The Uncle I Never Knew

Long-hidden family mementos from an all-too-brief life convey a young boy’s voice and talents, as well as his parents’ heartache.
Illustration by Brittany Fukushima

I USED TO SEE HIM on family visits to my grandparents’ house in Mooresville: an angular kid in a turquoise tank top, peering from a picture frame through time and tragedy. His name was Forest Kenyon Rusie—Kenyon to his loved ones—and he was my uncle, or at least the boy who would have become my uncle if he had survived childhood.

But on Christmas Day 1940, a 9-year-old who should have been unwrapping new toys took his last breath in an Indianapolis hospital at 2:55 p.m. The death certificate explained his demise in clinical terms: “Peritonitis due to acute gangrenous perforated appendicitis.” But no document could adequately convey the unending toll it took on my grandparents, who never had another son and never overcame the loss of their second child.

I grew up hearing only the sketchiest details of Kenyon’s life. My mother, Myla, 5 years old when her brother died, could recall just a few personal anecdotes about him. More often she would recite the official family account of Kenyon’s death: The hospital was short-staffed on Christmas, the B team neglected his drain tube, and when they finally checked on him, it was too late. My grandparents never discussed him in my presence, and my sister Cyndi and I deduced that we should never, ever ask about him.

And so, for the first half-century of my life, Kenyon remained a hazy figure from someone else’s past, as two-dimensional as the photograph that gazed back at me from a table in my grandparents’ living room. It would take four more deaths to open the book on the uncle I never knew.

PERHAPS I was fated to retrace Kenyon’s footsteps. As Mom once confided to my young ears, I was born to be his replacement, as much as any child could ever be. Her older sister Gay never had children of her own, so when my mother was expecting her first child, she wished for a boy, hoping he would salve the open wound in her father’s soul.

I scarcely resembled the kid in the photo, but it didn’t seem to matter. Around age 9, I began to feel my grandfather’s pain at close range. It most often emerged when he and I were alone together, as on the day he took me to a local fishing hole and sat daydreaming on the shore.

“Hey, Keny—uh, Brian,” he began more than once, and I pretended not to notice. Grandpa seemed uncharacteristically testy. When one of my misdirected casts sent hook, bait, and sinker into the grass, he exploded. “Awkward as a cow!” he fumed.

Back then, I chalked it up to a seasoned outdoorsman’s impatience with rookie mistakes, but now I’m not sure. Was my normally genial grandpa frustrated with what I couldn’t do—or who I couldn’t be?

Photo courtesy Brian D. Smith

I NEVER WENT searching for the remnants of Uncle Kenyon’s life, but somehow, they kept finding their way to me. It started in 2006, a few months after my mom’s passing, when I was tasked with emptying her storage unit. As the last heir to sift through her property, I expected to find nothing of value, even sentimental.

Two summer weeks in the stuffy concrete confines justified my suspicions. It was more cleanup than salvage operation as I dug through stacks of boxes packed with old clothing, dusty books, used dishes, and other trappings of a 70-year-old woman’s modest existence. Only a sense of duty kept me from carting it all to a donation center, if not a dumpster.

But one day, as I neared the bottom of another overstuffed box, my departed uncle reached out to me. Beneath the sketchbook used by my grandfather, a cop and firefighter with a flair for folk artistry, I discovered two items I’d never seen: Kenyon’s baby book and his school autograph book, signed three months before his death. Like alpha and omega.

The ensuing decade brought more chance encounters with previously unknown memorabilia. A second baby book. Letters from Kenyon to his big sister. Two guest books from his funeral. I read them as I found them, out of sequence and years apart. But as the fragments began to coalesce into a narrative, my casual interest in family history took on a sense of purpose.

Who was Uncle Kenyon, what had I missed by not knowing him, and how forceful were the emotional shock waves that reverberated from his fleeting life into mine? Like an archaeologist unearthing the ruins of a vanished civilization, I began reconstructing the untold story of a lost life and a quiet disaster.

THE HANDWRITING in the baby books is clearly my grandmother’s. But her words strike a tone I don’t recognize. It’s the youthful, hopeful voice of a mother raising her first new baby in a decade.

“From the age of 2 months, people began saying he was the ‘prettiest baby in town,’ which of course pleased us very much,” she wrote.

I learned that Forest Kenyon Rusie—a play on his father’s name, Forest Glendon Rusie—was born at 7:10 p.m. March 1, 1931 and weighed 6.5 pounds. He had “dark blue” eyes and “dark brown” hair, although a lock of his 7-month-old mane, pressed between the pages, looks golden brown. He spoke his first word (“Hi!”) before he was 8 months old and took his first steps a week before his first birthday.

Under the heading of “Cute Doings,” Grandma recorded memorable moments. When he was almost 3, he saw a small rock in a picture book and said, “It’ll be a big one when it grows.”

