My Book Is Here!

Can I just say, with a big Whew, I have just completed my magnum opus. Let me introduce you to my newest nonfiction book, David Rae Smith: A Life in Opera. And it feels a-mazing! The fabulous cover art is courtesy of the Gnome. I could not be more proud.

Now, if the title doesn’t strike you as a page turner, I get it. But let me tell you a little about it. Actually, let me share the blurb on the back cover:

How did a Depression-era boy from the mountains of western North Carolina end up as a featured performer on the New York opera stage? Multi-talented David Rae Smith could have made a success of any number of professions, but opera and musical theater stole his heart. From his first days at the University of Illinois, he was determined to make it on stage. Years of study, hard work, and downright doggedness paid off when he signed a contract with the New York City Opera, marking the beginning of a thirty-year career with the company widely known as The People’s Opera. Along the way, he starred in opera productions and musical theater throughout the United States and internationally; created his own cabaret act; sang with the famed Robert Shaw Chorale, and performed on Broadway and luxury cruises. He was featured on recordings and appeared on radio and national television. Comedy was his forte, but he could do it all.

Combining personal interviews, newspaper archives, and other historical records, the author has woven Smith’s personal story and the world of the performing arts into a narrative which should interest music and history lovers alike.

David Rae Smith, Rae as he was known to family and childhood friends, was my dad’s first cousin. I didn’t know much about him, but I knew he was the last of his family line, and I wanted to learn and preserve his story before it was completely lost. Turns out it was pretty interesting. In addition to relying on various print sources, I was able to dig up some of his opera colleagues and even his oldest friend from Asheville to learn about the kind of person he was as well as his professional struggles and successes. I found some old correspondence to fill in even more gaps. And I added in a number of opera anecdotes, story plots, and other historical information to create what I think it makes a fascinating tale. OK, call me biased, but I stand by those words. It’s chock full of information, and I can guarantee readers will learn more than a few new things. Honest! (Bonus for those interested in Asheville history: you’ll find some little known and curious facts between the covers.)

As of this week, the book is available on Amazon.com. If you want to take a look, just be sure to type in the entire title. It may take a few days for the ‘Look Inside’ feature to be available, but if it isn’t there already it should be soon. I’d be so tickled if you choose to purchase the book. Every reader helps ensure his legacy, and that’s a beautiful thing. Also, if you read the book, may I ask that you post a review. And many, many thanks.

Music to My Ears

 

When I wasn’t planning to be Debbie Reynolds when I grew up, I wanted to become a concert pianist. I didn’t picture myself playing so much as bowing to the standing ovations. Oh, the applause!

I began taking piano lessons when I was seven. Dad drove me to Mrs. Kennedy’s each week for my 7:15 class before the start of the school day. How I treasured my red-and-white-covered John Thompson piano books. We haven’t owned a piano for thirty years, but I think I still have one of those falling-apart books tucked away somewhere. Some things are just too precious to give up. I mostly remember “Toreador Song,” “Berceuse,” and “Spinning Song”—one of my favorites.

I was never going to make it to the concert stage. It didn’t take too long for me to realize that—I swooned over playing, but I didn’t relish practicing scales at all. Yet, my dreams were reignited the 1959 day a 33-1/3 LP of twenty-five year-old pianist Philippe Entremont playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition showed up in our home. Now, I could listen to Chopin all day, but I heard Entremont’s Pictures in my sleep. I sat next to our high-fidelity stereo cabinet listening for hours as my head and shoulders swayed and bounced to Mussorgsky’s rhythms. Nothing would do but to obtain the sheet music, which I practiced relentlessly. Next thing I knew I was playing at least the first movement, “Promenade,” at the recital of my new piano teacher, Katherine Saleeby. (She was very patient with me and my musical whims.) Even today, I recognize Pictures at an Exhibition after hearing only the first note.

entremont (2)Young Philippe Entremont at the piano, circa 1959

It’s like that with other pieces, too. Along with a hundred or so college classmates, I sweated through our mandated Music Appreciation class. We spent long hours in the library’s listening room, dropping the needle at random points just as our professor did for tests, hoping if we did it often enough we could identify the music by hearing a mere measure. I guess it worked because, as long as I’m familiar with a piece, it rarely takes more than a couple of notes for me to know what the next ones will be, even if I can’t call up title and composer.

