Category Archives: Ancestry

09282013 My Mother Never Had a Birth Certificate

My mother never had a birth certificate. In this age, it sounds impossible, doesn’t it?

She was born in September 1946, in Widener, Arkansas. Although I’m not sure which crops were being picked or harvested, I’m certain that my grandparents were there working the fields of Eastern Arkansas in some capacity. My Aunt Marylou was somewhere around 15 at the time and she still remembers it. (Coincidentally, Marylou had to request a delayed birth certificate many decades after her birth, as she didn’t have one, either.) The family was very poor so anything other than an at-home birth would have been almost impossible for my mom.

Mom is probably one of the last people who will ever be able to get through life in the U.S. without a birth certificate. The rules are so strict now and modern living so complicated that the government has no interest in allowing people to go without distinctive identification. Somehow, mom skated through collecting social security and other bureaucratic complications.

A few years ago, I helped mom do the paperwork for a delayed birth certificate. She got too frustrated, though, and gave up without trying very hard. Part of the reason in her mind was probably that she wasn’t going to live long enough to need it, anyway. She had just started a new job as a janitor at Brinkley public schools and retirement was just a fantasy to her at that point.

I hate to think that mom worked the last 5 or 6 years at such a physical job. She didn’t have to, of course. It would have been comforting to know that she had even a year after working until retirement to enjoy her life, even if it were limited to reading and visiting people. Many of her choices limited her options and that somehow doesn’t mitigate my wish much.

This is a picture of my mom, her brother Harold, my grandma Nellie and my grandpa Cook, in December,1956.

A Rusty Nail Is All I Need

As strange as it sounds, one of my most prized possessions is most of a rusty nail. Seriously.

Years ago, before it was torn down, I visited the last house my maternal grandparents lived in together. I went on the property at great risk, as it looked like it had been abandoned and infiltrated by wasps, weeds, and rain through the old metal roof and tar paper siding. Before moving to this house, they lived to the south, still off highway 39, on the opposite side, near White Cemetery. They had an outhouse at the previous house.

I have an incredible number of memories about that old “house on the hill” as I call it. It was in Rich, Arkansas; not much of a place, really, even its heyday if it ever truly had one.  It was on Highway 39, on the west side of the road. Cook Road was slightly to the south of the old house. Most of the time cotton seemed to be the crop surrounding it in every direction.

I remember when grandma and grandpa moved in. One of the first things done was to hang a porch swing on the south end of the full-length wooden slat board porch. In that day, one didn’t use complicated screw hooks – a long nail would be hammered in and bent around to hold the chain linked through it. This isn’t the safest of ways to do it, not by today’s standards. Yet I can’t remember seeing one fall when I was young. (The second thing done was to build Grandma Nellie a storm shelter. She was deathly afraid of any weather, having survived the stories of the tornado in 1909 that leveled the town of Brinkley.)

Either Uncle Raymond or Uncle Harold picked me up and held me up high toward the roof of the porch. I held the nail more or less straight while grandpa hammered it in. Once we nailed the two nails, we hung the swing and sat in it, enjoying the simple fun and relaxation of it. I spent a lot of hours on that swing with grandpa. On some level, it is partially to blame for my extreme views on simplicity and comfort. Adding 44 uses and extras to things mostly ruins them.

To this day, when it rains sometimes I can smell the dirt and cotton blowing across the porch toward grandpa and me, sitting on the porch. If weather was coming, we’d usually be listening to grandma cajole grandpa into coming into the house or getting to the storm shelter.

The only thing I was really interested in salvaging that day in the 90s was the swing nail closest to the house, the one I remember “helping” put in. Honestly, I can’t say with 100% certainty that it’s the same nail, although I believe that it is. I’m humbled to think that the first swing installed at that house was balanced there almost 1/2 a century ago. I managed to extract some of the long bent nail from the upper wooden beam above the porch. Everything was caving in as I struggled to use it for footing.

Sidenote: one branch of the Pledger family was the last to live in the house. Their stuff, including pictures, were scattered all around inside. I learned later in life that my grandpa Willie supposedly had an illegitimate child with one of the Pledgers. At the time, he was working for the original Pledger patriarch at a sawmill in Clarendon. My mom didn’t know anything about her half-sister until after the half-sister died. The story is that she and mom looked a lot alike. Although I have delved fairly extensively into the Pledgers, I have avoided any direct linking to their trees or stories.

 

 

This picture is of the old house on the hill. (The aforementioned porch swing is on the left in the background.) Grandpa Willie is seated center. They are sitting on the porch steps, a series of piled railroad logs. I nailed at least 1,000 nails into those logs. These logs were one of the many reasons that I still love the smell of creosote of all kinds.

