Honoring the Dead

A while back I wrote a social media post for the “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” genealogy challenge. The week’s prompt was Oldest, and I wrote about the oldest cousin on my mom’s side of the family.

Little Bill died in a tragic vehicle accident at the age of seven, leaving me as heir to the title of oldest. His siblings thanked me for memorializing someone whose life was too short to leave much of a legacy of his own.  

A friend of mine shared that the oldest child in her family had been a ‘blue baby,’ living only nine weeks. When her parents moved nearby in their later years, she learned more about the brother she never knew. She learned about her parents’ abiding love for him. She discovered he was always alive in their hearts. Now that her parents have died, too, she feels called upon to keep his memory alive. That need fuels a deep connection to this person who had never been much more than a myth to her.

I’m currently working on a book about my mother’s life and times. That means her siblings, her parents, her grandparents, too. Almost all of them are long gone from this world, so part of my process involves calling up memories, begging them to awaken from their slumber deep in the recesses of my mind, sometimes birthing random mental snapshots into full-blown narratives.

I was having trouble getting my grandparents’ story to make much sense on paper. I found myself fervently wishing they were still here for a face-to-face. (Actually, this is something I regularly wish for.)

Sometimes, it feels as if they have heard me. My eyes wander beyond the keyboard and I see their ethereal presence. It’s not my imagination; they’re there. Side by side they stand, he in his dark brown dress trousers, their legs as wide at the bottom as at the top, the way they were back in the ’50s. She’s wearing her usual fare: a cotton shirtwaist dress, small brown print on a beige background, her stockings rolled tightly an inch or two above her knees just the way I remember.

I only see my grandparents from mid-thigh down. But I feel them standing together, their arms touching, their eyes boring into the top of my head. They don’t answer my questions. But their presence is powerful. They are urging me on, assuring me if I keep at it, I’ll figure it out. But reminding me it’s all up to me now. They can only cheerlead. And they do. Silently, but hard.

I don’t dare look up. I’m so afraid the gossamer thread that binds us in this moment will drift off, my grandparents with it, and I want them to stay.

 

 

I, too, feel a deep and abiding connection to these people who no longer walk among us. They continue to have much to offer. I want to be the keeper of their flames.

Interpretations of a Snapshot

I tried an experiment a few weeks back when I posted a photo on social media and asked my friends to study its details and tell me what they saw. I said nothing about the photo itself, though a few immediately knew it was a picture of my mom in her teenage years.

I conducted this inquiry for a couple of reasons. It was Mother’s Day and I wanted to do something besides tell how my mother is the best in the world. I hope there are millions of people who believe that about their own moms; we don’t have to compete. But maybe I could get people to spend a few minutes studying her—a different kind of tribute.

I had another reason for seeking input. I’m writing a book about my mom’s life and times, and photographs will be a big part of the story. I love pictures; I’ve probably spent more hours poring over Mom’s photo albums than everyone else in my family together, including my mother. Predictably, my attention is usually drawn to the intended subject of the photos, and I realized I may be missing some important details. Like the fact that the shrubbery and lawn in this picture seem unkempt. There’s a story there, and I’d never even noticed it before I took a long, hard look a few weeks ago. I wondered what others might see that I was still missing and how their attention might hone my own visual sensibilities.

Just the way people expressed themselves caught my interest. Some comments were more emotional and personal while others attempted complete objectivity. Some were philosophical; others whimsical. Here are excerpts from some of the varied insights. Maybe you’ll find the process as interesting as I did. I learned a lot. I hope I’ll never look at a snapshot the same again.

  • I’m noticing the trees or bushes that are behind her—but I can’t name them! I see the pillar is handmade using REAL stones. I think this photo may have previously been in a photo album that had black pages.
  • The photo was taken at mid-day, because shadows are short. The house has a deep porch. It looks like creek rocks were used instead of field stones. One of the trees behind her to the left looks like a young poplar. The tall bush on her left looks like a privet, allowed to grow tall. She is wearing laced shoes and bobby socks. Her dress has a subtle print to it, but the photo is underexposed, so the print does not show well. She has a short vest. It is summer.
  • It asks me the question: Why is this person trying to blend in with the shrubbery?
  • She is standing near a porch and a porch pillar that is encompassed with overgrown bushes. I wonder about the things I can’t see. I can’t see the house, even though I see the rock pillar and the ceiling of what I perceive to be the porch. And I wonder who is taking the picture. And what is in her hand that she is holding up? Her mouth is slightly open, so she must be saying something to the photographer. I like that this photo has lots of plants and less hardscaping than the modern houses have. She is wearing a dress, and ankle socks with her shoes.
  • I see determination and strength.
  • I wonder what she is pointing at with her raised right arm. Is it the vining plant above her finger?
  • I have a thing with black/white photos. I ‘know’ the colours (at least I think I do) and your mom’s dress/bolero is light yellow with a white blouse or front piece. I believe it is all one piece with the bolero attached.
  • She’s standing beside what appears to be an Italian Cypress and pointing to something behind her. If you note the angle of her finger—she is not pointing straight up, but up and behind. The yard she is in is not kept.

