Getting the Tools


“What have you been writing lately?” a friend asked.

Embarrassed to say, “Nothing much,” I replied, “This and that.”

Before she had a chance to inquire further, I shared that I’d been reading a lot. “Good readers make good writers, you know. Just ask Stephen King.”

I love the way King lays it on the line for those who say they want to write but that really, they just don’t have time to read. In his words, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”

Frankly, after finishing the first edition of the family history, Our Lighted Seasons, I needed a break, a little respite from the daily revising, rereading, editing, and formatting. I learned a lot from that experience, the most important being that I don’t have “the right stuff” to be a professional writer.  I don’t have the discipline or desire to write every day. Sour grapes? No, the absolute truth.

So….I’ve been reading a variety of essays, stories, and books and have learned much that I didn’t  know this time last month.

The people in my writing group continue to provide rich material for me to read and ponder. I’m amazed at how their minds can create so many different stories, all with well-developed characters, realistic scenes, interesting plots, and believable dialogue. I read about a home inhabited by a ghost, strangers that turn up on a homeowner’s front porch after an ice storm and ensuing power outage, and travelers who inhabit the dreams of a runner in mysterious and perhaps even mystical ways.

And then there are the articles, essays, and stories, many from textbooks, old and new, including A Writer’s Reader.

  •  From Frederick Douglas, I learned what a huge mistake people make when they think singing slaves are happy ones. Quite the contrary, “Every tone was a testimony against slavery and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.”
  • Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” left me with questions, just like the first time or two I read it. That misfit….
  • And then there’s Fitzgerald’s journal entry aboaut family quarrels: “Family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go according to any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds; they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material.”
  • And this line from Annie Dillard’s “Strangers to Darkness” is Marvelous with a capital M: ““I walked home in a shivering daze, uphill and down.”

A friend gave me a book about soul friends titled Anam Cara by by John O’Donohue, and last week, I settled in a comfy chair and read/studied it. I enjoyed it all, and here are a couple of favorite sentences. “The world rests in the night. Trees, mountains, fields, and faces are released from the prison of shape and the burden of exposure. Each thing creeps back into its own nature within the shelter of the dark…. When you attend to the way the dawn comes, you learn how light can coax the dark.” Isn’t that beautiful?

After seeing Phillip Newell’s Listening for the Heartbeat of God mentioned in an article, I had to order it from Amazon right away. Thought-provoking and inspirational, Newell     suggests that we look for God within creation and recognize the world as the place of revelation. Towards the beginning, Newell mentions the lights of the skies, the sun and moon and stars, as the spiritual coming through the physical. I love that!

I read a writer friend’s new book, Mama Sadie, and highly recommend it. I happily reviewed Brenda’s five-star book on Amazon. It was uplifting, “real,” and suspenseful.
“The plot is strong, the characters are well-drawn, and the tension is high. It’s a serious story, yet Remmes manages to insert humor and pieces of everyday life that keep the book grounded. Who will win in the end? That question keeps the reader turning the pages to learn the fate of this town.”

And finally, I’ve been reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin for a month, a solid month—maybe more. It’s so hard, y’all—the subject matter and the way it breaks my heart. Why and how could people treat one another so abysmally and think it was/is A-okay?  I read about twenty pages a night and then give it a rest.

 Maybe I’ll get back to writing tomorrow. Tonight I’m reading a little something and watching a movie. What about you?

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Family Stories


Second from the left is my Grandfather Lewis Cunningham Clyburn, and to his left  is his mother, Jane Brown Cunningham Clyburn. I love the way she’s sandwiched between him  and my great grandfather, Lewis Craig Clyburn  The other two people are probably siblings

The three of us rode to the Myrtle Beach Airport in the misty, predawn light, that special time of day when the world seems almost magical as it emerges from darkness into light. No wait, it was around four o’clock, maybe even 4:30, long before sunrise. Cars were already on Highway 501, their drivers heading to and from the beach, some likely on their way to work in tourism, health care, or law enforcement.

To them, it was just another dark morning. Not to us. The ride symbolized a transition from one stage of life to another, a time of growth and change. As I recall, conversation was muted and infrequent. We didn’t even listen to the radio, just quietly absorbed the moments.

By the time Paul checked his bags for Mexico, others had arrived to bid him farewell, including his dad and several friends. There was another missionary leaving that day, both dressed in suits and looking official. The excitement of the young men was quite a contrast to what their parents were feeling. I was numb. Would it really be two years before I saw my son’s face again?