Somewhere along the way, my parents’ Entremont recording disappeared. Knowing how much the music meant to me, the  Gnome spent years (way before the internet age) searching for a Pictures album. One day he surprised me with an orchestral recording. But it was not the same. Many more years later, we were lucky to score the original Entremont solo.

Several years ago, the pianist came to town, conducting (I think) the New Orleans Symphony. Of course I was there. At some point he sat down at the piano. I don’t recall what he played—not Mussorgsky, but it didn’t matter. I wept.

File:Philippe.Entremont.jpg

Philippe Entremont, 2008 (Wikimedia Commons)

(You can listen to the first three movements of the 1959 solo recording here.)

DAVID RAE SMITH, OPERATIC BARITONE

I had barely put the final touches on my last book Blackberries and Biscuits, the story of my mother’s life and times, last fall when a writer friend asked me what was next. I told her I needed to take a break from writing for a while.

Well, that plan lasted for about a minute. I plunged right into developing a book from previously written anecdotes of a number of my ancestors. Seemed like a pretty easy topic since I’d already done most of the work. But before I got my writing feet wet with that book, I got distracted by one particular story, that of my dad’s first cousin, David Rae Smith. Rae, as he was known in the family, had no descendants to tell his story. Nor did any of his immediate family have any descendants. I found myself a mission–and a new passion.

I’ve been hard at work researching Rae’s story ever since. I’m sad to say it’s still a long way from completion, having been interrupted by all sorts of personal, family, and world issues (can you say COVID-19?) But I’m still hard at work on it.

I think maybe it’s time to share what may become the book’s opening scene. Perhaps sharing will give me a little extra incentive to keep at it.

David Rae Smith, baritone, New York City Opera

Look, Julius, I don’t care if he’s under contract with the Shreveport Civic Opera.. I want David Rae Smith!”

All right, all right, Bev. I’ll make it happen.”

Of course, I don’t know if this was the exact conversation between New York City Opera Impresario Julius Rudel and his resident star mezzo soprano Beverly Sills, but it may well have gone something like that. As the March 29, 1978 issue of The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana, reported, “Smith was released from his contract at the request of Beverly Sills who wants Smith to join her in the cast of a New York City Opera production of The Merry Widow,” a show which would take place four days later.

Whether Rae needed that validation of of his talents or not, it must have felt good to the baritone to know how much the best-known diva of the era valued him. He had performed opposite Sills in San Diego the previous year, a production that was broadcast nationwide on PBS stations in late November and recorded for Angel Records. Sills must have appreciated the dynamic.

Newspapers all over the country publicized the 1977 event, usually beginning with words similar to those in New Mexico’s Deming Headlight: “Public television will present a new English-language production of Franz Lehar’s zesty operetta, The Merry Widow starring Beverly Sills Monday, November 28 on PBS as it was presented earlier this fall at the San Diego Civic Theater.

“Appearing with Miss Sills in this all-new San Diego Opera Company production will be Alan Titus, Nolan Van Way, Glenys Fowles, Ryan Allen and David Rae Smith.”

The company’s musical recording of Widow highlights was the 1978 (February 23) Grammy award winner for Best Opera Recording. (Other 1978 Grammy recipients included Luciano Pavarotti, Steve Martin, Donna Summer, Chick Corea, Al Jarreau, the BeeGees (“Saturday Night Fever”), Orson Welles, the Muppets, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, George Benson, Ann Murray, Barry Manilow, Billy Joel and Earth, Wind and Fire.)

How did the son of an Asheville, North Carolina, letter carrier and a homemaker make his way to the Grammys and the opera and Broadway stages?

