Postcards from the past

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He wasn’t a very tall man. That seems to run in the West side of the family. He fascinated me in a way that intrigued me and kept me at arms length. Everything about him seemed different and well put together. I don’t think I ever saw him that he wasn’t in a suit and hat. William Russell Davis was my mother’s great uncle. He died in 1972 when he was 84 years old and I was just 13.

He would come for holiday dinners, always on time and always laughing. He would sit and call me over to him; he had something to show me. The veins on the back of his wrinkled hand sat bulging out of his skin. He would take a finger and push the veins around on the back of his hand. It would make me shudder and grimace and he would laugh.

Great Uncle Will had been a professional musician all of his life. I would imagine that had something to do with the veins standing out on the back of his hand late in his life from hours at the church pipe organ. Will’s mother was Elizabeth S. McKim Davis that I had written about the other day. He along with several cousins would be musically inclined. His aunt Elizabeth Breckenridge would teach music in Mercer and his cousin William Kilgore Breckenridge would teach music at Oberlin College.

Will was the organist and choir director in Bradford at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension. Mom has vivid memories of Uncle Will and piano lessons. She learned scales and classical music, none of that boogie-woogie rag time stuff was allowed. She grew to dread the lessons and played very little as an adult. When she did play it was usually in the afternoon and the strains of “Fluer-de-lis” would float up the stairs to my bedroom from the living room.

I inherited Uncle Will’s small wooden box of postcards. Will loved postcards and friends would send them from all over the country. He even kept the postcards that had been sent to his mother. The cards all date from 1905 to 1915. Some of them informed that the writer was coming into town, others contained holiday greetings. Some just wrote to tell of their enjoyable time in the place pictured on the front of the card. Will’s favorite cards had photographs of pipe organs in churches from all over the globe.

The turn of the century found people traveling to places you wouldn’t imagine, postcards from Panama, France, Canada and messages concerning trips to Africa and Berlin. Postcards were sent from places only 12 miles from Bradford with photos of the main street. One young woman was extremely fond of Will. Her cards showed her willingness to further their friendship. Uncle Will would never marry and when I was old enough to understand, my grandfather made the comment to me that both Will and Will’s brother Ross were a “little light in the loafers.” I about fell off the chair I was sitting in, my young self shocked that grandpa “knew.”

The passport from Will’s travel to Europe showed that he had been to France, Palestine, Egypt, Italy, Holland and Germany. He sailed on the “Rochambeau” from New York to Havre on Thursday, July 6th, 1922. A small French flag is tucked into the pages of the French Line list of cabin passenger’s booklet. On one of his trips to Europe he brought my mother back a pair of wooden shoes from Holland that sit on the top of my cupboard, small child size hand painted shoes, slightly chipped and worn from age. He eventually would go to the Bahamas on a yearly basis.

One of my last memories of this fascinating man was in my grandfather’s backyard of his new house in 1970. Someone had made the comment about Will being old. He walked over to the pipe stand that held the clothes line in the backyard and proceeded to do pull ups with ease for an 80 plus year old man.


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