My great uncle, Mart Ebberts, was a Lutheran from Buffalo, New York, who married Mittie Jackson, a young lady from Sour Lake, Texas. He had come down to Beaumont, exchanging snow for rain, to seek his fortune in the oil and gas industry. Instead, he found Aunt Mittie, a descendant of Stephen Jackson, the founder of Sour Lake who was called the “first white settler” in Hardin County.
My mother relished telling her favorite story about Uncle Mart’s devotion to her Aunt Mittie. She recalled seeing Aunt Mittie, sitting in the living room after dinner, pull out a cigarette. A silver, oval-shaped lighter was resting on the coffee table, easily within arm’s reach. Aunt Mittie raised her cigarette and her eyebrow to catch Uncle Mart’s eye from where he sat reading the paper across the room. Without any word to draw attention to himself, he put down his drink, put down his paper, rose from his chair, walked across the room, picked up the silver lighter and lit her cigarette. Then Aunt Mittie smiled and slightly nodded an acknowledgment in his direction. He returned to his seat and resumed reading the paper.
With moderate success, Uncle Mart pursued oil and gas investments in Southwest Texas. He told us once that, based upon the way drill-bit lubricants gravitated down to coat the drill bit where it contacted the rock, he had figured out the original design of the ballpoint pen. He wistfully regretted that he could have had the patent. He lost money in the stock market crash of 1929, made some more small investments in the oil and gas business, and lost what he made there, too. Long after Uncle Mart died, while doing legal research, I came across two oil and gas lawsuits: a 1934 case, which was a $10 million lawsuit by Uncle Mart against Marrs McLean arising out of the High Island field, and a 1953 case by Uncle Mart against Frank Carpenter’s outfit arising out of the Sour Lake field. Uncle Mart lost both.
Aunt Mittie and Uncle Mart never had children. Each summer, when we went down to our grandmother’s family beach house at Caplen for our allotted time, my mother would send three of her nine children to stay with Aunt Mittie and Uncle Mart in their beachfront cabin less than a mile away. There, we would take walks with Aunt Mittie, or take rides with Uncle Mart in his Chevy, corroded and rusted from the salt air. They had collected a great many empty bottles from daily beachcombing trips along the Gulf shore. When she went beachcombing, Aunt Mittie wore a large straw bonnet the size of a French nun’s habit, which she held with one hand against the wind as she stooped to pick up sand dollars, shark’s teeth and other neat stuff. If she found a sea bean, she would exclaim, “Polish it up and save it. It’s good luck.” It must have been, because Aunt Mittie found wonderful things along the beach, even some amber-colored Japanese glass seine floats.
Uncle Mart stored all their treasures of the sea on shelves in their breakfast nook, allowing the morning sun to shine through the multicolored bottles like stained glass windows. The only other objects he put up on the shelves were sea shells and the model ships I used to assemble and bring to him each summer when we came to the beach: the USS Missouri (an early work, with glue-smudged thumb prints on the hull), a PT boat with cardboard deck, a Viking ship, a destroyer and a cruiser. A continuing supply of models was assured after he praised the battleship Missouri. I even branched out into planes: a camouflaged Spitfire (with bullet holes made by a hot ice pick), a gull-winged Corsair and a B-29.
Uncle Mart would tell us stories about fishing the surf. He said that two or three times a year, the north wind would calm the normally muddy surf; clear, blue water would come in all the way to shore. “Watch the surf. You’ll see seagulls circling and hitting the water. That’s because the bait are running to the top to escape the fish. If you see that, stop what you’re doing, go get your rod and reel, tie a silver spoon onto the end of a metal leader, and head down to the birds. You’ll catch a washtub full of fish: Spanish mackerel, speckled trout, a fish on every cast. You don’t need bait, just a sliver spoon. When they stop biting, it’s over. You might as well go back up and start cleaning your fish.”
It never happened that way when we were down at his beach house or, indeed, while his beach house was still standing. But one Labor Day weekend, about 10 years after he died, it happened right in front of our family beach house: Water so clear you could see your toes in the sand. Clear water means nothing to people from Florida, the Virgin Islands or Cozumel, who can see their toes all the time. But to people raised on the Bolivar Peninsula, it is a glorious, miraculous visitation from the sea. In between casts, I thought about Uncle Mart and Aunt Mittie as we caught mackerel, trout and even pompano in the surf. It was just like he’d told us.
Every Sunday morning during our stay at the beach, my mother and father would drive their nine children in two cars 25 miles to Saint Louis Church in Winnie, Texas, for 10 a.m. Mass. Father George Rabroker was the country pastor. He was Dutch and about 7 feet tall. He truly spoke from on high with a raspy, high-pitched voice.
Saint Louis Church had no air conditioning then. The summer heat and humidity caused our shirts to stick to our backs. Although a large electric fan cooled the first few rows of the congregation, those beyond the ambit of the fan got to wave water-lily shaped cardboard fans stapled to wooden sticks, each fan advertising Broussard’s Mortuary. Memento Mori_. The heat prompted us, when we got there early enough, to jostle for a position up front near the fan at the edge of the communion rail. The down side of getting to the cooler front pews was that we had to get there early but couldn’t leave early. Father Rabroker gave half-hour sermons, and they seemed longer. And at the end of Mass, no one could give thanks for being sent out (_"Ite missa est") because he immediately started into Benediction. In those days, we fasted from midnight on to receive communion; sometimes my sisters, late in the Mass, would faint, not exactly slain in the Spirit, but needing catchers all the same. We watched them be carried outside and given water. We mumbled automatically through the “Blessed be’s” distracted by and envious at their escape.
