101 years ago

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Welcome to Earth, Elmer Russell Murphy, February 12, 1907, 10 1/2 pounds at birth, 6’2″ as a man.

Charles Butler Murphy, 23, and Susan Ethel Murphy, 18, were married December 9, 1897.  Their first child, Clyde E. was born November 21, 1898.  He died at the age of 4 months and 9 days.  Dad said he thinks Clyde had the measles and died while nursing.  Ethel’s mother couldn’t travel the 50 miles by horse and buggy from Cameron to Kewanee for a funeral because she was over 8 months pregnant with Uncle Frank.

I saw from the census report that dad’s cousin Lela, 2 at the time, parents living next door, was in residence with Butler and Ethel, a salve of sorts for the young girl who had just lost her baby.  She became pregnant soon after the loss of Clyde, this time with twins, a boy and a girl.  Ethel, having  been raised amid rowdy, rude brothers longed for a girl.  The twins were born prematurely August 20, 1900.  They died the same day.

On September 16, 1901 Herman Leslie was born.  I don’t know how big ol’ Herman was at birth, but he became and remained one big man, not really tall, but maintained his generous circumference until his death in 1966.

Somewhere in between Herman in 1901 and Dad in 1907 was a stillbirth, her other girl.  She blamed the death on the shock of having been struck in the face by a pump handle that slipped from her grasp on its way up.  People need reasons.  That was hers.

For whatever reason, Dad was her last child.  She was only 28.  Still heartbroken and maybe just a little warped from her losses, she still wanted a girl in a big way.  She put Dad in a dress in the picture, common in the day, but uncommon was his being in a dress until he was six when an aunt brought him  pair of overalls.  He ran around as happy as a little boy could be and Ethel cried.

May 14, 1918, Butler hung himself.  His doctor told him his gum disease would make him go crazy and kill his family, so he took his own life before that could happen.  As coarse and unsophisticated as Ethel’s brothers had been and probably still were, they came to the 11 year old boy’s rescue and gave him the father figure he needed to be the man he became.

As a young man, Russell loved hunting and would take his rifle into the woods and wilds for weeks at time, living on what he shot.  Also as a young man he gave his life to Jesus Christ at a Billy Sunday tent meeting.  He worked as a hired farm hand, saved his money, helped support his widowed mother, and proudly paid cash in full for a Ford Model T. It had to be in that very Model T he and his older brother Herman took off across country, working odd jobs such as picking watermelons on one occasion to keep going.  He stayed some time in Kansas, appreciative of the rich black soil and the warmth of the people.  One of the Kansas girls was really warm toward him but he wasn’t convinced.  It came to nothing.

April of 1941, age 34, he joined the Army for money or a secure future or patriotism because that Hitler guy was making noise.  The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and plunged the US into a war Dad had not really anticipated. That took him to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan where he met a single mother of two, Doris Smart.  Dad in his uniform, Mom in a modest navy dress, they married after Sunday evening service on February 3, 1943, 36 days after their first date. 

He didn’t want to move from Michigan, but Ethel insisted.  Mom rode the 600 miles 3 months pregnant and nauseated.  She hated Illinois.  Her daughter Mary and son Ralph hated Illinois.  It took over 30 years for Mom to call Illinois home.   If you have ever experienced upper Michigan, felt the scent of the pine and water, spent summer evenings in a jacket, neither would you say Oh, boy, let’s go to the steamy, muddy west central Illinois plains.

You would think a man who came from one disappointed mother, having his own tragedy so young, that he would be an angry individual.  He bore his fair share of anger, having been kept from a high school education, trapped in menial labor all his life, not making much money for his family.  In spite of that, he was gentle, fair, funny, full of love for others, and became a Christian example for any who crossed his path.  He always had a joke to tell, mostly reruns, but, hey, what I wouldn’t give to hear him repeat just one of them again.

Having been a weight lifter in his 20’s, he was a strong man and stayed fit.  When he was waiting out his last days in the nursing home, his strength was gone.  At the end, so was his sense of humor.  But still his eyes lit up when we walked in the door, even if he couldn’t quite remember our names.  Randy was The Aviator, he confused Brenda and me — are you my daughter or my granddaugher? — and Stan was “Hi, Stan.” (you old chauvinist codger –I’m your baby!). 

The saddest part of my life has been watching my dad’s sadness as he waited those last months to die.  He had most of his mind, most of his memories, and didn’t confuse much.  Mostly he slept in his chair as he battled that demon Parkinson’s disease.

He leaves a legacy of laughter, generosity, love, and humor.  One of his favorite things to do was stir the pudding.  “What do you think of …” would light a fire or clear the room.  “Did I tell you the one about …..” would also have cleared a room if he didn’t have one of his huge hands on your arm. 

I miss Dad every day.  I’m sorry he wasn’t happy those last 3 years.  We couldn’t help it and he didn’t hold a grudge.  Sometimes life sucks and his did for several months after Mom died.  On December 23, 1992, Mom marched to the edge of the River of Life and called out loudly (because Dad was, after all, still deaf) “Russell…Russell!! RUSSELL!! It’s Christmas! Quit your lallygaggin’ around and get up here!”

Happy 101st birthday, Dad.  Oh, and happy 198th to you, President Lincoln.

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