When I worked for the railroad, we had some short tracks where we temporarily parked rail cars. We called these “stub tracks.” You could push cars in, but you had to pull them out since they were blocked at the opposite end.
Our family trees have stub tracks, too. These are the never-married, non-propagating relatives whose branches end with them. Over a couple of generations, their stories usually wither away.
In my dad’s family, his Uncle Ray occupied one of those stub tracks. Born in North Bend, Neb., in 1900, Ray was what was euphemistically called “slow.” His father, Cal, was quite protective of Ray, who spent his life doing simple tasks, such as sweeping out boxcars for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad.
But, as Cal got on in years, he worried about what was to become of Ray. On Dec. 26, 1945, he wrote a note to his four sons and stuck it in a small envelope that read “to be opened after my death.”
In his note, Cal wrote how he had tried to put away some money for Ray’s future since “we all know his condition.” According to the note, that amounted to a sizeable-for-that-time $7,000, a sum large enough that Cal considered (and rejected) setting up a trust fund.
“Whatever you do, look after him and guard his money so he won’t be abused and be a tramp when I am gone,” Cal wrote. “You know he don’t know how to handle money and so it will be up to you boys to see that he is protected.”
After Cal died in 1948, my grandfather, Harry, took Ray under his wing, setting him up in a small trailer at the rear of his property. After Harry died in 1959, his widow, Jessie, continued to look after Ray. Jessie died in 1982 and my dad took care of Ray, by then in a nursing home, until his death in 1985.
As a youngster visiting my grandparents’ house, it was always a treat to see Ray. Within minutes of our arrival, we were at his trailer, sitting at his small dining table where he graciously shared a banana or apple. Conversation was understandably light, but Ray always had a smile on his face and was genuinely glad to have the company. We absolutely loved him.
But the ranks of us who knew Ray are dwindling. With no sons or daughters to carry his legacy, it is left to the side branches of the family tree to honor his memory. It’s a task often overlooked in some families. What are you doing to preserve the stories of those from the “stub tracks” of your own family tree?
Photo: Ray Lehmer celebrates his 67th birthday. (Courtesy of Walter B. Lehmer),