Category Archives: Ancestry

A Living History Focused In a Moment



In the early evening of Saturday, October 23rd, 1993, Bobby Dean stood by the tan surface of Highway 49, in a community sometimes called Rich. He watched as the last glimmers of the sun reflected from one of the windows of the fellowship hall of the Lutheran church across the state highway. The church itself had no front-facing windows, something that always drew his attention. Due to Bobby Dean’s connection to farming in the Delta of Arkansas, he knew that the official sunset was technically 15 minutes ago, slightly before 6:30. Like so many from that part of the state, he didn’t need a calendar or weatherman to predict the weather for him.

It was a warm day for eastern Arkansas. Not that Bobby Dean typically wore a jacket, but on this day, he had left his grease-stained jacket on the hook in the garage all day. The day had turned out to be perfect, rising to the upper 60s. The gas pumps were busy for most of the day, then activity tapered substantially as people headed home to eat before either venturing out again of staying home to watch the world series or Hee Haw. In the last ten minutes, only two cars had passed. Neither had stopped, probably on their way to Helena or Tunica. The casinos had recently put their footprint on the area and Highway 49 was quickly becoming a rapid corridor to find them. Locals argued relentlessly about whether they’d bring life back to their area or further drain it.

As the last car passed, Bobby Dean had been inside the station, closing the old register, the kind featuring mechanical rolling numbers. For no particular reason, he looked out one of the two wide front windows and saw the Reverend from Our Savior Church pull out on to the highway and point his vehicle toward Brinkley. As was his custom, Bobby Dean instinctively waved at toward the departing pastor, unsure whether the preacher could see his silhouette inside the station. Much to the surprise of many, the preacher and Bobby Dean had become well-acquainted. He performed Bobby Dean’s remarriage, as well as his funeral. One of Bobby Dean’s jokes was that remarriage technically could be considered to be a funeral, depending on one’s perspective.

As Bobby Dean looked to the north and south, the highway lay silent, its straight strip of asphalt pointing the way to wide expanses of farmland and house dotted along its perimeter. The tilled-under fields now waited, dormant and marching toward winter lifelessness. For those who admire such austere landscapes, it was meditative. Bobby Dean was certainly no one to ascribe to such silly words. To him, it was simply peaceful.

A younger Bobby Dean had lived in Northwest Arkansas and a short time in Indiana. He resided in Pendleton Correctional facility in Indiana as well, for his part in a robbery of a truck stop off of U.S. Highway 20. His heart always beat strongest in Monroe County. He was anchored to his wild youth, his family, the soil, and the freedom that such wide open spaces always presented to those willing to live inside them. Unfettered freedom and wide stages often led people like Bobby Dean to run wild.

He took an unfiltered Camel from his front shirt pocket and lit it. The smoke filled his lungs. As he exhaled, it formed a small cloud near him. The day’s light breeze had weakened. Bobby Dean always smelled like a blend of one or more of gasoline, oil, cigarettes, dirt, mints, and whiskey. Those who knew him could often read his potential behavior based on the prevalence of one scent over the other.

Looking back at the small church across the highway, he recalled that he had remarried there only 8 months prior. Strangely, it reaffirmed where he’d started: married to Carolyn and living in the small farming community. Carolyn would undoubtedly be at home just a bit up the road, near Cypress Road. The last time Bobby Dean ran this service station, the United States was celebrating its bicentennial and he and Carolyn had lived in a trailer almost touching the rear of the gas station. For a second, Bobby Dean wished they still lived behind the station. He could imagine the scent of freshly fried catfish in hot oil, the shouts of people congregating, and time before family began succumbing to inevitable biological frailty. His weariness enveloped him. His dream of coming back here to live and to work was realized but his bones were weary. Bobby Dean’s idea of a metaphor was the type found in Louis L’Amour westerns or demonstrated in the slitted, watchful eyes of Clint Eastwood.

Tonight, his demon fed by whiskey would not rear its head. Lately, Bobby Dean could not sustain its aftermath. His hard life was dealing out hard consequences. His namesake son, X, had surprised him last weekend with a visit. Bobby Dean had been driving his pickup along Highway 39, heading toward Monroe. His son had pulled alongside him in his roommate’s borrowed car, hogging the entire road. Carolyn was in the passenger seat, smiling like an idiot and shouting. “What’s up, #$%#$%#$%$@#$ ?” Bobby Dean had shouted back, laughing. He pulled over so everyone could exchange greetings and cleverly-worded obscenities as they laughed. Bobby Dean managed to salvage a few normal moments with his son during that visit until the urge to drink overwhelmed him. Like so many, he had no way of knowing that it would be his last chance to build a narrow bridge back toward his son.

