Command. I drew so much pride from him as a boy knowing that he did these exciting things. My uncle’s life certainly seemed more interesting than my Dad’s life as a factory production manager at the time, or even my friends’ fathers’ lives for that matter.
Later I was a student at Purdue University and enrolled in Air Force ROTC. Upon graduation, I too became an Air Force officer. Although not a pilot, I also served with the Strategic Air Command. My uncle took pride in my identity as the only other Air Force officer in the family; it solidified our relationship. At that time, he had just retired from his 24-year Air Force career, and I was deciding whether to renew my military commitment. I was quite surprised when he simply said to me, “Come on out, Steve, the water’s fine!” That was all I needed. I left the Air Force after my four-year term of duty and began graduate studies, which subsequently led to my career at the University of Minnesota. My Uncle Pood’s support during that time as I transitioned from the security of military life to the vagaries of graduate school and my early career was very important. Even before I became established on the faculty at the university, he would sometimes say, “You’re cutting a wide swath, Steve. Keep up the good work!” I needed to hear that.
In later years, our relationship became more like that of peers. I still called him Uncle Pood, of course, but our conversations were on more of a level plain. He became my most consistent source for family stories and history in support of my writings. His memory wasn’t always perfect, but whatever I received from him through his recollections always came with a flourish: “I remember it like it was yesterday,” he would often begin. I took mental notes, and even recorded him once while we were on a road trip together in New Mexico. Those recordings of his stories are now a treasure for me.
My uncle’s most significant influence on my writing, however, came not from his family stories. It was through his amazing discovery eight years ago of a journal kept by his mother, Christine Lebline, during the time she traveled for two months through Europe as a young woman during the summer of 1911. The contents of that journal have inspired my writing more than anything else. I can’t comprehend the long odds against him finding that little book floating in waste-deep water in his flooded basement, and having the presence of mind to save it. Yet that was my Uncle Pood’s way; he just did things and he thought about the dangers and implications afterwards.
It was also my uncle’s way to misplace things. Not long after he initially discovered the journal, he lost it. Thinking that the journal had been discarded after the flood, I resolved that I would probably never know what was actually in it. But my uncle did eventually find it again, and he immediately made copies of each page and sent them to me for use in my writing. However, I still had never seen the journal itself, and so I made plans to travel to his home in Virginia to see the book first-hand and to photograph it to illustrate future essays.
Before Mary Ann and I left on our trip to Virginia, my Uncle Pood called to inform me that he had lost the journal again. That was six years ago and it was a sad day for me. He said he had looked “high and low” for it, but to no avail. We still made our trip anyway, and I even went into the basement with him to help him look for the journal again. We found nothing. I resigned myself to the high probability that Christine’s journal was gone, and this time for good.
When Mary Ann and I arrived at my uncle’s home that overcast afternoon in January to say good-bye, a number of family and friends were already present there. It was soon apparent to us that my uncle’s condition had worsened and that we wouldn’t be able to converse with him as we had hoped. We settled into the afternoon visiting with my cousin Lindy and other family and friends there. We looked through family photographs and memorabilia, and shared fond reflections and memories of him.
Later that afternoon, Lindy remarked to me, “You know, somehow I think we’re going to find grandmother’s journal again.” I smiled and nodded, but I privately had my doubts. I accepted her comment as a well-meaning gesture of encouragement, much as her father might have offered, but after waiting six years in vain for the journal to turn up again, I had lost hope. I reasoned that perhaps while cleaning the house and basement after the flood (a process involving more people than just family), someone who did not understand its significance must have discarded the little notebook. I understood that I should just be thankful I at least had the page texts my uncle had copied and sent to me after the journal’s initial discovery. I knew I could continue writing essays based on those, as I already had. And with my uncle’s life slipping away that afternoon, I must acknowledge that the journal and its whereabouts didn’t seem very important to me then. Yet in the midst of my sadness that particular day, Lindy had offered me hope.