 Pulling him aside for one last “momism,” I told him that he was the embodiment of generations past, that they all went with him on this trip and really everywhere he went. “They reside in you,” I said. “Remember who you are.”

“Same with you, Mom.”

Momentarily speechless, I looked up at him and knew he was going to be just fine. At nineteen, he already understood more than his mother. Minnie lived in me—and Mary Jon, Annie Jane, Seth, and others too numerous to mention.

Last month, I reminded Paul of that moment and learned that he had no recollection of it at all. At all! Something that had served as one of the many springboards for Our Lighted Seasons: John and Margie, a family history, was totally forgotten by him. For me, that airport conversation had unleashed a fierce desire to learn more about generations back who shared my DNA.

But more than names, I wanted stories. Most of my ancestors are living on the other side of the veil, beyond worldly concerns and questions from an inquisitive great granddaughter, niece, or some other nosy parker. So I did the next best thing. I asked aunts, cousins, friends, and basically anyone else who might have a memory to share. My inquiries opened a treasure chest.

A couple of quick examples:

  • One of my aunts revealed that her father, my Grandfather Clyburn, had a side barbeque business and ice house. “There was a pit where his lifetime handyman would barbeque for two days or so and people would come from all around to buy it. Daddy made his own sausage and lunch meats, and he had a Tampa Nugget cigar box where he kept loose cigarettes, two for a nickel—Camels, Phillip Morris, Lucky Strikes.” It’s the detail I love. I’d forgotten all about those cigarette brands.
  • A cousin told me that his grandmother and my great grandmother (one of the four) was handy with a pistol and was known to have stood on the front porch of her home in Lancaster and shoot chickens for dinner.

Above are just two examples among the dozens in the book, but hearing about those people and knowing I had a savvy businessman and pistol-packing grandmother as ancestors helped make the whole “ancestry thing” much more interesting. They live in me—and in Paul and his sisters and cousins.

What about you? What are some of the stories of your ancestors, the ones who live in you?

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Come Sunday


I’m a fortunate gal in so many ways, among them having friends who help me broaden my horizons and think in different ways. And lucky me, I have those who accept my religious beliefs without censure or ridicule. I appreciate that.

Last week after our writing group adjourned, four of us reconvened at a local eatery for omelets, sandwiches, and salads. If that sounds like quite a assortment of choices, it is. And it’s all good. We’d had a productive meeting, and perhaps it was the combination of a morning well-spent and breaking bread with convivial spirits that allowed us to have a calm, respectful conversation about religion.

It didn’t start that way. Someone said, “I heard you Mormons believe you can pray people into heaven. Is that true?”

Easy, Jayne,I told myself. This is not a combative person. She sincerely wants to know if what she’s heard is true.

 “No,” I said. “I can see why some people might get that idea, but no. There’s a lot more to it than that.”

She replied that she had often wondered about what happened to people in Rwanda or the Congo or other places on Earth who had never heard about Christ and His atoning sacrifice. Someone else said the Bible was clear on that matter. No one makes it into heaven without accepting Christ. The idea of purgatory was bandied about, too. Still another friend said none of those things bothered her since she didn’t believe in an afterlife. We parted company, our knowledge broadened but our faith unchanged.

The next day someone sent me news of a movie she thought I’d enjoy, Come Sunday, and added that it jived with our conversation about religion last week. I watched it Sunday night. Oh my…….a man willing to stand up for his convictions despite rejection, ostracism, and loss of fortune and “friends.”

The movie was about Dr. Carlton Pearson, a Pentecostal bishop in Tulsa with a huge following who experienced a deep and life-changing crisis of faith. The movie is just that—a movie—and can’t cover every dark hour of Dr. Pearson’s struggle and eventual break with his church, and of course neither can I.

In the movie and in an NPR interview titled “Heretic,” he relates the story of watching the news of the Rwanda genocide late one night and seeing the starving babies with distended bellies. His own tiny daughter was up with up with him, and he looked into her healthy, beautiful little face and asked WHY??? Why was his child going to heaven and these starving babies going to hell? No matter how he examined the question, he couldn’t reconcile the idea of a loving God sending innocents to hell.

