My mother’s dad Frank White Lee (1908–1988) was a quiet man. He worked hard, and his silence was a mode we were taught to give all due consideration. Once, when my sisters and I were a bit too raucous, my grandfather told us that we needed to be quiet, or the “Indians in the basement” would hear us – and come after us for misbehaving. Because Grandpa rarely spoke, we weren’t sure what to believe. (P.S. – Grandpa did not mean to be politically incorrect – it was 1965.)
Grandpa was born in Wyoming, but said little about his family. His mother Dora Ono Wilcox (1880–1916) had died from complications in childbirth, and his father died when he was sixteen. I knew my grandfather was very proud of the accomplishments of his own grandfather, Charles Merritt Wilcox (1851–1930), as Grandpa Wilcox had driven a stagecoach in the late nineteenth century. Growing up, there simply were no oral histories or traditions. I did not know anything more about my grandfather’s family.
In the early 1980s my grandfather came to visit us. I had kids in diapers, a new mortgage payment, and I was doing everything possible to make it all come together. Even if he didn’t say very much, I loved it when Grandpa came to visit. My grandfather set a good and honest tone wherever he went.
I remember one visit with the television set being on and me too busy to pay it much attention. It was just background noise in between diaper changes. Out of the blue, I hear my grandfather say “He’s one of Amos’s bunch,” as he points to the television set. The program he was pointing to was a drama about two young motor cycle officers with the California Highway Patrol – CHiPs. In those hurry-up-and-burp-the-baby days I simply filed this information along with the water bill. I’m not even sure I responded.
Flash forward thirty years – I am now (reasonably) diaper-free. In going through some of my grandfather’s things, I found a scrambled piece of paper briefly describing his Wilcox family tree.[i] And there it was: “Amos ––.” However the line from Amos didn’t extend anyplace. Then in the back of my mind I hear the television set. It’s 1980, and I hear my grandfather’s voice saying something to me about Amos’s bunch, and a young fellow on a television show.
So, not really having an idea of how it all was supposed to fit together, I rolled the dice and contacted the PR folks for the actor in that 1980s television program. I had no clue what to say, so I simply wrote, “My grandfather was an honest man who was extremely proud that his mother was a Wilcox. Many years ago he told me that you were one of ‘Amos’s bunch.’ I am just writing to you to ask if it is true.” At first there was no reply. A few days later, a reply came via email that said “If you are of the correct family you will be contacted shortly.” There was nothing else written.[ii]
About two days after this an answer came from the actor himself. Yes, he was one of Amos’s bunch – Amos Wilcox was his grandfather. Amos, we later learned, was a first cousin to Dora Ono Wilcox – my grandfather’s mother. The reply I received could not have been kinder or more polite. My Wilcox cousin proved to be (and still is) an extremely articulate man with a keen interest in his family history. We made arrangements to meet and go over our Wilcox family lines – lines that had been obscured by a lot of sagebrush and dust throughout the years.
Like a lot of family histories, this story started with the tale of two brothers, Charles Merritt Wilcox and John Franklin Wilcox, as they settled Wyoming in the late nineteenth century. Recently, with the help of that actor and others in the Wilcox clan, we’ve pieced together two halves of a family that had completely lost track of each other.[iii] It has been serendipitous to break bread with my great-grandmother’s family. It’s good to know I was listening to my elders that day in 1980. Oral traditions truly do leave us many clues if we are just open to them. Somehow grandpa got his message through that day even over the background noise of crying kids and TV theme songs.
Stay tuned, though, as I am still looking for those Indians in the basement.
[i] Family records of Mrs. Frank White Lee, my grandfather’s second wife.
[ii] Email correspondence with various Wilcox family members 2011–17.
[iii] Family records of Mrs. Jack Kelly, nephew of Amos Wilcox Sr.