In truth, the multi-talented Rae had many career choices, and his path was the result of a multitude of happenstances—in addition, of course, to his great natural abilities.

Based on his early accomplishments, Rae could have been successful at almost any career: politics, acting, the law, concert pianist, vocalist, radio personality, scholar. It must have seemed as if the world was his pearl-studded oyster.

* * *

Rae as Professor Harold Hill in Brevard Music Center production of The Music Man, 1971, with co-stars. Photo courtesy of Brevard Music Center, Overture  magazine, 1972. Used with permission.

Mom’s Life in Pictures

Well, that’s  not right. Mother’s life was much more than can be depicted in these few photographs. This is more a through-the-years photo essay–a snapshot of snapshots, limited by what has been scanned and is readily available and not in any particular order. (And unfortunately, misses her middle life altogether–maybe another time.)

Pam Dillard Coates: 10/11/1923-7/7/2020

Circa 1936–sisters (l-r) Bobbie, Jeannette, Phyllis, Mom.

Circa 1937 family photo: (front) Bobbie; (center) Mom with a teenage smirk, Grandmother, Jeannette; (back) Granddaddy, Phyllis, Bill.

1942–college sophomore photo, Western Carolina Teachers College (now Western Carolina University).

1940–Mom (right) high school senior, with friends at Sylva High School.

Sometime in the early ’40s–maybe senior yearbook photo.

Braxton and Pam Coates wedding

November 14, 1944.

1945–war workers in the Secret City (Oak Ridge, TN)–standing in front of their flat top home, one of thousands  brought in by truck and lifted into place by crane, fully finished and furnished.

1946 or 47: Mom with firstborn (me) in front of her parents’ home in the Addie community, about four miles from Sylva, Jackson County, NC.

Fall, 2004: Family reunion, Asheville, NC,three months before Dad died.

 

Circa 2006–Mom basking in sunlight in front of Olympic fountain, Atlanta, GA.

Circa 2007: Mom (r) with sister Jeannette, Blue Ridge Parkway.

mom 95

October 2018–Mom’s 95th birthday.

1950–Mom flanked by my brother Alan and me. She made all the clothes, probably including Alan’s cap and my pocketbook.

November 2019 (age 96)–Mom checking out a hot-off-the-press copy of my book about her life.

Circa 2010 at home in Fairview, NC. (Thanks to brother Curt for this one. He is the BEST photographer!)

circa 1938.  Mom as a teenager standing by the rock pillars in front of her home in Beta, NC (just outside of Sylva, Jackson County)

Circa 2005. Mom at home.

Circa 1990–in the woods at home, Fairview, NC.

1924, with her siblings, cousins, and grandmother. Mother is the baby, front left, fascinated with something on the ground instead of the person behind the camera.

Circa 1939. Mom at Swannanoa 4-H camp, Swannanoa, NC.

Circa 1943. Dad and Mom courting on the mountainside at her home in Addie, NC (near Sylva, Jackson County).

 

Circa 2015. Mom and Dad’s youngest brother, Bryan, are reminiscing.

Circa 1954. Mom holding her youngest, Curtis, at home, Florence, SC.

1994. Mother and Dad celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary when she was 71.

Circa 1944. A big smile for her boyfriend.

Circa 1942. Sisters: Barbara, Jeannette, Phyllis, Pam (my mom)

The Story I Need to Tell

What story do I need to tell right now? The same story I needed to tell yesterday, last month, last year.

It’s the story of family. The stories that compel me most are of family members who have no one else to tell their story. I want to memorialize their lives.

A few generations’ worth of my forebears

I remember the day (about thirty years ago) I was driving to another county for a meeting. As usual, I tuned into NPR. A man was talking. It was the middle of something—I couldn’t tell what. But I was transfixed as he talked about sitting on the porch under the feet of his aunts and grandmother as they rocked and snapped beans and told and retold stories handed down to them, stories that ultimately led him to hard-to-find discoveries of his personal history.

