How will we remember our ancestors? In these days of hectic living, when there is very little oral tradition–much less written documentation–of our family history, what can we do to preserve the memories of these people who came before us? For their life experiences were so different than ours, yet the same–births and deaths come to every generation, along with the happiness and sadness those events bring with them. But learning about our family and the events that brought us to the place we are, as individuals, NOW–is a precious gift that is slipping away from us.
Every so often, (and it’s been a while now!) I teach a class called “Writing Your Life Story.” Most of the people who are there for classes are senior citizens, who, for the most part, have been urged by family members to come.
As they introduce themselves, it goes something like this: “I’m Jane Doe, and I’m here because my children keep telling me I need to write this all down—but I don’t know where to begin.”
My first assurance to them all is that they don’t need to write like Laura Ingalls Wilder—their families will be thrilled with anything they put down on paper. It’s amazing to me how many people don’t feel they have anything of interest to tell their descendants!
This is a picture of me and my aunt, Emogene (my mom’s sister) on one of her visits. She was one of the funniest, sweetest, and MOST REBELLIOUS people I ever knew. I loved her with all my heart, and I do think maybe I got a bit of that rebellious attitude of hers! I was 6 here. There was never a dull moment with her–and I have some wonderful memories to cherish.
I want to tell you about my parents, because they were the epitome of opposites when it came to this. My mother told stories from the time I can remember about her family, about her friends, the small town she grew up in. These were details of an ordinary life that gave me insight into the way times were during the Dustbowl days in Oklahoma. It told me about her life in particular and life in general, and it also brought people I never knew to reality for me through her memories.
Mom had a dear friend, just her age, named Mary. They were both the eldest of their respective families, each with many younger siblings that they were responsible for. Mom mentioned how she and Mary both longed for an d cherished the few times when they could be alone to talk “girl talk” without each having two or three little ones they had to look after.
One of their favorite places to go was the cemetery. They’d both been born in Albany, so they knew the stories of everyone buried there in the small cemetery: The Taylor family, whose six children went berry picking, only to take shelter under an oak tree when a storm blew up suddenly. Lightning struck the tree and killed all by tow of them. The oldest boy crawled to a nearby farmhouse for help, but died later. Out of the six, only one survived. There were no markers on their graves, but Mom showed me where each was buried.
A drawing I found when going through my mom’s things after she died. She did this in 1939–she would have been 17. Of course, it’s faded and blotchy, but I can’t help but marvel at the talent she had for someone with no artistic training, with only a pencil and piece of paper. My daughter inherited this from her…I can’t draw to save my life!
Another grave she showed me was that of a young child who, at eighteen months, crawled under the porch and drank tree poison his father had believed was well-hidden. Mom told me how his lips were stained purple She and Mary had gone to the funeral and it was imprinted in her mind forever.
Christmases were sparse in that time. It was a good Christmas if they each received and apple, and orange, and some hard candy in their stockings, and maybe a doll, in addition, in the better-then-most years. I wrote a story called SILVER MAGIC for an Adams Media Christmas anthology about something she told me. They’d brought home a Christmas tree that particular year, and one of her younger brothers had suggested maybe they could have some tinsel…My grandfather went into the shed and hand-cut tinsel and a star from the foil covering of an old battery. What a thrill that was for them! Yet, who would ever dream that was something that could be done, now, in our world of buy-it-already made?
From Mom I learned about our family ancestors—where they’d come from and who they were. As a child, I thought of them as a story she told, but as I grew older, they became real people to me.
I learned about her, too—how, as a teen, she’d pool her hard-earned money with her younger sister, Joyce, to buy the newest Hit Parade Magazine with all the lyrics to the latest songs. They had sung together from the time they knew how, adding more harmonies as more sisters came along.
My aunt, Joyce. She was something else! She was in the Navy during WWII where she met and married her husband, Bill. Remember the expression “cuss like a sailor”? She could, and did–regularly. My mom always gave her the “big sister look” and said, “Joy-y-y-c-ce” in that shaming voice. She always just laughed. And she could cook like nobody’s business. Her heart was huge.
My dad never talked about his adolescence much. Even though he and Mom grew up together in the same small community, he never had much to add to the conversations. What I know of his family, I learned mostly from my aunt, his younger sister–and my mom, who had known him from the time they started elementary school together. Their was a love story for all times–they grew up together, married, had their family, and were married over 60 years–and they died within 3 weeks of one another.
Why write it all down now? Because most people never believe they’ll run out of time. “Someday” never comes. My mom had such fascinating stories, filled with tenderness, charged with emotion—stories that made it seem as if I was there along with her as she spoke. She was a painter, an artist, and she could paint pictures with her words, as well.
El Wanda and Fred Moss, my parents, newlyweds in 1944–ready to take on the world!
Mom told stories of my great grandparents, who I never met–who eloped and ran away from Tennessee in the dead of night. (He was a high-tempered school master…and she was one of his students.) Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
This is my great grandmother, Josie Belle Walls McLain Martin, the daughter of the Indian boy who was stolen by the cavalry (see story below). In this picture she was only about 25 years old, and already getting gray hair. She had 4 children, very young, and her husband had been killed in a freak accident. She married a man with children and they had more between them, for a grand total of seventeen kids before it was all said and done! Mom loved her “grandma”–I did get to know her when I was very young, but she passed when I was in elementary school.