Dr. Pearson did what most Christians do when perplexed. He prayed. And the next Sunday he shared the good news about hell and salvation with his congregation. That didn’t go over well, and his professional life went into downward spiral. Abandoned by his “friends” and flock, Carlton stood by his belief of inclusion and continues to preach it today.

God had talked to him, had given him an answer to his prayers. Who was he to deny God?

My friends and family don’t always agree on what we consider a good movie. Some are looking for cinematography, others for “story,” and still others for excitement, drama, humor, entertainment, or truth. There were a lot of big names in the film: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Martin Sheen, Danny Glover, Condola Rashad, Jason Segel, and LaKeith Stanfield. It was a good flick.

The movie moved me. I hope someone out there in Blogland will give it a chance. It’s not every day we see someone so committed to the truth that he’s willing to risk it all, “it” being money, fame, prestige, and international recognition. And friends. Let’s don’t forget his Christian friends who dropped him when he no longer believed as they did.

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Are Ghosts Real?

There were only six of us sitting around the table at Books on Broad, a local bookstore, this morning. Four people had submitted work to be critiqued, and I erroneously assumed we would wrap up in two hours. Wrong. The official meeting lasted until noon, and then some of us adjourned to a local eatery for omelets and conversation. Death and religion were high on the list today. But I digress.

We talked business and then got down to the real business at hand–the work of critiquing and encouraging. I reminded everyone of the South Carolina Writers’ Association website and encouraged all to read “The Quill.” This month’s issue includes links to submission opportunities, information about the annual conference in October, and The Petigru Review. There was some discussion on where, when, and who—who  is going from our chapter, who is speaking at the conference, and who is judging the entries for The Petigru Review. Dubbed Petigru by many familiar with it, TPR is the association’s literary journal.

Business behind us for the time being, we critiqued the submissions in the order in which they were sent. Every critique group works a little differently, but we have until midnight on Monday to submit work for a Thursday morning meeting. Members print, read, and make comments on all submissions and come prepared to give constructive advice to fellow writers. Honestly, until I joined this group, I didn’t fully grasp the terms character development or show, don’t tell. Primarily a nonfiction writer, I still struggle with many aspects of writing fiction.

I learn something at every critique meeting, and today was no exception. I learned a newly coined word, thanaboite, by a logophile in the group. I was also reminded of how people are free to use regular words (whatever that means) in new ways. If a writer wants to describe an alarm as tart-sounding, that’s fine by me. A couple of us semi-argued against it, but the writer is going to leave it as it.  Familiar with Mark Twain’s, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning  bug and  lightening,” we all strive to find exactly the right word. Ecru or beige? Tart or sharp?

We want to get our facts accurate, too. This week we saw a revision for a piece about a ghost inhabiting the second floor of an old home. When first presented with this story a few weeks ago, some members got involved in dialogue that, in retrospect, is quite amusing.

“Do ghosts talk? Would the old woman really say something?”

“I don’t’ know about talking. They don’t eat…I know that”

“This is crazy, y’all. Everyone knows ghosts aren’t real.”

“Oh really? Well, don’t tell my aunt that because she’s heard one talking, throwing things, and causing all kinds of havoc!”

As a nonfiction writer, I’m amazed by what more creative writers can do. A few weeks ago, a story revealed a painter who discovered a ghost upstairs in an old family home. This week we learned that murder and mayhem likely occurred there. We also know where the home is, what it looks like, and some detail about the protagonist (age, career, and financial status). In another story, the writer fleshed out a tale of marital discord and in another, we learned of a a place and time unknown and unimaginable to me, a “just the facts, please” person.

As is usually the case, today I left the meeting amazed at the variety of stories, some that will stay stories, although more developed, and some that will become part of novels. Three stories left me feeling uptight.  I’m fearful for Zippy, Hope, and Merillee and will have to ponder their decisions and fates until next month. In the meantime, I’m reminding myself that these are not real people, but fictitious creations of my writer friends’ minds.

So tell me…are ghosts real? What kinds of questions has your writing group posed?





Posted in Camden Writers, critique groups, nonfiction, Uncategorized, writing, writing conferences, writing fiction, writing groups | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Kettle Corn and Fried Pies


It’s funny how a little taste of something can conjure up a memory. I just opened a canister of delicious kettle corn that I bought nine days ago, and the rich caramel smell of the sweet and salty mix forced me to grab a handful. While not as crunchy or hot as it was last Saturday, the corn was still mighty tasty. I scooped up another handful and remembered the day one of my daughters, my sister and her daughter, and I headed for the mountains of North Carolina to check out the Vintage Market Days in Fletcher, a town outside of Asheville.

