My Uncle Ed

Dr. R.H. Edwin Espy, c. 1975

Among the many people in my life whom I never fully appreciated was my mother’s older brother, Ed.  For one thing, we lived on opposite sides of the country, so we didn’t see him very often.  For another, he had the rather imposing name, Robert Hamilton Edwin Espy and after receiving his doctorate from Columbia University was known to those beyond the family as Dr. R.H. Edwin Espy.  I was always impressed by that.  Not that we ever called him anything but “Ed”… but even so…

For another thing, from 1963 to 1973 he was the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches and, as such, was known as the “Protestant Pope.”  That was the culminating job in a lifetime devoted to the ecumenical movement – a lifetime spent traveling the world meeting with religious leaders of every denomination and working with youth groups everywhere.  That was not just impressive to me, but somewhat overwhelming to consider.

From the time I was born in 1936 until his retirement in 1973, he brought me a souvenir doll and a souvenir spoon from each country he visited. Most of the spoons, alas! were stolen in a house break-in years ago. I still have the dolls – most with heads and hands made of bisque and with cloth bodies and hand-made clothing.  (Does it go without saying that they were pre-plastic?)  Because he had no children and I was his oldest niece, I always felt that I received special treatment – which I loved, but it was a bit intimidating.  Even as a little tyke, I was not comfortable crawling up into his lap like I might with my Uncle Willard.

Willard, Edwin, Dale in 1916

My mother, Willard, and Edwin were the youngest of seven children and, because they were within three years of each other, were referred to as “the babies.”  Throughout their lives, they shared a closeness that I was always a tad bit envious of – particularly (probably) because I had no brothers and sisters, myself, and realized from an early age that such a bond would forever be foreign to me.

But, it is in the area of history and memories that I feel I most missed out with Edwin.  I just ran across these notes that he wrote for a never completed book of Willard’s: 

Ed Espy Horse Seining on the Columbia, 1924

 …In the spring months I had to get up at 3:00 or 4:00 A.M. to dig razor clams at the ocean beach on the early morning tides – the best time for this in the twenty-four hours.  This was not a picnic.  It would be in March or April or May, when it always was cold and usually raining.  The combination of salt water, cold, gritty sand and sometimes a miscue with the special clam shovel was not designed for people finicky with their manicures.  When I got home from clamming later in the morning – barely in time for a change of clothes, a quick second breakfast and a dash to catch the school bus – after my mother had done her best to treat my hands – there was not much capacity for study on the ride to school.  But it was a good opportunity to catch a nap!

Just that single paragraph evokes so many questions!!  And thoughts about our changing times…

Leave a Reply