The man was still talking when I reached my destination, so I didn’t get to find out who he was or exactly what he was talking about. But I was haunted by the bits of his story I heard. His voice stayed in my head. Only years later did I discover, when I heard a snippet of the story again, that I had been listening to a recorded talk given by Alex Haley about his genealogical discoveries that led to the writing of Roots.

My husband surprised me with this album–the haunting story I’d heard on the radio years before.

I will never write a story with the power of Roots. That is not the point. The point is that if a story isn’t preserved, it disappears. I believe our personal histories matter, and even a few random anecdotes about our ancestors can help us better understand who we are. They can give us a sense of self, of belonging, of profound truths.

If I know a story or can ferret one out, it feels like both an obligation and an honor to be the conduit between my past and future. If I can keep a story alive, I can keep the memory of cherished people alive, as well.

When I’m conscious of what my forebears lived through, how they lived through it, how they survived, I see life differently. When I study the history of their times, I feel them holding me up, and I want to do the same in my turn.

The story I need to tell right now is the one of my cousin (once removed) who sang with the New York City Opera for thirty years and left no descendants. And the story of his brother, a P-47 pilot in World War II. He was on a bombing mission to clear the way for Patton’s assault on Germany when he was killed just six weeks before the war in Europe ended. He left no one to tell his story, either.

              

Brothers Rae and Ed Smith, my cousins once removed

Blackberries and Biscuits: A Review

OK, I’m all puffed up with pride and just can’t help it.

I recently received a lovely, validating  note in the mail from someone who had just finished reading Blackberries and Biscuits. She enclosed a review because, as she said, “I truly believe it deserves literary attention and acclaim.” Wow!

Mind you, we are friends and writing colleagues, but her note and review were completely unsolicited, so I accept that her words are totally from the heart. They made my heart sing, and I’ve just gotta share them with you!

By the way, if you’ve read Blackberries and Biscuits, maybe you’d like to leave a review on Amazon–I’d sure appreciate it. Reviews are important in helping customers make buying decisions.

Review: Blackberries and Biscuits: Life and Times of a Smoky Mountain Girl 

This is a love story that spans multiple generations. By love I mean love of a family through deep kindred roots as well as love between a man and woman that intertwines those kindred roots into a captivating story that stands the test of time. Carole Coates has woven a work of words into a personal, up-close exploration of her own family tree. The family tree branches she shares with her readers surpass common features such as names, birth places and tidbits of local color. Coates’ words dig much deeper than that into the grit, hardship, hunger and belief in faith that make a person stronger. Makes them more resilient and committed to the tasks they set out to achieve. Not the least of these strengths is a true appreciation of humor. Oh yes … humor that makes you smile, giggle and grin.

Taking place on the fringes of Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, the life story of Pansy (Pam) Dillard Coates unfolds through an historical sketch of a Daddy, granddaddies, great granddaddies; Mother, grandmothers, great grandmothers; sisters, brothers, cousins and friends. Photos skillfully arranged throughout this novel strengthen the visual image of this family while also providing a micro-cosmic portrayal of a life growing up in the Appalachian mountains – a life, though often hard, that was also rewarding and beautiful.

Kudos to Coates for taking extensive time to research many aspects of this story. She artfully piques the reader’s interest in a time span of history that so few may have encountered or envisioned. She thoughtfully accomplishes what it appears she has set out to do. To engage the reader in reminiscing about family, close ties, anecdotal happenings and the precious sense of timeless love. Truly, Coates has achieved her goal of writing a beautiful, everlasting love story.

Amy C. Millette
Vilas, NC
January 31, 2020

Thanks, Amy! And, in case that isn’t enough shameless self-promotion for one day, if Amy’s review inspires you to read my book, you can find it here.

 

The Heart of Dixie: A Holiday Story

(Originally published 12/21/2017)

A little preface may be called for here. Way back in the last century—in the mid-70s—our local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) established a number of consciousness-raising groups. Those of us who were interested were randomly assigned to one group or another.

