They grew up during the Great Depression--very poor, very proud. For a time, they sharecropped. Several of the brothers played musical instruments, and I've been told they performed at community functions to make "spending money."
Four of the sons and the daughter (whom we called Mimi) served in World War II. My Mama Kelley was honored in the newspaper for being a "Five-Star Mother."
To the best of my memory, none of them spoke much of their wartime experiences. I believe this was ingrained in them during the war itself, when speaking of such things could potentially endanger themselves and others. Daddy mentions how some things he would like to send home would "never make it past the censor."
And, unfortunately, they had all passed away before I realized what a wealth of history I had been born into. (I did find out from one of daddy's war letters that Uncle Walter played guitar in an armed services "orchestra" for awhile--how cool is that!)
A few years ago, mama divided up daddy's war letters between me and my brother. In one letter, daddy mentions seeing a boxing match in England with a young, up-and-coming boxer "named Joe Louis."
But the letters I inherited speak mostly of the day-to-day challenges of a young man, far from home, who clearly misses his family. They are all addressed to "Dear Mama," and give reports about letters he's received (and not received), pictures of himself and others he's sending home, fruit cakes and candy he's "gobbled up" each Christmas, his longing for "film (size 120)" and for "a radio that works." And assurances that he will "send more money home to help Pop".
In several letters, he writes worriedly about his sick "Pop", and of a young niece (Brenda) who had been stricken with polio.
The happiest ones are where he's writing about being able to meet two of his brothers, Paul and Walter. Apparently, they were all stationed in Europe within a few hours of each other. In one, written from "England" on March 27, 1944, daddy is writing about "the slow mail service."......Well...here...I'll let daddy tell you:
"I didn't get Paul's letter until yesterday at noon saying he was coming here. So, I ran into town and met him. He had been there since the night before. If I had gotten the letter sooner, we could have been together longer. He had to go back last night."
In that letter, daddy goes on to say: "Paul has gained weight too since he's been over here. We didn't get to have any pictures taken."
From daddy's frequent mention of "pictures" and repeated requests for "film (size 120)," photographs were of great importance to a mother who had sent five children off to war and to a son who had been away from his family's faces far too long.
My favorite Kelley brothers' war story involved Paul and Walter. The two of them were traveling back to the States onboard the Queen Elizabeth. Neither had heard from the other in awhile. And, neither knew the other was on the ship...until a mutual friend somehow saw both of them and managed to get them together.
Can you imagine?
Whenever I replay that story in my head, I picture them throwing their arms around each other's necks...and being just...so relieved...so happy...so grateful for the world not to be at war any longer...so thankful to be headed home...together.
Many of daddy's letters were sent from Belgium, during the months he was involved in the historic Battle of the Bulge. Interestingly, in all his letters from these pivotal months in Belgium, he never mentions battles. He never mentions danger. He never mentions fear. He either wasn't allowed to, or he didn't want to worry his "Dear Mama."
Here are some typical words from a letter written by him from Belgium on December 18, 1944:
"Dear Mama, I received Brady's letter of December 4, so I thought I would write you tonight. I was glad to hear that everyone is getting along fine back there. I'm still OK myself....I guess all of you will have a nice Christmas there. I hope so anyway. Sorry I can't send you anything, but you know how it is over here...I have received the package of Christmas cards and paper you sent me, but as yet I haven't received the cookies and fruit cake. Hope they get here by Christmas, but I know they'll be enjoyed anytime...Well, mama, that's about all for now, so I'll close. Answer soon. Love, Hoyt"
Only once did daddy talk about these months in Belgium and, even then, it was only in response to questions from his history-loving son. Here's my brother, Kevin's, memories of that conversation:
"Daddy told me that during the Battle of the Bulge his unit was basically cut off by the massive German advance. They were holed up in a small town in Belgium. Days of heavy fog and overcast skies had prevented Allied pilots from dropping in supplies. So, they were running critically low on everything. They were also being strafed fairly often by German fighter planes. When they could, they would take their rifles and shoot at these low-flying planes....Then, one day, they awoke to see a clear sky filled with American planes. This sight was special for two reasons. First, it meant that Allied bombers could finally start bombing the Germans, who were getting dangerously close to them. And, second, they could now be resupplied by air drops."
Kevin remembers daddy saying, "One of the best things I ever saw was that sky full of parachutes delivering the supplies we needed so badly."
According to my Mimi, when daddy got back home, he was not the same Hoyt who had left. She once told me about an incident that happened when he first got back--she had gone into his room one morning to wake him up and had reached down and shook his shoulder. Before she knew what was happening, he had rolled over and grabbed her by the throat.
Of course, when he came to himself, he was deeply sorry. But, he refused to talk to her about what had made him react that way.
I'll always be convinced that daddy's later emotional troubles were a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome. After his series of shock treatments in 1967, he managed his "nervous condition" with tranquilizers. Their main side effect was how sleepy they made him. From the time he walked in the door from his job as a "parts man" at Drennen Buick, it was as though he could not stay awake. We woke him up to come to the dinner table. Then, we would wake him up to go to bed. Looking back, it was as though just getting through the day simply exhausted him.
But, I don't remember him ever complaining.
What I do remember is him whistling. When he was awake, he was always whistling.
And, I remember the smell of the soap he used to lather up his beard for shaving.
I remember the feel of his freshly-shaved face against my cheek when he would hug me.
I remember the sound of his laugh when my cousin Nonnie (yet another Kelley nickname) told him one of her newest jokes.
I remember how tickled he once got at himself when he tried on a pair of shorts that were about three sizes too small. The zipper wouldn't even zip up all the way, but he came walking into the room... laughing... announcing, "OK, I'm ready. Let's go."
I remember how he'd sit for hours listening to music and recording it for fellow music lovers to enjoy.
I remember him standing with his brothers...smoking, talking, laughing...along the fence at the Mortimer Jordan High School football games.
I remember him kissin' my mama on the cheek.
I remember him once telling my cousin, Nathan...upon being questioned about why he wasn't scraping off the blistered, peeling paint before putting a new coat on the house..."Awww, Nathan, it looks good from the road."
I remember the utter joy and relief I felt when he finally gave his heart to Jesus when he was almost 60 years old.
Because of that...I will get to hear him whistle and laugh again. I'll get to feel his cheek on mine when he reaches down to give me a hug.
I'll get to see him enjoying the good company of his brothers and sister and his Dear Mama and Pop....When his last brother (Paul) died, it was like a light went out inside him.
And...if there's kissing in heaven...I'll get to see him kiss my mama again...even if it's just on the cheek.
For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,”
has made this light shine in our hearts
so we could know the glory of God
that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.
We now have this light shining in our hearts,
but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars
containing this great treasure.
This makes it clear that our great power is from God,
not from ourselves.
We are pressed on every side by troubles,
but we are not crushed.
We are perplexed, but not driven to despair.
We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God.
We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.
our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies....
We know that God, who raised the Lord Jesus,
will also raise us with Jesus
and present us to himself together with you.
And as God’s grace reaches more and more people,
there will be great thanksgiving,
and God will receive more and more glory.
That is why we never give up.
Though our bodies are dying,
our spirits are being renewed every day.
For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long.
Yet they produce for us a glory
that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!
So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now;
rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen.
For the things we see now will soon be gone,
but the things we cannot see will last forever.
(from 2 Corinthians 4, NLT)