Meeting Uncle Donnie

Uncle DonnieMy father had a brother who was mentally challenged.  Back when my father was growing up the term used was mentally retarded.  His brother, Donnie, was 14 years younger than him.  I don’t know if Donnie was born that way or if something happened after birth.  This was in the 1930’s, and they did not know as much as they do today on how to treat people with mental retardation.  He lived at home with my grandparents, and my grandmother did the best she knew how.  My grandmother died the year before I was born so I never knew her.  When she died, my grandfather had to make a tough decision of what to do with Donnie.  He had to go to work and could not leave him at home alone.  He could not afford to have someone come in and take care of him.  He had Donnie put into a state mental hospital.  My father and grandfather would go visit him regularly.  Then in 1955 my grandfather died.  After that my mother and father would go see Donnie and send him clothes and things.  As a little girl, I would ask to go along.  My parents always refused to take me.  My father said “You never know what these people are going to do”, and he didn’t think it was safe to take me.   He told some horror stories of what he saw when he went there.  After many years went by, my mom and dad quit going.  My father claimed that Donnie didn’t even know him anymore.  I asked why he couldn’t live with us.  My dad explained that Donnie couldn’t be left alone.  You never knew what he was going to do. He could set the house on fire, or hurt my brother or me.  He could not use the washroom on his own. There were more reasons, but now I can’t remember all of them.

In 1984 my dad passed away and my mother followed in 1987.  My brother and I had never met Donnie, and by this time it had been so long since my parents had visited that we didn’t even know where he was at.  We didn’t know how to go about finding him.  For ten years after my mother’s death, we didn’t try to find him.  Then one day my brother was going through some papers of my mothers, and he found some information that told what state hospital Donnie was in.  He contacted the hospital and Donnie was no longer there, but they were able to tell my brother that Donnie was still alive and where he was now residing.  My brother then called the hospital where Donnie resided, and he was told that Donnie was doing OK.  They invited us to come see him.  They seemed thrilled to find out that this man had a family.

In April of 1997 my brother and I made a day trip to see Donnie, and I met my uncle for the first time.  He looked at us with curiosity.  His nurse told him we were his family.  He shook our hands, and we sat on a porch.  He had a hard time communicating.  But you could see he was taking in everything.  I think he knew way more that he was able to communicate.  I asked him questions which he couldn’t answer, and told him that I was his Brother George’s daughter.  He repeated, “George”.  I told him George was in heaven with his mother and father.  He seemed to understand.  I asked him if he watched baseball and did he like the Cubs.  He said, “The Cubs suck.”  He would make hand motions when he wanted something.  He started pulling on his shirt and trying to unbutton it.  I asked him if he was uncomfortable and he said, “The shirt sucks.”  He also said a few swear words that came out clear.  Other than that most of what he said, I could not understand.  But I felt we made a connection with him.  I asked him if he could give me a hug and he did.  When he was given commands he obeyed them.  He knew what was being said to him.  He was able to go to the bathroom by himself and keep himself clean.  They told us if we came back to bring pictures of my dad and grandparents.  He resembled my father and was a kind man.  He was not as bad off as my father had told us.  Maybe it was because they knew more in recent years on how to help people with mental disabilities.  The administrator showed us his records going back to when he was admitted in 1946.  We did go back many times after that day, and brought my husband and children.  We went there for special events like Christmas parties, picnics, etc. We brought pictures of my dad and grandparents.  He ran his fingers over the picture of my dad and said, “George”.   I brought a picture of his mother and he said, “Ma”.  Another time he told me that his mother was with God.  He made me tear up many, many times.   Donnie would tear up when he saw us.  So I believe he knew we were his family.  My brother brought him a video of trains because we remembered my father saying he liked trains, and my father would take him to the train yards to look at the trains. I looked forward to each visit.  I had fallen in love with my Uncle Donnie.  Unfortunately, Donnie had a heart attack and died in 2002 at 68 years old.  The hospital had a memorial service for him.  I was unable to attend because I had Pneumonia at the time, but my brother went to it.  I am happy that I was able to know him and have five wonderful years with my Uncle Donnie.  I loved him so much!

Coopyright © Gail Grunst 2013

14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. True!
    Jan 20, 2013 @ 17:32:22

    I loved this…..I was sensitive as a child to my cousin Fish, he was like Uncle Donnie too. Made me remember all the times I was protective of him and shared with him. He was so much older than me. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Anne Gillespie Mitchell
    Jan 21, 2013 @ 09:36:50

    Very touching. I’m glad you shared this and kept Donnie’s memory alive.


  3. Virginia Allain
    Jan 21, 2013 @ 10:20:02

    Families often find it hard to maintain a relationship under such circumstances. I’m so glad you overcame that and took the time and trouble to visit Donnie.


  4. Jana Last
    Jan 21, 2013 @ 12:53:49

    This was very sweet and touching. Thank you so much for sharing your memories of your Uncle Donnie.


  5. wendylittrell
    Jan 21, 2013 @ 12:56:27

    well I’m tearing up reading your story. How touching! So very thankful you & your brother were able to be Donnie’s family for the end of his life. Now he is with your grandparents and his brother & Donnie is a whole person! Thanks so much for sharing.


  6. Patricia Desmond Biallas
    Jan 21, 2013 @ 13:51:14

    Donnie was so fortunate that you came into his life. I’m sure you feel fortunate as well, to have found him. A lovely testament to you all.


  7. Karyl Schmidt
    Jan 21, 2013 @ 18:32:31

    I can’t imagine how much you two meant to Donnie. God bless you for doggedly searching for him and not giving up. I am sure you made the remainder of his life much better.


  8. Sheryl
    Jan 23, 2013 @ 20:58:04

    What a wonderful story–I agree with Patricia that both Donnie and you were very fortunate to have found each other.


  9. Wendy
    Jan 25, 2013 @ 05:34:48

    It is also a tribute to your grandparents that they tried to keep Donnie at home and take care of him. And good for you and your brother for not giving up. It would have been easy to just visit once to satisfy your curiosity or fulfill an obligation, but you went back.


  10. Jana Last
    Jan 25, 2013 @ 10:29:40

    I just wanted to let you know that your blog post is listed in my Fab Finds post today at


  11. Michelle
    Jan 25, 2013 @ 11:19:23

    What a beautiful post. What a blessing for you both to finally be able to meet each other and be part of each other’s lives. Thanks for sharing this story.


  12. Heather Roelker
    Jan 25, 2013 @ 17:32:31

    Gail, I loved this story. My great aunt was born in the 30s and also had mental disabilities. She lived with my great-grandmother and her sister until the day she died. I remember going to visit them and being curious about her. She was kind, like your Uncle Donnie, and I think she also knew much more than what I thought she did. I’m so glad to have had her in my life because I had an understanding of disabilities (or lack thereof!) well before my counterparts. She was a special lady and I’m better for having known her. I’m so glad that you were able to make a connection with Donnie! I’m also going to copy Jana and put this in my Favorite finds for next week!


  13. Diane Hewson
    Jan 28, 2013 @ 02:34:52

    what a lovely story. It was wonderful that you were able to connect with your fathers brother.


  14. Debi Austen
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 12:19:21

    What touching memories of your Uncle Donnie – thanks for sharing him with us.


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