A month later, he peppered his mother with queries while she was busy with the wash. “Why do you ask so many questions?” she finally asked, prompting a simple reply: “I want to ‘mate’ you talk!” And during a visit from his grandmother, he suddenly stopped his vigorous play and sighed. “What’s the matter? Tired?” his grandmother asked. Replied Kenyon: “No, just ran outta air!”

His creative side emerged early. A few months after turning 2, Kenyon sketched a recognizable likeness of a fish. A year later, he recited his first, ostensibly original poem: “Oh, goodness gracious me / The monkey climbed the orange tree.”

I smile at my uncle’s spontaneity. But I struggle to reconcile the dichotomy between the spirited scrivener of my uncle’s baby books and the world-weary matriarch of my memories, ironically named Joy. I don’t mean to paint Grandma monochromatically. At her best, the former schoolteacher escorted her grandchildren to the public library and to church. But in the last decade of her 78-year life, she slipped into a debilitating depression. “Joy would be in bed and wouldn’t get up,” recalls my cousin, Jan Gutweiler, daughter of my grandfather’s sister, Wanda Potts. “She was almost incommunicable.” One of the final entries in my grandmother’s journal, penned when Kenyon was nearly 4, now seems chilling. Absorbed in the Sunday paper, Grandma told her restless son to “be still.” He settled on the floor, whispering, “Mama says, ‘Be still.’ I’ll dis’ lay down here and die.”

GRANDPA RUSIE was a man’s man with the soul of an artist. Not that he looked much like either. At 5-foot-4 and 125 pounds, “Pake” didn’t intimidate lawbreakers with his stature. Conversely, no one would expect the tobacco-chewing, cigar-smoking cop with the gruff voice—who carried a sidearm even to the grocery—to be the type to create the intricate pencil-and-watercolor depictions of rural scenery in his sketchbook.

His genealogy was colorful. Born into one of Mooresville’s first families (who settled the area in 1836), Grandpa was the second cousin of Hall of Fame pitcher Amos Rusie (“The Hoosier Thunderbolt”). He liked to recall the night he encountered fellow Mooresville resident John Dillinger lurking downtown. “He told Dillinger to go home before he got in trouble,” says my cousin Peggy Shirar, quoting Grandpa. “Dillinger didn’t heed that advice and started his criminal career that very night.”

CORRESPONDENCE from Kenyon to his big sister in Louisville provides a deeper peek into his personality and family life. In a lively 1939 letter, 8-year-old Kenyon wondered, “Was you having an art class when you wrote that letter to Wanda? It looked like a book with words and pictures.”

He discussed his report card and his little sister’s whooping cough scare before imploring Gay to come home soon.

Then Kenyon reminded her that “Day after tomorrow is Dad’s birthday, have you got him anything?” He noted that “Grandad is seting over by the fire reading a detective story.” In a sign of the times, he said, “Wanda has got electric lights and she said that it was the best thing that [she] ever had.”

“Write soon and write it to me,” he insisted. “You have not wrote to me yet.”

Illustration by Brittany Fukushima

NEWS of Kenyon’s medical emergency appeared in a single paragraph deep on page 4 of the Martinsville Daily Reporter. “Kenyon Rusie, son of Mr. and Mrs. Forest Rusie, became ill Saturday evening with appendicitis,” the newspaper divulged with pre-HIPAA candor. “He became worse on Sunday morning and the appendix ruptured. He was taken to the hospital where his condition is only fair.”

But Kenyon wasn’t “only fair.” By the time the story ran on December 27, it was two days after he’d succumbed to appendicitis and the day of his funeral—as the newspaper noted on January 1. Also appearing in his obituary was this: “The little boy has been his father’s constant companion since he was old enough to walk.”

Grandpa handled his grief the way far too many men did in his day. Each December 24 for many years, he trudged to a local tavern and anesthetized his memories of the worst day of his life.

What I never knew was that he also coped with his pain another way: writing poetry. Among family papers, I found a folder packed with memorial poems written in pencil on yellowed newsprint, marking the moment when Christmas afternoon became Christmas mourning. One began: “No more, that little face to wash / No rips or tears to mend / No toys are scattered on the floor / No cuts or bumps to tend.”

Another described Kenyon’s appendicitis: “’Mother, make me feel better / The pain, it hurts right here.’” Then the doctor came, delivering an ominous prognosis: “‘What is to be, will be,’ he said / ‘Sometimes all efforts fail.’”

In “A Letter to Santa Claus,” Grandpa’s holiday heartbreak engulfed him: “No more toys for little boys / To our house this year bring / No Christmas cheer, or peaceful joy / Let not good tidings sing … / To leave it here would sadness bring / To hearts that can’t be glad / He’s gone to hear the angels sing / Merry Christmas, from Mom and Dad.”