Another story of my great-great-grandfather, a young Indian boy, who was stolen by the cavalry from his village and given to a white Presbyterian minister to raise, and “assimilate” into his family (my story One Magic Night is based on this–he finally got his happy ending). His name was changed, and I don’t believe he ever saw his real family again, once he was adopted.
And my dad’s grandmother, who stopped beneath the shade of a tree long enough to have her third child as she and her husband made their way to a new life in Indian Territory? He must have been a typical man–they stayed two nights and moved on, her with a new baby and two “stairstep” children just a little older.
I treasure these stories now, but oh, how I wish I’d had my mom a little longer, and that I’d been a little older, to be able to ask her questions that now overrun my thoughts. Mom always had good intentions, but like so many, never found the time before it was too late, and Altzheimer’s took away that ability.
I will write it all down…all that I can remember of it. But I can’t help thinking how I wish she had written her story, with all the vivid details and description she used in telling about it. There is so much I won’t know. So much will be lost, simply because this was her life.
My mom (the oldest) with some of her siblings. Dustbowl Oklahoma–taken probably 1935 or so–she’s on the far left in the back. Hard, hard times.
The memories are hers: the hard times, as well as the good—the days in an everyday life…and, the nights, when entertainment was nothing more than the beautiful harmonies of the four little girls, floating in the summer stillness for miles as they sang on the front porch…in a much simpler, slower time.
Cheryl’s Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson
Here’s an excerpt from my story ONE MAGIC NIGHT, based on the life of my great great- great- grandfather, David Walls (his name after he was adopted). I’ll be giving away a digital copy to one lucky commenter! Leave your contact info in your comment so I can reach you if you win!
ONE MAGIC NIGHT EXCERPT:
As Whitworth’s hand started its descent, Katrina turned away. But Shay’s arm shot out, grasping Whitworth’s hand and holding it immobile.
“You will not.”
Three words, quietly spoken, but with a heat that could have melted iron, a force that could have toppled mountains.
Katrina’s father’s face contorted, his teeth bared, finally, as he tried to jerk away. He didn’t utter a word. He stared up into Shay Logan’s eyes that promised retribution, as the seconds ticked by. Finally, he lunged once more, trying to pull free, but Shay still held him locked in a grip of steel. Only when he released that grip was Whitworth freed.
“You presume too much, Doctor Logan, unless you are assuming the care and responsibility of my daughter.”
“Papa! Oh, please!” Katrina felt herself dissolving into a puddle of less than nothing beneath stares of the townspeople of Talihina. What had started as an exciting, beautiful evening had become an embarrassing nightmare. It was torture to think that she was the cause of it all. How she wished she had stayed home with Jeremy as she’d first planned, before Mrs. Howard had volunteered to keep him company.
Now, Papa was saying these things that she knew he would regret later. It was always this way when he drank too much. These accusations had gone beyond the pale of anything he’d ever said before. But Shay Logan wouldn’t realize that. He wouldn’t know that Papa would be sorry tomorrow.
Evidently, there was one thing Shay did recognize, though. She saw the very slight flare of his nostrils as he drew in the scent of alcohol on her father’s breath, and in that instant, there was a flash of understanding in his eyes.
“You’ve had too much to drink, Mr. Whitworth,” he said in an even tone. “I will overlook your behavior toward me because of that, but not toward your daughter. She has done nothing, yet you would strike her, and cause her shame.”
“She’s my daughter,” Whitworth replied sullenly.
“But not your property, Whitworth. Never that. You owe her an apology.”
“No, Shay, really—” Katrina began, then as her father whirled to look at her, she broke off, realizing her mistake. ‘Shay,’ she had called him. As if she had known him forever. As if she was entitled to use his given name freely. As if she were his betrothed.
“‘Shay’ is it, daughter? Not, ‘Dr. Logan’? Shay.” He spit the words out bitterly. He drew himself up, looking Shay in the face. “I’ll not be apologizing to her—or to you. And I’ll expect nothing less than a wedding before this week’s end. Do you understand me, Doctor?”
Shay had lost any patience he might have harbored. “You understand me, Whitworth. You will not dictate to me, or to your daughter on such matters of the heart. As I say, the alcohol has got you saying things you’re going to regret, and—”
“Threatening me, are you? Threatening me?”
“Truman.” Jack Thompson stepped out of the crowd and smoothly came to stand beside Katrina. “Let’s put this…unfortunate incident…behind us, shall we?” He confidently tucked Katrina’s hand around his arm. “I can see that the church auxiliary ladies have almost got everything set up for this wonderful Independence Day meal—” he frowned at Mrs. Beal, nodding at the picnic tables behind her. She jumped, motioning the other ladies to resume the preparation.
He gave a sweeping glance around the group of onlookers. “I, for one, am ready to eat! How about you all?”
Katrina was swept along at his side as he walked toward the tables, speaking to acquaintances and friends, laughing and…and seething with tense anger the entire time. She could feel it in his body, with every step he took and the tightness of his grip as he covered her hand with his. Katrina glanced back over her shoulder, hoping to catch a glimpse of Shay, but the crowd blocked her view.
“Smile, my dear,” Jack gritted into her ear. “I’m hoping we can still salvage your virtue, no matter what happened, really, between you and the good doctor. If I see him near you again, I’ll kill him.”
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