Elmer and Merle Townsend
(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)
Mary was up early the morning after her parents moved into the trailer across the driveway from her house. Peeking out the utility room window, she was surprised to see her dad already up, stepping out for a stroll and breath of fresh air. She’d been concerned about the move being too stressful for them since they were now in their late seventies.
Once Jimmy was off to school Mary checked on Paul, who was sleeping soundly, then returned to the utility room window. The rising sun burned away a layer of light fog that had shrouded the Massanutten Peak overnight. Birds twittered and a distant cow bellowed. Elmer stomped grass from his shoes, then stood erect with his trademark air of dignity as he looked her way. His receding gray hair was hidden by a casual cap that matched the cardigan he wore. An expression of contented satisfaction marked his countenance.
Watching him, Mary remembered the energizing tranquility the mountain air had triggered in her the first morning she awakened in this place. Knowing what he was experiencing, she stepped outside and called to him.
“Good morning, Dad. Looks like you’ve been for a walk. How did you sleep last night?”
“Wonderful!” he called back. “Mother and I both feel refreshed. Just stretching my legs.” He broke into his “almost” smile, as Mary referred to it, which was cut short of its full expression by ingrained Quaker pride.
“I’m glad to hear that. Is there anything you need?”
“Not a thing, thanks. You tell Mr PR Harris I’ll be visiting him later on.”
Mary chuckled at his way of referring to Paul…which Paul really liked. “I’m going in to get him up now. As soon as we’ve finished breakfast and his exercises he’ll be ready for a visit.”
“Okay. See you later.”
So began Elmer and Merle’s time of sharing life with their daughter and her family. Hugh T was now in college, married and serving as a pastor. Sis was a nurse living in Richmond. Jim would soon enter high school. This all created a gap for Paul who had thrived on the daily give-and-take he shared with his siblings.
This particular morning launched the Dairyman into an eight-year routine characterized by a split-level focus as caregiver to his wife, and companion to Paul. Each day the weather permitted, he sat with Paul under the carport where they gazed across the field to Mr. Armstrong’s barn and the tree-crested hills beyond.
Elmer shared stories from his own younger years, weaving them into songs he sang to his grandson. One of those he titled, “I Love the Country.” These daily musings invoked a bonding that enriched life for both grandfather and grandson–and for Mary, too, as she took it all in with deep appreciation.
These interactions were essential for Paul. As soon as his older brother had left home for the Army, Paul had told his mother how much he missed him. Mary shared Hugh T’s letters about military life, and the places he traveled, hoping to help Paul feel connected. At the same time, she knew the letters were about adventures Paul could only dream about, but never experience himself.
A bi-product of Hugh T’s departure was that Paul inherited the status of “older brother.” He relished the idea, but there was a barbed underside to it. Once Jimmy began surging into activities that were closed to him–dating and learning to drive–Paul’s suppressed emotions spilled out. One day Paul shed his characteristic attitude of stoic acceptance about his life and circumstances, and began to cry angrily.
“Paul, what’s wrong? Does something hurt?” Mary had seldom seen him get so upset
“No!” he bellowed, retching at his hand restraints as though trying to escape the CP demon that held him prisoner.
Mary questioned him, trying to find out what was going on. Finally he got his words together.
“It’s not because I don’t want him to do those things,” he told her through his sobs. “It’s because I can’t!”
Mary understood. Paul was bristling under the stress of his youngest sibling growing up. It was an existential frustration which, once ventilated, left a trough of calm resignation into which he could retreat. He threw his head back and to the side, glancing sideways at his mother.
“I…I’m…sorry.” He forced the words, as though regaining balance by the very effort.
“You don’t have to be sorry about saying what you feel. I know it’s hard for you as Jimmy grows up. You don’t need to apologize for that. God loves you, and we love you–just for you…for who you are. You’re a very special person.”
“I…know,” Paul said as his head involuntarily turned to the side. His eyes got larger and he strained with his hands, halfway smiling. “Oh well…I’m…happy anyway!”
Mary thanked God for her dad stepping into Paul’s life at this particular time. She didn’t know how, exactly, but Elmer Townsend was a God-send who would have lasting impact for the duration of Paul’s life.
Elmer’s influence wasn’t only directed toward Paul. Sometimes he would say or do something that surprised Mary, and tugged at her memory bank from the dairy farm years. One of those occasions came on a summer day when she and her parents were sitting under a shade tree shelling peas fresh from the garden. Out of the corner of her eye Mary saw movement in the grass a short distance from them.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, jumping up, the shelled peas exploding from her bowl as it hit the ground.
Paul squealed with excitement.
Merle declared, “Father, do something.” She and Elmer always referred to each other as “mother,” and “father.”
Calmly, as fit his Quaker nature, Elmer got up, went into the trailer and returned quickly with a 22-caliber pistol. A black snake, probably confused by all the commotion, seemed frozen in place. Elmer released the safety, raised the gun and aimed.