ANOTHER STACK of family papers yielded a letter from my grandmother sent to my aunt from a curious 10th Street return address. “Had an hour with the doctor yesterday,” Grandma wrote, “and I dug into things a little to dredge up what might have brought me to this.”

Brought her to what? Then I looked up the mysterious address, and everything became clear: Larue Carter Hospital. A psychiatric facility. I knew about her late-life depression. But this was 1959, when I wasn’t yet 3 years old. So my grandmother’s struggles began much earlier than I’d been told, and I think I know why.

Photo courtesy Brian D. Smith

THREE other discoveries contain mostly names. A school autograph book from 1940 bears the signatures of three teachers and 17 schoolmates, along with inspirational inscriptions. Two funeral registries have nearly 200 signatures, several in juvenile handwriting. Some of the same kids who signed his school autograph book in September signed his funeral guest book in December.

I tracked down two of them, then in their early 80s. “I remember being told he had died and his appendix had burst,” said Del Ross of California. “I was a very shy kid, and I don’t think either of us were chosen for any games of any kind. I was best friends with him, but only for a short time.” Martha Dake Palmer of Greenwood recalled another Rusie—my “very likeable” grandfather. But not Kenyon. Then I learned of a reunion of Kenyon’s class at Gray Bros. Cafeteria in Mooresville—perhaps my only chance to interview so many people together who knew him.

The Mooresville High School Class of 1949 was a delightful bunch of sprightly octogenarians. But their memory of Kenyon ranged from slim to none. I shared an hour with them and made my exit, uplifted by their company but discouraged by the results.

I wanted to believe that in a small class in a small school in a small town, the sudden demise of a 9-year-old, along with his funeral and burial, would have left an enduring impression on his schoolmates. But it was as if the winds of time had already worn his headstone smooth. Suddenly I was faced with the realization that I was running out of places to search for traces of my uncle’s abbreviated life.

It was at this point in the journey that I found myself, far from the destination I’d hoped to reach but miles ahead of my starting point, where I’d spent half a century feeling serene about the family I thought I knew, the answers I thought I possessed, and the explanations I once believed.

THE LAST DISPATCH from Uncle Kenyon was written on October 14, 1940, my mother’s fifth birthday. It was the final one she’d celebrate with her big brother, who had 72 days left to live. The Kenyon on this day is the one I relate to the most: spunky, sassy, satirical, and a bit rebellious as he scrawled a self-effacing original poem in his own school autograph book.

“To Kenyon,
Your as little as you are big but when you eat you look like a pig.
Your twin brother,

I, too, have used poetry to express my skewed sense of humor. I once turned an English class assignment about the Squire in Canterbury Tales—who “tried to train his hair to curliness”—into a poetic parody with rhymes such as, “He must have drawn a lot of stares / When he wore curlers in his hair.”

So I feel a kinship, literally and figuratively, with the 9-year-old author who declared himself as little as he was big. What kind of creative connection might we have made if Uncle Kenyon had lived to see me become a writer?

I NEED TO KNOW one more thing. Did Kenyon die because the hospital neglected his drain tube? That’s the family story I grew up hearing, and I have no medical records to prove its validity.

But could it be true? I posed the question to Dr. Brian Gray, pediatric surgeon at Riley Children’s Health, and his answer intrigued me. If my family’s account is accurate, then yes, the ignored drain tube could have contributed to Kenyon’s death, especially if it were one of multiple adverse factors, including perhaps sepsis and the lack of antibiotics in 1940. (Penicillin was first used in 1941).

Photo courtesy Brian D. Smith

OH VERY YOUNG, what will you leave us this time?” 1970s folk rocker Cat Stevens once sang. “You’re only dancin’ on this Earth for a short while.”

Uncle Kenyon never lived the life he deserved, and his death was a tragedy. But his memory doesn’t have to be. In bringing his story to light and to life, perhaps I’ve given him one last opportunity to dance on this Earth again, if only for a short while.

I can never know what an adult Uncle Kenyon would have added to my life, but at least I got a glimpse of the younger version. Whenever I think of Kenyon today, I no longer see a two-dimensional image frozen in time. I see my grandmother, younger and happier, pushing a stroller carrying the prettiest baby in town. I see a boy and his dad with fishing poles, savoring the special bond shared between fathers and sons. I see myself in the kid who couldn’t just pass around his school autograph book and play it straight.

Maybe Kenyon’s self-description was accurate after all. Had he been twice as old, he might have fought in World War II. Had he lived three more months, he’d have celebrated his first double-digit birthday.

But Forest Kenyon Rusie will never turn 18, or 10, or any other age beyond 9. It is there he returns and there he remains, forever a fourth-grader, halfway between birth and manhood.

As little as he is big.