C-R meetings were safe spaces where women could share our deepest secrets, questions, fears, and issues as women. Initially, C-R groups were meant to be a mass-organizing tool for broad political action, but consciousness raising quickly became a form of political action in its own right.

At C-R gatherings, our sense of isolation imploded as we each discovered our individual experiences were anything but unique, anything but small. As we discussed problems and events from our own lives, our stories became a tool for change. We gained strength and courage to take on systemic, structural sexism wherever it existed—sometimes in our own heads. It’s an on-going process, but one where we learned that indeed the personal is political, a truth we still see in today’s various human rights struggles. And though C-R groups were sometimes pooh-poohed as nothing more than group navel gazing, those who benefited from the institution of sexism soon found the results a power to be reckoned with.

*****

We were eight or nine in number, almost all strangers when our Consciousness-Raising group had been formed. In our short time together, we’d tackled all manner of topics, from workplace discrimination to deeply personal and painful issues to women’s health care to daily gender-based slights. It didn’t take long to bond. We were tight.

Dixie volunteered to host our December meeting, more a holiday celebration than a discussion of feminist politics. We had agreed in advance that, in lieu of tangible gifts, we’d each read a favored poem or essay—any subject. I chose Rod McKuen’s “A Cat Named Sloopy.”

It was an appropriate selection on several levels. I’d always been a cat lover and was owned by two of them at the time. And at our very first group meeting, one of the members observed that I reminded her of a cat with my easy movements and my quiet, sensitive manner.

After the rest of us had read our pieces, it was Dixie’s turn. Instead of pulling out a book, she asked to be excused for a minute. When she returned, she was wearing a big grin and carrying a basket full of small, white gift boxes. Cries of “Oh, Dixie” and the like filled the room. The rest of us had followed our mutual agreement—why was she giving out presents?

But, for reasons of her own, Dixie needed to bring an offering. And it was obvious from the pleased exclamations and laughter as we opened our little boxes and pulled out identical items that what she chose was perfect.

Dixie gave us each an egg. More accurately stated, she gave us each an eggshell, an egg whose contents had been carefully blown out. With red ink, Dixie had drawn facial features on each egg and encircled each one with a fat piece of red yarn tied into a bow at its narrowed top. An ornament hook was stuck into the bow’s knot. My name was written on the back of my egg.

It had to have been a tedious, time-consuming process, likely with more than a few failed attempts. It was a gift of thoughtfulness and love. Dixie found a clever, personal expression of our shared womanhood—the very essence of our relationship.

That was almost forty-five years ago. I still have my egg. The ink has faded, yet it’s an unrivaled possession, safely stored with other treasured holiday ornaments and always ready to play a starring role when it’s brought out for special occasions. In the intervening years, I’ve given a few of my own.

dixie egg

My prized vintage egg from Dixie

My egg reminds me of more than that heady time and those extraordinary women. It reminds me of change, of the unexpected. My egg has traveled with me across two states; through a wild adventure of leaving behind almost everything I knew to hand-build a home with my soulmate; it’s been with me through child-rearing, a career, and now my life’s vintage chapter.

My fragile, yet enduring, egg is a symbol of the strength of perseverance, courage, and tenacity. It symbolizes the power of knowledge and community of spirit. It symbolizes friendship and freedom of thought. It symbolizes time and all the experience that accompanies it. And it epitomizes the exquisite purity of giving from the heart.

Wherever you are today, dear Dixie, thank you for breaking the rules, thank you for your generous heart, and thank you for opening mine a little wider.

Looking for Gift Ideas?

