My grandfather, John Lewis Dowell Jr., native of the state of Maryland, once ended a letter to me with what I thought at the time was the strangest non sequitur. After an otherwise unremarkable J. L. Dowell letter, opening with some report of what he intended to do that day, then perhaps mentioning something he’d heard relating to our far-flung and — at that time — sedate corner of the Union, and then perhaps relating something of Baltimore history that he thought might interest me (perhaps see enclosed clipping from the Baltimore Sun), and maybe carefully sandwiching in some advice about education or career, he said something melancholy about not being able to write further that day, and then he wrote the sentence,”Sadness stalks my fingers.”
I was struck by that line, but at the time I didn’t know enough about the man’s inner life to have a clue what it might mean, or why he would have made such a statement to me. I know a little more now, not only about my grandfather but also about what happens when those who are no longer very young write letters to those who are. My grandfather was dogged by a deep sense of unfulfillment, I’m sorry to say. He was the only child of John Lewis Sr. and Jeanette (Rapp) Dowell, and from what my mother tells me, J. L. Jr.’s might not have been the happiest of childhoods. His marriage to Wilma C. Rohde was a difficult one, though they remained wed for all time. I cannot imagine the heartache occasioned early on by the death of their 21 year-old daughter, my mother’s little sister Cindy.
Grandpa didn’t talk directly of these things with me, but in late years I heard Grandma talk about her husband’s good days and bad days, and my sense is that as he grew older he found it increasingly difficult to face the world as it presented itself to him, as though he could not get over a deep discontent with the way circumstances had shaped his life, maybe also regret about some of the choices he’d made. He didn’t make it easy for those close to him, but I have a lot of compassion for him and I now think we would have found much to talk about if I’d been in a position to get to know him better. I think deep down I’m a lot like him.
There are good things to remember and celebrate about Grandpa Dowell. His smile was broad and inviting and seemed to originate in his eyes, which nearly squinted closed when he was delighted, as when he would say something to us children that we found funny. I don’t recall hearing him laughing very often, but in their early years I know that J.L. and Wilma were a witty riot. Grandpa shared with his wife a love of verbal goofiness and wordplay (“do you walk to school or carry your lunch?”). My mother remembers him refusing more helpings of food by saying, “I’ve had a sufficiency; more would be a superfluity.”* Also he loved history and would have made a great historian. This Baltimorean spent his life amassing a store of knowledge about the city and state of his birth.
J. L. grew up in neighborhoods around Baltimore. My mother remembers him saying that Halethorpe was one of them. His parents struggled financially, and that was a source of bitterness for his mother, who felt her own dreams of performing on stage (she sang fairly well, Mom says) were nixed by her father only so she could marry a man who was less of a success than she felt she deserved.
While a young man, J. L. took up employment shoveling coal or some other material into hopper cars for the Davison Chemical Company. His father-in-law William Carl Rohde worked for that company, too, which may be how he came to the job. He worked his way up — “clawed and scratched his way up” as my mother recalls it — over the years into roles of increasing responsibility and reward at the company (“vice president of something or other,” says Mom, “maybe something to do with finance”), but he had no passion for the work and it made him both unhappy and also physically unwell. He had been slow to finish high school and had no college education, and Mom says he felt threatened by younger, better educated men coming up the management ladder beneath him. It always felt like a lonely battle to him, and anxiety over the struggle to maintain position and dignity more than once put him in the hospital.
In this photo, “Lewie” appears to be putting a good face on a trip across our inland sea aboard one of the ferries. He is smoking his pipe, which always gave off the rich aroma of his favorite cherry blend, whose name I cannot now remember. J. L. did not enjoy visiting the Pacific Northwest, the gloomy, damp land to which his surviving daughter had removed with her husband. The high walls of fir trees intimidated him, and in reference to our famous Mt. Rainier – ever present on Seattle’s horizon – he is quoted as having said he was “tired of hearing about that damned mountain.” He was sure that Sea-Tac Airport was “designed by an idiot and built by a committee.”
John Dowell Jr. had an endless supply of interesting turns of phrase and ways of considering things. “Day I was born there was a king on every throne in Europe except France,” he told me the last time I visited him, in 1992. He was born on June 27, 1914. The next day, Gavrilo Princip shot the archduke Franz Ferdinand and Hell came to earth in the form of the First World War.
Grandpa died June 12, 2001 in the city he was born and raised in. – mdf
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“Lewie – 1979”