He finished his cigarette, dropped it to the pavement, and smashed it out with his boot. Bobby Dean turned and walked over to the three gas pumps. He leaned against the outside pump, watching.

The October sun had disappeared entirely. The edge of the highway and all that surrounded it now lay in a blanket of time and silence. Waiting.

38 days later, Bobby Dean walked his last step.

His bones now rest in Upper Cemetery along the same highway, near one of the areas where Cypress Creek and its thick, muddy waters crest near the road. If you drive by at night, you can hear Bobby Dean’s shouts trailing behind you. You’ll fight the urge to floor it without knowing why. Instead, you’ll roll down the window and listen more closely. Tilled earth, smoke, and whiskey will greet you. It’s my hope that you’ll find only the wild, enthusiastic side of Bobby Dean as you pass; may his violent undercurrent forever be at rest.

If you drive the highway to visit the area where the station once stood, you’ll find the small church still patiently marking the days of its members. The station, though, is long gone. In April of 2009, someone removed the subterranean gas tanks. Not long after, the building was gone. Now, as you pass, you’ll note almost no remaining footprint for the gas station. The two telephone poles which once aligned with either end of the property still stand, along with a very narrow strip of pavement. The rest, however, has surrendered to the relentless fertile soil of the Monroe County landscape. The last couple of times that I passed where the station once stood, I resisted the urge to stop and stand in the field there. I couldn’t be sure that time itself wouldn’t grab me and whisk me back to a distant decade, trapping me in nostalgia.

I fear that the entire area might be slipping into non-existence, reverting to a time before railroads, lumber, and commerce; one inhabited by natives.

I fear that Bobby Dean might be dissipating, too. He’s been dead for over half of my life and I’ve survived this place longer than he did.

Each of us only survives in actuality as long as a living soul still remembers us.

Somehow, I received the curse of being the historian of the family. Despite my untrustworthy memory, the only honor I can bring to the history of those who preceded me is to hold my hand aloft and swear to tell the unflinching truth. Some facts slightly disjoin in my retelling, without a doubt.

The mood and temperament though? These are my promises kept.

DNA and the Golden State Killer

In regards to the Golden State Killer being identified by using genealogy indexing, this is an area where I have experience. I’ve written so much about privacy over the years that I forget that people have an unusual and mistaken perception of their own privacy. DNA is the universal math of identification. Like our fingerprints, we leave it everywhere we go and transmit it through our intimate family web. To believe that we will one day not have a database of every living person’s DNA is to ignore the pull and push of history. The same arguments against DNA indexing are the same as those once used to push back against fingerprinting.
In those cases where I have tracked down missing fathers and absent family members, DNA would have immediately unlocked those doors.
I don’t ‘worry’ about my genetic profile being misused because I understand that it is already something out of my control, much like my identity and credit history. Before you accuse me of it, I will agree that I’m decently ignorant about some of the ramifications.
DNA unlocks the lies and misconceptions we have about our own family trees and the mechanics of our biology. Genealogy was already sufficiently fascinating for me prior to the DNA component; now, it is ethereal and scientific magic, opening doors and both answering and asking questions about what we think we know.
For years, I’ve predicted the scenario such as the Golden State Killer breakthrough.
For anyone related to me, you can relax. They already have our entire genetic code. Like with most puzzles, a relatively small sample size of the populace is enough to identify everyone. Even if you don’t ‘choose’ to share your DNA profile, statistically it is almost a meaningless decision on your part. It’s difficult to be able to piece together the math and science of this truth and even more frustrating to find a way to like it if you find yourself in disagreement.
The services I used don’t sell or transmit my genetic profile without my consent, which is more than I can say for other companies I’ve dealt with. Most people are unaware just how often they might consent to DNA indexing or sharing, especially when dealing with clinics, hospitals, or insurance companies.
When the Facebook hyperbole surfaced, I cringed at people’s over-reactions. Google, for instance, maintains massively larger databases about all of us, yet receives much less press for it. During the data breach at Equifax, most people simply didn’t understand what had happened. It certainly didn’t stop Congress from rewarding Equifax with an exclusive contract with the federal government.
Your DNA, like your fingerprints and credit history, is already ‘out there,’ beyond your control.
I have several concerns, of course, but know that my personal opinion won’t divert the trends already beyond my reach. Right now, I am grinning a satisfied grin, knowing that what I predicted for years finally happened.

