Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Tuesday's Tips: The Family History Writing Challenge--Days 3-5

Day 3
Sunday. I have realized that Sunday is probably one of the most difficult days for me to write. I get up at 7am, stumble into the kitchen to brew a solitary cup of coffee (as my husband prefers tea...Earl Gray, with raw sourwood honey), and try to access the laptop. To my dismay, my husband is already checking email...and rightly so...looking for a song list for the worship team. He plays a three-tier rack of  electronic synthesizers, and is so grateful for the opportunity.

I walk back to the kitchen and open the laundry closet door to find his pale blue dress shirt that needs pressing. Setting up the ironing board, which I purchased in 1984 from the S&H Green Stamps store in Erie, Pennsylvania during our first year of marriage, and pouring water into the iron...preheating...I think to myself how much I really do not like ironing men's shirts, and remember, as always, that summer Mom taught me to iron.

We were living in Southern Tier New York State in a town not far from my father's boyhood hometown. He grew up in Binghamton and Johnson City, and after serving in the Air Force Drum and Bugle Corps and attending college at George Washington University and the Corcoran College of Art and Design, he began teaching art in the public schools...eventually to return to Broome County, and set up house for his small family. And so, I grew up in Vestal. Lived there from the time I entered Kindergarten till I graduated from High School in 1979.

Oh...where was I...yes, back to ironing!

I had owned a dressmaking business in Florence, Massachusetts for five years and seven months following college...and family... Our children were in high school and middle school respectively, and I worked out of the front room of our townhouse...a bright and cheery office with walls covered in thread racks, arranged by color, size and material. A massive wicker trunk which sat directly beneath the wide, triple windows, held quilting fabrics and bolts of interfacing. Along the next wall sat an immense oak desk with computer, bounded by two black, steel file cabinets and six-foot oak veneer bookcase, loaded down with books and binders of family history research. The next wall housed a full-length pedestal workshop table and peg board, and to the right of the doorway sat the sewing machine and serger. Working as a subcontractor for textile designers who hired me to create couture fashions of hand-dyed silks and velvet...and for a short time, hand-loomed chenille...pressing became an exacting ordeal.

Again...back to the simple shirt collar, yoke, sleeves, cuffs and body. Remembering...

After a long hot shower and dressing for church, I gathered my Teen Sunday School materials for the class I teach, my Bible and purse, and sat down for a moment to reflect.

Time to go...

Following services, we came home and it was time to prepare a pork chop dinner with Lima beans and cinnamon applesauce... I just wanted a nap! But, I thought perhaps I should try to write some. Of course...the laptop was in use again. I can't say enough it's really becoming time to save up for a second computer!

Time for evening service...or at least, sitting in the sanctuary, reading the last part of The Gravedigger's Daughter, as the worship team warmed up. And by the time we arrived home, exhaustion had set in and it would soon be time to get up to go to work.

Day 4
Monday. Coffee...no computer, but the early morning news. And then, before I was aware that it was time to dress and leave for work, it was 7:40am. Fortunately, my husband offered to drive me so I wouldn't have to walk the long three or four blocks to the grocery store where I manage the deli.

After a surprisingly good day, I walk home, change clothes, and it's time to go out. You see, Monday is my husband's day off. But I'm not complaining! After shopping for a new outfit at Belk's and a leisurely dinner at Cheddar's, errands at Walmart, we return home in my early Valentine's Day surprise...a "new" 2010 metallic blue Toyota Camry LE. What a day! Full of blessings and surprises...but no writing...yet.

I sat down at the desk and picked up from where I had left off on Day 2....

(continued from Day 2)

The problem still remained: I had no idea of what Cousin Hattie meant by "heir land." What could a lower middle-class white girl raised in Southern Tier New York in the 1970s know about southern black land ownership? 

