Celebrating Bobby: Stories from His Life, #4

June 24th, 2009

It was my daughter Lora who picked Bob up at the airport when he finally arrived on a much later flight than originally scheduled. When I saw him, I knew that he had gone to some trouble to look as nice as he could. His hair was trimmed, he was clean, and he had on clean, sharply pressed clothes.

“From the Salvation Army,” he later told me. Yet the ten years of his rough and tumble style of living had taken its toll, and I doubt that I would have recognized him if I had passed him on the street. But he was still my brother. 

I’ll always wonder if his concern about looking nice was more about his feelings of inadequacy or his sensitivity to the feelings of embarrassment I might have at being seen with him. I have to confess that such feelings had crossed my mind.

As it turned out, I was just glad and thankful to be with him. We had a wonderful visit, and I was sad to see him leave, especially since I had a sense that I would probably never see him again.

Not until sometime after his visit did the heart of what Bobby had said about wanting to look as nice as he could really hit home. Although he may have dressed his words in images of appearance, what he was really doing, I believe, was baring his soul–expressing his naked desire to be re-united with his family.

It was while were we sitting around talking one evening that he said something that turned out to be the greatest gift he could ever have given me.


Celebrating Bobby: Stories from His Life, #3

June 19th, 2009

A friend had given Bobby a ride to the airport. It turned out that he got there in plenty of time–early, in fact. So early that he fell asleep at the gate where he was to board and missed his flight. Thank goodness for a kind ticket who agent took pity on him and got him on the next flight.

Meanwhile, our sister Betsy had found out what had happened and was waiting at the other end–a bit nervously. Would she recognize him? Neither of us had seen him for several years–not since our mother had died ten years ago.

We were used to Bobby’s rough appearance–after all, he lived on the street. But what had ten years on the street done to him?

I wondered if he was addressing our philistine concerns or his own sense of inadequacy when I talked with him on the phone and he said, “And, Patty, I’ll look as nice as I can.”

I didn’t know what to say. My heart was breaking. So, in typical Donohoe fashion, I resorted to humor.

“Well, Bob,” I said, “that would be good since it’s important to look as nice as you can in order to get on an airplane these days.”

Then I waited to see how he would take my comment. I didn’t have to wait long. He burst out laughing and said, “Thank God for Donohoe humor. God, it’s good to talk with you!”

But I was still in for several surprises when we saw him.

Celebrating Bobby: Stories from His Life, #2

June 17th, 2009

I was sitting at my desk when I got the call.

A sobbing voice on the other end cracked and asked me if it were true.

It was my brother Bob. He had just found out about the death of our brother Billy from reading the obituary notice in the newspaper.

At that time, Billy’s widow and son were, in fact, on their way up to Virginia, where we were having a memorial service for Billy.

“Do you think it would be appropriate,” Bobby said when his sobbing eased, “would it be okay for me to come to the service?”

I had not expected such a question, and it took me a minute to answer.

“Of course,” I said. “But Bob, that’s not the question. The question is do you WANT to come to the service.”

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I do.”

My sister Betsy and I made plans for Bobby to fly up here and stay with us.

“Just two things, Bob,” I said, as I was going over the arrangements with him. Knowing that he had no car, I asked him if he could find transportation to the Orlando airport, about an hour or so away from Merritt Island.

“Yes,” he said.

“Okay, second question–do you have a valid ID. You can’t get on a plane these days without one.” It was September of 2002 and airport security had tightened dramatically in the past year.

“Yes,” he said, “I have a Florida state ID card.”

It sounded like we were all set. At the appointed time, Betsy drove the 90 minutes to BWI and went to the gate to meet him. No Bobby.

That was the beginning of a weekend I’ll never forget.

Celebrating Bobby: Stories from His Life

June 16th, 2009

Bob was the youngest of four children in our family, born when I was almost 11 years old. From the first, he was a happy, generous, and an easy-going kid with a big smile and the glint of humor radiating from his dark brown eyes under a thatch of straw-colored hair.

He was also very bright and quite athletic. In little league baseball he earned the moniker of Poncho for his southpaw pitching. In golf he often threw people off with his ambidextrous swing from either hand. Flexible wherever he landed, he seemed to adapt naturally to whatever life presented. Or so we thought. But that came later.

As a child he would be the first to share a candy bar, the least upset when the last soda pop was plucked from right under his nose, the last to complain if there was nothing for dinner but tuna croquettes and a can of Campbell’s baked beans. Like Mother and myself, however, he did have a penchant for lots of Heinz ketchup on fried foods and would groan when the ketchup bottle squeaked on empty.

Unlike Betsy and Billy, the two middle siblings in our family, he was not afraid of vegetables. There was one Thanksgiving, though, when he was scared to death of the turkey and refused to eat it–perhaps foreshadowing a later encounter with birds.

 As a kid he loved to roam the woods and meadows that flanked Mud Lick Creek, near our house in Roanoke, Virginia. He would take his B-B gun with him, hoping to refine his aim on a bird in flight. Most of the time he missed. But he was clearly looking forward to the day when he was good enough to stop a bird on the wing dead cold.