Another Nostalgic Surprise



Recently, I wrote a story about finally discovering exactly what type of coffee cup I had used to drink my first cup of coffee with, back when people like my grandpa Willie believed that such things should simply just happen regardless of one’s age. I ordered a jadeite Fire-king cup from Etsy, more as a tribute than a keepsake.

A cousin of mine read my post and reached out to me. It turns out that she had a blue Fire-King cup, a cup my grandpa used to hold his razor and shaving cream brush. He was a minimalist, too, but for totally different reasons than mine.

My grandpa died on a Saturday back in October 1977. The cup he used most days sat dormant, waiting for me to wind my way through decades of intervening years. My cousin graciously offered to send it to me. I received it today. With the piece of ‘art’ I already posted about, this was a day for both something old and something new.

As sentimental as it may sound to say it aloud, holding the cup has already peeled back the foggy curtains of my youth.

The half-broken nail in front of the ‘shaving kit’ is the infamous nail that I wrote about in another blog post. This is the shortened version: A Rusty Nail…

P.S. My post about the jadeite green coffee mug on my blog and public figure Facebook page opened many doors for other people, people whose memories were triggered by the same recollections of family and home.

Family History is Literally What I Choose To Make It

This post has no point, no moral or objective. It’s just a fact.

My paternal grandmother had just turned 14 when she was married. When she married, my grandfather was much older than her. Grandmother had just turned 14 and although she needed a signatory to marry, even the marriage license states she was older than was true.

Even in Arkansas, it seems, people were always concerned about a scandal. When I was very young, I knew my dad wasn’t in Alaska, even though he told me this more as a drunken joke than an explanation. He was in prison in Indiana, for what amounted to a minor crime compared to a few things he had done, one of which resulted in someone’s premature demise. The amusing thing is that my Grandmother Terry was petrified of gossip about her and her family.

I’ve written from time to time about it and other family stories. Like so much of the family lore, I learned of the existence of hidden secrets via hushed silences, sideways glances, and anger when direct questions were asked.

As I grew older, I knew that one day research and DNA would ‘out’ much of the stories some family members didn’t to be revealed. Most of those family members have died, leaving a tantalizing list of questions that might never be answered.

But I do know this: much of what made them nervous under scrutiny were legitimately embarrassing stories and behavior. Their refusal to be honest is a much bigger problem than anything they tried to conceal.

Lately, I’ve seen so many stories which skirt the edges of my grandmother’s story. Some of the same people who seem shocked by the revelations in the public realm are the very same who worked so tirelessly to conceal the truth in my family’s foggy past. They “cluck” at others, all the while knowing their own past is littered with much worse.

Isn’t that the way it always seems to be?

The danger some of my departed family seems to not understand is that by failing to divulge some of the family secrets, they have left their legacy in the hands of someone like me.

If I don’t get answers, I’ll make it up, based on what most likely happened. Given the trajectory of what I do know, that gives me license to go in any direction, no matter how dire, without possible complaint from those who constantly shouted, “Hush!” at me.

Family history, it seems, is literally what I choose to make it.

September’s Ancestors



I’m not sure how meaningful my words might be, coming from someone who loathes the idea of burial but loves cemeteries and their connections to history. It’s a cliché to point out they serve as reminders to us, in part because we so seldom feel the urgency they offer. When we do, it is usually because we feel the icy fingers of oblivion as subtle symptoms in our bodies or when it reaches out to visit someone in our private circle.

On rare occasions,  people we’ve never even met get a moment of remembrance, as is the case with this story.

As is frequently the case of late I found myself with a few stolen moments and chose to walk a long serpentine path along Huntsville in Springdale. As I walked along, I looked up and noticed I was approaching a cemetery that I had not visited in probably 20 years and certainly not since the road had been widened. The last time I had been there, almost everything about Huntsville was awaiting transformation into a multicultural artery on that side of town. Normally I would have walked past, my eyes gauging the sights as I moved on. Perhaps in part to the relative chill in the September air and the declining sunlight, I instead turned and opened the latch to enter the shady cemetery grounds. It then it occurred to me that I had just researched someone laid to rest there. So with a little more anticipation, I walked the outside perimeter and without even searching happened upon the graves I had seen in my genealogy searches.

