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.

First Love

His brown eyes, that shock of slightly uncontrollable dark sandy-colored hair, his deep tan, the shy smile. He was irresistible.

He was an outdoorsman, favoring construction work with his yellow dump truck and fire-engine-red shovel in the newly excavated plot of land across the road from his house and catty-corner from mine.

His name was Teddy, and we were pretty much inseparable the year I was five. I’d rather play with Teddy than any of the girls on our street.

How I looked forward to our starting school together the next fall.

Then, in early January, Teddy had a birthday. I went to the party. And cried my heart out. Teddy was six and I was still five. That could mean only one thing. Six-year-olds went to school. Five-year-olds did not. Teddy would start school without me. I was sure of it.

I couldn’t bear it.

No, Mother assured me. No, Daddy agreed. No, certainly not, chimed in Teddy’s mom. She was older—even wore her hair in a bun. Surely, she could be believed. It was hard to understand their logic, but finally I was convinced. Teddy and I would begin our school journey together, they promised. We could continue walking down life’s path side by side.

Teddy and I share a moment at his sixth birthday party.

And once again, all was right with the world.

(Post Script: Alas, our family moved out of state in late spring. Teddy and I did not start school together, after all. Life is so unpredictable!)

My Writer’s Life

Every writer is first a reader. Probably a voracious one. I was weaned on Little Golden Books, those short, richly illustrated stories for toddlers and preschoolers. The books had only been in circulation for five years or so at that time, so they were still somewhat of a novelty—and at a quarter a pop, pretty affordable, too.

I still have some of them. The little books suffered through a lot of abuse, first at my hands and then my two brothers’. Some covers are missing. Crayon scrawls adorn the pages of most. Here and there one or another of us practiced our newly-acquired penmanship skills, such as they were.

For all their stereotypes, I still hold my first books in high regard. Busy Timmy, The Brave Little Tailor, A Day at the Seashore, and Three Little Kittens are some memorable ones. And I swear, even though I haven’t cracked The Little Golden Book of Jokes and Riddles in more than forty years, I can still repeat, without thinking, the silly rhymes and riddles I learned there.

One of my favorite reading memories is the bookmobile. I didn’t understand exactly how it worked, but I remember the large, squarish van pulling into our driveway on a regular basis the year we lived in Charlotte. I was six. Mother and I hopped on and picked out a good-sized stack of books to read until the next time our library-on-wheels stopped by to refuel our reading habits. It was like being in a candy shop!

I was six and had just begun to read Dick and Jane books in school. I wasn’t a reader before first grade—kindergarten had been unavailable to me. But I caught on fast, and, ever since, it’s been hard to pry a book from my hands—even now, after I’ve fallen asleep while reading one, according to the Gnome.

Remember writing themes in school? As I recall, those weekly events took place from the seventh grade on. They represented my first forays into creative writing. My themes were always graded well, but they were nothing spectacular. I’m not being modest; I remember being blown away by the imagination and creativity displayed in some of my classmates’ writings. I didn’t think that way. I had the technical aspects mastered, though. That’s probably why my grades were so good.

And then came that ubiquitous assignment for all college-prep senior English classes: the term paper. My chosen topic was the House of Windsor. The British royal family had dominated the news of my childhood and teenage years what with Elizabeth’s coronation and Margaret’s boundary-pushing escapades. And the romance surrounding King Edward VIII’s abdication to marry American socialite and divorcée Wallis Simpson was a never-ending source of media curiosity, even though it had occurred years before. The notion of giving up the throne for love was almost too romantic to bear.

How I loved the after-school hours I spent at the public library, reference books and 3×5-inch, ruled index cards spread out on a large, oak library table along with similar supplies belonging to one or more of my friends. The quiet togetherness, the visual stimulus of the stacks, the scent of old books and pencil shavings, the magic of the card catalog—oh, it was heady stuff! We walked the couple of blocks from school to the library, first stopping at the Rexall Drug Store across the street for a vanilla or cherry Pepsi and a pack of Nabs to give us sustenance. It all felt so sophisticated and scholarly.

In my career, I did a lot of writing, though most of it was on the technical side. Off and on (mostly off), I got a yen to practice creative writing, but I was never one of those writers who write because they can’t help themselves.