Because Mass and Benediction seemed interminable, we would inwardly cheer on our way to church when the drawbridge over the Intracoastal Waterway at High Island would block the highway as it opened to allow tows and tugs to pass. This could delay us 15 to 20 minutes but still allow us to make Mass before the offertory. Leaving after Mass to return to the beach was a different story. Any barges moving through the canal after Mass took away from our own swim time and seemed a cruel imposition by providence after the sacrifices we had made.
As we got more familiar with church rules and customs, we used to argue with my father about using up half a beach day going to Mass: “Daddy, Sister said we don’t have to go to church on Sunday if it’s more than 20 miles away.”
“Get in the car.”
Sister’s 20-mile rule had limited application in my father’s theology.
Despite our childhood legalism, we used to invite Uncle Mart to go with us every Sunday, especially after Aunt Mittie died. He never joined us. Nor did we ever see him go to a Lutheran church, not that there was one on the peninsula. He’d just stay in his kitchen smoking Sano cigarettes, letting the ash fall to the floor without flicking it, and sipping his whiskey while he stirred and seasoned crabmeat for his stuffed crabs, which he froze and sold from out of his freezer to knowledgeable beach visitors who had tasted them before. They were mostly crabmeat, seasonings and a little bread, while the commercial brand was mostly bread, seasoning and a little crabmeat. People drove more than 20 miles to the beach to buy some of Uncle Mart’s frozen stuffed crabs.
When Hurricane Carla came in 1961, it destroyed Uncle Mart’s beach house, swept away his bottle collection and sank my model ships. Since he had no wife or kids or house to return to, and was in bad health, my mother and father asked him to accept our hospitality, come to Houston, and stay with us in the big house on South Boulevard. My father yearned for a chance to reciprocate for Uncle Mart’s long history of hospitality — 24 years previously, at their former home in Beaumont, Uncle Mart and Aunt Mittie had hosted my parent’s wedding reception. My father assured him of a plentiful supply of whiskey, cigarettes, and family visitors and friends who would drop by. He didn’t mention the endless carousel of priests, brothers, seminarians and other religious guests who would occupy the upstairs guest room and visit during cocktail hour. Mother fixed Uncle Mart up with a little bedroom on the ground floor near the kitchen and a downstairs bathroom, and arranged for him to have a pretty nurse, Ann Farr, in attendance.
When he finally had to be hospitalized for treatment of emphysema, he went to Saint Joseph Hospital, where they put him in bed under a clear plastic oxygen tent. My mother and father feared he would not get out alive. Even as he got weaker, he would get up, leave the oxygen tent and grab a cigarette in the hallway.
My mother told me that a few nights later, Uncle Mart felt very close to death. Agitated, he rang for help. He told Sister that he wanted to talk to a priest. When the hospital chaplain arrived, Uncle Mart told him that he wanted to be baptized Catholic. The priest thought he sounded confused but proceeded to give him conditional baptism (since he had been baptized as a Lutheran). Afterward, Uncle Mart slept peacefully. The priest, however, did not. He was not sure how much Uncle Mart understood or would remember of what had occurred.
The next morning, not wanting to upset Uncle Mart, the priest quietly approached the bed. Uncle Mart pushed the plastic canopy to one side and growled, “Why haven’t you brought me communion?” Father responded, “Be right back.” And that is how Uncle Mart (after whom I am named) made his first Holy Communion as a Catholic.
My father and mother were overjoyed. My mother had always been Uncle Mart’s favorite relative and vice-versa. My father’s attitude toward Uncle Mart’s conversion was more triumphant. He talked about how it helped that, as children, we had asked Uncle Mart why he didn’t go to Mass with us. Our drive from Caplen to Winnie for Mass on Sunday showed him our devotion. My father’s eyes lit up as he slammed his right fist into his left hand, “Boy, those Lutherans are the hardest to convert.” There just weren’t a whole lot of soft edges to my father’s ecumenical outreach.
Uncle Mart recovered from this crisis and returned to live out his life at our house, attended by Ann Farr. When he died, my father probated his will. Uncle Mart had wanted to leave everything to my mother as his favorite, but my father refused to draw up the will that way, and convinced Uncle Mart to treat Aunt Mittie’s nieces and nephews all the same. My father would generally refuse to draw wills disinheriting children. Pointing to a missing thumb joint he had cut off with a saw while making a table in shop at San Jacinto High School, he would say: “Children are like the fingers of your hand. They’re all different, but you love them all and you’d miss any one of them.”
Mother ended up giving me Uncle Mart’s diamond stick pin with a sapphire in the middle. It shows up in an old photograph of a young Uncle Mart, shining in the center of his tie. Embarrassed to wear jewelry, I kept it in a box with my cuff links. After I married Peggy, Mother had it made into a ring for her. It reminds me of the marvelous, beautiful and intricate mystery of God’s grace in our world.
J. Martin Green is an attorney in Beaumont, Texas.