12292013 Grandma and Her Snuff

Back in the day, it wasn’t an odd thing necessarily for women to dip snuff. “Snuff” is most often thought of as the type of tobacco that you might see pro baseball players or bull riders pinch out and put between their teeth and gums, letting the flavor seep and then spit. But the kind most of us might imagine is not the kind that my grandma enjoyed. Using snuff isn’t often portrayed in television or movies, even though it was extremely common in many areas, even among the affluent of society.

The snuff that my grandma Nellie loved was the other kind, the dried, powdery type. It very much resembled cinnamon, and was the result of dried and very finely ground tobacco. Instead of sniffing it or inhaling it through her nostrils, she would put a pinch in her mouth and let is seep. She would then spit into a cup and wipe the corner of her mouth. Keep in mind that by the time I was born in 1967, grandma would have been 58 years old and didn’t have most of her original teeth. I no longer remember whether she ever sniffed it through her nose. I don’t have any memory of it.

For an interesting history lesson, you should google snuff or read a little about it on wikipedia:
Snuff Wikipedia  It is a reminder of how strange and bizarre some of our customs really are.

I admit to loving the smell of snuff. Grandma’s most-purchased brand was W E Garrett.  The taste could be very bitter. I’m not certain how much nicotine was in it, but I’m sure it was very potent.

It was made packed in small metal canisters, or in a larger drinking glass size. The drinking glass size is worth mentioning because that is exactly what many people used them for – glasses. The top of the glass was an embossed metal lid, sealed onto the glass under the paper label. Using glasses like these was pure marketing genius.

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Above it a decent picture of what these glasses looked like.

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The small metal canisters were 2-3 inches tall and an inch or two wide. As you might imagine, these little cans were used to store coins, buttons, bugs, just about anything an adult or imaginative kid could imagine. I would often open one and just sit and smell the acrid tobacco after grandma emptied it.

Growing up, grandma always had a damp rag by her, mostly to wipe at her lips from dipping snuff.

If you look closely at the picture below, you can see that grandma has a little spittoon on her foot rest.
(She looks grouchy because she didn’t have her glasses on and she often didn’t enjoy getting her picture taken.)

04032014 X Ancestry.com Revised Ethnicity Estimate

Ancestry.com continues to revise its dna methods. I know that I should participate in other sites DNA sequencing too, but so far I haven’t done so. No extremely close relatives have popped up on their system yet, although a 3rd cousin has emerged, albeit without a corresponding family tree attached.

Although I haven’t been able to pin it down, I very much suspect that a couple of my great-grandparents might not be related to me at all genetically. At each generational level, I’ve found significant personal turmoil that usually indicates that genetics might not equal a family tree relationship. It’s not that I’m pointing fingers – they lived their lives as they had to or wanted to. I don’t like the temptation to gloss over people’s tendencies to marry more than once, have children out of wedlock, move away from one’s children and so forth. It was common in previous generations and it is still affecting our family trees today.

I’ve written before that the best way to start ancestry is to assume that perhaps most or all of what you think you know might be mistaken. It makes it easier to swallow when you have royally messed up in several ways. We are inextricably tied to our genetic markets. (A story this week involved a white supremacist attempting to establish an all-white town, only to be confronted with DNA evidence that he is significantly “black” genetically. I love this kind of story, not only because the gentleman in question got his comeuppance but also because science and genetics intervened. )

The picture above: my mom is on the right end, holding my cousin Cheryl.

The picture above: my mom is on the right end, holding my cousin Cheryl.

The picture above: my maternal grandfather on the left, my cousin Cheryl in the middle, and my great-grandmother on the right. In the back are my Uncle Melvin and cousin Barry.
The above picture: my grandmother Nellie on the far left, with her siblings.
nellie aunt betty and unknown girl

The above picture: my grandmother Nellie on the far left, my aunt Betty to her right.

(Many thanks to my cousin Cheryl who gave me many more pictures to cherish and share with family and the world.)

The above picture is Bobby Dean Terry

The above picture is Harold and Wayne Cook.

The above picture is Carolyn Terry.

 The above picture is Raymond Cook

Ancestry DNA Test

(Written in 2012)

Ancestry.com recently entered the DNA/ethnicity business. For $100, you can have a DNA sample analyzed to determine your ethnicity and possibly find others out there who might be related.

Keep in mind too that ethnicity doesn’t mean what most people generalize it to mean, especially when geographical isolators are used to help you identify your origins.