Lindy and I were reasonably close as young children, at least whenever we connected at our grandmother’s farm. Yet we seldom saw or communicated with each other at any other times; this pattern continued well into adulthood. After years of little contact, Mary Ann and I arranged a one-day rendezvous in 2001 with Lindy and her husband Jim at their home in New York State. My mother accompanied us, and my Uncle Pood was also there. It was the last time my uncle, Lindy and I were together in the same place—until that fateful Saturday in January, my Uncle Pood’s final day.
The day after my uncle died, Mary Ann and I returned to our home in Minnesota. One day later, I received an e-mail message from Lindy thanking me for some photographs I had sent her documenting our time together that previous weekend. Her note read:
“This is a delightful set of pictures, Steve. Thank you! Dad would be so joyful seeing the happiness and love we shared as we were together grappling with the loss of his presence. Since you left, I have been unearthing many articles from the past that may be new to our collections, which you so beautifully archive. I will prepare a box and send them when I’ve finished the exploration. And…the little red diary is among them!!”
Two days after her father died, Lindy had gone into the basement of his house to begin sorting through some of his papers. Within an hour, she had found the elusive journal! Her announcement of the journal’s discovery in her message was so unexpected that it took me two readings before I fully comprehended what she was saying. I later wrote in my journal:
One outcome of Uncle Pood’s passing is that Lindy says she’s found Christine’s “little red diary” among his things. I so hope it’s true, but I dare not get too excited until I actually see the book. Lindy says that she will be sending it to me along with some other family keepsakes…I must say, I’ll believe it when I see it.
Clearly, I was still having difficulty believing what I had read in Lindy’s note. I reasoned that since she herself had not seen the actual journal before either, perhaps the “diary” she had found was the wrong one. That’s crazy thinking, of course, but I didn’t want to get my hopes too high lest I be disappointed again.
Three more days passed. I was away when the package from Lindy arrived at my home during the afternoon. When I came back, Mary Ann informed me that a box had come in the mail and was on the dining room table. I went straight to look at it, although I didn’t open the package immediately. I explained to Mary Ann that I wanted to document my first encounter with the journal via photographs and that we could best do it in the evening. In truth is, however, I was stalling since I still had reservations about the journal being in that box.
After dinner, I began opening the package and Mary Ann took photos to document the process. There were other keepsakes Lindy had included in the box, some of which came out first, but when I saw the journal contained in its plastic sleeve, I recognized it immediately. The closest I can come to describing the emotion I felt at that moment was the response I had when I saw each of my newborn daughters for the first time. It was a strong sense of both joy and wonder.
As I took the journal from its sleeve, I remarked to Mary Ann that it was smaller in size than I had expected. I realized then that when my uncle copied the journal pages he had sent to me earlier, he substantially enlarged them. I had just assumed that the copies I received were the actual dimensions of the journal itself. Later, I made 4X6 photographic prints of some of those page copies, and those turned out to be more the size of the original journal, although I didn’t know that then.
When I first held the journal in my hands, it seemed so fragile. I couldn’t imagine such a frail object surviving one hundred years plus a flood! It affirmed for me a sense that this little book in my hands was truly a miracle. I read the final two pages from the journal, which are for me among the most poignant. I was deeply moved. Reading from Christine’s actual inscriptions made it seem as if she was right there with me. Later, I put the journal back into its protective sleeve and placed it on a bookshelf in my writing space near other heirlooms that trace to my grandmother’s European trip so long ago.
In the days following my receipt of the journal, I occasionally took it from its place on the bookshelf and marveled anew. I felt deep gratitude to Lindy for having rediscovered the journal so soon her father’s death. And I also reflected upon another experience I had during Mary Ann’s and my travels in northern Italy that previous fall as we relived Christine’s Dream. Here is what happened.
