Goodly Heritage

Two recent articles in the Christian Century magazine have set me to thinking about the mystery of how any of us comes to be who we are. Brian Doyle’s Two Uncles made me think about my own unique and occasionally peculiar uncles. They sat at family gatherings “silent as mountains” Doyle writes which reminded me of Uncle Short – Alexander McCormick, named for his father, my grandfather- and he was short. I never saw him. I knew him only because my mother talked about him. Short works for General Electric in Western Pennsylvania and is so busy he never comes home to visit was the story. Then, when I was 10, Short suddenly appeared. He had retired, she said. He moved into a back room on the second floor of my grandparent’s house and rarely came out, sat all day in a rocking chair reading what I discovered one day to my surprise and delight were salacious paperbacks. He was gruff, didn’t smell great when, at my mother’s insistence, I planted the obligatory kiss on his cheek but I was always compensated with a fifty cent piece and a blunt: “Here, kid. Now beat it.” Decades later, long after he and almost all of his family were gone, I learned that he was absent for the first ten years of my life because he was in the state penitentiary, serving time for embezzlement. No one ever mentioned it. His parents, brothers and sisters went to their graves with his secret intact. Short was the oldest of eight children, two of whom died in influenza epidemics, two red heads, Betty, an adolescent and Mary, a  toddler with glorious curls. My mother was next to last. The youngest was Uncle Jack, John Calvin McCormick, another red head, for whom I am named. He was my mother’s favorite. They grew up together and were very close and she talked about him often. He was lively, full of fun and laughter and in his strict, almost Victorian household, constantly in trouble. He enlisted in the Marine Corps after Pearl Harbor. I have an old faded photograph somewhere of him in his Marine uniform, and my mother, her arm in his, walking on a snowy sidewalk to pick me up at Nursery School. It was 1942. I was 4. He was 22. He was killed in the Marine assault on Saipan, the Mariana Island from which the Enola Gay took off. I have thought a lot about him over the years: that name – John Calvin. I bear his first name. His last name, McCormick, is my middle name. I wonder who and what he would have become. I would have liked knowing him very much.

Barbara Wagner Duelholm’s powerful remembrance of her father, a World War II veteran who spent time in a Nazi prisoner of war camp, escaped and after the war never was free of the terrible trauma he experienced. Duelholm’s mother remembered that he was a completely different man in 1945 from the man she married in 1943. It made me wonder how Uncle Jack would have been after the unspeakable horrors of the war in the Pacific.

I don’t much like the word, or the idea, of closure. But there was some of it for me and Uncle Jack. Visiting Presbyterian chaplains at the military installations in Hawaii on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (USA), my host and guide, a U.S. Navy Chaplain, asked if we would like to visit the Punch Bowl, the huge military cemetery in Honolulu where the bodies of war dead, recovered from temporary graves all over the South  Pacific, were properly laid to rest. I told him about my Uncle Jack. I had no idea where he was buried. All my McCormick relatives were gone by that time. I don’t know whether anyone in his family knew where he was. The officer took us to an office where there were records of every burial. Sure enough, there he was. P.F.C. John Calvin McCormick, August 4, 1920 – June 22, 1944, Saipan. We found his grave. I am sure I am the only one of his family to visit the site. I stood there for a long time.

“The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup,
you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in peasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.” Psalm 16

Every time I read those words over the years privately or in the Sunday liturgy, it always caused me to think about how parents and family members, incidents, unique events, people and places fall into place and how an individual’s life is, in large measure, the sum total of them, and how everyone’s heritage is such a powerful dynamic in how we turn out. Not all the places boundary lines have fallen are pleasant, obviously. Yet every time I read those words I thought of them and thanked God for those two big families that are my heritage: all the uncles and aunts, the loving ones, the generous ones, the cranky, eccentric ones, the gruff felon, the one whose name I bear but never knew.

Brian Doyle says he looks forward to sitting between his two silent as mountain uncles some day, turning to one and then the other and to each saying, Uncle, tell me everything.

I very much like that thought.


  1. Stephen Littell says:

    Dr. Buchanan, Thank you for that wonderful reflection. My father, who was anything but silent, still didn’t get it all said. My Grandpa Lewis was “silent” except, on occasion, he might say, “Well…y never know.” I would love to hear more from both of them. I have a “goodly heritage,” indeed. Steve Littell

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Carole Ogden says:

    Good to hear from you. It’s been too long. Funny how many questions we have when their is no one left to ask. Happy spring! Carole Ogden

  3. Cher Cox says:

    John, this is a wonderful piece…..pondering piece. It’s made me stop and reflect on all my family that has gone on before me. I miss them all. Maybe I’ll write a short story. U just gave me a prompt. Thanks. Happy May Day tomorrow. xxxx

  4. What a masterfully written and moving insight into the meaning of family and the promise we have of being reunited with our loved ones. My paternal grandmother had 11 brothers and sisters, all born roughly between 1898 and 1920. One was a missionary, at least one was a reprobate, and all were interesting characters. Each was part of my heritage, and I feel that each is a member of my cloud of witnesses. Thank you, Dr. Buchanan, for your insight and example. I’m a better person for having heard you preach this past year.

  5. Margaret Laing says:

    Thank you so much. You remind me that I tend to speak of two of my grandparents as the ones I haven’t met — yet.

  6. Ann Forshey Frontain says:

    I remember Short; we used to visit your grandmother’s when we were in Altoona at your house. I always wondered about his name….remember the summer your father made us, you and I, scrape paint of the house!

  7. James Meeks says:

    I happened upon your blog while doing family research on your grandmother Mary Blanche May. Interesting article since it pertains to family history and looking back and remembering who they were and what might have been. Just a quick family history for you to make it more interesting. Mary Blanche May father was William Charles May who was born in Baltimore. The only May to leave Baltimore and live in Altoona, PA. William’s father was Frederick Ludwig May from Landau, Germany. William’s brother Frederick May is my 3rd great grandfather. I believe we are 2nd cousins 3x removed. Frederick Ludwig May (your 2x great grandfather) married Sophia Hildabradt who’s family was one of the most prolific musical instrument makers in America. One of the instruments that was made in Baltimore is currently in the musical instrument museum. Her father made church organs in Germany that according to legend Bach would only use to conduct and write music for. Just some family history to enlighten your day. Just copy and paste below link to see a picture of your 3x great grandmother if you like. Its from my family tree

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