Growing up in Louisa – Grandfather’s Matter!
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
Over the years I have written about many memories, but I have steered clear of writing about ‘family’ matters. I supposed it was because of my upbringing that what goes on with the family, stays with the family. That idea, I suppose gave some comfort to the adults that their shenanigans would remain safe. Since I was young, I didn’t see them as shenanigans but figured them to be ‘normal.’ Anyway, they was pretty-well safe with me because I wasn’t that aware of many things other folks might care or ‘talk about’ except what I believed to be common among the populace. The primary secret I knew were the effect that poverty brought into my life. I certainly didn’t go about broadcasting to anyone that our power, or water, was cut off for non-payment, or that we were totally out of food for a few days here and again. Those were embarrassments to me that I can only now deal with. Of course, we had family members that were a little weird, but who doesn’t have relatives that are eccentric or reclusive? Add to that the normal pains of growing up as we explore life’s mysteries and try to figure out our place in life, then there’s plenty to NOT write about.
Each week over the last several years I have found things, nearly always positive things, to not only expound on for the sake of reliving what I still remember as a wonderful, satisfying time in my life, but of memories that might take the reader back with me on those nostalgic visits to yesteryear. Those things that were common to our generation, regardless of exactly where we grew up.
This time, I was led to go back slightly before my birth to explain my never disclosed revelation of some ‘bad times,’ mixed in with the good. I looked back at what served to influence the people and the environment in which I dwelt. I wanted the freedom to explore these things, but not out of bitterness, because I don’t feel that at all. But rather, by understanding those things I can apply what I’ve learned so to look to my own legacy and the affect I might have on those generations to follow. I have purposed to live in a far different way so my children might benefit.
Having become a grandfather of a whole mess of grandchildren (13 + 1 on the way), and a great grandchild (1), I could not help but wonder how my life might have some effect on these younger ones as they travel through the seasons of life. Ages of these offspring range from one still in the womb, to infants, toddlers, school-age kids, and young adults. No doubt the older ones will remember me after I pass, but what about these younger ones? My question arises out of the biblical concern that we should leave an inheritance for our children, and our children’s children. I have had that in mind for many years. I suspect that in many ways the inheritance will be something other than monetary, or possible heirlooms to pass down, but some of those things that hopefully will build their character and provides a level of leadership on how they should live.
This led me to consider what I have inherited from my grandparents. Unlike many, I grew up not knowing my grandfather on either side. That hardly makes me an authority on the effects grandparents have on their grandchildren’s life. I knew my great grandmother as ‘granny,’ who certainly had a large hand in raising me. I have pointed out in earlier articles that her husband was a local doctor who practiced his craft in and around Richardson, White House, and Peach Orchard, prior to his moving to Water Street in Louisa. I wondered what I may have received from him, despite never knowing him, or he, me.
The first thing one thinks of when considering the word ‘inheritance’ is, of course, money. Sadly, any cash he may have had was long gone before my birth. Granny was left with a home that included an empty ‘office’ on Water Street.’ The river had gobbled up most of the back yard and threatened to eventually take the house, too. With his death, the family’s income had dried up. I remember that she had many sacks that were full of stock certificates. I was allowed to look through and sort them, but not to destroy any. They represented a lot of investing by my great grandfather, but they were of no value whatsoever, thanks to the depression. I learned that many Americas had experienced serious losses during those very tough times. The certificates were later destroyed when I was a teen, but only after someone who could research them had made certain they were worthless. If they were still around today, they’d have some historical value. For example, some were for automobile companies that went out of business.
What did he leave besides worthless certificates? First, there’s the fact that medial doctors and their families typically enjoy an unstated high ‘social status’ in their communities. Because they are highly educated and considered ‘smart,’ the public is open to accept the leadership and advice of medical doctors. It is as if they are experts on nearly everything. In fact, they are just people who have learned a little about chemistry and the human body. The worthless bag of stocks is an example.
Because medicine often pays well, my family did not have to be as frugal as others. That attitude feeds a mindset of maintaining appearances as affluent members of the community. They tended to purchase higher priced goods that was perceived to be of better quality, and therefor of more value. Brands mattered, while savings didn’t. The doctor sent his children, (my great aunts and uncles), to college during a time when it was rare, especially for women, to earn degrees. One son ended up going into medicine, as well. In truth, many of the poor people of Lawrence County paid the doctor for services by offering up chickens, a cut of meat, some potatoes, or whatever might be available. Bartering does little to raise real money, so the perception of wealth was no more than a mere perception. Doc Wray’s material legacy was essentially nothing.