I found Daniel Lemke’s headstone. He was born on the eastern edge of Poland, in a small place named Chelm, almost into Ukraine. He came to the U.S. in 1901 and chose Wisconsin as his first home here. His son Martin Julius was born there and moved to Northwest Arkansas 70 years ago. Daniel died 72 years ago, or 27,317 days ago. His son passed 14 years ago, some 5,455 days ago.

I find it difficult to put myself in the place of someone who would travel so far around the world to land in an unknown place, with new exotic words to learn. It’s fitting that Daniel’s great-grandson would find himself in a similar situation, on another part of the planet, forging an entirely new life for himself. I imagine, though, that these places here in Northwest Arkansas have a pull on his heart. He can always return here and sit by the fire, remembering his life on the other side of the world.

While it’s likely that my path crossed with Martin in the way that almost all proximate lives do, a complex intertwining mesh of ‘almost,’ I don’t have any claim to knowing his presence. But thanks to the prism of time, I can see where his path led and look back through the footprints of those who came after him. Because of him, I learned of a place called Chelm and its part in history. I wonder how much our footprint will be memorable and not simply because of our safe choices.

I think that sometimes history’s bell rings more deeply when the hour grows later and the air turns chill. The grass inside the cemetery grounds was bright green, still waiting for the arrival of frost mornings. There’s something about these times and these moments.

It was a pleasant sensation to be standing in such a contemplative place, thinking back to the lives of people unknown to me. As the busy avenue continued unabated behind me, I alone possessed the refuge of that cemetery, even as it possessed me.



Recognizing The Past In My Mirror

aaa  uncle buck scanned (87)

When some of us were younger, we watched a TV commercial hawking Time-Life books. In the ad, it would say, “John Wesley Hardin, so mean he once shot a man for snoring.” In my context, I want you to renew your memory of that ad and consider it a consummate and fair assessment of what could have easily been said about my mother. In any comparison involving her, the other person would be just a novice in the game of unexpected words of reprimand. If my mom’s words could have been loaded into a pistol, Monroe County would have looked like a Wild West shootout. She didn’t need a concealed carry permit because the proclivity to give verbal lashes negated the want or necessity of a firearm.
A smart man once said that part of getting old consists of recognizing the influence of your parents that drove you bonkers coming to roost in your own mirror. My mom of course would have told that man to “Sit down and shut up with your highfalutin nonsense,” but I think it’s true that some of our legacy is to be startled by the overlap between the essential “me” in the mirror and our parents.
Today would have been my mom’s 70th birthday. As hard as she lived, all of us are still in collective and mutual wonder that she survived as long as she did. I’m not one to revel in these milestone dates. I fight the tendency to succumb to some of her personality proclivities often – and often fail. But I should have channeled her more fully today because one thing she unabashedly did without reflection was to tell a SOB that he was an SOB – even if said SOB was standing on the pulpit for Sunday service. If she was in the mood, she might even throw her beer at him, after using a hurled cigarette to gauge wind trajectory. (Because wasting beer was one of the few Southern sins that everyone joked about – but seemed to be very serious when they repeated it.)
My mom had flaws. Looking back, I now romanticize some of those moments where she witnessed an SOB in action and without warning served him a walloping dose of universal surprised justice. It made for great comedy and/or horrific drama at the time, and it served as a safety valve for the rest of us as we both laughed and recoiled, all the while promising to NEVER do or say the things she did. Bearing witness to her creative use of shocking reprisal allowed us to forego the weakness in our own lives. We might fantasize about it, but giving those loony ideas life would usually be unimaginable. I have an arsenal of stories about her ferocity.
The majesty of the past so often develops more fully as we age because we can forget the intense immediate pain that once joined with memories. It is almost a beckoning call, soothing.
The events of recent weeks have exposed my mortal flaw to want to dish out a heaping pile of burning crow with greater frequency. Usually, I might note ahead or behind her birthday that it is approaching or receding from me for another year. In this year of apparent great tribulation, each day that I laugh and remember my mom’s example, it allows me to walk away without flicking a cigarette, followed by a beer, into the tumultuous melee of unmitigated plates of crow, faces unwillingly smashed into large avian chunks of unwanted deliciousness. If I am not diligent and careful, I will be the old man on the porch with a satchel of small rocks ready to be hurled at uncooperative and misfit kids in my yard.
Were mom alive, she would roll her eyes and say “Use shorter words, you ain’t impressing anyone.” She might cuss at me a bit, but in time, she would laugh and repeat the very things she had previously sworn weren’t true.
PS: I am not sure there is a moral to this story. But it certainly gets supplanted by the admission of my shortcoming.

