‘Letters to Tim’ a gift of love

CH native’s book chronicles family from late 1890’s to present day

By DALE SHORT, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 12/24/17

“Jonny never cursed, never drank, never gambled, never gossiped — but he certainly did love his Prince Albert tobacco. The hillside behind the barn was littered with those bright red empty tobacco tins ...”

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‘Letters to Tim’ a gift of love

CH native’s book chronicles family from late 1890’s to present day

Posted

“Jonny never cursed, never drank, never gambled, never gossiped — but he certainly did love his Prince Albert tobacco. The hillside behind the barn was littered with those bright red empty tobacco tins ...”

It’s one of the vivid images from the opening pages of Louis Elliott’s new book, “Letters to Tim,” a history stretching from his great-grandparents (his great-grandfather was born in 1895) to his observations on the present day. It started as a series of letters to a grandson who was suffering from severe depression. “My original objective,” Elliott says, “was simply to provide some diversionary activities for Tim.” But when the collection of memories eventually reached the length of a novel he decided to have it published.

It’s been a long and winding road for Louis Elliott since he left Carbon Hill and ended up where he and his wife live today, a small resort town in the “thumb” area of Michigan.

“‘I was born on May 3, 1936,” he recounts now from his home in Caseville, Michigan. “I’m the youngest of seven children, but only by a few minutes as my twin sister arrived just ahead of me. Our mother had no idea she was having twins. All seven of us graduated from Carbon Hill High. My father was a coal miner and worked about 40 years in the mines. We lived on a small farm and primarily raised all our food — pigs, chickens, turkeys, and fruits and vegetables from a huge garden.”

“He was a considerate man,” Elliott writes of his father Jonny. “He convinced his children that his favorite part of the chicken was the neck and back bone in order for the children to get the breast, legs, and thighs.”

That generosity expanded outside the family too, Elliott writes: “Relatives and friends who came on a visit from the city never left without a large bag filled with fresh vegetables from the garden, sweet potatoes, or fresh fruit in season.”

The narrative of the book follows Elliott through his 19th birthday, but he relates the years since in a recent conversation: a friend who had moved to the Detroit area came home for a visit, and told him there was plenty of work in Detroit. Elliott decided to go back with him, and within a week was working in a small factory that supplied automotive parts.

”I married my wife Carolyn Alexander in March of 1957,” he says, “and we bought our first home in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, for $10,999. And that was brand new. My wife was employed by General Motors, and soon she was responsible for helping me get a job at the General Motors Technical Center. While I worked at General Motors I enrolled at Wayne State University and graduated with a degree in industrial education.

“In 1965 I completed my Master’s degree and worked as a shop teacher in the public school system for 15 years before accepting a position as the administrator of a health care facility. I worked there for an additional 20 years before retiring in 2000.”

Retirement is not a topic that figures much in his book. In the 1930s and 40s, the work was hard and seemingly never-ending. Farming and mining were the main occupations, and he offers descriptions of his father in between the punishing days at the mine:

“This hard life never seemed to be a source of discouragement for him. He took everything in stride. If I were to define contentment, I would say it was Jonny in the evening. After evening chores, his supper, and bath, he would take a seat in his rocking chair by the fireplace, read his paper from cover to cover, and then listen to the news on the radio. He would pull his rocker up close to the warm fire, pull the red can of Prince Albert smoking tobacco from his pocket, pack the tobacco in his pipe, light it with a match, and sit there until bedtime. He just gazed into the flickering flames from the fire, occasionally spitting into the fire which made a hissing sound that amused the children.”

When asked if he’s always had such an astonishing memory for detail, Elliott laughs. “I was telling my wife it could have been twice as long, but I didn’t want to bore anybody,” he says. “When you’re sitting in a room and the snow is falling, the words just seem to flow.”

Elliott uses his speaking engagements for the book to help spread the word about the struggles of depression. “It’s a tough thing, and there’s so much of it out there that people just don’t know about. There’s so much more that needs be done, and I try to promote the fact of how serious it is and that it needs to be addressed.

“In my travels with my book, many, many people closely identify with Tim’s problem, mostly with a young relative in their family. On three occasions, I’ve had mothers listen to my story about why I was motivated to write the book, then with tears in their eyes, state that they just weren’t ready yet to read the book. All had a son or daughter who had committed suicide due to depression.” 

Its main purpose aside, the product of his letters to Tim is a remarkably thorough family history. “I wouldn’t say my letters had anything to do with it, but Tim is better.”

Dale Short’s email address is dale.short@gmail.com