Have you heard about my newest book, Blackberries and Biscuits? It’s all about my mom’s life and times growing up in the Smokies of western North Carolina during the years of the Great Depression–and afterwards, too.  Here’s the opening scene:

Not again!” she snapped. Until this moment, it had been a perfect morning. But when she turned on the tap to fill the coffee pot, nothing. Dadgum it! Preparing a hearty breakfast before seeing Braxton off to work was one of the many ways she strove to be the best wife she could possibly be. This thing with the water was getting to be a nuisance. All she asked of the Harwell boy was that he wait a measly half-hour to divert the water supply from the house to the cattle trough so Brack could get a pre-workday shower and she could fix his breakfast.

Today was one time too many. In a flash of huff, she trounced across the kitchen, slammed the screen door behind her, stomped across the sandy back yard in her pink and blue flowered pajamas, climbed over the barbed wire fence into the neighbors’ pasture, and turned off the cattle trough faucet with a sharp wrist twist.

She marched triumphantly back to the kitchen, still mad, but smug. Today there would be coffee.

Who is this woman?

Her name is Pansy (Pam) Dillard Coates, and I know this true-life episode because the four-year-old version of me was in the kitchen when it happened. Surely, the only reason this long-ago moment stands so clearly in my memory is that such a display of temper was so unlike the quiet, gentle woman I knew as my mother.

That woman would never snap, never slam, and never, ever leave the house in her pajamas.

At the time, our young family of four was living in Mars Bluff, South Carolina, about eight miles east of Florence where Daddy worked. My parents rented an old farmhouse from the Harwells who lived next door in “one of the finest examples of Greek Revival antebellum architecture in South Carolina.”

Built in 1857, the plantation house had been in the possession of Mrs. Harwell’s mother since 1902 and remains in the family today. Even I knew it was pretty impressive, encircled as it was with twenty-two Doric columns. Not that I knew to call them that.

By contrast, our small, wood frame house stood atop brick pillars, the open space under the house intended to keep things cooler in hot southern summers. A wide screened porch ran all the way across the front. In my recollection, a hall sliced the house’s length from front door to back with a living room, bedroom, tiny den (most of which was filled with an oil heater), and a kitchen on the left side and a couple of bedrooms and a bathroom along the right. The cavernous bathroom had a floor of hardwood, dark and shiny. Surely it was originally another bedroom, repurposed when indoor plumbing came along.

Perhaps the nearby presence of The Columns, as the Harwell home was known, made our house look shabby to the lady who came calling one day to welcome us to Florence’s First Baptist Church. Mother did not like the overwhelming sense that this matron “felt sorry for us,” maybe even looked down on us. It was a slight she found hard to forget, though they worked side by side at church functions for decades.

But our home wasn’t nearly as pathetic as the unpainted two-room shanty occupied by a sharecropping couple. On occasion, I walked across the farm fields to visit them. It was a tiny space, even by a four-year-old’s standards. To enter, I walked into a small area designated as the kitchen. There was room for a rough-sawn countertop on one side of the ill-fitting door and a wood-fired cookstove and old-fashioned icebox—I’d never seen one of those before—on the other. An open doorway led into their combination living-bedroom. The place was dismally spare. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had once been slave quarters.

At least our house had electricity. And running water—sometimes.

There are plenty of old photos in Blackberries and Biscuits–more than 100! This one shows Mom with me and my brother Alan on Easter Sunday when our family lived in Mars Bluff.

It’s not too late to order a copy of Blackberries and Biscuits for someone on your holiday gift list–or even as a treat for yourself. You can find it here. (Tip: If you’re local, I’ve got a deal for you—just give me a buzz or pm me on FB.)

Blackberries and Biscuits

I couldn’t be more excited to share with you that my latest book has been published and is now available for purchase on Amazon. (You can find the reason for the title in Chapter Five.)

Isn’t the cover gorgeous?! The Gnome is responsible for that.

Here’s the Amazon description for Blackberries and Biscuits: Life and Times of a Smoky Mountain Girl (also known as my one-minute ‘elevator speech.’)