Then one day he came home and put his B-B gun away–for good. “What are you doing that for,” I asked.

“I don’t want to kill anything ever again,” he said. The little bird that had caught the pellets from his gun that day was heavy on his heart. As far as I know, he never went in for any kind of “sport” that harmed any living thing ever again.

Instead, he put his energies into school, where his grades soared and teachers showered him with one accolade after another, including selecting him as a school-crossing guard. He was also helpful at home and quick to forgive his brother and sisters in the scraps that inevitably arose from sibling rivalry.

What we didn’t know was how much Bobby was hurting inside.




Celebrating Bobby

June 14th, 2009

Robert Franklin Donohoe, 1955–2009. Robert was born on November 2, 1955 and passed away on Tuesday, April 7, 2009. Robert was last known to be living in Merritt Island, Florida. 

I found that information online. Except for his ashes, stored at my sister’s house for the time being, that is almost all we have that remains of our brother Bobby. We know he had two daughters, but we’ve been unable to locate them. We do have lots of memories, though, and some stories we want to share. This blog is as good a place as any to begin.

Unlike our ancestors who wrote hundreds of letters in the 1800s, Bobby did not write much, if at all. Not that he couldn’t–just that he chose a different path, one that took him to the edges of society where he could be free and, for all practical purposes, invisible.

On occasion, however, he would surface, sliding into your driveway on his beatup old bicycle–his only mode of transportation. Then he would volunteer to cut your grass for a few bucks. He may even hang around for a few beers and some dinner. But soon he would be off again to his home on the move–wherever he could find a place to sleep. Under a bridge, in a tent by the river, on a friend’s porch, or at a cheezy motel when he had some steady work–it didn’t matter as long as he was not tied down.

“I like to travel light,” he told me the last time I saw him. That was at the memorial service for our brother Bill, in the fall of 2002. During the next seven years, he called once or twice. 

Thanks to Bobby’s friends in the Merritt Island area, I was able to talk with him three times during his last months. He sounded sick, but, for the most part, he sloughed it off. That was Bobby–a generous, funny guy who was dearly loved by many people.

Next Sunday at this time our family will gather in Charlottesville, Virginia, to remember and celebrate Bobby. Over the next week I hope to share some of the special things I remember about my youngest brother. Here’s to you, Bob.


In Will’s Footsteps

May 28th, 2009

Last week Dave and I trekked through the hills of West Virginia looking for the places my great-great grandfather, Will Tomlinson, might have been during the late summer and fall of 1861, when he served as Quarter Master Sergeant for the 5th Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry. I have several letters to and from him when he was quartered at Camp Hope near Buckhannon, Virginia–which would be WEST Virginia now. 

As we traveled up and down and around one hill after another, I couldn’t help remembering some of Will’s descriptions of the area and his herculean task of getting food, water, and supplies to the troops in such a challenging terrain:

“Going down a Virginia Hill,” he writes in a letter dated August 9th, 1861, “I stept on a little stone with my left foot–it turned–twisted the ankle, and I was lame. Nevertheless, to keep up appearances I limped as little as possible, walked all that day, and till ten at night, when we stopped at a big manure pile, without food, fire, water, or inhabitants. I slept in a wagon. Early in the morning, with a rather stiff ankle, I started ahead to find water. I found some, but not enough for the regiment–took a wash and a drink–vomited freely–found lots of blackberries–eat fruit, and at the end of 3 1/2 miles we halted to cook breakfast. I assure you the coffee tasted good.”

He goes on to describe their camp as “a pretty place at a distance, but surrounded by a mud hole or slough, like a snake around the neck of a maiden.”

I saw many places that fit that description–places where creeks and rivers came together in wet, muddy bottomlands. But, unlike Will, Dave and I were traveling in an air-conditioned Honda Accord with cushioned seats designed to support our backs and built-in pockets for our water bottles. As good as Will’s coffee tasted to him, I doubt it came with frothed milk on top, a chocolate chip cookie on the side, and newspaper to read at the Daily Grind in downtown Buckhannon. Our lunch in Philippi was quite a bit more substantial than blackberries, and our king-sized bed that night was worlds apart from a hard wagon bed.

Yet our experience, 148 years later, was hardly the stuff that left us with the indelible impression that Will’s did–except, of course, by way of contrast. And, as we celebrated Memorial Day that weekend, I couldn’t help but be grateful for all the sacrifices that Will and so many others made for our common welfare today.



Time Out

May 13th, 2009

It’s been more than a month since I’ve posted my last entry. What’s happened?

Life. Since my last entry I’ve done quite a bit more research and written several more chapters for the historical novel I’m working on, researched and conceptualized a sermon, participated in a week-long painting workshop, spent at least one day a week with my daughter and three grandchildren, done my spring gardening, hosted and/or celebrated my grandson’s baptism and several family birthdays, and dealt with the death of my brother Bobby.

Dave’s and my upcoming plans also include a two-day workshop in Lancaster, PA, on forgiveness; a week-long painting retreat at Blackwater Falls State Park in WV; and a weekend at a nearby resort at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland.