At the show, we oohed and aahed at the variety of merchandise available. From jewelry and clothing to furniture and repurposed barn doors, creativity abounded. The two large tents and the building were all crowded, yes. And we got jostled about in the crowd and separated from one another, yes. Several times. Still, the evidence of so many different interests and talents was mind boggling and well worth waiting in line to see.

I’ve heard that there are no uninteresting people, just disinterested ones. Fascinating people surrounded us. Some were artists, entrepreneurs, and vendors; others were shoppers like us, agog at the sights and sounds. One shopper was wearing a “Raised by Wolves” t-shirt that Elizabeth and I found unique, and we asked where she found it. “Look online,” she said, laughing while her mother rolled her eyes.

Intrigued by some of the displays, I asked questions of a few vendors. I chatted with two artsy gals to find out the what, why, and when of their jewelry making business. Turns out they had worked together at a dental office, and although they liked the work well enough, they longed for more. Life was ticking by and they yearned for adventure and freedom from the structure of a 9 to 5 workday.

The more the two talked, the more eager they were to leave the world of bridges and braces. At some point, they got exercise fever and thought maybe they’d run a marathon or two. Why not? One day, the friends followed Nike’s advice to “Just Do It.” The marathons didn’t work out so well, but the jewelry design and creation did.

After a couple of hours of browsing, the four of us decided to recharge our batteries with lunch and were soon enveloped in a carnival type atmosphere. Kiosks and food vendors lined one side of the exit, each stand with a long line in front. In order to have some variety, we each went to different vendors and bought kettle corn, chicken salad on a croissant, fried pies (peach and chocolate), chips, and lemonade.

Missions accomplished, we sat around a table in the hot sun, dazed by the crazy chaos of the noise and movement around us. We sipped lemonade, divvied up our food portions, and shared secrets. My sister, a math teacher, was in charge of equally dividing the food into quarters. She liked the fried chocolate pie so much that she kept a half for herself. Hmmm. She gave me her fourth of the peach pie to compensate, but….

Fortified by food, we made our final forays through the three structures and made our purchases, including bracelets from the former dental hygienists. Nine days later, I’m remembering the salty sweetness of kettle corn and the people who sold it. When I asked for a twist tie for my opened bag, they offered to “top it off with more hot corn.” That gesture, genuine and upbeat, was typical of the entire event.

I’m looking forward to the next Vintage Market Days event. Next time, I’m cutting the pies. 🙂



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Whose Candy Was It?

A variation on an old theme: there are always more beginners than enders in just about any enterprise worth pursuing. That’s on my mind this morning because of the challenge of writing the family history to the bitter end (at least the first edition) and the more recent challenge of getting back to this blog to chronicle the book’s progress.

Silly me. I thought people would be happy to have someone record the births, deaths, major events, stories, offspring, personality traits, and quirks of their ancestors. Some were and some weren’t. I persevered, realizing the need to be as accurate and unbiased and fair as possible. I followed the adage to do the least harm and included information that might be helpful to future generations without tarnishing the character or reputation of ancestors.

Below are some paragraphs from the first chapter that illustrate my feelings about pressing forward.

Although I didn’t really need further incentive to write a family history, it came. One day as I contemplated Ruth and Boaz and their place in the lineage of Jesus Christ, it occurred to me how important the compilers/translators of the Bible must have considered this to be. Not to mention Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Then there’s King David, Tamar, and Jesse.

We don’t need all the begats in the Old Testament to tell us the importance of genealogy, and yet it’s nice to have that confirmation. Recently I attempted reading the third chapter of Luke in the New Testament and got bogged down around verse 35. The first chapter of Matthew is enlightening, too.

The Bible is made even more fascinating because of story. Nearly half of the Old and New Testaments are narrative, the rest being discourse and poetry. Stories are powerful. Whether it’s Daniel and the lion’s den, Hannah and her promise to Eli, or Mary giving birth to the only begotten Son of God in a stable, stories convey messages in a way no other medium can. While the stories of my/our family might not be as important or far-reaching as those of the Bible, they’re our stories and thus have meaning and significance.