And in response to that last comment came these two:

  • Maybe in the 30s and 40s yards were just not manicured to the extent to which we have grown accustomed.
  • I agree. We mowed and trimmed much less back then—no power tools! Not enough time, either; we focused on chicken flocks and large gardens.

I also appreciated that my commenters offered the following perceptions, which have nothing much to do with my photograph but remind me of other important points worth pondering.

  • I am drawn to the torn corner of the photo. It’s sad somehow. It fragments the photo, makes it not whole, much like memory itself—remnants of time, fleeting glimpses into something long past. Photos freeze a moment forever, but like the memory of that moment they will change over time; fade, become fragmented and develop holes that leave out bits of information.
  • When I’m getting ready to do something with a “vintage” photo, I try to do only as much cropping as is truly necessary. My thinking is that I need to preserve the surroundings as much as possible. Even if they don’t seem important to me, they might be significant to future generations.
  • I often try to cut out or hide parts [of a photo] that I don’t think are pretty or don’t make for a good composition. But I need to think more about how to “preserve the surroundings.”

Then there was this one. May we all heed its lesson. “My neighbor used to look at a daylily and point out every little nuance—color, pattern, edge, shape, sizes, etc. She made me look at each flower individually, and the unique beauty of that flower. My desire is to look at people in that manner.” 

 

 

A Belated Mother’s Day Story

I look to you for courage in my life
And I promise it’s not just foolish idolatry
That makes me gaze at you in wonder.

–Holly Near, “Something About the Women”

My mom’s a Smoky Mountain gal, and I’m in the process of writing a book about her life and times. I’m happy to finally be able to say I’m on the downhill side of the project, but it’s still a long ride. Thought I’d share a little of her backstory in her honor during this Mother’s Day week.

Mother as a teenager–at 4-H camp

Mother’s ancestors arrived in the Smokies with little more than they could carry. Those early pioneers spent their days working the land. The mainstay meat product was pork—hogs were more numerous than all other livestock combined, with farmers killing a hog or two annually for their families to live on until next hog-killing season. It was the era of subsistence farming. Most of the necessities of life were produced in the home or on the farm, and most exchange was by barter. There was little contact with the outside world, even in one’s own county. That’s how scarce roads were.

A record of early settlers’ homes and the sturdy, industrious people who built and occupied them was summarized by Edgar H. Stillwell, Mother’s second cousin once removed and former history professor at what is now Western Carolina University.
Stillwell wrote that no sooner were their rough, one-room cabins built than the pioneers began clearing the cheap, plentiful land for cultivation, making their crude farm implements themselves from whatever was available. He added, “All other necessaries were manufactured by hand . . . ” It was a world of do it yourself or do without.

Such were the conditions in the 1820s, when the family of Mother’s third-great-grandparents, Mary Nicholson and Barak Norton, were the first settlers of Whiteside Cove in the Cashiers community, which is now part of Jackson County. Barak lived to be 92, Mary to 95. Her 1883 obituary stated that she never had need of a doctor until her last year.

Barak and Mary Nicholson Norton

Meanwhile, other of Pam’s ancestors were moving into other sections of southwestern NC, most notably a bit north in the Oconaluftee area, most of it now lying within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Soon after Sarah and Jacob Mingus settled the area in the earliest years of the 1800s, the Stillwells arrived, and then the Holdens.

In the isolated coves where they settled, religious services were typically conducted in private homes, as was the case with Lufty Baptist Church founded in 1836. Lufty’s early meetings were held in the home of Dr. John Mingus, whose parents (Jacob and Sarah), Mother’s third-great-grandparents, were among the very earliest settlers in the region.

The Minguses were described by one old-timer in an oral history interview with the park historian. “They are ordinarily large, heavy built with a ruddy complexion having broad faces with a slightly Roman nose. They have soft blue or gray eyes, a grave expression yet comical. They are honest and thrifty. They as a whole delight in paying every penny they owe but it almost kills them to pay an unjust debt. They have a high explosive temper easily offended but quick to forgive . . . Most of the Minguses I ever knew was law abiding and God fearing people. I was raised on the Ocona Lufty river and her tributaries and I never saw a drunk Mingus in all my life . . . They use very little profanity. They have few habits. The women folks are mostly good housekeepers and cooks. They all work and teach their children to work.”

