When I was 15 years old, I accidentally discovered what apparently was the family secret. I was going through some old photographs when I ran across one that piqued my interest.
It was a small black-and-white snapshot of three little boys sitting on the front porch of a house. It was an old picture, probably taken in the 1920s. The children were dressed identically in overalls and newsboy caps.
I knew the oldest boy was my father, Doug, and the boy next to him was my Uncle Tracy. But the third boy I had never seen.
“Who’s this?” I asked Mom, pointing to the smallest boy in the picture.
“That’s Pie,” she said, “your dad’s brother.”
I was startled. I had never heard of an uncle named Pie.
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“He was feebleminded,” Mom said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Your dad took care of him when they were kids. After Dad grew up and left home, his parents sent Pie off to live at the state school in Austin.”
Good grief, I thought. How could I have an uncle that no one ever talked about? Dad had never mentioned him and neither had my grandfather or any of Dad’s siblings.
I asked Mom if Pie was his real name. No, she said. His given name was Melrose, but somehow he had gotten the nickname Pie. No one remembered how it happened.
That I had a long-lost uncle whom no one ever talked about was stunning news, but I didn’t know what to do with the information. I decided it was best to adopt the family code of silence about Uncle Melrose. But I couldn’t forget him.
I thought about him off and on over the ensuing years. I wondered what life was like in a state school. I wondered if he was happy and what he looked like.
As it turned out, many years later I went to work in Austin for the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation (now known as the Department of Aging and Disability Services).
Texas MHMR, as it was called, ran the 13 state schools in Texas, including the one in Austin, where my uncle supposedly still lived. My job was to be a spokesperson for Texas MHMR.
Shortly after I took the position, I decided it was time to meet Uncle Melrose, who by then was 70 years old. I soon discovered that he was not at Austin State School as I had thought, but at Travis State School, a similar facility east of Austin.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went in search of Uncle Melrose—other than I thought he would look like Dad, who was tall, blondish and had incredible blue eyes.
The man who was presented to me looked nothing like my father. He was short and very stooped with scoliosis. He had microcephaly, a condition in which the skull is too small for the brain to fully develop. The result of this disorder was that Uncle Melrose had a smaller-than-usual head and an IQ of 16.
He could say a few words such as “yes,” “no,” and “I don’t know.” And he could walk in a staggering, stumbling way.
In short, he looked nothing like my father—except for his eyes. He had the same ocean blues as Dad. I took one look at his eyes and knew immediately he was Dad’s brother.
I don’t think he understood what a niece was, but when we were introduced, he took my hand and held it tightly. Since he was not very verbal, we couldn’t have much of a conversation, so he showed me the cubicle where he slept. Then we lurched to the dining room where he showed me his special chair that helped his posture when he ate.
When I left that day, I told Uncle Melrose I would be back for another visit. Before I returned, however, I decided I had to tell my dad what I had done. It was with some trepidation that I broke the news to my father. After all, he had never mentioned Uncle Melrose in all the years I had known him. And in a way, I had blown the lid off the family secret.
His response surprised me. “I’m glad you found him,” he said and then proceeded to ask me questions about how “Pie” was doing.
In the months and years after my initial visit, Uncle Melrose and I became great friends. We went to McDonald’s for burgers and for long rides in the car. I felt a sense of peace when I was around him—this man who had almost nothing but love to offer others. Eventually, he and my father were reunited after 50 years of separation.
I’ve discovered since that what happened in Dad’s family happened in perhaps thousands of families in the United States in the early part of the 20th century. There were no community services for people like my uncle, and there were no schools.
Folks like my grandparents, faced with a teenage boy whose needs they couldn’t meet, had no other option but to place him in an institution. Maintaining familial ties over decades was not easy. It was no wonder that so many families lost touch with their loved ones.
I once asked Dad why Uncle Melrose was a secret. Once again, the response surprised me. “He wasn’t a secret, really,” Dad said. “It was just that he had been gone so long no one had anything to say about him.”
I only got to know Uncle Melrose for 10 years before he died, but he had a profound impact on me. I’m glad I found out about him, glad I couldn’t forget him and glad I met him. He was a great guy.
Sheila Allee lives in Austin and is the author of “My Father’s Eyes” (SACPress, 2014), which tells the story of her friendship with her Uncle Melrose. It is available on Amazon and at sheilaalleebooks.com.