Category Archives: Ancestry

Another Nostalgic Surprise

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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.
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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

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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.

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Recognizing The Past In My Mirror

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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.
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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.
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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.)
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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

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(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 ancestry.com 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.)

Monroe, Arkansas Mercantile Store

(Update: the above picture is of my cousin Cheryl and my Aunt Betty. In the background is the Monroe Mercantile store. The house to their left is my grandma’s house in Monroe, the one that once was a cafe in that small farming town.)

Warning: this post might well have started out as a meandering recollection of comments about the old mercantile story but will manage to hit every corner of Monroe County, given my proclivity to jump off the beaten path.

One of my failures as a researcher includes being unable to find pictures and histories of the mercantile store that once dominated the little Monroe County community of Monroe, Arkansas.  I know that I will discover some one future day and it will be a revelation. I cannot think of the old mercantile store in Monroe without thinking and even smelling the old places of Arkansas, hearing the voice of my Grandpa Willie, or forget the sight of a row of cackling older men sitting outside, all whittling on pieces of wood with their pocketknives, drinking Coke from a glass bottle, and spitting. It is impossible for me to imagine that someone doesn’t have a gallery of pictures and memories of this place. I’ve got many memories of it, with remnants of how wondrous it seemed to me as a small child. Much of the nostalgia probably results from the fact that many of my first memories were formed in this era, one dominated my being around my grandparents so much. Even when my grandparents lived in Rich, near the old White Church, “going to the store” meant the Monroe Mercantile rather than Clarendon or Brinkley.

(Sidenote: my first memory of a “real” supermarket was at a Piggly Wiggly. Grandpa told me I could have anything I wanted and I bought a brightly-colored yellow bag of Funyons, which my grandpa thought was very funny. To his surprise, I absolutely loved the taste. He did, too! I can’t see or eat Funyons without thinking of my grandpa.)

The shell of the mercantile building is located in Monroe, along Highway 38/Buckhorn Road. It still sits directly across the road from the Baptist Church building on the corner. A little down the road, going straight on Buckhorn, sits a horrific and ghastly tavern, if it can be called that. My mom worked there a couple of times as a barkeep or attendant. She also lived directly next to it for a time in a converted school bus, as unimaginable as that might be. That bar had been the nexus of many small-town dramas for decades. It’s insistence of still existing is a testament to both the lack of any real alternatives and to residents there clinging to the past with clenched fingers. I used to joke that a picture of the inside of the place would have been an ideal snapshot to indicate “Herpes.” Anyone who visited the place knows what I mean. But, I did have a couple of good visits in there, too, I must admit, but as an adult. Not to drink, but to talk to mom and Nolan and see people that I otherwise would not have visited with. The tavern served a role in the community. It was a place where one could not only have a drink, but compare notes and gossip about the comings and goings of the locals.

The above picture is one of my mom when she worked at the tavern, probably when she was married to her other husband, Buddy, in the 90s.

On the left side of the road near the old tavern are the remains of the Dr. Pardo’s old doctors office, which I have written about in another blog entry.

Monroe, Arkansas was once a bustling community, sitting at blacktop crossroads between Clarendon and Brinkley. The highways laced across it perfectly. When cotton was king in the area, no place better represented central Arkansas small towns better than Monroe. When I got older and looked at a map, I was surprised to find so many alternate roads connecting all the highways. It seemed like when I was young it was a place dropped from the sky, frozen in time. Also a surprise was to realize how inextricably linked all these small communities were, especially considering that the interstate opened to nearby Brinkley the year I was born. I didn’t know how different the two eras (pre- and post-interstate) were until I started learning history and economics.

My Aunt Betty lived much of her adult life around the corner from the church and store, her husband Wink worked at the mercantile store as a butcher. (They later had a dance club in the same mercantile building.) Along these dusty streets were where my cousin Micheal Wayne somehow managed to get me to learn to ride a bicycle, something that proved very difficult to me.

My grandmother Nellie Cook lived slightly west of the store, on the same side of the road as the Baptist church. The story is that the house she lived in was once a small cafe that served great food. I believe the story because the living room still had a square access window going into the kitchen.There are many other family connections to this place and era, much of them faded out of graspable memory. But it is a place of long, misty memories and shadows.