Incidents and experiences involving all four offspring are included in the primary narrative. I’ve recorded my memories as accurately as possible from my perspective. Psychologists are clear about the inaccuracies of memory, especially episodic memory or personal memory. Although we may insist that this is what happened, experts say otherwise and insist that our personal memories are part fact and part fiction.

A perfect example of this concept rests in this black and white photo taken of Mike and me at the kitchen table in the house on Haile Street. He thinks I’m smiling because I sneaked a piece of “his” candy while his head was turned. I think the smile is one of delighted anticipation of tasting that sweet chocolate kiss.


We bring our temperament, mood, experience, and perception into each moment, and we process and interpret them accordingly. When we retrieve them from our memory banks, past events are colored not only by our consciousness, mood, age, and mood but also by our state of mind at the time of recollection.

About that kiss photo and how people’s interpretations differ, I was the older sister, my brother’s playmate and fierce protector. Why would I take his candy?

What are some of your family memories, and what’s stopping you from sharing them?

Posted in ancestry, books, family histories, genealogy, Bible, memory, memoir, story telling, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Lighted Seasons

It’s one thing to get an idea and quite another to make it a reality. I wanted to compile information about my ancestry and put it into a family history, but how to do it was a mystery. Where was the information coming from? What was the best way to organize the narrative? Just how far back in my family’s history should I go? Would my children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews care about Ida Brown Cunningham? Probably. But they’d be more curious about their grandparents.

I soon realized that thinking and rethinking my ideas was nothing more than procrastination, and I took Nike’s advice to “Just do it!” I started with what I knew and added tidbits of information as the work progressed. I went right to the sources who had the facts, figures, and stories—my aunts, one on my mother’s side and one on my father’s side. They were virtual founts of information.

I already knew when my great aunt Lillie was born and when she died. Same for her parents. I was saddened by her death and whelmed with compassion for the grief her parents must have suffered. But what did she die of? I never found the answer to that one, but I realized that niggling question was getting me off track and was something I could come back to later. Too, Lillie was just one person, and there were dozens and dozens of people I wanted to include.

But still…how to do it? During this time of indecision, a writer friend, Brenda Remmes, shared her book about her mother-in-law. Titled Emma, it was both a tribute and a history written about a strong young woman who was left raising three children after the death of her husband. Concerned that Emma’s grandchildren wouldn’t know anything about their resilient, hard-working, gutsy (her son Bill’s word) matriarch, Brenda wrote about both Emma’s and her husband’s lives and families and then moved seamlessly into another part of Emma’s life, the one including her progeny. Emma was the center, the heart, of the book.

One day I woke up knowing the focus, the pivot around which everything swirled, would be my parents—where they came from, where they went to school, and how they fit into their families. Both were the oldest children of their families although my father wasn’t the firstborn. He was born nearly two years after the death of an older brother, Nelson, whose life was taken at eighteen months by scarlet fever. My mother was the oldest of three daughters. There were ten years between her birth and that of her sister Jonnie, and birth order theories would see that gap as quite significant. It’s like starting a new family. She had attributes of both an only child and the oldest child—responsible, dependable, and mature.

The lightbulb of an idea grew brighter. I wanted to include what their childhoods, teen years, and adult lives were like; the decisions they made, including work, education, and child raising; what the world was like throughout their lives, from the Great Depression to the Clinton Era; their attributes, personalities, and advice. And I wanted to do it using the power of story without ignoring the “begats.” I solicited narratives from my siblings, and their stories are the icing on the cake (forgive the cliche), the sweet details that complete the work–at least the first edition.

John and Margie was my working title until I recalled a quote from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “I am a fugitive and a vagabond, a sojourner seeking signs. This is our life, these are our lighted seasons, and then we die.” By the time I began revising “Family Changes,” a chapter describing graduations, moves, illnesses, and a death, I changed the title to Our Lighted Seasons: John and Margie.

 If you’re thinking of writing a family history or any other kind of book, just do it. Nothing can happen until you stop procrastinating.

Posted in ancestry, Annie Dillard, books, family history, Uncategorized, writing, writing projects | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Hey Honey

We’ve had several discussions about prefaces and introductions in our writing group. In the case of the family history, I chose to make the introduction part of the text and use it as the first chapter, “Setting the Stage.” For the preface, I told a story to indicate the reason for writing the history and illustrate the final nudge for putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard.

Below is the story.