An Ancestry Reminder


(The picture is of my 3rd great grandfather David Blackshear.)

After doing a few dozen ancestry trees, adding thousands of people to world tree projects, as well as DNA authentication, it is more apparent than ever how intertwined most of us really are. Farmers, royalty, singers, presidents and poets – all of us have them in our past. And no matter what you think you know about your family, it is probably both full of myth and stories infinitely more fascinating than you might imagine. Even at 5,000 years into the past, 200+ generations survived long enough to have a family. Without a doubt, you are related to both the violinist in the orchestra and the child playing the banjo in Deliverance.

11232014 Ancestry Is Serendipitous

Ancestry has taught me some strange lessons – in math, history, genetics and personal stories. It has defined the word “serendipity” for me. I’ve learned so many things that have nothing to do with who my great-grandparents might have been.

An example: 80% of all marriages in history have been between 2nd cousins or closer. This is because of the lack of suitable mates outside the 5-mile zone of a typical person’s reach for most of history. Without war or some similar disaster, people stayed put in their little worlds.

This results in pedigree collapse, a reduction in the number of ancestors due to duplication along bloodlines. 1200 AD is the widest point for our family trees; before that, the number of ancestors above us was drastically smaller to geographical limitations. (Today, you would have 128 5th Great-grandparents, spanning back an average of only around 200 years ago.) Think about it. Without pedigree collapse, going back a few thousand years would result in a # of ancestors greater than the entire world population by many factors.In a given group or ethnicity, it’s a certainty that we all are 15th cousins or less – and probably much less, without knowing it. We are much more connected that you probably realize. You have over a million 8th cousins.

I’ve found a lot of fascinating things along the way, including people’s missing birth fathers, birth certificates, and even ties to royalty. (For what it is worth, you are connected to royalty. It’s a certainty. Wealth contributed greatly to lineage and it also afforded people’s connections to be recorded, unlike most commoners.)

11222014 Finding A Non-Existent Birth Certificate

Of all my accomplishments with research, I am most proud to have been able to locate one of my previous manager’s birth certificates. He had infrequently tried in vain to locate his birth record.

He was born overseas due to his father being in the military. I knew that some sort of record had to exist, even if a series of unfortunate errors had transpired.

After 4 + decades, he still didn’t have his birth certificate and wasn’t certain that one existed. That he made it so many years avoiding the necessity of showing a birth certificate is quite a surprise.  In this modern age, it is nigh on impossible to obtain a passport without one, even when trying to use the alternate route to obtain a passport. The fact that he had been a military brat was both the cause and the reason he could move around in society without a birth certificate.

As is often the case, I had a eureka moment on after making an error researching something else entirely. Like so many errors, it occurred to me that the error was actually a useful way to look at my manager’s problem differently. From there, it was absurdly easy. I learned a lot of things on during this process. Without the initial error, though, the process would have taken much longer.

After locating the record, I was certain that it would be difficult beyond measure to actually order an original birth certificate from overseas. I registered on the United Kingdom website with my crazy name and paid for the document.

Within a couple of weeks, I had a strange, exotic envelope in it with someone else’s birth certificate.

The look of surprise on my manager’s face when I handed him his own birth certificate was priceless.
…and it reminded me yet again that sometimes errors are the only way to look at problems in such as a way as to see them differently enough to solve them.