I was very interested in the getting the results. While it wasn’t exactly what I had expected in terms of information, the process taught me several inter-related things. The results will expand as more and more people participate in this particular system with ancestry.com.

Unlike many, I didn’t worry at all about the privacy aspect. What most people don’t realize is that your DNA is EASY to collect – and anyone can get a sample of your DNA if they wish – and have it tested. This includes your mom, ex-girlfriend, boss, or worst enemy. It’s just a reality now.

Ancestry also allows you to connect with genetic relatives, if you wish. This part is quite interesting, too. It requires some effort to understand. I’m so used to generalizing, like most of the rest of the world, that I have to train myself to stop being sloppy when I’m thinking about genetics and how it works.

There are several other services out there now which offer similar services. 23andMe and Family Tree DNA are two of the most reputable. I’m going to use one of those in the near future, too.

Burial and Pallbearers For Mom

 (From September 2013)

One unusual aspect of my mom’s funeral was that the funeral home my sister used defined the utility of the word “pallbearer” literally. As the brief graveside service ended, the funeral director called upon the pallbearers to lift the casket with straps and put my mom and her casket into the dug grave. Many people were shocked or surprised by this. It caught me off guard, even though I had seen the grave the night before and as the service started: there was no platform or lifter, which seems to be almost a requirement by today’s standard.

My sister chose the funeral home that mom had found that would allow her to be buried at a greatly reduced price. It was tremendously less expensive. Up until very recently, I had thought that mom was still going to be cremated. Part of mom’s growing reluctance for cremation was a result of one of my aunts talking to her about her particular beliefs about burial and cremation. To be honest, I wanted mom to be cremated – and not only because I hate the entire concept of burial as we do it today. I kept telling my sister that since she was the one who stepped up to care for mom as she was dying of cancer, it would ultimately be her decision. I’ve written before about how appreciative I am of my sister’s recent efforts:

Before I forget, too: mom was late for her own visitation. The hearse and her body had went to the wrong place. Another admission: my wife and passed the hearse on the roadside on the way to the Lutheran church. My wife conjectured that it probably was mom in that hearse on the roadside. I stupidly said, “There are 100s of hearses in Monroe County.” This is the point where I eat a plate of crow for being absolutely, totally wrong. (It had in fact been mom’s hearse…)

Not to pour salt on anyone’s feelings, but mom had told me repeatedly that she didn’t want a viewing. She got one, though. I do not know how to say it with decorum or in good taste as there is a strong taboo against saying it – but mom looked terrible in the open casket. I’ll spare you the details and you should use your imagination. But even as I saw her hair above the rim of the coffin, I knew that it was going to be bad. I don’t blame the funeral service or my sister. Mom’s appearance in many ways was a slap-to-the-face reminder about how literal death is and how viewings can be. With a closed casket, maybe we could have been “spared” the shock of it. But why should we want to be spared? Cancer is a destroyer. Mom died a hard death and making a herculean effort to “restore” her is almost blasphemy to me. For those in attendance with beliefs in the afterlife, it should not matter, for if the body is truly just a vessel, it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether ANY restoration was done. I know I sound like an old stooge, going on about the artificial facade of most funerals. Whatever helps the family. But I can only react and comment as myself. I wish mom had been cremated and if not, that she had been buried without being exposed again to the world. But at least those parts were more honest than many I’ve witnessed. As tough-minded as I am, I think I might be haunted for a while, thinking of how startling mom’s appearance was.

5 of my sister’s 6 boys and my nephew Quinlan lowered my mom into the grave. The oldest boy had to step aside, as he almost slipped in. I tried to get over to the grave before they went sideways with the coffin but by then one of the boys had stepped hard on the edge and righted it as they lowered it into the ground. I forgot to mention that mom’s coffin didn’t have a liner or vault. Many people think that these are required for burials in Arkansas. They aren’t – nor should they be. Mom’s coffin went directly into the ground. It didn’t have a special seal or gasket, either.

I told them all that I was glad they got to participate directly with the burial. I explained to them that while I don’t believe in burial, I truly believe that burial should have nothing extra involved. It should be just the wrapped body going into the ground – and not because of the needless money involved, but rather to acknowledge that death is real, personal and meaningful in its own right. Much of our processions seem to distance us from our connection to death and the ground. Maybe the pallbearers thought I was crazy for thinking it was all a good thing – but I do – and it was.

Among other things affecting my mom’s passing was the incredible delta heat. It was 100 degrees on the day she was buried. Despite being well into September, both the heat and humidity were at record levels. Everything was baked and even the cologne and perfume applied earlier in the morning had burned into a different, strong smell from the sun.