“Everybody just sit still,” he said, then squeezed off one round. The snake, hit in the head, lurched, wriggled erratically, then slumped. Dead!
Mary, hands to her mouth, took it all in with a gasp. Her mother calmly resumed her pea shelling. Mary was stunned. She knew her dad had hunted back in the dairy farm days. He still had a shotgun that she saw him get out and clean periodically. Where did he learn to shoot like that? It was so unQuakerish. And at his age! Elmer was in his early eighties.
She soon learned that he’d kept the pistol for just such emergencies over the years, though it had seldom been used. Learning to shoot was just part of growing up on an active farm. Since Mary drew the line of tolerance at even the thought of snakes, she was glad to have her dad around.
Whenever Elmer sat with Paul under the carport, he moved his trademark Buick to make room. He’d driven a black Buick sedan, that Merle called their “machine,” for years. He was a good driver, and part of his life became transporting Mary and Paul to their appointments in Harrisonburg, about five miles away over a narrow, curvy road. Gradually Mary noticed her dad becoming less confident as he drove. She expressed her concern to him.
“I’m not seeing as well as I used to,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any danger, but I don’t want anything to happen to you or Paul. Maybe I should have an eye exam.”
He did–and discovered he had a wrinkle under the retina in one eye. This caused a vision disturbance where straight lines became wavy so that his other eye had to compensate. It was not something that could be cured. He adjusted to it and continued to function as normally as possible.
The day did come, however, when he and Merle knew that even with family across the driveway, they needed to live in a different kind of supportive community. Elmer and Merle were lifelong members of the Masons and Eastern Star. They had kept in touch with many Masonic friends back in Cincinnati over the years. Some of them had begun moving into the Masonic Home in Dayton, Ohio. Elmer and Merle’s eight-year sojourn in Virginia came to an end when they decided to join them.
As he made this decision, Elmer had one thought about its impact. He’d seen first-hand how hard it was becoming to handle Paul and transport him around. Part of the problem was having to put Paul’s wheelchair in the trunk, and then get him out of the car and into it. He called Mary over to the trailer for a talk.
“Paul is growing, and I’ve seen how hard it is to carry him in the car, so I have a plan.” He reached into a small metal box where he kept important papers, pulled out a certificate and placed it on the table.
“This is the title to my car. You know I can’t see to drive well, and at the Masonic Home I won’t have to. I want to give the car to you…I want you to sell it and buy a van to transport Paul.”
Mary felt overwhelmed. ‘Oh, Dad, that’s such a wonderful gift, but don’t you and Mother need the money?”
“No, we have all of that taken care of. Everything is settled…except this. I really want to help Mr. PR Harris have good transportation.”
Mary accepted the title and with proceeds from selling the car, bought a used VW van. Hugh devised a portable ramp so Paul could be wheeled into the vehicle. Mary, who hadn’t driven for years, found driving came back to her quite easily. Hugh coached her and she studied the driving manual, then went to get her permit.
Things went well until it came to the task of parallel parking. She just couldn’t do it, and failed to get a license. She was disappointed and mad at herself. This is ridiculous, she thought. I can do this…its just been a long time. She knuckled down for a second try.
Things went exactly the same way again, including failing at parallel parking. She felt the blood drain from her head as she realized she couldn’t take the test again for six months…and Paul’s transportation needs couldn’t wait.
The instructor sat with his clipboard in the passenger seat and gave her a long look. “Mrs. Harris, you are a careful driver. Everything is okay except for parking.” He paused. “I’m going to pass you, but please, drive around until you find a parking space you can pull straight into, okay?”
She agreed. Paul came to gleefully anticipate riding with his mom. Then one day it happened. As they were driving home she hit the brakes to avoid a bump in the road. She heard Paul’s chair turn over behind her.
Mary looked in the rear view mirror and panicked. “Paul, where are you? Are you okay?”
“I’ve got to stop and get to him,” she told herself. Finding a wide place in the shoulder, she pulled off, letting go of the steering wheel to look back over the bench seat before coming to a complete stop.
A strong voice suddenly jarred her. “Mary! Put your hands back on the wheel!”
She did so immediately, came to a complete stop, then jumped out and ran around to the side door to get Paul. As she opened it her tension suddenly evaporated. He was still fastened in the chair that was lying on its side…unhurt…and laughing hard!
Mary found herself laughing with her son. She struggled until she got the chair upright, then continued home. Telling Hugh about it she said, “Our guardian angel was surely with us.”
“I’m glad you’re both all right, but I feel responsible. I should have realized we needed to anchor the chair wheels.” By the next day he had devised a way to do install anchors to which the chair could be strapped.
So it was, the legacy of the Dairyman continued even as Elmer and Merle moved back to Ohio–especially for Paul. Every week his grandpa wrote him a letter filled with descriptions of things he was doing, reminiscences about his past, and memories of their many carport conferences. That legacy warmed Paul’s heart and stayed with him throughout the rest of his life.