Hey all! Long time no blog. As much as I've disliked being so out of touch for the last few months, I take comfort in noticing that the few blogs I have checked in on recently seem to have slowed down a whole lot lately as well. There's just too much living to be done!
And I haven't wanted for that all American ideal, Self Expression, during my absence. In fact I have been channeling my creativity into new and deeply satisfying avenues lately, and it feels fantastic. As I have written about here, I started researching my family history in earnest during the summer. It was something I had wanted to do for a while, and I plunged right in as soon as I decided it was time. That's kind of how I roll when something captures my interest- I get almost manically obsessed and learn/do all that I can until I feel satiated. The one difference between this area of pursuit and all of the many subjects I've explored in the past is that my interest in this will never wane. I will never get bored of it, never be through with it.
Tracing one's genealogy is one of the most fulfilling activities a human can engage in. And I know that I speak for the millions of other Family History Keepers out there when I say that. So much is revealed when this path is undertaken, feelings and aspirations that have been buried are exhumed, and one cannot help but move closer to one's own personal North Star, the shining beacon that guides each of us to be our own truest selves in this life.
But there is only so far that reading names, dates, and other statistics can get you. Which is why I was *stoked* when I came across the Deep Genealogy work of Atava Garcia Swiecicki. I had first met her at the Women's Herbal Symposium last year when we traded one of her amazing mushroom tinctures for this dress (which I blogged about in Ghosts, Miners, and Mandolins):
When I ran out of the tincture last month I went to her website, Ancestral Apothecary, and realized that the guidance she offers is exactly what I have been unconsciously seeking at this moment in my genealogical work. During our first phone conversation, we were both amazed to realize how auspicious our initial trade was: mushrooms are sacred to both of us and undoubtedly played a significant role in the evolution of all human ancestors, and the deer on the dress hold powerful symbolism- related to ancestral connections- for Atava in her Mexican/Aztec lineage. It was as if, in this quick and perfunctory exchange, we were unknowingly laying the foundation for a future relationship.
One thing that has come of our work together so far, which I would like to share with you, is the symbolism in a dream I had and the action it encouraged me to take. I had the dream at my grandmother's house on the last night of my "Roots Finding Trip" this summer. In it, I looked down at my right wrist and noticed a cylindrical hole had been drilled in it. I reached in and pulled out a rolled up scroll. When I unrolled it I saw that the words "William Newton Wright" were written on it.
Newton, his wife Jennie, and their kids
That was it. Newton was my great great grandpa. My dad's mom's dads' dad. I knew my dad's mom's dad, my great grandpa Lewis (top left in the photo above), and his wife Gladys, as a child. So I knew Newton's son, but Newton himself died long before I was born. I brushed the dream off upon awakening, feeling freaked out by the hole in my wrist and unable to extract any significance from the dream's symbolism.
Until I talked to Atava about it. After telling her about the dream, the first thing she asked was- what was I planning to do with the information I found in my genealogical research? Did I want to make a piece of art or something? I answered that I wanted to write, to write out the stories. She replied that she knew from our first conversation that that was my path with this, and that in that light the dream seems ripe with symbolism. There was a scroll with family information embedded in my very body. "In the bone". It was in my right wrist, the hand I write with. And, have you noticed the homophonic wordplay implicit here? Wright/write/right? Wright's name in the right wrist I use to write? I love words and wordplay- my ancestors know how to communicate with me.
Newton is top row near center, with the mustache, his father Hezekiah is front row just left of center with the killer white beard.
"So write something" said Atava, and I knew immediately what I would write. I have wanted to write down this story since I was a child and my dad first told it to me. And it is connected to Newton- it is the story of the death of his son Lewis' first baby. My desire to get the story down became even stronger in college when my favorite English professor read one of my stories and wrote to me "You should write down your family stories! Seriously!"
But I was afraid to write it, I knew it would bring up a lot of pain, and I wasn't so sure I was worthy of the task. But then I thought about the dream, about what seemed like such a strong message from my ancestors/unconscious/deepest self. The knowledge was inside me, I just needed to open the vein and bleed it out.
So, here it is:
CLEATUS B. WRIGHT , JANUARY 20, 1929 - FEBRUARY 27th, 1929
The bacon grease sizzled in the pan, unattended, as Lewis carried soaked slabs of pine through the kitchen to the front room. Gladys sat at the small round table, staring ahead absently as she clutched her infant son to her heart. His cold lips and unbreathing nose pressed up against the warm wool of her green nightgown, while her own freezing cheeks blew puffs of visible air into the grey light of the Arkansas dawn. Outside, rain pummeled the earth into rivulets of shifting mud.
