Ivory Soap and Corn Flakes


Being part of a writing group has helped me in ways too numerous to recount. My membership has also made me a little more hesitant to write, or rather to trust myself as a writer. For example, I’ve been told in the nicest and most diplomatic ways possible that I tend to overuse passive voice. All I can say is, “I’m working on it.”

But I’m not going to let my weaknesses stop me from sharing something I learned at one of our meetings, something reinforced while writing Our Lighted Seasons, a family history focused on my parents. After  attending a conference in Florida, one of our members graciously shared some information about the importance of sociology in a story.  “Make sure that your reader understands how the location of the story and the past of the characters affect who they are and why they are making the decisions they make,” Brenda stressed.

Brenda described how a conference presenter drew three concentric circles and pointed out their roles in a story. The middle circle is the main character, the second circle her past that has relevance to the story. The outer rim is the sociology surrounding the main character’s life and is as strong as any other character in the story. Place, time, race, gender, language, culture, religion, and a host of other factors determine who we are and how we live our lives. How had I forgotten that?

There are so many different ways to live and work and dress and eat. You don’t  have to go out of the country to see this. Really, you don’t even have to get out of your home state, yet there is something quite broadening about traveling to another one. A quick example is the moose burger I sampled in Alaska. Another is the low country boil my son-in-law devoured when he moved to the South. A native Californian, he had lived in Utah and Venezuela and sampled a good many dishes but nothing quite as tasty as the combination of corn, potatoes, shrimp, and sausage.

The culture of a place is part of the story. So are its history and landscape. The morning after the writing group met, I listened to a podcast in which people were asked a question like, “Which of these two men is more likely to be successful in attracting and meeting women, the one carrying a gym bag or the one carrying a music case?”

That’s easy, I thought. Gym bag. The person being quizzed originally thought the same thing. “But wait,” she said. “Is this person in Paris or New York? That’s important to know.” The interviewer went on to explain that Americans in some parts of the nation are into fitness, health, and working out. Hence, they’d be more likely to respond positively to a man with a gym bag. In Paris, however, with an emphasis on music and the arts, an instrument case would be an ideal prop.


History is as important as place, culture, and tradition, a fact I became increasingly aware of while writing Our Lighted Seasons. Back in the day, there were fewer choices of everything including soap, cereal, footwear, and toothpaste. Our family used Ivory. Said to be over 99 percent pure (of what I don’t know), it floated. We ate Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, and Cheerios; wore Keds and Mary Janes (the girls); and brushed our pearly whites with Colgate, Crest, or Pepsodent. Now the choices in all of those areas can be bewildering.

I’m wondering what my grandmothers would think if they could see my three pairs of walking/jogging shoes or the staggering selection of soap in Walmart. My grandchildren use “theme toothpaste,” and I vacillate between mint flavored and cinnamon. Hmmm. Wonder if my grandchildren will one day see my culture as “quaint,” limited, or boring.

How is sociology part of your story? 





Posted in critique groups, family histories, lifestyle, memoir, Uncategorized, writing, writing groups, writing tips | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Sock Suitcase

I thought I was Done with a capital D.

The family history was a mammoth task, a time drain, a major stressor, a sleep thief. But then one day after correcting one pesky out-of-place apostrophe, I thought thought Yes and hallelujah. Confident that the book was complete, I sent for proof copies…more than once. After more revisions, edits, and additions, I was fairly happy with the results. Fairly happy = fine in my world, or at least as good as it could be at the current time.

But then a few weeks after family members had the final copy in their hands, my sister sent me a few old photographs and wondered if I’d ever seen them. All the people and scenes were recognizable except one. One black and white image showed five adults lined up, arms around each other smiling at the photographer. Not cheesy smiles but contented, happy-to-be-sharing-this-moment ones.

My eyes were drawn to the face of the second man on the left, my mother’s father, Granddaddy Clyburn. He’s standing next to his father who outlived him by about forty years. I don’t know the identity of the two people on each end. Siblings perhaps? My sister also sent a photograph of my maternal grandmother as a young woman. I studied her profile and wished I had known her then.

I started thinking about grandmothers more deeply. Jane, standing next to Great Grandaddy, died in 1944, and he married her sister Daisy. I never knew Jane (also called Janie), but in her photographs, she always wore the same sweet smile. Her daughter-in-law, Mary Jon Hegler Clyburn, passed away in her mid-80’s and had lived with Alzheimer’s for years. My paternal grandmother’s primary issue was arthritis, but she  too had a form of dementia in her later years.

I glance down at one of my fingers, kind of bumpy and weird and crooked from arthritis, and think about my grandmother’s legs, increasingly bowed from the disease. I had always thought of her as being a relatively short person, but now I realize that she had likely been taller when her legs were straight. Not one to brood over what couldn’t be helped, she would sometimes good-naturedly say she’d had a visit from “Arthur” when the discomfort was more evident.

Is my forgetfulness a gift from my grandmothers, or is it just a manifestation (pretty word to dress up the condition) of getting older. I’m not too concerned about it–yet. I’ve always been a little ditzy and forgetful. When younger, I blamed it on having a lot on my mind–things like raising children, having a career, trying to be a dutiful wife and mother. I could add daughter, sister, friend, neighbor, and other assorted roles to the list, all of which included responsibilities and to-do lists.

Quick example. When the children were small, I utterly failed in the matching socks department and finally came up with what I perceived to be the perfect solution: a sock suitcase. It was a large forest green suitcase that was stowed n the walk-in closet. When any of us, including the adults, needed socks, we’d unzip the suitcase and strike gold–usually. No one thought it unusual that Mom couldn’t keep up with all the colors, sizes, and type of socks. Nowadays, however, they might whisper words like “long it” or “can’t remember anything” behind my back. Back then, it was just one of those family things.

I don’t know much about my namesake, Jane, but as with my other grandmothers, clues to descendants’ temperament, proclivities, mental and physical health, and longevity lie in the DNA connection. Lifestyle, culture, and personal choice are important too, and I wonder if reading, working crossword puzzles, and traveling will stave off some of the brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s. Am I destined to become increasing forgetful and confused, helpless to combat the development of plague and tangles?

What mysteries lie behind the faces of your ancestors? What clues to your life and those of your children can you discover from a study of your genealogy? 







Posted in ancestry, family histories, memoir, nonfiction, Uncategorized, writing, writing projects | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

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?

Posted in books, critique groups, family history, reading, Uncategorized, writers, writing, writing groups | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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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.”

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