Uncle Sheridan

Two of my father’s four brothers were born during the Civil War. My grandfather, the General, no doubt wished to commemorate his own martial glory as well as celebrate his fellow officers’ when he named the two boys Sherman and Sheridan. They were puny from the start. When they were halfway through their twenties, the family doctor declared them consumptive, so they were shipped off to Denver, where Sherman promptly died — less from consumption than homesickness and horror of the West.

Sheridan flourished. I cannot believe he ever had the slightest taint of consumption. As I first remember him, in his forties, he was a rufus, round-faced peasant, and the fact that his mental development had ceased at about sixteen communicated a shine to his cheeks and eyes, which were quite untouched by the passage of time. He was stolid and shy, and from the moment of his arrival on one of his infrequent visits he did little else than consult timetables for trains back to Denver.

Those must have been simple days, for Uncle Sheridan managed to amass a fortune. Early in his Denver days, he had been constrained to marry the daughter of his boardinghouse keeper, a young lady named Taloulah — known to the family as Toora-Loora. By the time I knew them, they were comfortable, middle-aged children, with no children of their own and slight interest in other people’s. As the youngest of my family, I received almost no attention from them, but I listened with open ears to every tale of the flamboyant pair, so that to this day I can hardly separate what I heard of them from what I saw.

The first incident must certainly have taken place years before my birth, because it concerned the loss of my little aunt Annie. Annie was Uncle Sheridan’s sister, who as a little girl of five was also adjudged to be consumptive, and sent to Denver, there to recover under Uncle Sheridan’s watchful care. She died. Sheridan and Toora-Loora came East with the body, he arrayed in a check suit, she in crimson velvet. They went back to the baggage car to claim the small coffin. There was no coffin on the train. Relatives were summoned; my cousins swarmed over the old Terminal in search of the melancholy object. Nothing to be found.

‘I am sure I addressed it correctly,’ said Uncle Sheridan to Aunt Taloulah.

‘You certainly did,’ said Aunt Taloulah comfortingly. ‘ I affixed the label on the lid with my own hands.’

But Annie was never found. To this day I have a horrid fancy that she is being shunted from train to train fifty years after her soul departed from those peripatetic bones. No mention of this misadventure, however, appears in the family lot, where a proper gravestone hints, but does not state, that she may possibly be buried beneath.

My grandmother hated Toora-Loora, and perhaps that is why my memories of her are so distinct. Grandmother hated nobody except for some monumental reason. Taloulah and Sheridan had been dining with some cousins of ours whose only fault was that they were faultless. ‘I always feel as if I brought a whiff of brimstone into that holy abode,’ my mother would say. But according to Taloulah the whiff of something other than brimstone was already there. ‘Halfway through dinner,’ she announced, ‘Molly began to hiccough. And the girls! My dear, they were as drunk as owls. They just sat there speechless. As for Donald, he tried to carve, and stabbed himself twice in the wrist.’ She lowered her voice. ‘The whole family was hopelessly under the influence. So that’s why,’ she concluded, flourishing her ruffled skirt with a playful kick, ‘that’s why Sheridan and I came home so early.’

My grandmother looked angrily at her, then turned to Sheridan. ‘What have you to say on this subject?’ she asked in tones that chilled my blood.

Uncle Sheridan blushed and dug his toe into the carpet.

My grandmother rose from her chair, and on her way out paused at the door.

’I will not listen to such talk under my own roof.’

It transpired that Taloulah had put mustard on the cat’s nose during dinner and had been borne home, howling in protest, by Uncle Sheridan.

Yet he did adore her, and when finally she was put away he survived her incarceration by only a few months. They had made their success together and suffered reverses of fortune, and, could they have lived alone in their own world of make-believe, they would never have had an unhappy moment. But at times it seemed as though they were dogged by a malign fate. For example, they were always in peril of their lives through fire.

Uncle Sheridan’s new house in Denver was the talk of the town. Pictures of the ‘palatial residence’ from within and without embellished the illustrated sections of the Denver papers, clippings from which arrived in sheaves.

If one more wing goes up,’ said my mother, ‘the damned thing will fly.’

My grandmother smiled deprecatingly. ‘Camilla!’ she said, by which we knew that our mother should not have said ‘damned’ in our presence.

A few weeks later the Denver papers, again duly clipped, showed photographs of the palatial residence in flames. It burned to the ground the first night of occupancy, and was a total loss, since no insurance had as yet been placed on it. Uncle Sheridan and Toora-Loora barely escaped with their lives. They moved to an apartment hotel, which within a month also caught fire, but happily with no inconvenience to our relatives, whose rooms were untouched. A second blaze was more effective, however, and they were thoroughly burned out. At last poor Toora-Loora was discovered in the basement of the hotel which was to have been their next home, busying herself with packing boxes and a can of kerosene.

She was committed to the asylum, and my unfortunate uncle Sheridan came East to live. The same cousins who had been so libeled by Toora-Loora gave him a comfortable room in their house, where he occupied himself with collecting stamps and writing letters to relatives who lived not two blocks away. Sometimes he would pay a formal call. One would hear the click of his cane on the flagstones, and then all of us who had been children and were now grown up would say pityingly, ‘Here comes poor Uncle Sheridan. Oh dear!’ We would welcome him as if he were the one person we wanted to see; he would gaze from face to face with innocent, bewildered blue eyes; and when he felt sure he had stayed long enough he would depart, as relieved to get it over with as we were to see him go.

The last time I saw him was just before I sailed for France during the war. He arrived at the house ceremoniously with a going-away present. It was a huge Webster’s Dictionary. Not until the other day did I examine it with sufficient care to note that he had inscribed it: ‘To my beloved nephew, on his departure for the foreign wars, in hopes that this little book may aid him in dealing with the French people.’

He probably was under the impression that he had given me a French grammar.