We were in Venice, which was one of Christine’s favorite cities during her 1911 trip. We decided after arriving that it might be good to extend our stay there for one more day. However, our hotel and others in the area were fully booked, so we made plans to travel a short distance west from Venice and stay overnight in the city of Padua (also called Padova). I didn’t know much about that town before we arrived, but it turned out to be one of my most memorable times in Italy. Through Rick Steves’ travel guide, which we often referenced during our time there, I learned that one of the most popular Christian pilgrimage sites, the Basilica of St. Anthony, is located in Padua.
One of Christendom’s most popular saints, Anthony is known as a powerful speaker, a miracle worker, and the finder of lost articles…[he] is buried here. Construction of this impressive Romanesque/Gothic church (with its Byzantine-style domes) started immediately after St. Anthony’s death in 1231. And for nearly 800 years, his remains and this glorious church have attracted pilgrims to Padua. —from Rick Steves’ Italy
Our time in Padua turned out to be a kind of pilgrimage for me—and I hadn’t planned for that beforehand. Mary Ann and I decided to go see the Basilica of St. Anthony in the afternoon and we were taken by its beauty. After I went inside, I was most impressed by a line of pilgrims awaiting the opportunity to pass by Anthony’s tomb and to place their hands upon it. I read again from Rick Steve’s travel guide:
…the faithful believe [St. Anthony] works miracles…By putting their hands on his tomb while saying silent prayers, pilgrims show devotion to Anthony and feel the saint’s presence. Anthony is the patron saint for dozens of things…[but] most pilgrims ask for his help in his role as the “finder of things”—from lost car keys to a life companion.
After reading this, I thought of Christine’s journal lost somewhere, perhaps even in my uncle’s home back in Virginia. I decided to assume the role of a pilgrim and stand in line until I had the opportunity to place my hands on Anthony’s tomb and to pray for the journal’s rediscovery. I realized that finding a lost journal was really not very important in the larger scheme of things, but I figured it had to be at least as significant to St. Anthony as finding someone’s lost car keys!
More background is in order here regarding a past connection I had to St. Anthony. Two years before our trip to Italy, I had a student at the university, Bobbi Schiller-Haglin, in a course I taught during my final semester before retirement. Bobbi was one of those students whose abilities and demeanor caused her to stand out in the class. As the term progressed, we became acquainted and I shared with her about my grandmother’s 1911 trip to Europe and about the lost journal. Without missing a beat, Bobbi asked if she might tell her mother about it knowing that she would pray to St. Anthony that the journal might be found. I hadn’t yet heard about St. Anthony’s role in finding lost things at that point, but I agreed to Bobbi’s offer. I figured that I needed all the help I could get in recovering that little book. After the semester concluded, Bobbi and I remained friends and met together from time to time. When we did, she usually reminded me that her mother was still faithfully praying that St. Anthony would bring about the journal’s return. I smiled whenever she told me that.
Two weeks after I received the journal from my cousin Lindy, I arranged to meet with Bobbi again for the purpose of showing it to her. After catching up a bit, I asked if she wanted to see the journal and she did, of course. I took it out of its sleeve and gave it to her to hold. I’m not sure what went through her mind at that moment, but I expect it was a mix of emotions similar to what I experienced when I held that little book for the first time. I asked Mary Ann to take our picture with the journal so that Bobbi could share it with her mother. A day or so later, I received an e-mail message from Bobbi along with an attached photo that she had created from the one Mary Ann took. I am still smiling.
Pilgrimages? Prayers to St. Anthony? “Have you lost your marbles, Steve?” you might ask. Well, maybe I have. Yet how else can I explain the fact that I am now holding in my hands the very journal Christine once wrote, and after such a—dare I say miraculous—journey to its place in my home alongside the other heirlooms I have from her great adventure? I am filled with awe and wonder; how else can I account for it? My three year-old grandson Samuel might simply say, “Who knows?” Maybe that’s as good an explanation as any. One thing I do know—Christine’s fragile, little journal has come home to stay.
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2012. All rights reserved.