A Night Watch

As a small child, I recall my mother taking me with her to a jeweler’s shop in Birmingham.  The name and exact location eludes me, but I do remember it being a spot that dealt in both new and estate jewelry.  She had with her an old pocket watch – the original chain used with it had long been lost.

The watch was by no means for sale – firstly, it was unlikely to be worth monetarily; it was quite old, and by this point, one could see it had been through much.  In my 3 year old eyes, I thought it was beautiful, and became obsessed with it immediately.

Our trip to the jeweler was in late December – after Christmas, and my mother was having it mounted in a small, glass case.

“This watch was your Uncle Mellous’s watch, and we need to keep it safe and on display. We are going to give this to your Daddy for his birthday in January!” I was in awe….although at that moment, I had no idea who Mellous was, and why we were putting his watch in a case for Dad for his birthday.

For years, the watch remained in that encasement, high up on a shelf. By the time  I moved away to Savannah, I had all not thought of that watch in years. In 2015, however, my parents had decided that my childhood home was just too cumbersome for them to handle any longer, and decided to put it on the market. I did not fully they were REALLY going to sell it – many years before, my father had declared he would be leaving the Lenox Road house by one way only: feet first. The surrealistic feelings in me never really subsided, even when they received a serious offer and signed a contract. I received a phone call in Savannah telling me they needed my help packing boxes; could I come home for the full week of Thanksgiving to help? Of course, I went…….I spent closer to 10 days there.

As I finished packing my mother’s good china, silver and crystal, I asked her about the attic. The basement and attic of that house were classic: they were typical of homes built in the 1920’s – each being full length of the house.

“Your Daddy started putting more things up there after the junk men came out last spring and carried off all that mess from before. Maybe you better go up there and check it out. Take a box of garbage bags – I think a bunch of it consists of stacks of New Yorkers. You know your father……….he is just like your Grandmother Bradley…………they both always saved stacks of old newspapers and magazines. They need to be thrown out.”

The General had spoken my orders. I went up the back staircase (we had 2 staircases – a ‘front staircase from the main hallway, and the back stairs from the kitchen area)….then to the staircase that led up to the attic. The calories I was about to consume for Thanksgiving were being utilized, thanks to these two staircases……

As I topped the staircase into  the attic, I began to pull out a garbage bag, and hunt for the alleged New Yorkers that presumably cluttered the area….but a brass object on a shelf caught my eye. The shelving sat by a window, and even with working light bulbs, the best lighting in that musty, spider web infested attic came from the autumn sunlight beaming in from the two lone windows, located just a few steps ahead of the top of the stairs.

I was immediately attracted to the shiny object – this was no piece of garbage, nor an old, dusty New Yorker…..it was Mellous’s pocket watch! There was no sign of the old, glass encasement that my mother had purchased nearly 50 years earlier (broken was the word that came to my mind in relation to that glass encasement).

I walked over to the shelf, picked up the watch, examined it, and cleaned the dust off of it with my T-shirt. I wondered if he was nearby…..if even for a flash of a moment. I had an almost electric feeling that the quick shine that caught my eye was Mellous briefly showing himself. I for a brief moment felt like he wanted me to put this back in Dad’s hands.

Mellous was the middle child – older than my grandmother, Olive Perkinson Bradley, but younger than my Great-Uncle, Lewis Perkinson, Jr. That made him my great-uncle whom I’d never known. For the first 20-plus years of my life, I had only been remotely aware of him. My grandmother and Uncle Lewis only carried on broken and disjointed conversations about Mellous. Even as a very young one, I could feel their pain over his loss – even to the day of their own deaths. It was an unspoken policy, one that was abundantly clear to me, to never approach the topic of his death with Grandmother and Lewis. Due to the blatant pain tha tI sensed, I always honored that. Discernment was always something that came easy to me, more often than not.  I had been aware of his diagnosis of TB, although I do not fully remember exactly when I became aware of that. I honored the ‘hands off’ policy of discussing Mellous’s death, and that particular ailment, and felt that the two were irreversibly intertwined.

January 8, 1985 was the night I finally received one important key to the mysterious Edward Mellous Perkinson. It was my father’s 50th birthday; we’d had a dinner party for him, which had broken up, and he and I lingered in the living room for a bit. It was in that solitude that he told me that Mellous had died from a self inflicted gun shot wound to the head. I felt my blood rush to my feet, and the air out of the room dissipated. Dad went on to tell me that Uncle Lewis had passed on Mellous’s watch to him upon his graduation as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, and that he kept it on his person for much of medical school.

Another piece of the puzzle fell into place after Olive, my grandmother passed away. The day I went with Dad to the cemetery to have her gravesite opened up prompted further conversation about Mellous; as we waited for the office personnel to come in to speak with us, Dad stood up and viewed the map of Elmwood, and reminded me that the family plot was in Block 24.

“I still cannot quite figure out what got into Mellous’s mind, he told me.

“I could see for myself, Dad, Grandmother’s pain. And Uncle Lewis’s, too…..”

Dad nodded, and reminded me, “Mother and Dad were not married yet; the situation occurred nearly 6 months before their wedding.”  A heavy silence ensued until he told me of that day. Although Dad was not born yet, someone in the family had shared with him the events of that day.

Mellous had come home from a sanatorium located in the mountains of North Carolina. He, being so ill, had come home to his parents’ home in North Birmingham. My grandmother and uncle helped my great-grandparents in his care – the TB treatments were not helping him, and he decided he wanted to be home. The day Mellous died was a beautiful spring Sunday. My great grandfather went to his room because it was time to go to church. When the senior Perkinson got no answer, he opened the door to find his son on the bed. He fled the house, screaming, “My son is dead!! My son is dead!” My great-grandmother, Etta, just sat down at the kitchen table, devastated.

My heart, being heavy over the loss of my grandmother, was even more broken…..which I never thought possible.

Uncle Lewis, before Mellous’s burial, went into the bedroom and saw the watch, and decided to take it off the chest of drawers – he asked his father, “Papa, do you want to bury this with him?”

“No, son. Why don’t you keep it? And pass it down. It is one tangible piece of evidence of your brother. You’ll know what to do with it later, when the time  comes.”

My grandparents married at the end of October, 1930 – nearly 6 months to the day. My father was their only child. Uncle Lewis had 3 girls, whom he loved dearly, but chose Dad to receive Mellous’s watch upon his graduation from Vanderbilt. Etta was still alive when Dad graduated; as he prepared to go to Medical School, Etta and Lewis gave him the watch – as a sentimental token remembrance, and as a hopeful reminder of the future….maybe such tragedies could be alleviated.

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