Earlier tonight, I attended a memorial service for my uncle, William Henry Winstead. It was almost two weeks to the hour after I’d found out about his death. He lived in Mandeville, Louisiana, and his body was cremated there, the ashes then shipped to my aunt, his last surviving sibling, in Wilson County, North Carolina. Tonight’s service concluded with the scattering of some of his ashes at a pond on our family farm, a place that he loved and that he always said he’d come back to one day.
As part of the memorial service, I gave a (an?) eulogy for my uncle. Before I knew I was going to have that opportunity, though, I read a different eulogy for him at the end of one of my recent podcasts. The two cover similar themes — they are, after all, about the same man — but they were built for different constraints and for different audiences. The eulogy today was written to deliver to his family (my family, too) and his friends. The one I read on my podcast was written to deliver to an invisible audience of my friends and, if any listened, total strangers.
I’m posting both of them here because I want more people to have at least some sense of who my uncle was. It’s important to me, not because I wrote these words, but because they’re about him.
#1 – Transcript from The Eastern Shore #4, 6/9/14
(To listen to original, head to 1:44:03 on this recording.)
You probably noticed, if you looked at a clock, that I ended the normal program a little early today. That’s because I needed a few minutes to do something personal. I’ve asked Jonathan to leave the studio. He did a great job, but this probably would’ve been a bit much for someone I just met. So it’s just you and me.
Last Thursday night, I learned that my uncle, William Henry Winstead, had died. We found out that day, Thursday, but it appears that he’d been dead since Monday or Tuesday. His body was found by police when they were called to do, I guess it’s called a welfare check at his home in Mandeville, Louisiana.
He’d shot himself.
Mandeville is the city opposite New Orleans, at the other end of the very long causeway bridge across Lake Pontchartrain. New Orleans is at the south end. Mandeville is at the north end. That area, those parishes on the north side of the lake, that’s called the North Shore. I know this show is called the Eastern Shore, so I hope you’ll forgive me for changing direction for the next few minutes.
William Henry Winstead was the fourth of the four children of William Winstead and Myrtle Wiggs, my paternal grandparents. His older brother Dan was my father. William Henry – and that’s what we always called him, both names, because we’re from the south and that’s what we do – William Henry was the youngest and the strangest of the bunch. Not that he was all that strange, really, but of course, in families, that sort of thing is relative, which sounds like a horrible pun, but that’s the word.
William Henry was the black sheep of the family. He lived exactly as he chose to, and the other Winsteads – who were and are generally a buttoned-down, bottled-up bunch of Baptists – viewed him with a mixture of head-shaking bemusement and worry and occasional frustration. I think they never really knew what to make of him and his life choices. They cared about him. It was hard not to care about him, to like him. He had the easy charm of a youngest sibling.
But William Henry was the one of the four who didn’t take what the family would have considered a traditional path through life. He was the closest thing to an artist that family produced. He spent longer just finding his way in the world than the others. He made a lot of plans that he never followed through on. And he had more fun than the others.
He was also – and these are all related – he was also the only one of the four siblings who ever moved any real distance away from the eastern North Carolina farmstead where they were raised (and pretty much where I was raised, too). He wound up on the Gulf Coast because he found work and what would end up being his career as a SCUBA diver on oil rigs. I don’t know what divers on oil rigs actually do, but whatever it was, he did it for several years. And when he aged out of that physically demanding work of diving itself, he moved on to managing diving operations and teams. He’d spend weeks at a time out on some rig in the Gulf, where, in addition to his official duties, he also often cooked for the crew, something he was good at and proud of and known for.
Over his years in the oil diving work, William Henry bounced between Louisiana and Texas a few times, but he’d been settled in Mandeville for a good while now, I don’t really know how many years. He had a little house not far from the lake, and a boat, and neighbors and friends – friends everywhere he went; again, he was charming guy. I got to see all that when I visited him there, a few years ago. My wife had a work event in New Orleans, and I tagged along. One afternoon, the three of us did some New Orleans sightseeing together. We tooled around the North Shore on his boat, had a great time.
And one day, he and I, just the two of us, we took a trip to Mississippi, where he’d bought some property outside one of the little coastal towns that just about got wiped off the map by Hurricane Katrina. We had a long truck ride on the Interstate, over bayous and through patches of forest. We talked. We had lunch in Bay Saint Louis, at a little restaurant called Butter Cup, where he was friendly with all the employees. He bought a bunch of shrimp right off the dock from some fisherman he’d gotten to be friends with. We took a look at his property, and he talked about his plans for it. Plans I knew he’d never follow through on. But that’s okay. It’s fun to have big dreams. It’s fun to share them with other people, like your nephew.
He also traveled a fair bit. Over the last few years he’d gone to the Philippines several times. He’d met a woman there named Ruth. They seemed to genuinely and deeply love one another. I’m glad they shared that. Though in all of this, the person I feel the worst for, actually, is Ruth, halfway around the world, alone.
