I never met Uncle Paul. He was born to my grandmother during the Great Depression and died at 24 in a terrible car crash shortly before Christmas 1959. I know him only through my mother’s memories.
She was 13 when he was killed. Her recollections of that awful December remain vivid: her father’s dreadful sobs as he cried out like a wounded animal; my grandmother lying in the bed her son woke up in that morning, placing her head in the Vitalis-stained imprint still fresh on the pillow; and the rainstorm that flooded Uncle Paul’s grave before the coffin could be lowered and covered in soil.
At the time of his death, Uncle Paul was living with one of his sisters. A few weeks after his burial, a young man also in his early twenties knocked on my aunt’s door. He wanted to talk about my uncle. The conversation was stilted and hesitant until, finally, the visitor blurted out what he had come to say: “People don’t know this, but I want you to know that Paul and I loved each other. We really loved each other.”
Few in those days dared admit even the possibility that some men love men and some women love women. In 1960, homosexuality was a condition diagnosed as sick by psychiatry, sinful by religion, and criminal by law enforcement. It hadn’t crossed my aunt’s mind that her brother had a life she didn’t know about. To protect my uncle’s reputation, she kept this conversation to herself for over 30 years.
In May 1992, when I was about the age Uncle Paul was at his passing, I called my mother late one evening and disclosed a secret I had been keeping since I was eight years old: “Mom, I’m gay.” She seemed, for my sake I later learned, to take the news without surprise or unease.
By coincidence, the following morning Mom and her sisters gathered for their annual Sisters’ Day Yard Sale at the home of the aunt who was still keeping Uncle Paul’s secret. All their lives my aunts were a great comfort to each other, openly sharing worries and sorrows and family news, so it wasn’t unusual that Mom revealed what only a few hours earlier she had learned about her son. To her supportive sisters, she expressed her concerns and worries. There were tears. For my aunt, it seemed the time had finally come to let go of that old secret about the visitor to her home after Uncle Paul’s death. She told every detail that day.
Several years later, I tracked down that visitor. He was in his 70s, ill, and living with a niece in St. Louis. He confirmed my aunt’s story. He and Uncle Paul had been “lovers” (his word). Uncle Paul, he said, was a good man who turned many heads, male and female. Many years had gone by, but he cherished the memory of my uncle: “He was unforgettable.”
Uncle Paul would be 81 now. I often think about how he might have navigated those perilous days long before the LGBT civil rights movement gained widespread acceptance. Conformity to the demands of his time by marriage to a woman was always a possibility. Leaving behind rural Missouri for a life in Chicago or New York or San Francisco was another. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to make such choices.
The late Paul Monette wrote that “most gay history is buried in shallow bachelor’s graves.” My uncle’s bachelor’s grave rests beside his mother and father in a country cemetery. During this 23rd annual LGBT History Month I wonder what kind of history the uncle I never met might have made if that vehicle hadn’t crossed the median and slammed into his car in 1959.
—Rodney Wilson was a high school history teacher in St. Louis when he founded LGBT History Month in 1994.