Just as she was summoning all of her will to rouse herself up and over to the counter where the morning's eggs where waiting to be cracked into the pan, Gladys heard hammering in the next room. Clinging to the frail body of her firstborn, she rose and peeked in. Lewis pounded away with a fury she had never before seen in her gentle natured husband. The tiny coffin was almost finished. It had barely taken him any time at all to build it. The blink of a mother's eye. The five weeks of a child's life.
Suddenly she was struck through with the reality of what had happened during the night, and the enormity of what lay ahead of her today. Though Lewis had cut down the pine at the edge of the farm and begun working the wood a week before, Gladys had carried on the work of feeding and loving her child as if his pallor and weakness were only passing phenomena. It was unthinkable that he could not exist, that the life that had grown inside her, expanded outward from her body, and found nourishment at her breast could cease to be. The cold would not claim him. Her warmth would save him.
She let out an anguished cry and slumped to the ground, pressing her face to the soft downy fuzz on top of her son's sweet head, and the silent tears began to flow. Like the rain, they would not stop all day.
Lewis ceased his hammering and came to crouch beside his wife and son. Resting his hand on her back he said, "Don't you go worrying about breakfast now Mother," and went in to fry the eggs in the hot skillet. Mother, she thought, could he still call her that?
Two hours later they were ready. The mules were hitched to the wagon. Lewis stood inside by the front door, cringing and with his head lowered, wishing to god that his wife didn't have to do what she must. He watched as she kissed the baby one last time and slowly lowered him into the coffin. The tears seemed to fall from her face at the same pace and in the same quantity as the raindrops that fell outside as she adjusted his white gown, placed her hand on his small, still heart, and lowered the lid.
He was gone, she knew it now. It was just a matter of acting out the day's events, and then she could come home and lie in bed forever. And die herself. Except for tonight, when supper would need to be fixed, and tomorrow morning, when eggs would need to be gathered and the garden weeded, and tomorrow afternoon, when the milk from the neighbors must be churned into butter and the bed sheets washed and dried and the farm hands fed, and tomorrow evening, when supper must be fixed again and the days dishes done.
Lewis lifted the small box onto his right shoulder, put his left arm around Gladys' waist, and led his family out into the bitter chill of the morning.
Lone & Vestal
The mules were hitched to the buckboard wagon and barely registered the shift in weight when Lewis placed the coffin onto the boards. He climbed up onto the seat and held out a hand to Gladys. The cemetery was about a mile away, and already she was drenched and shivering, though in her grief she was barely aware of it. As he drove the team along Lewis thought about the baseball game late last summer that he had taken his pregnant wife to. She had enjoyed it, and put his hand to her belly when the baby punched from inside. "Little slugger" he said with a smile.
On the first incline the mules struggled to pull the weight behind them up the hill, their hooves slipping in the mud with every step. As Lewis prodded them on Gladys reached back and placed her hand on the pine box in order to keep it from slipping off. Like her and the whole world that morning, it was soaking wet. She wouldn't allow herself to imagine the cold and moisture penetrating inside to her son's body.
She was just about to let go of the coffin as the mules began to descend down the hill, when suddenly there was a great lurch forward. She pressed down on the coffin with one hand and held onto the back of her seat with the other as one of the mules' legs buckled beneath him. The wagon slid down a ways before coming to a stop. Gladys opened her tightly shut eyes and looked down to see her husband on his hands and knees in the mud, shaking his head back and forth to stop the rain from dripping from his soaking hair into his eyes.
They continued on, but it soon became apparent that the mules were giving out. With the mud as thick as it was and the buckboard wagon heavier than usual because of the rain penetrating every fiber of wood, they were tired. "We'll stop at Lone and Vestal's", said Lewis, "hitch up their mules." Gladys nodded solemnly. Her brother and his wife didn't even know that their nephew had died yet, though Lewis had asked Lone for pointers on how to make a sturdy coffin just a few days before.
Vestal spied them first, a phantom coming up over the small rise just up the road. It was so grey and drizzly that it took a while before she could make out just who it was. "Now what in the world are those two doing out in this weather?" she said aloud to Lone, who sat reading by the fire, welcoming the respite from a day of farm work. "And where's little...", her voice trailed off as she realized what must have happened, what she had prayed furiously every night for the last five weeks wouldn't happen. "Oh Lone", she said. He joined her at the window and as the wagon approached they made out the shape of the coffin in back. Lone cleared his throat and ran his fingers through his hair. "They'll be needin' our mules" he said, and went for his boots.
