Thursday, March 6, 2008

Some Family History Unearthed

I'm one of those folks who's disconnected from my family history. My parents have not been in the picture now for nearly two decades now, and with them was most of the preserved memory of our forbears, oral as well as in pictures.

My sister has been appealing to the more distant relatives on the family tree regarding my late maternal grandparents, with whom we were the closest growing up. We adored our grandparents! My Grandpa had the ?distinction? of being named Wilbur Wright, which made for a lifetime of late night prank calls by kids looking through phone books on a Saturday night :) My Grandma was Rebecca, or "Becca" to my Grandpa...Aunt Becky to her nieces and nephews.

My Grandpa's parents were B.R. "Bernie" and May Wright, and they survived a lot of upheaval and economic ups and downs and raised a large family. The siblings, during their lifetimes, always remained very close, even though they lived far away from each other's families. We are now the third generation, and have lost much of their history. But their imprint remains indelibly stamped on us in many ways.

I know Bernie Wright, my Grandpa's father, was an innovator. I may be one of the only surviving people with an insight into his private dreams...which happened by accident a long time ago. When my grandparents retired, they took their little cash (they always dealt in cash) and bought a tumbledown house and some land in north Mississippi, which was quite a change from the Chicago they'd called home for twenty or thirty years (they were originally from the South and Midwest).

My Depression-Era grandparents, though having had to move to the big city for survival at different times in their lives, always gravitated during their lifetimes back to land, and at the homeplace in Mississippi, they put in a garden, repaired the house, and built two large cinderblock for storage and one as a carpenter shop where Grandpa set up the heavy woodworking machinery he'd bought over the years from the tool and die company every time they upgraded to something newer. He had enough equipment to fill it with a maze of saws and woodworking tables and gadgets, and drifts of sweet smelling sawdust...mmmm :)

Retirement didn't mean stopping work, but rather it meant working doing what they liked best. I could write and write about them, but suffice it to say, for now, that they were happiest right tight, gardening, being together, and being great neighbors...and the very best of grandparents.

Back to Grandpa's dad, B.R. Wright...when my grandparents began cleaning out a lot of their storage items in later years, there was this really cool old trunk...the sort that looks like a treasure chest...that I found and which they let me rifle through. Inside it was hundreds of cardboard cutouts...cut into shapes of all sorts and labeled precisely. It was a collection of homemade templates for making not only furniture, but wonderfully creative things, like wooden children's toys...rockers in the shapes of swans and rabbits, toys with flourishes and swirls, odd things and beautiful things and practical things and impractical things.

And somewhere in the midst of it all, were some small note pads and a little black book. I was given those, and I quickly made off for my favorite private spot on their property...a bare, cool place under the arched branches of a hawthorne bush. I opened the books.

Two of them were tallies of expenses, down to the very nails and such. It was essentially a handheld accounting of...something. Every penny was accounted for with precision and deliberation. The black, smallish notebook was full of other things, though...a cutout picture of a WW1 army building surplus being sold as housing...and page after page of layouts of how these could be used for housing for the homeless or for orphans...who fared quite differently in those days...and other pages with original poems and songs, drawings of ideas for toys that could be built for his children or furniture and shelves (with bric a brac) he could make for his wife. It was in a sense a very personal glimpse into his aspirations and his personality...and heart.

I remember sitting on the back porch and telling my Grandpa I'd love to see us make some of the things we'd found in that trunk, and Grandpa became very sentimental. Perhaps some of those things had been built over the years, but I have an idea most weren't. Grandpa told me of his father's ideas, and that he had been an ideas person and had put a lot of elbow grease to the practicals of taking care of his large family. I wish I had had days to listen to Grandpa tell me more...and that in my youth I'd known to soak up every detail or at least write them down. I do know at one time, GGrandpa Bernie raised carrier pigeons. My Grandpa got very, very quiet and a bit choked up every time he talked for very long about his father. His father was a man with his thumb in numerous projects, an inquisitive and intelligent mind, and clearly his children adored him.

Families of that era sometimes keep family secrets. Some secrets are better being kept secret. It was not until years later, years after my grandparents and all but 2 of their many siblings had passed away, that I was told in hushed tones that Grandpa's dad, B.R., had lived with he and my Grandma out on the farm as a very old man. All our family took care of our older relatives in their own homes in those days. It was soberly and quietly related to me, respectfully, as I was asking about any memory from that time that they could remember.

It seems that what I was never told as a child (and rightly so) was that a tragedy that rocked my family happened when Grandpa's dad, who was living with them out in the country..WAY that point, began having chest pains and needed to be driven to the doctor. It was night, there was thick fog, and my Grandpa decided to carry his dad to the nearest place to be treated...which was miles and miles away through farmland. Back then roads weren't what they are today, and neither were cars. But cows were. As my sweet Grandpa was trying to get his father to help in time, and driving fast through those back roads, there in a bend in the road, fog and all, was the unexpected cow. The vehicle hit the cow and the impact killed Grandpa's father on impact...or caused them trauma that GreatGrandpa didn't survive.

It's a very close and special family that never brings this up except years and years after someone's passing. They'd never have done anything to hurt each other's feelings, even with the regular spats that siblings have throughout their lifetimes. It makes me feel even more tenderly toward my Grandpa, and I'm glad I never knew till after he was gone...he'd have hated knowing that we even knew.

I really miss my grandparents...regularly. I defer to the wisdom of their simplicity, intelligence, and wit more and more the older I get. Their common sense was of necessity, and their Great Depression survival taught me much. Plus, I've just always loved people who are older than I am, their histories, and their stories. Give me a couple of years, and I, too, may be doublechecking the cash register printout for accuracy right there in line and counting my pennies out of a little changepurse at the checkout stand at Piggly Wiggly, as a long line of customers waits behind me... ;-)

Anyway, when my sister emailed me today and included an attachment she'd received from a distant relative on that side of the family, I was ecstatic! Among the pictures sent was a picture of GreatGrandpa B.R. Wright, who in his lifetime was many things, among which were farmer, merchant, and carpenter. Here he is shown in front of a store I never knew he owned...and the little boy on the far right was my Grandpa as a young boy, still in knickers. That'll tell you how old the pic is...

Here it is, in honor of Bernie and May, and their dreams...and determination and survival and emphasis on family and God. They were made of durable stuff in a world that is entirely different than today's. I pray we're made of the same stuff, deep down, to leave a similar legacy.

My Grandma, Rebecca, in her younger days, with other family members. She's on the left of the row of women.

My Grandpa (left) and one of his brothers, Donald. My Grandpa was not short, so that'll give you an idea what a tall drink of water Uncle Donald was!

May and B.R., my Grandpa's parents, and his brother Donald in the middle.

1 comment:

Granny Sue said...

Interesting post and blog.
I wish you luck in your search for land. Wish you were here in West Virginia-I happen to be selling about 26 acres. But it's a bit colder than you might be used to.