08222014 Lucid Dreams and Grandma

This is me at one day of age. Grandpa’s chair…

I don’t often have lucid dreams. But it seems that when I do, the fatigue of being dragged back out of the dreamworld lingers in my head, making me foggy. It is an alluring pull to feel as if the world imagined while sleeping might be more authentic than the mundane one I’ve awakened to. The dreams of my youth are coming with less frequency now. I wonder sometimes whether it is because age requires the penalty of forgetfulness from us, or perhaps whether it is the nature of life to lose the taste and feel of the simpler pleasures in life, when an entire universe could be housed in a much smaller space than is required of us as adults. When I was younger, I considered the taste of some candy to be as exquisite as fine cuisine. The wardrobe closet my grandparents had in my grandpa’s bedroom might as well been a secret warehouse, given the exaggerations of my imagination. Even though my grandparents world was relatively small, I never felt small or unappreciated there. Any activity could be made to be interesting. Even looking at pictures of family members I didn’t really know held interest and allure. One picture of a cousin of mine made age seem like an impossible barrier, for her graduation picture was always on the walls, even before I had started school. Grandma would tell me tales of when she was young and in my mind she might as well have been describing “Little House on the Prairie” to me. I had no true accounting of time nor of its insistent race to meet me.

I don’t mean to imply that modern life is not better or that times past hold an authenticity no longer possible. Quite the contrary. Life is much better, and among good people, the chances for a great life are better than ever. I don’t share many people’s pessimism toward our modern society. We have more opportunities for education, food, and healthcare. Nothing can trump the presence or absence of someone who loves you abundantly and dearly. In the past, modern contrivances weren’t so readily available to intervene between you and those you cherished. Stuff is no more of a negative now than it was then.It’s up to us whether we value people and experiences more than we do the things we fill our houses with.

Likewise, I know that my grandma and grandpa had many faults, especially when they were younger. But I wasn’t exposed to most of that. Even the mention of a lesser life was just a story bearing no resemblance to them, as they rarely looked at me with anything less than appreciation, even when I wasn’t being a joy for them. I like to think that my grandparents deserve all the credit for any good that blossomed in my personality and that most of the clouds that still darken my days as an adult were from the “other” of my youth. In fact, I know it to be true, even as this acknowledgement might wound those confined to the grouping of “others” in my childhood. My grandparents weren’t educated, but I learned my first letters and reading with them. I learned how to use a hammer without being screamed at for doing it wrong. (To grandpa, it was impossible to do it wrong. You did it until you figured out how to do it right.) I learned to sew and in the doing distinguished that most responsible people would find it to be a great asset in life. I learned that even though it might be 100 degrees on an August night, I wouldn’t melt. Grumbling was encouraged, especially if it were done in a creative way. But once it was time to stop grouching, it was simply time to deal with the situation and go on about your business.

On a recent night, my wife stirred and got up for an eternal minute. Prior to her stirring, my dreams had been evocative of rain, cotton and tree climbing. My dreams turned vivid after she came back to bed and I slowly slid back into a vivid dream. I woke up around 5 a.m. again, still hearing the false echo of rain beating on the tin roof at my grandparents house. Instead of being in my own bed, I expected to open my eyes and find myself looking out the window facing the porch at my grandma’s house, the window screen inches from my face, looking out at the acres of cotton growing around the house and across the road. Until this lucid dream, I had forgotten that the old “house on the hill” had a second door on the front of the house, one leading from near the porch swing to the back bedroom. How had I forgotten that? Grandma never used that door and it certainly didn’t make her feel comfortable. Thinking back on it, it seems strange that she could sleep next to an open window where anyone could reach inside – but a closed, lock door might cause her more concern.

In the dream, grandma had made me a coke special. To assemble it, she would take ice cubes, fold them into a towel, and then hammer the towel to crush the ice, which she would then put into an old snuff glass and pour coca-cola from a 2-quart bottle. She had also popped popcorn, leaving the kernels in the bowl for me. It always concerned her that I enjoyed trying to break my teeth on the unpopped kernels, a habit I still love to this day. (If was a cold day and the living room wood stove was lit, she let me put the unpopped kernels on it to burn them. There’s nothing like the taste of burned kernels!)

I was sitting on the living room floor to the right of the unlit stove, the window air conditioner to my right, enjoying it blowing cold air across the top of my head. It was a cool day for summertime and the air conditioner was off more than on, a rare thing in those mosquito-dominated fields. Grandma was behind me, sitting in her chair, talking to me about General Hospital. The bowl of popcorn containing enough popped corn to feed 5 children, a cluck of chickens and two monkeys and a glass of coke were in front of me, almost forming a food altar. Grandma gave me an appreciation for the use of food as an expression of love. It was a perfect summer afternoon. My only goal was to consume an inhuman amount of popcorn and swill it down with another equally devastating dose of coke.