Vestal stood and watched. And cried. Gladys was like a sister to her. They had been pregnant together, for a short time, and had attended one another's births. Vestal had nursed her six month old son Jay and watched as her nephew struggled to take in his first desperate gasps of air. The midwife took her aside and told her that the chances of survival for such a small, frail infant were minimal, but encouraged her to tend to her sister-in-law every day and bring her soup and herbal teas. And she had, for those first few weeks. But now it had been a couple of days since she had called on them.
She walked to the door when the wagon finally approached and beckoned Gladys inside, where she set her down by the fire. They didn't speak. Gladys seemed beyond communication, though the tears that rolled continuously down her face said everything. Eyes staring at the fire, legs tucked beneath her, she let Vestal peel her clothes off and wrap a bathrobe around her. As Gladys drank the hot tea Vestal brought to her she seemed to wake up a little and smiled weakly at her beloved friend. Vestal left her to warm up and went to put the morning's porridge to heat up again on the stove.
By the time the men were finished hitching up the second set of mules the food was piping hot. Vestal ushered them in through the mud room just off the kitchen door and managed to prevent most of the water and mud running off of their bodies from coming into her house. They sat down to eat, the men ravenously, the women hardly at all.
Suddenly a loud cry arose from the bedroom. The baby was awake. Vestal's eyes opened wide in guilt and sympathy as she look at Gladys. Gladys dropped her spoon and looked down. Milk was pouring from her breasts and soaking Vestal's bathrobe.
An hour later they pulled up to the cemetery's gates. Lone jumped down from the back of the wagon to unlatch the door, slipping and falling in the mud as soon as his feet hit the ground. Vestal's teeth chattered as she clutched tightly to Gladys' arm. The door swung open and Lewis got down, picked up the coffin, and began to walk to his father's grave inside the gates. Vestal began to unwind her arm from Gladys', and then realized that her sister-in-law had no intention of getting down from the platform. She stayed put with her.
The men walked a little ways before they realized that Gladys was frozen from grief and cold. "I'm sure glad you came," Lewis said to Lone. "Yes, it was lucky Mrs. Browning was able to watch little Jay," he replied, "Gladys sure does need some comfort, and you'll need plenty of help trying to make a hole outta all this mud. You start to diggin' and I'll go lead the mules through the gate."
Lone turned back and gently guided the mules, the wagon, and the women to where Lewis had begun to dig. The gravestone next to the spot he had marked out read William Newton Wright, March 21, 1876 - April 7, 1924. On the other side was a plot reserved for his mother. "Please watch over him Daddy," Lewis whispered under his breath, a single tear escaping his eye.
Lone reached in and got out his shovel and went to work alongside his brother-in-law. Gladys and Vestal watched as their husbands dug out some mud and threw it over their shoulders, only to have more mud slide right back into the hole. Still they pressed on, no one commenting on the disparaging circumstances. No one commenting on the small pine box that sat at their feet, getting splattered with mud, sometimes sliding a bit this way or that as the futile disturbance they were creating shifted the ground.
Gladys watched the scene unfold from her perch up on the wagon, grateful for Vestal's warm body next to hers. Evereything seemed blurry, the relentless rain and weary mud consuming her senses, blotting out the terribleness of what was happening to her husband, of what was happening to her baby. As Lewis and Lone continued to try and dig a hole in vain, Gladys felt the whole world close in on her, felt her heart cave in in a rushing mudslide of emptiness fueled by a terrific and searing force, felt herself crack and sink beneath the surface of the muddy and mournful earth.
Lewis and Gladys, about forty years after Cleatus' death
My dad and sister came to visit last weekend, and them, myself, Graham, and Mycelia stood outside underneath the massive walnut tree in our front yard while I read the story to them. Then Graham dug a hole at the foot of the tree and I rolled the story up into a scroll and buried it, saying a little prayer of offering to Lewis, Gladys, and Cleatus. It felt good.
So, if there are any of my dear readers who have made it this far, your feedback please... I am feeling quite unmotivated to blog about clothes lately, but very motivated to share of my amazing and inspiring ancestral discoveries. I mean, there is SO much that I left out of this story, and there are countless stories that are yet to be lived, yet to be discovered. Right now I am pursuing my Scottish/British Isles lineage, my mom just gave me my great great grandma's notebook, and the whales keep showing up big time. And I would be thrilled if my posts could inspire others to pursue their own family histories.
And, of course, you can always see the pretty new vintage passing through my life by clicking on the Etsy widget on the left there.
Lovely friends, what do you think?