My father visited me in a dream on a cruise ship in Alaska.

Who am I? Where did I come from? Who are my people? Those questions haunted me for years, and writing a family history has provided some answers.

In September, 2015, my husband and I went to Alaska with two other couples, and some experiences there reinforced my longing to learn more about my roots, my ancestry. On at least two occasions while on excursions in AK, we heard presentations in which the speakers spoke of the importance of knowing your people.

The first presentation was by Carol Reid, a native Athabascan. By the time we arrived at Primrose Ridge, an expanse of alpine tundra in Denali National Park, we were getting a tad weary of getting on and off, on and off, the bus, but like good soldiers, we complied. No one was prepared for the treat in store for us. A petite gray-haired woman stood on a slight incline, poised to address us. With her long hair flowing behind her in the slight breeze, she shared the history and traditions of her people.

Until that afternoon, I hadn’t given much thought to the various Alaskan tribes and their languages and traditions. Carol opened my eyes, not only to her own culture and background but to my own as well. I looked at her face and saw the features of her ancestors. She reminded us of the importance of knowing your family as a means of better understanding yourself.

Carol cast a spell on all of us. Even the tough guys in the group were mesmerized by her words, gestures, and essence. After a moment’s hesitation, I walked over and asked if I could hug her. She smiled as if to say, “Of course,” and I took her up on her inviting expression. I told her that her words had touched my heart and asked if it would be okay to have a picture made with the three women in our party.

A few days later found us outside Ketchikan visiting the Saxman village. As a friend and I listened to the young man talk about his heritage as part of the Eagle clan, I was impressed with his pride and loyalty. “You have to understand your people and where you come from so that you can know who you are,” he said.

The morning after the Saxman village excursion, I awoke from a dream in which I was visited by my father who died in 1998. In the dream, there were tables and people in a large room, and I felt like we were in a school—perhaps the middle school where my daughter Elizabeth worked. I stood at one of the tables busily going through a large box with files in it. Noise and commotion surrounded me.

As I stood rummaging through the box, I felt a presence on my right. I glanced in that direction and was surprised to see my father standing there looking at me, neither smiling nor frowning—just looking. His expression was one of love and peace rather than concern or sorrow. He appeared to be in his mid-40’s and still had black, wavy hair.

“Hey Daddy,” I said, resting my hands on top of the box.

“Hey Honey,” he replied, calm and composed. My sister and I were always called Honey, never Ann or Jayne.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I came to see you,” he said as nonchalantly as if we’d parted the day before.

When I woke up, I lay there trying to recall each nuance, sight, feeling, and sound so that I could recollect them later—always. He didn’t approach me to give me a fatherly hug (that wasn’t his nature), and I didn’t stop what I was doing to give him a big ole squeeze. Neither of us cried or demonstrated strong emotion. We simply looked at each other, secure in the knowledge that we were connected. He was “my people.”

Posted in Alaska, ancestry, books, family histories, memoir, self publishing, story telling, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Darling Daughter Lillie

The next several blog posts will relate to a family history, Our Lighted Seasons, that I self-published with CreateSpace on Amazon. The history is not for distribution or sale…just family eyes at this point. Because many have asked about the experience from start to finish, I’m sharing parts of the long but worthwhile journey.

Sometimes it’s one little thing, an overheard phrase or a grandchild’s freckles, that sets a project in motion. Sometimes it’s several things going on in different people’s lives that suddenly converge and make people say, “Hey, let’s do this! Let’s put together a family history.”

My sister Ann told me about an insurance policy relating to her husband Allen’s mother’s death in 1999. Several queries about Allen’s aunts and uncles, specifically their birth and death dates, were problematic. Neither Allen nor his siblings knew when their aunts and uncles had died. As a consequence of this paucity of information, Ann and her husband decided it would be a good idea to begin gathering information about our family so that our children would know who was who.

My awakening interest in family history probably began the moment I stood in Racepath Cemetery outside of Ellenboro, NC and saw the names of my great grandparents, Avery Sidney and Minnie Laney Padgett, etched on a small tombstone. Their “darling daughter” Lillie lay there, and after learning of her short five-year life, I became increasingly interested in my/our heritage.

Stunned, I stood staring at Lillie’s gravesite for several seconds before calling my husband over. “Look, I think these people are my great grandparents,” pointing to the tombstones beside Lillie’s, “and this is their little girl.”

