Keep Your Family Close: A New Year's Tale on What Might Have Been
Every year at this time, traders at the New York Stock Exchange rededicate themselves to carrying on the 100-plus-year tradition of singing "Wait Till the Sun Shines Nellie." Sung on both Christmas and New Year's Eve, it's a yearly reminder of another story that originated over 100 years ago.
The story I have to tell begins with a little wagon – handcrafted in 1913 as a gift by John Henry for his young son Lynn, though his son would never see it. For years it was stowed away, almost hidden, in John Henry's barn. When John Henry was much older, he pulled the wagon out from under the hay in the barn loft and told the story of the wagon to the first and only person to hear it.
He told a story of meeting and marrying a beautiful young wife, Nellie, and how she gave birth to their son, Lynn, and then to their daughter, Nellie May, three years later. Nellie May was a strong, healthy baby. Her mother, Nellie, as was sadly common in those days, died a few days after childbirth. John Henry was now a widower, left alone to care for his two small children.
Somehow he managed, and well into the next summer, with increasing eagerness, he began working on a wagon for his son's third birthday. As bees buzzed and August grew hotter, a panic began to bubble, trickle, and then roar through town – just as the river split it.
A cholera epidemic was sweeping through the community. Reports of the dead and dying gripped families in fear. Suddenly, little Lynn was sick and dead before his father had even grasped what was happening – before he'd even gotten to see his wagon. Anxiously, the father watched over Nellie May's crib, hoping she would be spared. She was not. Within one week, he had lost both children. This meant he had lost his entire family within the space of one year.
A newspaper article told of John Henry's "extreme bereavement," and the story spread to newspapers around the region.
How did the grief-stricken man find the faith to survive? Surely it was his faith in God...and eventually the comfort of a widowed woman with whom he formed a special bond that turned into a lifelong love.
His marriage to Mina was a happy one that would produce five children. Sometimes, though, when John Henry was especially happy, he would forget himself and sing the song he used to sing to the bride of his youth: "Wait Till the Sun Shines Nellie." Then he would catch himself and stop.
Though Mina knew she shouldn't, she couldn't help but feel almost hurt when she'd hear him singing it. Since she and the children knew of his first family and the tragedy that had befallen them, the song inevitably formed an unspoken cloud of sadness as they were reminded of their father's loss so many years before.
Besides the song that he'd sung to Nellie in happy times, John Henry never spoke of his first family – that is, until one day when he was in the barn with his youngest child, Benjamin, now a young man. Perhaps it was because he was particularly close to Benjamin that he did it, but John Henry went to the loft and pulled out the little wagon – and talked about Lynn for the first and last time. Benjamin would be the only one to hear the story of the ungiven gift and the only one to see the fine handiwork his father had created for a half-brother he'd never known.
One day, while still a child myself, I saw a news clip of the New York Stock Exchange and the traders singing "Wait Till the Sun Shines Nellie." Just beginning my lifelong love of old music, I decided to learn it and sing it for my parents.
As I began to sing, my parents looked shocked, stopped me, and wondered where on Earth I learned such an old song. I told them about the stock exchange...but they simply suggested that it was best I didn't sing it.
Finally, sometime in my teens, I asked why the "Nellie" song wasn't to be sung in our house. It was then that my mother told me the story of John Henry – my grandfather – and his first family. Then she told me of the little wagon he had shown my father, Benjamin. Now I understood why it was best that I not add the song to my repertoire.
My grandfather was born in 1887, and since he lived to a ripe old age, I was blessed to know him. He visited us regularly.
Still, it seemed strange to me that an event that happened over sixty years before still carried any weight in my family. Perhaps it was because of the disturbing reality that if that first family had lived, my father would have never been born. My family would have never existed!
Due to a wide span of time, my grandfather and I did not share the Earth long enough for me to ask him all the questions I would have liked. Even my father admitted that due to joining the Navy so young, then raising his own family, he'd also never thought to ask his father questions until it was too late.
For instance, my grandfather had made only one mention (that anyone could remember) of his second cousin, Clara, who attended the theater with President Lincoln when he was assassinated. After all, it was a hot day, and we were all going for ice cream...so the conversation ended short, and the subject was never broached again. It was only just before he died – when he gave us the book of our family genealogy – that we realized how little Grandpa ever mentioned and how little we'd ever asked.
(Maybe, as this new year begins, we should add a resolution to ask our older family members questions like "Where were you when...?" We might just find out how we got where we are now.)
After my grandfather's talk with my father in the barn, the little wagon from 1913 was never seen again. Perhaps, like the small sled "Rosebud" in the movie Citizen Kane, it sizzled into obscurity in a furnace where no one knew its history – and where no one had ever heard the song "Wait Till the Sun Shines Nellie."
Susan D. Harris can be reached at www.susandharris.com.