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!)

Three Little Words

(I wrote the following a little more than two years ago, knowing it wasn’t yet time to post it. Now the time has come. It may be a little disjointed since it was more or less stream of consciousness. I thought it better to leave it as it was, only adding an update.)

Three little words. Thirteen letters. Words that will dramatically change your life.

You hope not to hear them. But you have that feeling in your gut. You wait for them.

He has your fate in his hands. Why is he keeping you waiting? Doesn’t he know you’re anxious?

Finally, you hear the light tap on the door before it opens and he walks in.

And there they are. Those three little words. Laid bare.

“You have cancer.”

You’re different now.

Except that you aren’t. The truth was already there. The cancer was already there. You are the same today as you were yesterday. Your fate wasn’t in the doctor’s hands. What he said didn’t change a single fact. It just changed what you know.

Today you know a thing you didn’t know yesterday, or even a moment ago. You suspected it. Maybe you feared it. But you didn’t know it. Yet, it was there.

You have cancer.

You had it yesterday.

You had it last week.

Nothing is different today except that you know it. And you’ll know it tomorrow. And the day after that. And the next day. Forever.

If you hadn’t made that appointment, you wouldn’t know it today, either. But you’d still have it. Nothing can change that truth.

* * * * *

For the few weeks we were waiting for the biopsy and then the results, we made a conscious decision: we weren’t going to worry about it. It either was or wasn’t. Nothing we could do, say, think, or get worked up about would change a thing. We could hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but nothing would change what was. We went on about our daily lives.

And now we know. The question now is what to do about it. Here’s what.

Get informed. Listen to the doc. Take notes; review them. Ask questions. Read the literature. Research.
Get a second opinion or consultation, if we want. (We didn’t. It was pretty straightforward.)
Make a treatment decision.
Tell the family.
Make plans.
Do what it takes: schedule surgery, get radiation, take meds—whatever the regimen is.

But most of all, meanwhile and forever, live life.

You can’t change what is, but you can decide to continue doing what matters. You can make the best of what you have. Cancer may change you. It may not. It may shorten your life or it may not. So may or may not any number of other things. With or without a cancer diagnosis, your decision should be the same: live whatever life you have the best you can. On your own terms.

I’ve heard it said everyone will get cancer if they live long enough. Some people get it sooner, but eventually, if something else doesn’t do you in first, it will be cancer. It is part of life itself. At a certain point, your body starts to turn on you. Metabolism slows. Bones get brittle. Joints creak. Age spots and wrinkles appear. Hair thins. Minds become less elastic, less quick. And maybe your cells get all out of whack. It is all part of the end. The end starts at the beginning.

We won’t forget those three words, those thirteen letters. Certainly not that one, loaded, six letter word. We’ll do what it takes. But we won’t stop living. Tonight we’ll sleep snuggled together (maybe a little closer). Tomorrow we’ll get up, dress, make and eat breakfast, check e-mail, harvest vegetables, mow the grass. We’ll plan our upcoming trip. We’ll laugh.

Cancer is now a part of us. But cancer will not define us. Cancer will not control us.

P.S. The cancer diagnosis was not for my body. It was for his. But it somehow feels the same. At least for me. He agrees, but there’s surely a difference when it’s actually your body. Nonetheless, from the first moment we heard the three word pronouncement, both of us have thought in terms of “we.” The surgery, the treatment, the decisions, the life we lead—they’re ours together. And we aim to make the best of it.

Update: The diagnosis was prostate cancer. For eighteen months after the surgery, there was no evidence any cancer cells remained. Then, just like that, it was back. (If you’re so inclined, you can read Ron’s version of this story and journey here and here.)

The very good news is there is no indication that it has spread beyond the prostate bed, and a combination of hormone and radiation therapy seems like a winning strategy. For now, we’re waiting for the radiation oncologist and his team to complete mapping a therapy plan so radiation treatments can begin.

Off and on, I’ll likely use this blog space to share more thoughts and experiences about how we’re navigating this new territory in our lives. Stay tuned.

Country Living

It’s taken a long time for me to realize it, but I must live in Hooterville. I did love watching Petticoat Junction and Green Acres back in the day. (If you’re too young to understand those references, or if you just feel like a little nostalgic break from reality, click here and here.)

It’s no wonder we landed up here on the diagonal.

But it was only recently that I noticed the signs for the side roads off of the steep, dusty, barely-two-lane road I often take when I’m heading down into the valley a couple of miles away. To give myself credit, there were no green signs to identify them until our county developed its 911 system, but that’s been a long time now, so any credit due me is minuscule.

Indeed, one of those roads is Green Acres Trail. Loafer’s Joy Drive sounds like it would be perfect for Petticoat Junction’s Uncle Joe. Bugtussle Lane is just down the road a piece. And, honest-to-goodness, I drive right by Feuders’ Hill. There’s got to be a story there! The road I’m driving on is no different—Tater Hill. Yep, I’m way out in the country.

Looking into the valley from Tater Hill Road

I like it here. We may not always see eye-to-eye with our neighbors on a few important socio-political issues, but this is the kind of place where an attentive person—and they’re all attentive—will run out in the rain to pick up a package hanging on the arm of our rural mailbox so it won’t get drenched.

And if a strange vehicle turns onto our half-mile, private, gravel drive, someone’s almost sure to follow, insist on learning the driver’s name and business, and proclaim, “We’re all family here [though not quite all of us are], and we watch out for each other.” Fair warning.

It’s a comfort. And you gotta appreciate the history of the place. The folks who live in the two-story frame house down the road a piece include the great-great-great grandchildren of the ones who built it. Imagine that—a six-generation farm!

So, yes, most folks around these parts are family. But not us; we’re the interlopers—we’ve only lived here forty years. It may have taken a long time, but knowing a neighbor includes us in the informal neighborhood watch creates the kind of reassurance that only comes where folks grow their own vegetables and still hang their wash on the line.

It’s home.

Country Roads

Alongside the country road I drive most days, I’m sure to find—depending on the time of year—trillium, wild irises, fire pinks, flame azaleas, rhododendron, mountain laurel, Japanese meadowsweet, bee balm, daisies, evening primrose, black-eyed Susans, Turk’s cap lilies, Queen Anne’s lace, wild blackberries, Joe-Pye weed, touch-me-nots, ironweed, snow, and ice. All strikingly beautiful and all worth slowing down for.

 

On a cool but sunny day, I’m as likely as not to find a lazy dog dozing on the asphalt, in no hurry to get out of my way.

It isn’t rare to find myself behind a farmer driving his slow-moving tractor from one field to another. Other times it may be a load of Christmas trees or a flatbed groaning under the weight of too many rolls of hay puttering along in front of me.

A deer, raccoon, possum, chipmunk, squirrel, rabbit, or even a fox or bobcat might scamper—or mosey—across the road any time of day or night.

I often come upon a car or truck at a dead standstill, the driver having stopped to catch up on the latest community ‘news’ with a neighbor. Usually, they’ll look ahead and wave me around; they’re nowhere near ready to move on themselves.

It’s only right to roll down the window for a “Howdy” when couples are out for a morning jog or an evening stroll. Those moments, too, may turn into drawn-out conversations.

One should never be in a hurry on a country road.

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.)