52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge this week is “nearly forgotten”. The first person to come to mind was my Uncle Donnie. I wrote his story in 2013 and am re-posting it today. I loved this man, and I am sad about all the years that were lost with him. To find out about Donnie’s nearly forgotten life read on.
My father’s brother was mentally challenged. Back when my father was growing up the term used was mentally retarded. His brother, Donnie, was 14 years younger than him. I don’t know if Donnie was born that way or if something happened after birth. This was in the 1930’s, and they did not know as much as they do today on how to treat people with mental retardation. He lived at home with my grandparents, and my grandmother did the best she knew how. My grandmother died the year before I was born so I never knew her. When she died, my grandfather had to make a tough decision of what to do with Donnie. He had to go to work and could not leave him at home alone. He could not afford to have someone come in and take care of him. He decided to put Donnie in a state mental hospital. My father and grandfather would go visit him regularly. After my grandfather passed away in 1955, my mother and father would go see Donnie and send him clothes and things. As a little girl, I would ask to go along. My parents always refused to take me. My father said “You never know what these people are going to do”, and he didn’t think it was safe to take me. I asked why he couldn’t live with us. My dad explained that Donnie couldn’t be left alone. You never knew what he was going to do. He could set the house on fire, or hurt my brother or me. He could not use the washroom on his own. There were more reasons, but now I can’t remember all of them now. After many years went by, my mom and dad quit going. My father claimed that Donnie didn’t even know him anymore.
In 1984 my dad passed away and my mother followed in 1987. My brother and I had never met Donnie, and by this time it had been so long since my parents had visited that we didn’t even know where he was at. We didn’t know how to go about finding him. For ten years after my mother’s death, we didn’t try to find him. Then one day my brother was going through some papers of my mothers, and he found some information that told what state hospital Donnie was in. He contacted the hospital and Donnie was no longer there, but they were able to tell my brother that Donnie was still alive and where he was now residing. My brother then called the hospital where Donnie resided, and he was told that Donnie was doing OK. They invited us to come see him. They seemed thrilled to find out that this man had a family.
In April of 1997 my brother and I made a day trip to see Donnie, and I met my uncle for the first time. He looked at us with curiosity. His nurse told him we were his family. He shook our hands, and we sat on a porch. He had a hard time communicating. But you could see he was taking in everything. I think he knew way more that he was able to communicate. I asked him questions which he couldn’t answer, and told him that I was his Brother George’s daughter. He repeated, “George”. I told him George was in heaven with his mother and father. He seemed to understand. I asked him if he watched baseball and did he like the Cubs. He said, “The Cubs suck.” He would make hand motions when he wanted something. He started pulling on his shirt and trying to unbutton it. I asked him if he was uncomfortable and he said, “shirt sucks.” He also said a few swear words that came out clear. Other than that most of what he said, I could not understand. But I felt we made a connection with him. I asked him if he could give me a hug and he did. When he was given commands he obeyed them. He knew what was being said to him. He was able to go to the bathroom by himself and keep himself clean. They told us if we came back to bring pictures of my dad and grandparents. He resembled my father and was a kind man. He was not as bad off as my father had described. Maybe it was because they knew more in recent years on how to help people with mental disabilities. The administrator showed us his records going back to when he was admitted in 1946. We did go back many times after that day, and brought my husband and children. We went there for special events like Christmas parties, picnics, etc. We brought pictures of my dad and grandparents. He ran his fingers over the picture of my dad and said, “George”. I brought a picture of his mother and he said, “Ma”. Another time he told me that his mother was with God. He made me tear up many, many times. Donnie would tear up when he saw us. So I believe he knew we were his family. My brother brought him a video of trains because we remembered my father saying he liked trains, and my father would take him to the train yards to look at the trains. I looked forward to each visit. I had fallen in love with my Uncle Donnie. Unfortunately, Donnie had a heart attack and died in 2002 at 68 years old. The hospital had a memorial service for him. I was unable to attend because I had Pneumonia at the time, but my brother went to it. I am happy we had five wonderful years to get to know and love him. Uncle Donnie is now free to fly without any physical or mental limitations. May he rest in peace.