Through all his travels, and even though he moved away for work and he found a lot to like about Louisiana and the Gulf Coast – despite all that, William Henry loved the place he was from, the family farm in North Carolina. He always regarded it as home. And he always said he was going to move back there one day and live on the farm. The rest of us in the family were all pretty sure it would never happen. We knew how he was with plans. But we didn’t think this would be the way it didn’t happen.
He lived as he chose, and now he has died as he chose. None of us would have ever predicted suicide for the easy-going, easy-smiling youngest child of the family. It really came out of the blue for us, and we don’t get it. All my life I have hated not knowing things. And the only thing worse is not being able to know something. But I think this is one of the things I just don’t get to know.
My uncle William Henry and I were hardly the same person – I don’t have nearly the easy way with people he had, for one thing – but we were alike in some important ways, things I don’t have in common with other family members. And I had enjoyed getting to know him as an adult. I wish, of course, that I had done more of that. That’s not a terribly original regret on my part.
At first I thought I would say something here about dedicating this show to my uncle – and I kind of did with some of the music choices. But the more I thought about it, that didn’t really seem right. This is a nerdy little show about Oakland, California; it doesn’t have much to do with his life, with the things he cared about. Well, he cared about me, and I think he was happy I was doing this because it was something I wanted to do, and he was all for that. But really, as far as the content goes, it didn’t have a whole lot to do with him.
So I think it’s more accurate and more appropriate to say that I have dedicated at least some small part of my life to his example. Like him, I have lived my life so far as I have chosen to, at least as much as any of us ever can. And like him that has sometimes bewildered and worried and occasionally frustrated my other family members. Like I said: he and I were alike in some important ways.
Everybody grieves differently. I do it with words, which I guess is how I do everything that matters. So thank you for listening to my words.
This has been the Eastern Shore. I have been and continue to be Brock Winstead, proud nephew of the late William Henry Winstead of Mandeville, Louisiana – but really, in his heart, of a 115-acre family farm in Wilson County, North Carolina.
And to that dust he will return.
Thank you for listening. Talk to you again soon.
#2 – Delivered at Memorial Service, 6/19/2014
This isn’t the happiest of occasions, but I’m glad you’re all here. It’s good to see some people I haven’t seen in a long time. Some of you I don’t think I’ve ever met. But we had somebody in common. And I’m glad you’re here.
Every one of us knew a different William Henry Winstead. I don’t mean he had multiple personalities — any more than all of us do. We all show different faces to the world depending on a lot of things. Depending on who we’re talking to. Depending on what side of the bed we got up on this morning. Depending on where we are — where we are physically, and where we are on the journey of our lives. And you all knew William Henry at different points on his journey through life.
Some of you knew him as a boy, the boy who grew up on this farm. He learned to love this land and never forgot how to love it. He carried that love of this place with him all his life. He carried that boy that you knew inside him.
Some of you knew William Henry as a young adult – the young man who took a while to find his way in the world. He did that on his own terms. He looked for adventures; sometimes he found them. He had a lot of fun. At times, I’m told, that could cause a certain amount of frustration or worry for the people who cared about him. But he was going to do what he wanted to do. He carried that with him all his life, too. He lived as he chose.
Those of you who knew William Henry as a brother or a cousin or a classmate or a lifelong friend over those decades – I’m a little bit jealous. Like I said, I’m told that relationship could bring certain frustrations or worries. He made a lot of plans and he didn’t always follow through. He was searching for a path through life that made sense for him, and sometimes it can be hard to love someone who’s on that kind of search.
But eventually he did find his place and his way in the world. He settled down — as he defined that.
And that was William Henry the man. With a job – a career, in fact – and friends and a love of cooking. And a boat.
That’s the William Henry that I knew best. I wasn’t around for William Henry the boy. And when I was a boy, I couldn’t really understand William Henry the young man, searching for his path in the world. I had gotten to know him better as an adult — once he was one, and as I have become one. Or at least as I’ve tried to.
None of us is defined entirely by who we were when we started out in life. Thank goodness. We’re not defined by who we were at a moment in our youth, or even yesterday. Because every day of our lives, we become. We all hope that what we become — who we become — is better than who we were when we started, or in our youths, or even yesterday. We try to get to a good place.
I think my uncle William Henry succeeded at that. He had a good life, with good people in it — like you. He had a good time. He had a boat.
And now here he is in another good place: on this land that he loved so dearly. He always planned to come back here. Like I said, like we all know, he made a lot of plans he didn’t always follow through on, and this isn’t how any of us would have wanted to see him make good on that plan.
I’m sad that I didn’t have more time with my uncle William Henry the man, the young man, the boy. He remains all of those things in our memories. But I’m glad I had the time I did. And I’m happy that I could be here, and that you’re all here, to welcome him back home. It’s what he would have wanted. Thank you for being here.