Maybe that’s not quite true. I’ve always been a pretty prolific and long-winded letter writer. And if a pen or pencil is handy, I’ll pick it up, even if it’s only to write the letters of the alphabet or indulge in some goofy doodles—I suppose a writer will use whatever outlets are available.

It was only after repurposing my life, thanks to Social Security and Medicare, that I rediscovered the great joy writing brings me, the satisfaction that comes from putting into words and onto paper the myriad thoughts that keep swirling in my head. Finding a couple of informal writing groups has cemented my writing habit, and blogging keeps it disciplined. While I may not be driven to write, I’ve come to realize my life feels more complete with it than without it.

So I write.

How about you? Are you a writer? How did it all start? What inspires you?

Good Vibrations!

(Date stamp: late afternoon, August 3, 2019)

The Gnome and I don’t do all that much entertaining up here on the diagonal. That’s partly choice and partly circumstance. It’s funny, because as we were planning our open design floor plan all those years ago, we pictured lots of people milling about and even imagined having only giant floor pillows for seating so they could easily be shoved out of the way for more milling or even dancing.

I don’t know why we thought we’d be party-givers here—we hadn’t hosted many get-togethers back in Kentucky, either, though those few we did were always fun, whether is was sharing an evening of the Mille Bornes card game (with my French teacher colleague, of course) or hosting a Thanksgiving potluck with almost more people than could fit into our small suburban tract home.

Perhaps we had visions of showing off the fruits of our hand-building labor, but that was before the hustle-bustle of gymnastic lessons and competitions, track meets, and cross-country races. And it was before we realized we’d be living in a construction zone for years to come.

The way our forever home looked when we moved in–horizontal girts make perfect narrow shelves in our designated kitchen space.

But today was one of our rare company occasions. It was an almost-last-minute, spur-of-the-moment event, which probably made our day all the more enjoyable. We just relaxed our way into it. Our guests included my college roommate, Jan, and her spouse. The four of us had shared several outings in our college days, but decades intervened before we found our way back to each other. Only three visits in the last couple of years, each one making us wonder why we wait so long.

The other couple we’d never met.

For a couple of introverts, that’s the kind of thing that could create a pile of anxiety. But Lyn and I serendipitously and inadvertently had gotten to know each other rather well on social media—through Jan. (They are in-laws.) We became instant pals, each intrigued by the other’s life experience and appreciative of our common values. With Jan’s help, we’ve been trying to get together for a while, so today was a very big day.

Lyn has been eager to see what our ‘modern homesteading’ life is all about. If she was disappointed to learn that we keep no animals and that our garden is at rest this year, she didn’t show it. Instead, she—and all our guests—wanted to know how and why we up and left a familiar life and tried our hands at hand-building a home in a strange place, pretty much away from everything.

Working from the second story

Well, they got answers—and how! The thing is, since the Gnome and I are sort of on the reclusive side, we don’t get a lot of opportunities to talk about this life we’ve chosen and the experiences we had living in a tent and then a barely less flimsy structure while clearing our land, leveling a hillside, and wielding hammer and saw as we also raised our family.

Our first ‘home’ on the diagonal

Oh, we were in our element, talking about those early days. Retelling our story today brought back so many memories—funny, daunting, and sometimes scary. It reminded us just how proud we are of the home and life we’ve built in this little slice of paradise. There are lots of other reasons our visit today was so special, but revisiting our early days on the diagonal warmed our souls.

So, thank you Lyn and Jan and Bob and Jim for rekindling old memories. I can guarantee we’ll go to sleep tonight with big smiles on our faces.

Friends, old and new

Family Ties

Last year, I participated in a genealogy challenge on social media called Fifty-two Ancestors in Fifty-Two Weeks. You never know where delving into family history will lead you. You end up learning about people you’d never even heard of. It’s not about attaching yourself to fame and glory, at least not for me. But it does remind me that I’m connected to the history I learned about (and didn’t learn about) in school. It brings history to life. Being conscious of that history is not only interesting, but creates connectivity to others. It can teach important life lessons. And were it not for them—all of them—I wouldn’t be here.

