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Cecil (on family)


Cecil had been our department chair about three years when my father died. At that point his mother and older brother were still living. His mother still in Oklahoma and Ernest retired from government service in Washington, DC; I never met either of them. So when my dad died (from forty years of unfiltered cigarettes) and I became the last/only surviving member of my family, he may have sensed the same impending situation for himself.


He spoke of family, but not often. There was a cousin still living in Oklahoma who apparently evidenced more than a fare share of the Elliott eccentricity. It was her wont to read the Saturday newspaper—recall this was when we still had newspapers—with a pencil in hand. No, the pencil had nothing to do with crosswords; Cousin Bernice (I don’t recall her name, but that one works for me) turned immediately to the wedding announcements and proceeded to punch out the eyes of brides in both wedding and engagement photos.

Watching television—Bernice had little else to occupy her time—she enjoyed “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” but, again, for reasons you might not guess. When MTM appeared on screen, Bernice removed her slippers, threw them at the T.V. and shouted “Shit ass bitch!” And you thought your family was kooky.

Ernest had worked in the Veterans Administration as an editor of a multi-volume history of Walter Reed Hospital. Retiring at the age of 50, Ernest had settled into a predictable low-impact routine of shopping: he could invest days in the simplest purchase, entailing research into the array of options, visits to multiple stores multiple times for hands-on comparison, and elaborate payment and shipping/delivery options. A full day could consume the re-lining of kitchen shelves. And trips to the Post Office were logistical operations worthy of D-Day.

In the mid-1980s we got the first installment of “Back to the Future” and the topic came up during coffee. Elliott rarely went to movies (or watched television, for that matter), so he was interested in this shard of popular culture. I explained the plot line and talked at length about my favorite character, Dr Emmet Brown, played to comic perfection by Christopher Lloyd. “Christopher Lloyd made a movie?” he blurted with considerable surprise, more comment than query. Except for Christopher Lloyd’s TV role on “Taxi”, how would Cecil have known who he was? “He’s my ex-brother-in-law,” I was equally surprised to learn. Cecil had been married to Lloyd’s sister Ruth. “He was an un-employed actor for ten years. That leech ate us out of house and home for the better part of that time.”

When his mother came to Fargo for the remainder of her life, she lived at Bethany on South University, probably a happier setting for its comforting landscape of tall trees. When I’m old(er) and feeble(r), please don’t banish me to the ‘burbs.

So, there was the elder Mrs Elliott, a Baptist among Lutherans and no doubt feeling fairly alien. During one of the election campaigns, she had a casual conversation with her fellow inmates: “You’re voting Republican,” they expected. “Hell no,” she retorted, “I may be old, but I’m not crazy!”

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

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