Sometimes I feel that I’ll NEVER get these books done! But each time I veer away from them for a while, something important turns up, something that enriches them and would never have been part of the process if it weren’t for the time out. 

I wonder what will turn up this time? More letters? Old photos? The perfect editor/agent/publisher? Or something as simple and profound as a new insight? Time will tell.


In Honor of Women’s History Month

March 28th, 2009

This post was published in the Shepherdstown Chronicle on January 23rd, 2009, and read as a reflection at both Sunday worship services at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, on January 25th, 2009. 

I, too, Have a Dream—

First of all, let me say that I voted for Barack Obama and that I am overjoyed that he is our 44th President. As we celebrate the inauguration of our first African American President, on the heels of Martin Luther King Day, I hope that, amid all the celebrations of this historic occasion, we will not forget that we have many dreams still to be realized. For instance—

I have a dream that one day we will not only talk about the Moses or Joshua generations, but will lift up the Miriams and Rahabs to designate generations that have seen and claimed the promise for all.

I have a dream that some day we will not need to lift up the examples of any one religious or philosophical tradition over another in order to make a point.

I have a dream that soon, very soon, a woman will not have to choose between having an outstanding career or being a good mother because support systems will be in place for enabling her to be both.

I have a dream that we are on the eve of a universal health care system that enables all women and all men to choose the kind of work they really love because they are not handcuffed to the health care benefits of a particular job.

I have a dream that sooner rather than later it will not be unusual for women to occupy most seats in the U. S. Senate and House of Representatives or to sit in majority on the U.S. Supreme Court—or on any ruling body anywhere in the world.

I have a dream that it will one day be in the natural course of events to celebrate a woman who is being sworn in as President of the United States

I have a dream that our daughters and granddaughters will no longer need to ask why the leaders of the world’s religions and spiritual traditions are almost always male (Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna, Confucius, the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, the Pope).

I have a dream that our language—and all the languages of the world—will honor the feminine as much as the masculine and will one day transcend the use of gender-specific norms.

I have a dream that the God we worship, in whatever form or shape, will never again be the province of any one gender or creed.

And, last but not least, I have a dream that our hopes and dreams will transform the world into a more compassionate and caring place for all and we will truly walk together on sacred ground.

Pat Donohoe, a Shepherdstown, WV, writer and artist, was among the first women to attend North Carolina State University. When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, she was teaching at William G. Enloe High School, the first high school in Raleigh, North Carolina, to be integrated. In September of 2000 she was ordained and installed as the first female Minister of Word and Sacrament at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, where she served as Associate Minister until December of 2003. Before moving to Shepherdstown, she worked at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, MD, where, as the director of public relations and publications, she was responsible for making sure that the college’s public communications reflected its diverse student body and the inclusive mission of community colleges.


The Journey of the Letters, #20

March 25th, 2009

This may be the last installment I will write for a while on the collection of more than 300 letters I have from my ancestors in the nineteenth century. 

It is time to turn my attention to some other topics; time to finish the historical novel I am writing about my great-great grandparents, Will and Eliza Tomlinson of Ripley, Ohio.

The letters started me on this journey. The letters will, I believe, complete it. The story they tell has become part of my story.

But now it is time to focus less on my role in this story and concentrate more on the story of Will and Eliza. Theirs is a story of what it was like to live in a prosperous but dangerous place during an exciting but terrifying time. Theirs is the story of people whose soulful love, passionate loyalties, and courageous stands created uncommon bonds and uncanny enemies.  

Their story is the story of the borderlands, those liminal places where enemies meet and clash; where the channels of a mighty river unite and divide; where the hills are haunted with betrayal and reunion. In such country, border country, even the most solitary sojourn is crowded with faces of regret and redemption. 

Yet, as the letters demonstrate again and again, it is in the swirling currents at the river’s edge that our loyalties, our loves, and even our lives are formed. There, where the past washes up on the shores of the present, we can, if we choose, chart a better tomorrow.

May the wind be at your back.


The Journey of the Letters, #19

March 23rd, 2009

I have spent much of the last ten years researching and writing about the story of my ancestors who wrote the letters. I’ve learned so much. Yet so many questions remain.

WERE my ancestors involved in the Underground Railroad? A psychic I once consulted said yes! But so far I’ve found no clear proof of their direct involvement.

WHY did Eliza object to Will’s plan of raising a regiment of Negro troops from the Cincinnati area? Was she afraid for his and the family’s safety? Or was she just too prejudiced to support such an idea? 

WHAT exactly happened in the affray between Will and the man who fatally shot him on the banks of the Ohio River on November 27, 1863? Was Will the initiator of their violent encounter? If so, why? And what provoked him?

The more research I do and “lucky breaks” that come my way, the more I’m able to piece the story together, using what I call “informed speculation.” Over the years, a number of dreams have also led me to new insights and provided encouragement and confirmation for the journey that the letters and I are making together.

What still remains amazing to me is that the letters have come together. And that they’ve done so through such an amazing series of serendipitous events. It’s as if they have a life of their own.

I’m grateful to be a part of it.