For one weekly genealogy challenge, I wrote about my great-grandmother, Sarah Elizabeth Creech Smith. Somehow, that post popped up on a Creech family page, and next thing I knew I’d been invited to a Creech reunion. Of course, I had to go.

Columbus and Elizabeth Creech Smith

My curiosity about family and family history far outweighed my strong introvert credentials. I’d never met a Creech, probably because my grandmother died four years before I was born. That, and the fact that I was not born and raised in Johnston County, North Carolina, home to many a Creech and the location of the reunion.

I was anxious about being a stranger in the crowd, anxiety that was much alleviated by the Gnome’s presence at my side. (He’s as interested in my family history as I am.) But there was no need to worry. As the newcomer, I wasn’t only welcomed; I was practically rushed by my previously unknown cousins of various degrees.

What a welcoming crowd! Many of us appeared to be from the same generation, all descended from various of Martha Hare and Worley Creech’s nine children. If I’ve got it right, I’m third cousin to most of the kind folks I met that day.

Worley Creech, our common ancestor

Martha Hare Creech, our common ancestor

I gathered a few interesting facts about my ancestry. For one thing, the Creeches are a seriously musical bunch with a long heritage of vocal and instrumental talent. They played and sang for more than an hour, and it was beautiful. So that’s where my dad and his brothers and so many of my cousins got lots of their melodic genes!

My ‘new’ cousin Charles remembered being in the house where Worley (second-great-grandfather, if you’re keeping up) grew up. Worley’s youngest son, Carmel, lived and died in that house. Charles, just a kid at the time, remembered when Carmel’s body was brought back to the house. While the children played outside, the adults gathered around to watch over the body and to sing hymns, accompanied by the pump organ that had belonged to Carmel. The worn-out skeleton of the house still stands, hidden by a mass of pine trees and overgrown weeds. It remains in family hands.

Unfortunately, stroke has also played an outsized role in the Creech family for generations. My great-grandmother was a stroke victim. According to one of my uncles, “Grandma Creech was bed-ridden for as long as I can remember.” And my grandmother, Lula, died as the result of her second stroke. That’s why I never got a chance to know her. Not such a good sign—though stroke has not claimed anyone in my direct line since.

In addition to Charles, I met cousins Vicki (reunion host), Genie, Jody, Brenda, Steve, Sharon, Susan, Katherine, Shirley, Tap, and too many more to keep all the names straight—sorry.

A highlight of the day was being in the presence of the family’s matriarch—my second cousin once removed. But eighty-nine-year-old Sarah and I are much closer than that. She knew my dad! And remembered most of his brothers. She knew my great-grandparents! I could have jumped out of my skin. She remembered my great-grandfather, Columbus (Uncle Lumbus, she called him), from Creech reunions way back. And she told me a story about my great-grandmother, Sarah Elizabeth. It went something like this.

“There was this corner store our family went to. One day, I was in the buggy with Mother and we stopped at the store where Mother bought a bag of candies. Oh, how I wanted some of that candy! When we came out of the store and got back in the buggy, she said, ‘I want to tell you something. We’re going to see this lady who’s sick [that would be Elizabeth—Sarah’s mother was her niece], and this candy is for her. Now, she’s going to offer you a piece, because that’s what people do. But you are not to accept it.’

“And sure enough, that’s just what she did. And even though I really wanted a piece of that candy, I did just what my mother said, because that’s what people did.”

At the age of seventy-three I sat in the presence, held hands with, a woman who had been in the presence of, and probably held hands with, my great-grandmother. How about that!

Sarah fills me in. (Sarah was also  pianist for all the fine singing.)

I wouldn’t take anything for that reunion day.

(If you care about things like family degrees of separation, you can learn more here.)

Spring Time

(Note: In one of my delightful writing groups, we were challenged to write on the theme of spring. These prompts are much more wide open than they might appear at first glance. This was my offering. It’s a true story.)

Daddy grew up in the poorhouse.

It’s probably not what you think.

 

The former Johnston County (NC) poorhouse , aka County Farm and Home, is a private nursing home. The building stands as it did when it was first built in the early 1920s.