A weather warning interrupted the intense drama of General Hospital. A storm was moving across the southern part of Arkansas. Grandma didn’t distinguish between a distant storm 100 miles away and one overhead – they were all equally menacing. A fatal storm had ravaged my hometown in the early 1900s when she was a very young girl and countless storms since then had hammered the apprehension of storms to a fine point. Grandpa was outside sitting on the porch, facing the side of the house and the cotton field just a few feet away, ignoring grandma’s hollering for him to get inside. “Wooly! It’s fixing to start. Get on in here.”

(Grandma tended to pronounce his name “Willie” as if it were “wooly.” I didn’t know any better for many, many years.)

Instead of grandpa coming inside, I went outside on the porch (as grandma was fervently listening and watching the weather bulletin on the television). I walked barefoot – always barefoot! – along the length of the front porch to sit next to him, jumping up to sit. He pulled out his plug of Cannonball tobacco, jokingly offering to cut me off a sliver with his ever-present pocket knife. This time, I accepted. He sliced off a shaving so thin that it could have been an eyelash. I took it off the point of his knife and put it in my mouth. The harsh yet pleasant taste of tobacco flooded my mouth. I knew better than to swallow it, though. After a minute I jumped off the swing and leaned over the edge of the porch and attempted to spit it as far toward the edge of the cotton field as I could. I missed by at least ten feet, of course. Grandpa laughed. The wind had picked up and another weather bulletin could be heard, interrupting Grandma’s episode of General Hospital. After a long interval, grandma hollered once again for us to get back inside. Grandpa just slightly shook his head, having no intention of going inside. Even with the approach of an actual funnel cloud, his usual course of action was to stay outside as long as humanly possible or until he feared that grandma was going to have a stroke shouting at him to get his fool neck in the storm shelter. A couple of yellow jackets lazily buzzed around grandpa’s head and then across his hand, which was wrapped around the chain supported the wooden swing. He didn’t even bother to wave them away. His approach to wasps was the same as everything else at that point in his life: if it were going to bother him, he’d wait and let it decide for itself. When we watched “Kung Fu” together on the black-and-white tv, I could tell he got a kick out of the simple lessons being taught to Grasshopper in the show. I think his approach to wasps would have fit nicely into “Kung Fu.” 

By then, the wind had begun to make the galvanized tin sheets comprising the roof to pop with more force. Losing the roof was a real concern. While it might cause damage, replacing one of those tin roofs was a much simpler and inexpensive task than a modern roof, plus they provided a sound that cannot be matched in our modern society: the sound of rain pattering upon a tin roof. Nothing compares to that sound, not even the call for supper when you are hungry or the feel of the first sip of a coke special, handmade by your grandmother. While I’ve never considered it before, I can’t remember a mention of my maternal grandparents ever owning a house, either. Whether he owned the house or not, grandpa would build a storm shelter into the ground using nothing except hand tools. I remember when they moved to the “house on the hill,” watching him use an ax, shovel and saw to carve a place into the ground and build grandma another storm shelter. It was grueling work.

I know that there are a lot of pictures out in the world from the time when Grandma and Grandpa lived in that shotgun house in Rich. It would be a gift indeed if they were all loose in the world. Each contains a moment and a reminder. Perhaps one day everyone with legacy pictures will allow them to be shared. Perhaps. 

P.S. I know that we have metal roofs in abundance now, but they aren’t comparable to the bygone tin roofs of days past. (But much safer!) A shotgun house with a tin roof had a different set of rules governing its comforting acoustic sound of rain upon it. Unlike modern houses, insulation was rare in such houses. The space between you and sky could instantly be made apparent if the roof were peeled back, as nothing but 2 X 4s, tin and plywood usually kept your head indoors.  Were it raining, there was no need to stick one’s head out of the confines of the house – the metal roof telegraphed perfectly the intensity of every weather change. As a bonus, an average man could learn how to fix a tin roof without too much danger or intelligence, something that is no longer true with our houses.

William “Willie” Arthur Cook and Nellie Leona Phillips sitting at the house.

(Looking at this picture reminds me that time either feels fleeting or eternal. This one was probably taken in the very early 1970s, 40 years ago. Each of us, right now, is living a similar moment, unaware that time is looking at us with a wicked grin as it speeds past us, feeding on our ignorance of how precious our time is.)