Family Reflection: Bastard Son of a Woman Named Minnie

Clarence E. Joslin at Knoxville High School in the 1940s

You probably got it from Granddaddy Eddie, mom opined over the phone.

It doesn’t matter, I have it and now I’ll deal with it, I returned.

High blood pressure. Maybe it runs in the family, maybe not, who knows. My doctor put me on some meds, told me to shed a few pounds, and then asked me to check in with her again in a month, so that’s the road I find myself navigating just now. We’ve had to tweak the meds a little, but things thus far seem to be going according to plan.

The plan: Eventually, get off the meds completely.

Honestly, my high blood pressure did get me thinking a little about the genetic soup that is me, but also about the behaviors passed from one generation to the next as surely as the DNA.

Mattie Long “Red Momma” Donovan and John Henderson Stephenson begat my great-grandmother Gracie, who together with Albert Edward Sullivan begat yet another John and their daughter Alberta, who together with Clarence begat Patsy Joslin, who together with Frank German, begat me. I know enough about most of them, and especially the heavy smoking that defined the older generations (how my own mother escaped that habit growing up in a household of heavy smokers is beyond me). I’ve reflected on and written about this mixed ancestral bag through the years, hewing mainly to the Stephenson and Sullivan limbs in the tree, with some Germans and Stanleys thrown in for good measure.

But what of the man who married Alberta, my “Bob Momma” (known to all simply as “Bobby,” spelled with a Y and not an I – E, as you might expect people would spell a girl’s name).

a young Bobby Joslin, most likely in downtown Knoxville along the Tennessee River where Calhoun’s is today

Bobby was attractive and intelligent, a career woman and for many years a single parent, who lingered a few days after suffering a massive coronary, and then died when I was only just starting kindergarten. That was in 1967, and she was but 48 years old at the time. I remember a little her voice and her hands, how my skin turned pink from scrubbing when she bathed me, and mainly her love.

career woman Bobby, photo probably taken at Oak Ridge National Laboratories during the war years

I never met the man she married and later divorced, my maternal grandfather Clarence Joslin, who had died only a year earlier aboard a shrimping vessel off the coast of Mexico, called the Irene C. “On high seas, in international waters” reads the certificate of death. The date given is “about” April 21, 1966, and interment was April 27 in Tampa. I would have been just three at the time.

Clarence holding my infant mom

Did he know he had a granddaughter? I am not sure.

I grew up hearing all kinds of stories about my grandfather Clarence, not least of all that he was a “bastard,” a condition considered scornful in an era when children were supposed to be born inside of wedlock. Seems yesterday’s scandal is today’s lifestyle trend. But on Clarence Edward Joslin’s birth certificate, Minnie Hill is given as his mother’s maiden name, and Minnie and Hubert Joslin as his parents. A curiosity.

And just like the provenance of my high blood pressure, it does not matter.

in the aircrew training program

What matters more was a lifetime of heavy drinking that left an indelible thumbprint on his bride and then his young daughter. He’d eventually part company with his family, relocating to Colorado and rejoining the military after a short stint in the service in 1945, dismissed from the aircrew training program because of a surplus of men. It was in Colorado, it seems, where he finally came clean. And then after an honorary discharge, took up life aboard the shrimping vessel where he met his death young, at the hands of a migrant laborer from Mexico who was himself an alcoholic. Now there is one bitter irony.

later on in the service again; was every military man asked to hold a pipe in their photo?

No booze was allowed aboard the boat, went the story. And after a while at sea, the young Mexican man began suffering from delirium tremens, a serious form of alcohol withdrawal that can occur after a person goes hours or days without drinking. As told to me growing up, my granddad intercepted the knife-wielding young man to keep him away from the captain. Might be the real truth, might not.

“Stab wound to the chest,” says the death certificate, with no other details. He was 47 years old.

I’m the custodian of all these family records, and many, many photographs that reveal an interesting life cut short by tragedy. I have no idea when Clarence E. Joslin’s train began to derail, but the pictures show a disarmingly handsome and athletic younger man who in the beginning loved his wife and daughter, and my guess is, loved them ‘til the end, even through a second marriage.

I also have a letter he composed to my mother journal-style on Air Force stationary over the course of several days, starting on July 10, 1955. At first, he addresses her from a “little goldmining cabin” in the Rockies, but a couple of days later “back in civilization,” he says, this after crossing the Continental Divide on foot. There is a quaint poetry in his language:

I’m looking at the sun from the west side of the “Great Devide,” [sic] and as he peaks his fiery head over the peaks of the majestic mountains, sending long, orange colored rays into the dawn, he seems to say, I’m “king light,” wake up all living things and give thanks that I am the giver of life.

But there is irrefutable sadness in his words, too:

The loneliness here is like a blanket that wraps itself around you…

…Today, it is like bleached bones in the desert, dry, hot, dusty and lonely—like me.

geography lesson by post

The first time I read this letter I was about 14, the same age my mother would have been when Clarence sent it to her. For a time, I imagined my grandfather would have been enchanted had he known about me, until I read this crushing line:

Some day, maybe you and I might make the same trip together, or perhaps, my grand son or sons may do it.

In the intervening decades I’ve come to believe it’s just as well. As tempting as it is to view this unknown man through rose-colored lenses, my guess is he’d never have seen eye to eye with me had he survived and come to meet and know me. I was a fiercely independent kid with social and political views that reflected the turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s when I was growing up. It’s possible his out-of-sync worldview might’ve made my blood boil, and mine his.

I recall my mama telling me her own mom kept these letters from her dad hidden when he sent them. The harrowing stories of what life was like when he lived with them at home in Oak Ridge and Knoxville, even for the few short years before Bob Momma gave him the boot, were convincing enough to understand why she might want to, and it’s entirely possible this single letter, more than five pages, is the only surviving example.

my mother on a sanctioned trip to see her daddy in the Florida keys in 1953, age 12; ballerina legs were already there

Clarence and Alberta divorced on March 20, 1948 on the grounds of his “…cruel and inhuman treatment and conduct…” as well as his “…habit of drunkenness….” My mother was six.

Natural consequences can be tough.

Later in life Minnie Hill became Minnie Griffin, who died in Denver in 1965. I could find no digital record of Hubert Joslin, but it probably exists should one want to dig deeper. Surprisingly, I did find the Irene C was still in service as a tugboat until 2004. She was built in 1959, and so lived to be nearly the same age as my granddad when he died.

aboard the Irene C, at the far left in the photo

I’ll forever maintain you absolutely can choose your family. But the mental anguish and illness, the prejudices purveyed in a household…those are there to leave inky stains that transcend generations.

And now it would seem I have opened a Pandora’s box; I am not yet finished with this man.

One thought on “Family Reflection: Bastard Son of a Woman Named Minnie

  1. I love your phrase “genetic soup” – it so aptly describes each individual’s random chance and luck of the draw when it comes to the DNA lottery!! Hope the pounds melt away and the BP drops to normal without the meds!


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