 

His father was hired to oversee the place during the years of the Great Depression, and the entire family of nine got to live and eat there, cost-free. Not that they weren’t owed that. Grampa’s salary was paltry to begin with and got cut as the Depression worsened. Not to mention that Gramma was expected to oversee the cooking, the laundry, the cleaning, and the nursing of the county home’s residents for no salary whatsoever.

Daddy said there was a lot of sickness at the poorhouse—and a lot of dying, too, what with the inmates, as they were called, being frail and elderly, developmentally disabled, or previously homeless—sometimes all of those things simultaneously.

Most people, Daddy said, when they came to live at the poorhouse, they also came to die there. And when that happened, unless a family member came to claim the body—and usually no one did, Grampa held a simple service, then the unembalmed body was placed in a plain pine casket and lowered into an unmarked grave which had been dug by Grampa, his sons, and the fittest of the inmates earlier in the day. It was a real potters’ field.

Well, with death always lurking around the corner, Grampa stored truckloads of pine boxes in a room of one of the old outbuildings on the property, where they sat waiting for the next person to die. Daddy and his brothers knew the darkened space as the coffin room.

It was one of their favorite play places.

It was where they hid when they thought a chore was about to be assigned, and it was a fine destination during a neighborhood game of hide and seek.

And Daddy, who once fancied he’d grow up to be a preacher, picked the coffin room to practice his oratory. For some reason, there was an old bed stored in the coffin room, too, and it was a springy thing. Daddy used the bed as his ‘pulpit.’

During his sermon sessions, he jumped up and down on that old bed. With its iron springs, it acted kind of like a pogo stick. Now, Daddy was a fiery orator, and as his fervor increased, so did his bouncing. He’d spring higher and higher until both he and his message finally fizzled out.

Well, Daddy never did get that call to be a minister. He reckoned the world just wasn’t ready for a preacher with so much spring in his step.

(P. S. You can find more stories about Daddy’s youth in my book, Boyhood Daze and Other Stories: Growing Up Happy During the Great Depression.)

 

Favor

Mother, Daddy, and me when it was just the three of us

When I asked my dad which of our parents he thought each of us children most favored, he went for the obvious answer. I, of course, was much more like Mother, and my brothers like him, he ventured. He couldn’t give me a single reason for his rationale—other than gender. I think it’s a lot more tangled than that.

My mother and I were practically inseparable during my youth. But not in a we’re-like-sisters kind of way. She taught me to sew, to cook, to can and freeze our garden harvest. Working alongside each other for hours each day made for easy conversation. As the oldest of three children and the only girl, I was her designated assistant when it came to cleaning, grocery shopping, or any other domestic chore. She was the adult leader for my 4-H club. She ferried me from one extracurricular activity to another.

Our interests were similar, no doubt in part because she guided me toward hers. So, the casual observer could hardly be blamed for assuming we were kindred spirits. At times, I probably did, too. She’s quieter, though, softer, always happy and optimistic, always a smile for anyone lucky enough to cross her path. I’m a little grainier.

In temperament, personality, and general approach to life, I think I was always much more like my father. Driven Type A personalities, we were achievers, always searching for new and better ways, ready to be called upon, eager to be recognized for our efforts. We were equal parts shyness and show-off. Both vocalists, we shared many a car ride to choir practices or music lessons.

His jokes were corny and he regularly embarrassed me in front of my friends, but I was secretly glad he was a presence at our church’s youth activities. Just his being there made me feel ‘chosen’ in some way.

While I was more likely to confide in Mother or ask her more of life’s impenetrable questions—after all, we were in each other’s company much more often, it’s Dad’s example I always looked to for guidance as I navigated the world of work and other aspects of adult life. He had a way of using diplomacy to make his point, keeping potential foes on his side—or at least off their guard. “Make ‘em love you,” he said. I tried, but I didn’t have his panache.

Maybe it’s a toss-up and I’m more or less equal parts him and her. That’s fine by me. I have been so very lucky to have two truly awesome parents to lead me through life’s thorns and thickets and guide me towards fulfillment and satisfaction. Their stars will always shine bright.

What about you? Do you more strongly favor one parent? What makes it so?