Dear Brother Wright, Thank You for Listening to a Teenager
One day I knocked on your door, waited, and you shuffled to the door several minutes later.
Dear Brother Frank Wright,
One overcast Friday in ’95 or ’96 I knocked on your creaky door and you answered, hands on your walker. I told you who I was and who my parents were. I had seen you at church on occasion, but you couldn’t always attend because you were unable to navigate the stairs of the South Chapel (dubbed Blanding Tabernacle). I knew of you from your son and his wife, who “home taught” my family. I called you Brother Wright because that was the sign of respect used in my Mormon pioneer hometown.
I don’t know if you knew what would happen for the next few years of your Friday afternoons from that first day. Truly I took a chance that you weren’t some “creepy old man” like a few others I met in my adulthood. That never entered my mind, which may have stopped me from knocking on your door. You also took a chance on me.
Instead, you were a patient and loving old man. You treated me with kindness, listened to my weekly woes, let me borrow your books, and told me some about your week. Occasionally I asked about your history, but most of it didn’t sink into my teenage mind. You and many others had built the town of Blanding. I believe you built your own home. Now I wonder what buildings you or your ancestors built.
In the late 90s, there were no smartphones, so I don’t think I ever took a picture of you. I didn’t capture your blue eyes, often clouded with cataracts, or your wrinkly face and bald head. It cost a lot of money to buy a disposable camera and develop the prints. Instead, we had time not interrupted by electronics, since you turned off your blaring TV when I came in. However, two electronic devices often interrupted when working improperly — your hearing aids. The high-pitched squeals pierced my eardrums until you adjusted them to the right level. Then I yelled during our conversations so you could hear me. I had to repeat myself several times.
I think I talked with you about many teenage things and occasionally about your past. You encouraged me to share about my week before we moved on to your week. Sometimes we discussed San Juan County history or politics in general. I still didn’t know the full breadth of your contribution to Blanding. Also, I wonder if I ever mentioned Bill Clinton, one of the real creepy old men.
I look back and I wish I had asked more about the past. I was more interested in American history, Joan of Arc, and the Roman siege of Masada. Maybe now that I’m older the past is more appealing because I have lost my grandparents’ connection to the past. They had so much history that I never discovered. How much history did I not discover from you? Admittedly, it would have been hard with your hearing impairment.
Because you wanted to share history, you let me borrow some of your historical fiction books, which I couldn’t get my hands on at the local library. I remember Gerald Lund’s Work and the Glory series that you let me borrow most of all. I felt so bad when I left a carrot stain on a page, but you waved it off. You weren’t worried about it. Instead, you discussed the book with me.
Later, I became acquainted with your daughter who built a blue module house in your large garden. She’d lived in Arizona before. She and your sons shared their appreciation that I visited you weekly. I felt blessed having shared that time with you too. I could talk to you about random things and you listened (though you may not have heard).
I struggled when you were sick enough that you needed to be closer to specialty doctors 250 miles “up North” (Utah County). I was busier with high school, but I missed you. One time my mom and I visited you at your granddaughter’s home up North. Sadly, you weren’t as coherent and you tired easily. I talked more with your daughter and granddaughter than you. After you retired, we women admired a freehand vine painting on the wall.
The dynamic changed because you now resided in a hospital or nursing home for the remainder of your 90s. I visited infrequently at the nursing home. I struggled — because you struggled to communicate. Everything smelled like urine and cleaner, which reminded me of visiting my grandpa in the hospital. It was just hard. Our visits only lasted a few minutes. Soon your great-granddaughter moved into your home, so your white stucco home no longer welcomed me in the same way. After all, you weren’t there.
After I left to attend BYU, my mom told me you had passed away. I wish I could have said goodbye one last time. I wish I could have attended your funeral. Instead, I was stuck doing schoolwork. But you were proud of how well I performed in high school and junior college; you would have understood.
In your final years, your children and grandchildren befriended me. After I married, I still felt your hand in my life. Five hundred miles north of Blanding, I occasionally ran into your daughter and granddaughter. We talked of visiting more, but it never happened. I regret it, but I also know I was a busy new mom.
Now your legacy lasts when I share my used set of Work and the Glory books with my children. I have that set to teach my children of Mormon Pioneer history, which we had shared together. My oldest son said he read them. My children stain my books, which I can accept graciously from your gracious example. (Though, I still won’t let my kids touch my new Chinese history books.)
I hope my children encounter similar kind old gentlemen like you. I’m trying to raise them to be kind gentlemen like you, though I worry often when I hear their occasional fights. Well, my boys open doors for others, so they must be learning some kindness. Luckily, they have good grandparents and kind great-grandparents who they had a brief time to know.
At times I still miss you. And miss so many other “grandparents” in my life. I want to pick your brain and their brains again. I asked my family for more details about you and searched for you online. Apparently, you were a mechanic and river raft guide in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona before the Colorado River was dammed in multiple places. I catch glimpses of you and your wife Dora (who I never met) in several photo archives. I see I only knew part of you, but then you lived 99 years!
One day I will see you again, Brother Wright. Then we can chat without squeaky hearing aids interrupting us.
Sister Eileen Mellor Davis
Links to Frank Wright photos and letters:
Utah River Running Photo Archives
“J. Frank Wright. Blanding, Utah. At end of Glen Canyon trip of 1951, May 11–17. Lees Ferry.” Dudziak, Joseph Lawrence. Papers of Otis R. Marston: Still images, 1870–1978. The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Letter from Dora and J. Frank Wright to Eliot Porter
Photo of J. Frank Wright and the boat “Andy”