I began searching for articles that would explain this situation, and discovered two things. First, heir land was originally instated as a means of protecting poor black farmers' land from often times unscrupulous carpet baggers, Jim Crow land grabs, and developers. If a black farmer died intestate, which many of them did because of the literacy affects of slavery and Jim Crow, the land was held by all their heirs, and designated heirs land. The land would be preserved until a descendant in a latter generation decided s/he wanted to farm the land.  In a time when over fifteen million acres of land was owned by African-Americans as compared to today's pittance of a mere 7.7 million acres (in 1999). One source cited that of that land, less than one percent is privately owned rural land, sixty percent of which is owned by non-farmers (Thompson, Pennick & Gray, What is African-American Land Ownership?, 2004).

The next thing I learned was that what was intended to preserve land has become the first step toward losing family lands today. As generations pass, especially following the great migration when our ancestors in my father-in-law's generation made their way north in search of jobs, families grew apart...children were born, and then grandchildren...and somehow, the connections between cousins, and in some cases even siblings, weakened and dissolved.

Day 5
As I said earlier, yesterday I finished reading Joyce Carol Oates' The Gravedigger's Daughter, which was a work of fiction based on the life of her grandmother. I can say that while I felt quite angry and cheated after reading the final page of the book, I realized that this is how Freyda must have felt...

...when we wait too long to be ready to talk with our distant family connections, it is often too late, for they are departed and we have lost our only opportunity to form a loving bond...one which ultimately leads toward a better understanding of who we are and from where we came.

Last year during the Challenge I viewed a 2007 book promotion lecture for The Gravedigger's Daughter where Ms. Oates spoke to a book club in Corte Madera, California, which you can view here. Her discussion of character formation offers one of the best illustrations of how she transformed her grandmother's story into the character and life of Rebecca Schwart.

Today I picked up her very own memoir, A Widow's Story, which tells what she experienced at the time of her husband's death. I started reading it on my lunch break, between bites of rotisserie pork and gravy, macaroni and cheese, dressing...interrupted by intermittent conversation with colleagues...and I was taken with Oates' details and description of her emotional state, depicted by her actions and reactions to events taking place around her.

As I entered the entrance to our apartment following my workplace duties, I could not even change my clothes before sitting down before the laptop and begin to pour out the words floating in my head before they grew distant and elusive.

I discovered...or should I say, rediscovered, that my writing had somehow fallen into the telling, and not the showing. So many personal interjections must be added to the narrative. But, for now, have chosen to continue and focus on re-writes at a later date.

As I walked home this afternoon, I could see in my mind's eye, the land plat of the Carter home place in Township 5. The plot belonging to grandfather-in-law Hezekiah looked like an angry cat, standing on stretched limbs and hunched-up back.

Once I began searching for the neighbors who lived in the surrounding lands, I found that Hezekiah's mother's land, Martha Ann Heirs land, stood across the street where the original two-story home place with adjacent family store. It was amazing to see how this creek-side geography had been carved up into irregular pieces inside of pieces, their angles jutting in this direction and that. But as the eye moves away from the home place, the boundaries become more regular and rectangular.

It was this central group of parcels, formerly belonging to Carters and Georges, that had lapsed into heir land, and parts of which had been subdivided among the children of Isaac and Martha Ann (George) Carter. It wasn't until three or four generations later that the descendants were so numerous and scattered that it would take a handful of family historians to combine efforts to identify and locate surviving heirs. And even now, I am finding heirs who had descended from Isaac's oldest son, Elisha, who had fled Craven County for Berrien County, Georgia during a time when he had gotten in some sort of trouble. What that trouble was, we have yet to discover.
And so I have discovered that if you do not write when the words are yet floating in your mind, when they are delayed of springing forth as words on a digital page, they dissolve and return to the recesses of your brain...never to come out in exactly the same manner again. So, do not hold on to these thoughts for long without releasing them to print, or the process will have to develop once more, in perhaps a different shape than once experienced. Be prepared! 

Word Count: 1644

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