I know that during his lifetime the family tended to simply tell the store clerks to ‘put it on account.’ They purchased nearly anything they wanted, with some limitations caused by the doctor’s warnings. They had no discipline when it came to spending. They knew that the good doctor would drop in later and settle the accounts. Unfortunately, this habit of spending continued after his demise, but he wasn’t around to clean up the debt. The family was quickly ‘in the red.’ Any small savings he may have collected was soon exhausted. I tell you this is to explain that my inheritance from him was simply not monetary.
Ideally, most families have other ‘bread winners’ to step in when the head of the household passes. The principal is to build up the family’s estate in hopes of avoiding poverty. In my case, there was no one to provide income except my great aunt Shirley, herself estranged from her husband. Granny, Aunt Shirley, mom, and us three kids all had to live on a school teacher’s salary. As such, there were a few times of adequacy (payday) but many others times that pushed us to, or near starvation. I experienced that many times. While it hurt me, it made me determined that I would grow up and never allow that to happen to my children. I was blessed when I married a frugal woman who understood the importance to live modestly and to stretch resources. As my income increased over the years we were further blessed, but in a large part because of our attention to stewardship and hard work. Along the way we have tried to instill these lessons in our children, so they may teach their children, as well.
So, what does it matter to me that Doc Wray lived? What legacy do I have that was left by those generations that lived before me? The most important is a belief in God. I was taken to Sunday school and attended church all my ‘growing up’ days. Other figures from the community helped, such as Bill Keaton, Bill Cheek, and Eddie Boggs, who served as male models with genuine qualities of character. They helped me want to stand up to righteous living and to avoid the ugly pitfalls of life. Of course, I had times when I lived apart from these teachings, but with God’s grace I turned back to the values I learned during my youth. Could I credit my grandfather with this? I honestly think that would be a stretch since I received no direct teaching from him. But, I can suggest that my personality, analytical thinking, and sense of humor may very well be directly connected. For example:
My great-grandfather, Dr. WW Wray, was said to have had a dry sense of humor. Of course, I never met him since he passed a few years before my birth. But I did come to know his children. These aunts and uncles of mine each had a penchant toward displaying their wit through tricking the gullible and playing jokes on friends. They were well-versed on making plays on words, and dropping puns here and there. I learned early to stay alert and listen carefully, lest I be sucked into becoming a subject of their amusement. What few stories I can repeat were told to me by my great-grandmother Della Wray. Two of these were about the times that the table was turned and Doc Wray was made the butt of the joke.
Doctor Wray often used a buggy to make his rounds in those early days, but sometimes he rode on horseback. The roads in those days, and particularly in that hilly terrain, were often muddy, and difficult for an automobile. Bridges were few and far apart, so fords had to be used. There were seasonal risks in using those since the creeks and rivers were prone to swell, or wash out. He found that even when cars could be useful to hold the groceries, gas stations were far apart, and roads were still unpredictable. This was a time when America was struggling to transition their transportation from traditional horse and buggies, to trains and automobiles. It was a time that most of the practice required home visits. I even remember when doctors still made ‘house calls.’
Between running his medical practice and raising five children, the good doctor had a circle of friends with whom he often enjoyed visits. These, I am told, were targets of teasing or practical jokes, as they were called in those days. I’m certain some of those might have caused bad feelings, but granny insisted he was well liked by all despite his playfulness. He was also capable of being on the receiving end of jokes, so he lived by the ‘golden rule,’ if slightly restated. He had things done unto him, which he had done to others.
One day he found himself in the market for a new horse. This horse had to be dependable and would be used under saddle, but also would have to pull a buggy on occasion. One of his friends offered him a sleek-looking ride with a bobbed tail, for the doc to consider. After looking at the horse’s hooves and teeth, Doc Wray mounted the ride to see if it was well-broken to saddle, and to determine the animals’ nature and temperament. He found out soon enough that his friends had slipped him a high-strung race-horse! It took off with the poor doctor hanging on for dear life. After finally getting the horse to stop some ways down the road, he quickly dismounted and walked back home hanging his head to the laugher of his friends.