In this love story to her mom and the mountains she called home, Carole Coates gives the reader a glimpse into early twentieth century life in rural southwestern North Carolina where her mother was born and raised. The life journey of Pam Dillard Coates takes us through the Great Depression, the New Deal era, the Secret City of World War II, and on into the twenty-first century. The story follows her adventures as a farm girl, wife, war worker, mother, librarian, entrepreneur, and more. Part memoir, part genealogy, part history, Blackberries and Biscuits is a tale of childhood escapades, wartime secrecy, family life, and personal loss, but mostly love. The narrative weaves a tapestry of people, time, and place too rapidly disappearing from our cultural landscape.

Writing this story was a huge, multi-year project requiring lots of research, travel, and informational tooth-pulling. I loved (almost) every minute of it. I learned so many new things along the way, especially about my mother, but also about such disparate things as the Oleo Wars, the history of birth control in the US, half-dimes, and Civil War widows’ pensions. 

But I also felt a tremendous time pressure. Since this is a story about my mother and for my  mother, I really wanted her to be able to see it. And I’ve been promising it to her for so long she probably decided the whole thing was a hoax. Mother just celebrated her ninety-sixth birthday—so you can understand that there have been times I was frantic that I wouldn’t be able to make good on my promise.

We surprise-delivered Mom’s copy to her last week—just as soon as the big box of beautiful books showed up on our doorstep. To say she was thrilled would be an understatement. Her first words on seeing the book? “Okay, y’all can go home now. I have reading to do.”

Mom’s first look at ‘her’ book.

I am one very happy camper.

I would be thrilled if you choose to read it. While my purpose was to present a very personal gift to Mother and to preserve her story for our family members, it became much more than that, encompassing important historical periods in our nation’s history from a personal standpoint.

The Gnome has spent a couple of very dedicated weeks working on an e-book version, which, because of all the photographs (it’s chock full of pictures) and other formatting issues, took a whole lot longer than we’d imagined. But it, too, is finally available on Amazon. I strongly recommend the print version precisely because of the photos—they’re a big part of the story and the electronic layout just don’t quite do justice to them. But for those with vision problems or who are really into e-reading or who prefer saving a few bucks (hey, I totally get that), by all means go for the e-book. (By the way, the two versions aren’t yet linked on Amazon, so they don’t show up together, but if you do a search for the title, you should see one below the other in a list.)

Now, time for me to take a really deep, long breath. Except for blogging and a small genealogy writing project I’ve also been working on for a while, I plan to take a little writing break. I’ve got a couple of years’ worth of dusting to catch up on!

File:Celebration of Light Brazil 2012 20.JPG - Wikimedia Commons

Family History as a Civics Lesson

Once upon a time, I thought it was decidedly macabre for people to wander around cemeteries randomly looking for names on tombstones. Then I turned into one of them—long before I qualified as the kind of person (OLD) who seemed most fascinated by this hobby. 

The Gnome and I found ourselves immersed in genealogy in our earliest forties. At first, it was nothing more than wanting to find the names and origins of our ancestors, but it quickly became so much more. I wanted to know about these people who came before me. And the more I learned, the more I wanted to know: who they were, what they did, how they ended up where they were, what their world looked like. I wanted to round out their stories.

That’s when I realized that, at least for the intellectually curious, one’s family history is really a massive civics and history lesson.

Do you know how roads in the United States were maintained in the early days? If not for genealogy, I wouldn’t. Each locality required all ‘able-bodied’ men to spend a designated number of days on road work. Imagine that today. Fines—maybe worse—were imposed on shirkers. I suspect most of us are happier paying a fuel tax than putting aside our normal work to build roads on demand with pickaxes and shovels in hand. I understand the quality of those roads was somewhat (!) unreliable. It was a serendipitous lesson to discover that history because it helped me understand the nature and evolution of mutual responsibility for public works.

As for my own story, I lucked out when I came upon the account of a pair of ancestors, Jimmie and Jerutha Holland, written by Nellie Holland Russell for her pre-teen nephews. The somewhat fictionalized version of these early Scots-Irish settlers nonetheless told me how desperate things were in the ‘old country,’ how dangerous it was for two teenagers to cross the Atlantic on a rickety boat (‘ship’ is much too generous a word), how their vessel turned out to be run by pirates, how their naiveté in a strange land made them easy marks. In short, it told me I’m darned lucky to be here today.