Among my most cherished memories as a young boy were those visits to the store. Everything about it evokes nostalgia and warmth. Even back in 1970, the store was well behind the times. Heck, everything about Monroe was behind the times, a trend that holds true even today. I fondly recall spinning the toy rack of cheap toys, each toy more interesting than the last. I could spend hours looking at the rows of 2-quart Cokes, boxes of candy and displays of nails. (As dumb as it sounds, one of my absolute favorite memories were when my grandpa would buy me a sack of nails. I would take these home and drive them into the porch or railroad steps like a boy possessed by demons. As an adult, I now know that sometimes all the incessant hammering I did probably drove my grandma crazy – but she never said anything cross to me about it.)

I recently drove down the once lively road in front of the old mercantile. The building still stands. It will resist the elements until one day, without much fanfare, it will fall in on itself. This is the fate of many buildings in this area of the state. (If not a metaphor for most of our lives!) No one is going to pay for demolition and removal. (A few hundred feet away once stood an old abandoned schoolhouse. It lingered, empty and derelict, for decades until it caved in. To my surprise, a few years ago it was cleaned out and a small playground was erected in the spot.) The mercantile still stands, awaiting its inevitable fate. One day I will visit and see the outline of where the building once stood. A few years after that, I won’t even be able to recognize exactly where the building once stood. This, too, is a common fate of most places in these small communities.

Eventually, all of us who have fond memories of the small county store will be gone and our descendants won’t recall that there ever was a place where so many people gathered not only to buy groceries but also to share news of each others lives.

I would give anything to have a picture of me and my grandpa at the mercantile, going about our business. I’m slowly forgetting what grandpa looked like, wearing his fedora-style hat and button-up shirts.I don’t really remember the conversations grandpa would have with some of the different older men at the store, but he would stop and “jaw” a while. Sometimes, they would tell stories about drinking or the war. I don’t remember any of them, unfortunately. When my grandpa and grandma were older, it was usually my Aunt Betty who would drive them to the store in Monroe. Being able to go with them was the highlight of my week. Grandma would always let me get a little bit of candy and a cheap toy. As cheap as it was, it was as good as any xmas present I would later get.

When I watch movies such as “Fried Green Tomatoes” or “Somewhere in Time,” I catch myself thinking of the old Monroe Mercantile and what it might be like to go back in time and just observe the people going about their lives. It was a vital place in a now-forgotten community. A lot of life happened there and I would love more than anything to discover that someone has made it immortal via pictures or a written history.

We Are All Unreliable Witnesses (and memories can’t be trusted)

Since I’ve started genealogy, I’ve discovered that almost everything we do, think, say, and recall is riddled with inconsistencies and errors. Not that I didn’t know that before. One look at my idea of fashion proves that point.

An example: I’ve heard the story repeatedly that my maternal grandfather William A. Cook lied about his age to gain entry into the U.S. Army during WWII. Turns out, it’s completely untrue. My favorite cousin sent me a discharge paper from his personal wallet. His original birth date is on the document. He used his original DOB on everything that’s come up so far.

Among other things, I’m waiting to see when and if he and my maternal grandmother Nellie Cook were ever married. Family says that a marriage license had been seen but that grandma had scratched over the dates repeatedly. While I haven’t visited any of the likely 6 county courthouses yet, no one has any source verification, other than “they were married.”
This picture of my grandparents was taken in Rich, when they lived relatively close to White Church and cemetery there.

 Start with NOTHING as a precondition.

One of my earliest blog posts dealt with the errors and inconsistencies of our family stories.

Now, more than ever, I am convinced that much of what we “know” from memory is a large Swiss cheese.(And the more motivated we are to be revisionists, the easier it is to convince ourselves…)

As I learn more about cognitive function and memory, I wonder what percentage of my collective memories might be wrong.

Since having my DNA tested, I can now say that I have NO detectable American Indian bloodline. For some reason, another close family member had still believed that we were at least a small part Indian.Where the stories originated, I’m not sure. As with most issues, the family member kept insisting that “so and so” told him/her that we had Indian ancestry. When I mentioned that I had asked several of the elder generation and told them I was getting DNA-tested for confirmation, all stated that they had no idea where the mistaken idea of Indian ancestry originated. Still, the family member persisted – no amount of facts would sway him/her.

But as it was repeated, it became a truth, probably forever. That’s how family myths get passed down erroneously. 

Perhaps a future genetic marker will contradict the genetic information I’ve discovered, but I doubt it. One of the great values of new technology is that it wipes the slate clean, truth or otherwise, whether we like it or not.