The church service was very hot, too.  The country church didn’t have the cooling capacity for so many people, especially during record heat outside. Mom’s inside service ended around noon, just about the time the sun started to angrily beat down everything in its way.As in further punishment, my wife had to step into another room and leave me alone for most of the service, as the heat was about to kill her. Before I forget to mention it, I had a mild case of heat exhaustion the day before, on Sunday. I don’t know how close I came to serious injury but I knew afterwards that it had been a close call. I felt horrible for my wife, as I knew she was going to feel guilty for not being there with me.

Sundown the night before, my wife and I had driven the circuit out to and including Upper Cemetery in Rich, Monroe County, Arkansas. The heat was declining, but still over 90. As we drove through the cemetery to the swamp’s edge, the bugs were hitting the car with surprising force. Even as we parked and stopped, the bugs continued to hit the windows, top and doors hard enough to thud. I compare it to walking through a sheet of falling skittles. I jumped out of the car, dozens of bugs, flies, mosquitoes and dragon flies hitting me. I went over to lift the plywood off of the grave recently dug for my mom’s coffin. I wanted to linger and stare at the headstones, but the insects were starting to use me as a landing pad, even though I had only been out of the car for a few moments. I’ve always loved cemeteries and at sunset, they evolve into something magical. At Upper Cemetery at sundown, the ebbing sun hits the swamps and trees in a startling pattern. It is at that moment that I can sometimes feel the line of ancestors behind me, signalling to inhale deeply the richness of the swamp.

Nothing Great Without Something Bad

When I attended Southwest Junior High, the one smart thing I did was to enroll in band. It contributed as much to my preservation as anything else might have. Band opened doors for me, allowed me to participate in something without being athletic and gave me an opportunity to look, learn and listen to some great people. Like nothing had before, I could socialize and watch the workings of normal people. Don’t get me wrong, I had plenty of normal people around me – just not ones I could interact with socially. Band allowed me to listen closely to others and see that my situation in life wasn’t normal by any definition.

The point of this post isn’t so much about how important band turned out to be for me but to demonstrate how life always seem to come in give-and-take doses for me.

One year, the band director Mr. Morris managed to get me a scholarship to band camp. Whether he paid for it out of pocket or someone else donated the money, I can’t be certain.  What I do know is that there is no way I would have ever been able to go were it not for his involvement. It would have never occurred to me to even ask mom and dad for the money. The band camp was held at the U of A campus in Fayetteville.

It was one of the best weeks ever in my life, even including being trapped along on an elevator for a couple of hours.

When I came back home from band camp, instead of going to my house, I went over to my paternal Uncle Buck’s house. I was still on a mental high from everything I’d seen and experienced during my time away at band camp. It seemed like life might be worth experiencing and that people didn’t all think I was weird.

Mom and Aunt Ardith were of course drinking even when they drove over to pick me up. I could smell the beer just getting into the car. They continued doing more of the same when we got back to my aunt’s house. I went back to Jimmy’s bedroom on the other side of the house to play around on Jimmy’s console computer and watch television.

I don’t know how much time passed but horrific screaming interrupted my thoughts. It was my mom, screaming my name at the top of her lungs. It sounded like someone was pulling her tonsils out with a fork. Jumping up, I flung open the bedroom door and ran down the hallway.

Aunt Ardith was straddling mom with her knees by her ribs, using handfuls of mom’s hair to yank mom’s head up and down, hitting it against the RCA console tv. Mom’s head was making a ‘clunk’ sound each time Aunt Ardith threw her head down. Mom was screaming at me to get Aunt Ardith off of her. Aunt Ardith looked at me with murder in her eyes as I told her to let mom get up. Instead of letting go, she asked mom if she was going to shut her f%$%^ing mouth if she did. Mom cursed at her. Aunt Ardith gave mom’s head one final clunk and then got off her.

Mom took several seconds to get shakily to her feet and then attempted to hit Aunt Ardith. Aunt Ardith pushed mom’s fist away and slapped mom so hard her head swiveled and she had to sit down on the floor again, still crying and cursing. My aunt lectured my mom about her need to make everyone mad and start fights.

(Sidenote: I would have never hit Aunt Ardith. Yes, she could be angry at times. But she didn’t hit me in violence or scream at me needlessly. I never saw her hit mom unless mom hit her first or so vilely screamed at her that she was pushed into it. Aunt Ardith was my gateway to normal experiences that most people take for granted.)