This historical marker in Wayne County, NC, celebrates my fourth-great-grandparents. Who knew?

Surely it was much the same for millions more immigrants whenever and however they made their own journeys. It’s a piece of our collective history we would all do well to understand.

As the Gnome and I became more involved in learning about our family histories, we found ourselves engrossed in their times. I have precious few details about a great-grandfather and another great-great grandfather who fought in the Civil War. When I came across a book of letters from Confederate soldiers to their families back home, I wildly hoped I’d luck across one signed by one of my ancestors.

 

 

My great-great-grandfather, John Holden, and my great-grandfather William Holland Thomas Dillard were soldiers in the US Civil War.

Of course, I didn’t, but that didn’t make the stories any less compelling—stories of boredom mingled with bloody horror, near starvation, worry about a son or other family member in another unit, prison conditions, anxiety about the women and children back home. In that moment, it didn’t matter whose signature was on a letter or which side of the conflict he was on. I suspect the story was much the same for every soldier.

I read about soldiers returning home to western North Carolina from the prison in Petersburg, Virginia, after the war had ended. I pictured what it would have been like to be in their shoes. Or their bare feet, for some were without shoes. My grandpas weren’t part of that group, but reading about the odyssey told me a lot about how it must feel to return home after war, defeated, carrying the wounded, hungry, walking most of the several hundred miles to reach home, not knowing what one will find upon arriving. Seeing the desolation along the way. No parades, no hordes cheering from the roadsides.

It’s a story that’s been repeated through the ages and still is today in too many corners of the world. Looking through this lens, without the judgment of who’s right or wrong, but simply seeing the human heart, gives a person new perspective.

When I traveled to the heritage center in my dad’s hometown, I was hoping to learn more about my grandparents. What was education all about then? Why did Granddaddy only go to school through the seventh grade? He was eighteen when he finished, and within days he married his teacher, only a few months older than he. What a treat when the center’s director pulled out an old survey which included my great-grandparents’ farm. A little square on the edge of their property designated a school. They donated that bit of land to the county. It’s where Granddaddy went to school and most likely where he met my grandmother. With that tidbit of new knowledge. I felt closer to them.

I learned that school wasn’t compulsory, that children who did attend often started at age eight.

In those days, a three-person committee ran each school independently. In some cases, when they needed money to build a new school house, rather than raising taxes as the committee had the authority to do, they chose instead to close the school for a year and divert the teacher’s salary to purchase building materials. Hmm—no wonder a person didn’t finish seventh grade at age twelve.

I was in my small, local public library browsing some North Carolina history books when I came upon a small volume about tobacco-growing in the state. My dad’s father was a tobacco farmer. Working in tobacco—and cotton—was how Daddy and his brothers grew up. Maybe I’d find something useful in the pages of my book discovery. I did, but not what I was expecting. There was something about mules—how important they were to farm life in earlier days—so important they were considered part of the family. I asked my Uncle Edwin about that. “Noooo! They were never part of the family. I’d chop cotton [one of the most dreaded farm chores] before I’d plow a mule!” Now, that told me something about my dad’s life growing up. And I never would have known it if the only place I’d searched was the genealogy shelf. 

Daddy’s relationships with the family mules were as varied as their personalities. Rhodie was one of his favorites.

Random gleanings from random places. And each one a jewel that deepens my understanding. Our human story is so much more than the bare bones of begats. It’s a broader story, a deeply-textured one. Everyone’s story is different. Whatever yours is, if you let your curiosity guide you, it will teach you civics and history which will inform your knowledge about the world around you, give you an appreciation for where we are now as a society and what our forebears lived through to get us here. You might even discover a new passion.

Because there is a story to tell. You just have to find it.