“You don’t know if they’re your grandparents or not?”

“I know it’s them. Those are their names…but no one ever mentioned a daughter.”

He shook his head and sauntered off to explore other names and dates, and after a few minutes, so did I. But I couldn’t shake the thought of “darling Lillie,” a five-year-old child whose life had been cut short, probably by disease. Smallpox? Scarlet fever? Would I ever know?

And what about my great grandmother and grandfather? It was three years after Lillie’s death before they had another child. As a mother and grandmother, I felt a renewed kinship and empathy with Minnie Laney Padgett. Was she a spiritual person whose faith gave her strength and solace? Did she have friends in whom she could confide? Sensing that “work is therapy,” did she throw herself into what must have been laborious work in that day and time? I was sympathetic towards my great grandfather, too, but for reasons I can’t explain, my heart ached for Minnie.

Leaving Sidney, Minnie, and Lillie for a few minutes, I carefully walked between graves, discovering other family names, and found myself pondering the connections between all of them…and me. Who was Jehu? A cousin? 

Sweltering heat from the hot July sun told us it was time to leave. We made our way back to Lillie’s tombstone for one last look and headed for the car and its air-conditioned comfort. Within seconds, I phoned Aunt Polly, and pounded her with questions. Since she would have been Lillie’s niece, I knew she’d have the answers I sought. But no. Polly knew there had been “a child,” but gender, age, name, and length of life were unknown.

I hung up, knowing that it was high time to do a little exploring. “A little child shall lead them.” Isaiah 11:6. In this case it was Lillie, a great aunt whose existence had been unknown to me until that hot summer afternoon.

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Going Nuts 4


Cousins, Siblings, and Grandparents

I’ve missed blogging. For months, I’ve been consumed with writing, revising, editing, re-revising, formatting, and uploading a family history. About twelve hours ago I uploaded the final version to Amazon’s CreateSpace. At least, I hope it’s the final version. There have been several.

To keep the documents and uploads straight, I began naming the versions something besides the book title, Our Lighted Seasons. Names included Getting Closer, Feeling Optimistic, This Is It, Going Nuts, and Monday Beach. Each time, there was some little something not quite right that sent me back to the drawing board. Most of the time it was a formatting issue, but other times it was a simple typo or incorrect name. Whatever. It’s done now.

In case I forget to mention it later, the staff at CreateSpace is phenomenal. Regardless of the time a writer calls, someone is there to take the call and calmly and expertly walk and talk the person through a problem. They never snicker or sneer, not even when reading titles like “Going Nuts 4.” They work from settings all over the world and are available 24/7.

Later, I’ll share a little about the writing process, how an aunt I never met planted a seed and literally took over my life until I put fingers to keyboard and pretty much kept them there—except for the two weeks around Christmas when my Mac developed a virus and had to spend some time with the computer doc. The young technical specialist, evidently concerned about my near histrionics, took my hand and told me gently that it wasn’t what happens in life that matters but rather how we react to it. “You’ll get through this just fine. Believe me.”

I didn’t tell him I had taught psychology for more years than he’d been walking the earth but that sometimes application is harder than knowledge.

Before writing the history, there was a moderate amount of field work, too—visiting cemeteries, asking questions, reading books and articles, and even visiting some old stomping grounds of ancestors. Gathering information was so enjoyable that I figuratively help up a sign in my mind that said STOP. That was easier said than done.

Even after months of organizing and writing the draft (second or third or fourth), I still received information from others, some of it too good to postpone until the second edition. I didn’t know that one of my great grandfathers had served in the state legislature! Nor was I aware that some information about my forebears came from a document titled “Protestant Immigrants.” And then there was that little detail about a great grandmother shooting chickens from her front porch for lunch.

But once the history was organized into sections and chapters, adding additional stories, pictures, and dates was a matter of squeezing them in…and I do mean squeezing. After placing photos and formatting sections, it’s difficult to add even one word without a page going catawampus. One minute there’s a pretty page with a family photograph positioned in the top left-hand corner, and the next moment the picture has gone AWOL, and half the page is blank. The undo symbol and I became buddies.

So now I’m waiting as patiently as possible. That’s not easy for me. I learned that one of my grandmothers wasn’t that patient either. When she wanted something done, she wanted it done yesterday! DNA at work? It’s possible. After all, she contributed one-fourth of who I am.

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