Without a word, I turned and went back to Jimmy’s bedroom. In less than 2 minutes, mom stormed into the bedroom, cursing me for letting her get beat up. She screamed at me to go get in the car. Mom was so drunk that she kept hitting the doorjambs as she walked. How we made it home I’m not certain.

Incidents like this one made me doubt the truth of any good moments in my life. It seemed back then that it was impossible to enjoy life without getting a punch in the gut in return. 

01072014 Dr. Valentine Pardo, Early Memories of a Memorable Person

I recently came back to this fascinating person, after someone online pointed me to an online community which was riddled with misremembered history about Dr. Pardo. I’ve become accustomed to people’s vague memories, as it is something I struggle with myself. It has taught me to be skeptical of much of what I think I know to be true. I’m sure that even I have details wrong but I’m on guard against believing that history has obscured some things from total clarification.

Dr. Pardo’s office, at least where I remembered it, was past the Monroe Baptist Church, in Monroe, Arkansas, on the opposite side of the road from the tavern. He supposedly traveled around at least 3 counties.

Dr. Valentine Pardo (he was listed as “Valentin” on travel manifests) studied to be a dentist and a doctor. He was born in Placetas, Cuba, in 1902 or 1903. Having both skills was invaluable for such a small community. He had left Cuba when he was 18 and arrived in the U.S. on the 23rd of June, 1920 to live in New York and get his dentistry degree. After about a year, he decided to become a medical doctor and went to Kansas City to earn his medical degree. When he got it, he came to Arkansas to practice. When the U.S. government hired him as one of a group of doctors to go to East Arkansas, it was to help fight disease on that side of the state.

The story is that he would make house calls and would drive by jeep or mule. Many times, he accepted payment in any way a person could afford to make it. One of the stories I do remember is that he never turned anyone away for not being able to pay him. He delivered around 5,000 babies, as well as doing dentistry, too.

When I grew up, I was pleasantly shocked to find out that he was Cuban. This, too, was quite a revelation and explained how foreign and surreal his voice sounded to me as a child. To be Cuban and end up in Monroe County seemed like the most unlikely thing in the world to me.My grandma visited Dr. Pardo quite often to get her “pills.” I didn’t get to hear him speak very often, but when I did, his voice sounded exotic to me.

I remember listening to one of my aunts and grandma talking about him, telling stories of him traveling late at night, in storms, or just about any distance to help someone.

I know that he lived until around 1996. One of my biggest “misses” as an adult was not looking him up to talk to him about his life. I’ve always thought that his life would have made an ideal book or maybe even a movie.

One of the biggest myths about him was that he wasn’t licensed to work in the state. It isn’t true. Anyone so inclined can visit the state’s archives and find his medical license and information. Maybe the myth is more interesting. I’m not sure. The misconception lessens his effort to realize his American dream and put down roots in eastern Arkansas.

 

Grandmother Terry Was (Barely) 14 When She Married

My paternal grandmother: Harriet Charline Mull, born on  23 Oct 1917.
My paternal grandfather:  James Arthur Terry, born on 07 Jun 1908.
They were married on 26 October 1931, plus or minus a day.
My grandmother would have been 14 years and 4 days old.
My grandfather would have been 23 years, 4 months and 20 days old.
If you enlarge the picture of their marriage license, below, you will note that it erroneously indicates that she was 15 years old at the time, for whatever reason.  She wasn’t. She had just turned 14.  There is also a signed affidavit above the license, indicating that grandmother’s parents gave consent for the marriage, although their signature isn’t on the document.

 

We can further pinpoint her age, even if oral accounts differ. The 1920 census page for my grandmother’s family is above. The census sheet is dated 06 February 1920. This means that she was 2 years, 3 months and 15 days old on the day the census sheet was completed. If you look closely, the census sheet has her at around 2 6/12, which is close.
Her social security index and tombstone also all agree with these dates.
The purpose of this post isn’t to attempt to draw attention to her marrying “too young” or anything of that sort. It’s to document that people should stop and look deeply into their family trees to see how their ancestors lived and not only ask about the superficial details.
All of the interesting stuff lies much deeper than the superficial details found in the average family tree.
Why did grandmother marry so young?
Why was grandfather so much older?
Was a pregnancy involved or some other factor?

I’m assuming that my grandfather well knew that she had just turned 14 instead of the 15 indicated on the signed affidavit. Maybe another family member knows and would perhaps share the ‘story’ of this with me. But probably not. I have a lot of dates, facts, and sources for her life but not too many stories which enrich the story of her life. Her memory is fading as people inevitably take their own places in the inescapable hall of memories. It doesn’t have to be that way, but most people aren’t forthcoming with their own genealogy efforts or with their stories.