The physician was not one to let others get the better of him, so he quietly worked with the horse until it was finally trained to be a doctor’s ride. By making friends with the horse, he used his buggy less and less, keeping it parked just inside the barn door. One afternoon, his ‘friends’ stopped in to see the good doctor and were delighted to find he was out making house calls. They saw this as their chance to ‘get him.’ They rigged up a rope and pulley and together pulled the buggy up on the barn so it would straddle the roof ridge with two wheels on either side. They hid in the bushes to watch Doc Wray’s behavior when he came home to find his buggy so high aloft. He stopped, looked up and without any emotion or words, grabbed a rope, moved the ladder and climbed to the barn roof. He tied off the buggy and lowered it to the ground. He then put the ladder away and went into the house for supper. Some folk would have been mad cussing the event, and some may have laughed it off. Doc Wray kept his cool although he was probably laughing inside. He came in to supper without a word, but I was assured that he had a ‘knowing’ smile. My great-grandmother told me this story several times over the years, but I never tired of hearing the tale. I was suspicious she had stood aside and watched, grinning to herself.
While being the brunt of many practical jokes, I was reminded that he was also a master at playing them on others. By describing this ‘fun-loving’ side, I do not mean to minimize his skills as a physician. I was told many times that he was a highly respected doctor that had delivered nearly every baby in Lawrence County. I know I met a number people over the years that told me they had been delivered under his care. Some folks had been given the middle name, “Wray,” in honor of my grandfather. I know he worked at Riverview Hospital with Dr. Joe Carter, and he hung out with Doc Brumley, Doc Skaggs, and several other well-known in the community leaders of the day.
He fathered my great aunts and great uncles that I came to know very well over my lifetime.
* One son, Dr. Loyal Wray went to medical school and began a practice in Louisa, but later moved on to serve in several other communities, including mining towns and in Huntington. Loyal had a son, Loyal Joe Wray, who lived in California. He died too young. A daughter, whom I love, still lives in the Cincinnati area.
* Robert K. Wray was a design engineer, building bridges, tunnels, and tracks for the C&O for many years. He married a Louisa girl and moved to Richmond, VA, later retiring to Knoxville, TN. He had one son, Bobby Wray, who had several children, some of which I heard attended medical school in Knoxville.
* Shirley Wray Chapman got her degree during a time when few women ever considered college. She taught for many years at LHS, then moved to West Virginia and then Ohio, teaching high school. She had a son, George Edward Chapman, Jr., and a daughter, Julia Wray Chapman. George has passed, but Julia lives in Palm Springs, California.
* Barbra Wray Walters married a successful dairy farmer just outside of Catlettsburg, KY and raised five kids, including my dear cousin Idella who married a well-known and well-loved minister, Frank Wallace. Frank is still serving the Lord. Her siblings John Wray Walters, Billy, Don, and ‘Gusta’ (Augusta) were well-known to me. I’m still in contact with Idella and Gusta. I think some of the boys may have become medical doctors, but I’m not sure.
Most of these offspring inherited Doc Wray’s ready sense of humor and a dry wit. I watched them saying things more for ‘effect’ than to seriously communicate. I learned that one had to be cautious about the sometimes-fantastic things they would say. I know that my kids and grandkids look at me in disbelief when I tell them about when I was a pirate. (Of course that was centuries before I was born.) Still, they pick it up and are always ready to join the ruse and play their respective roles. From these, imaginations are fostered and enflamed.
With this personal history I developed what I think is a natural desire to leave an inheritance to my family. The important portion of that must be a spiritual inheritance. I want them all to have a sense of humor that has become a family trait, but also have strong roots of faith and the love and hope that accompanies knowledge of their maker. I think we all have a responsibility to be spiritual leaders to our family, as well as bread winners.
Today, my sons, and grandchildren all suffer from an overwhelming desire to kid, shock, trick, play jokes, and join others in trying to outdo the other in word play. I cannot tell you for certain if it is genetic or a product of learning from their elders. I’ve watched my children tease and play, and now I see the grandchildren modeling their parents. My wife and the daughters-in-laws all say I’m the blame. I’m thinking maybe it goes back further to a man that I never even met. Maybe this is Doc Wray’s legacy. By that thought, I think it possible that Doc Wray is still around. Who knows?