Mingus Mill, Great Smoky Mountains National Park–        Creative Commons photo courtesy of Brian Stansberry [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

John Preston Arthur, in his History of Western North Carolina, said, “It was the women who were the true heroines of this section. The hardships and constant toil to which they were generally subjected were blighting and exacting in the extreme. If their lord and master could find time to hunt and fish, go to the Big Musters, spend Saturdays loafing or drinking in the settlement or about the country ‘stores,’ as the shops were and still are called, their wives could scarcely, if ever, find a moment they could call their own.”
Edgar Stillwell added, “. . . at last, tired and worn out with the long day’s duties, [they fell] on the bed for a well-earned night’s repose, which was often broken by the cries of a sick baby or the return of some male member of the family late in the night. Thus our great great grandmothers served from day to day; thus they labored without honor, often with little reward, and always unselfishly. Heroines indeed they were.”

Indeed.

With few exceptions, not much is known of these women beyond what can be gleaned from various census records. That so little information is available may be due—aside from patriarchy—to the poor state of things like roads and communication systems in western North Carolina in its early, and not so early, days.

Even in this remote area, a few morsels of Mother’s matrilineage did make it into print or oral history.

In 1775 or so, a fort was raised on the land of Mother’s third-great-grandparents, William and Rebecca Cathey in what is now McDowell County, NC, to protect their family and neighbors against Cherokee raids during the Revolutionary War period. It was the westernmost military outpost in the state. A historical marker sits along Highway 221/226.

From that battle came this tale about Catheys Fort and the mother of one of the Cathey men, whose specific identity I’ve not yet been able to confirm. The Catheys were familiar with Cherokee attacks on their property and fort. Mrs. Cathey knew there had been attacks on several nearby communities by the Cherokee/Tory Army, led by Dragging Canoe, war chief of the Chickamauga Cherokee, “and she dang well was ready to alarm McDowell residents” of the coming danger, so she mounted a horse in her stable “astride and at quarter speed” to warn the settlement to flee to the fort.

They barely made it to relative safety before the fighting began. Then one of the defending party cried out that all the powder was gone, an admission that could have spelled doom for the fort’s occupants. At that point, “old Mrs. Cathey” (I’m not sure if this was Rebecca or another family member) once again came to the rescue. She “pulled off a pair of red flannel pockets and called out that there was powder aplenty.” At just that moment one of the attackers was shot and the invaders retreated. The ploy was a ruse—her pockets were empty, but “the bravery and quick wit of Mrs. Cathey saved the party.”

Though there is some confusion, the woman in this photo may be Catherine Cathey (Mother’s second-great-grandmother), daughter of William and Rebecca.

When John Holden left to fight in the Civil War in 1862, Mother’s maternal great-grandmother, Arminda, was left to care for their five young children, ages 5 months to 7 years, give birth to another, and manage all aspects of the family home and farm on her own. After John’s return in 1865, Arminda gave birth to another eight children. That was fourteen children over twenty-six years.

John and Arminda Norton Holden

Mother’s grandmother, Martha Jane Henry Dillard was only eleven when her older brothers went off to war, their father having died that same year. That left Martha Jane, her nine-year-old brother, and their mother, Sarah Elliott Henry to fend for themselves during those dangerous times.

Martha Jane Henry Dillard with grandchildren–Mother is the baby, bottom left

And back to Mary Norton. According to John Preston Arthur, “It is a well authenticated fact that Mrs. Norton, then living in Cashier’s Valley, was awakened one night while her husband was away from home, by hearing a great commotion and the squealing of hogs at the hog-pen nearby. Her children were small and there was no ‘man pusson’ about the place. The night was cold and she had no time to clothe herself, but, rushing from the cabin in her night dress and with bare feet, she snatched an axe from the wood-pile and hastening to the hog-pen, saw a large black bear in the act of killing one of her pet ‘fattening hogs.’ She did not hesitate an instant, but went on and aiming a well directed blow at Bruin’s cranium, split it from ears to chin and so had bear meat for breakfast instead of furnishing pork for the daring marauder.”

Such is the stock from which Pam Dillard Coates comes.

Mother in her late sixties

Mother in her upper eighties

I suspect most, if not all, of us have similar stories somewhere in our family histories, even though we may not know them. So, on behalf of children everywhere, thank you to the mothers of the ages—today and every day—for your struggles, your determination and strength, your survival, and the amazing genes that you carried and passed on. We’re here because of you.