Thursday, September 11, 2014

Our Life in Letters

About two weeks ago I was looking through paint samples at Lowe's. We've been in this house for seven and a half years and for seven and a half of those years, I've wanted to change the paint color in the library from pool-hall parlor red to something else. Something that wouldn't require I wear a lighted miner's helmet just to see the books on the shelves. 

But before I paint, I have to empty those bookshelves. Eight shelves, seven of which are close to seven feet tall, are filled with books. Three of the shelves are topped with twenty-two full photo albums and two have five photo boxes full of photos to be sorted. Then there are letters and cards...

I'm an orderly person but over the years have found stray photos or duplicates left by the kids as they moved away. I can't throw them away and so into a box they go until I've the time to figure out which decade and to which volume of these albums they belong.

Dad didn't leave  much when he died, but Mama kept everything and so now I have duplicates from the kids' collections, duplicates from Mom's photos and letters to sift through. I'm definitely going to need more albums.

Our joys and successes are documented in these albums: birthdays, track meets, moving vans and graduations. Cards and letters complete the story, yet we don't tend to keep every letter or birthday card and so the ones we do are rather special. I thought I'd share a couple today: a card from my mother (which still makes me smile) and a letter to Mom from her grandparents dated December 19, 1941. I'll translate the letter first.

"Orrick Mo. Dec 19 (19)41. Bertha being you are the first grand child that ever wrote me a letter I send you a Christmas present Grandpa." 

That first part was in my great-grandfather, Thurman Dudgeon's hand. The second part was added by Grandma Dudgeon:

"He thinks this will help you in on your suit. You wait till next Xmas to get presents except Dennis, Cecil Edwin, (unreadable) Sallie are going shopping today. We would like to hear from you and let Wilbur know if you want him to mail you at Floyd. Grand Pa is hurry me to mail this lots of love tell Mickie to be nice it almost Christmas I am trying it myself. Grand Ma."

I never thought to date cards but I'm guessing Mom sent this one just before the 2004 presidential election:

"I've been cleaning out the clothes closet and sock and underwear drawers. I have enough to last for years.

The microwave died last week, Gary took it away for me.

Our summer weather is really beautiful but I like cool weather. It's hard to get interested in food on hot days but it's the nights that are bad as I can't sleep. I'll be glad when the election is over. Too bad we can't get rid of George.

Don't forget I need Shannon's address. When you sneeze, do you pee? I could never go without underwear, but you are truly a Free Spirit and I love you dearly. Give my little girls my love. Mom"  

I imagine that seeing her grandparents' handwriting was bittersweet and so she kept the letters. There were times I didn't want another lecture and so I threw those cards away immediately after reading them. I wish I'd kept them because I still need her advice; I still need her to remind me to wear socks and to get a flu shot and to wear underwear because at 60, sometimes I pee when I sneeze.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Dear Johny

Millie Tucker Pigg and
John Madison Pigg abt 1920
In the months before she died, my mother started documenting old stories on any scrap of paper available. Going through her things, I found notes scrawled on the back of electric bills, notes on tablets and detailed notes on the back of cards and photographs. Boxes of photographs. Those that had belonged to my grandmother were separated in a yellow manila envelope along with embroidered handkerchiefs, dried flowers and a love letter written to my second great grandfather John Madison Pigg by Miss Lucy Davis of Missouri City, Clay County, Missouri. The year was 1864 and John had opted to join the Pony Express in Idaho rather than fighting his friends and relatives in the war between the states. He was eighteen.

September the 15th 1864
Clay County, Missouri
Mr. John Pigg

Dear Johny,

I received your kind epistle this day three weeks ago and would have responded before this but have had so much trouble that I could not have written to no one.  We have lost our dear Mother, she died on Monday three weeks ago. She was confined to her bed five months and she did not recover. It was one of the hardest trials that I ever had or ever can have to part with dear mother. Oh it was so hard to say farewell to that sweet form and to put her beneath the sod where I couldn't look at her fond face any more. I have one consolation to know that she has gone to that bright clime where there is no more sickness and know it was God’s will to take her from us. And I try to think He Do’th all things well.

Louis Vandiver is in St. Louis in prison; they removed him from St. Joe before his ma could get there to see him. Sallie is at Mrs. Vandiver’s now. She bears her troubles better than anybody could think. I don’t think Louis will ever get released. They have made the charges he writes that they are very hard and very false. Sallie gets a letter from him every week. He wears a ball and chain all of the time and never gets no exercise only when they scour the prison floor. He has the worst fare and don’t get that but once or twice a day. Sallie was going down to see him but he wrote to her not to come. They would not allow her to see him.

Your relatives are all well as far as I know except Mr. Beabout he has been quite sick he is some better now. Cousin Mary received a letter from Cousin Jim Adams last week he has been wounded three times he is in the hospital now he is not able to be on duty. Dick Vandiver is well he is still with Shelby. The bushwhackers are about to take this country. They robbed the mail yesterday between Missouri City and Liberty. They have a little skirmish every once in a while. They had a fight out by Fredericksburg there were several Feds killed and some brushboys wounded. Oh how I wish that the war was over and people could come home but I reckon that can never be.

George is still in Kentucky. He is doing very well. I wish that time was so that he could come home we miss him more now than ever. Well I recon you would like to hear from your sweethearts, Mattie George is well and falls in love with every boy she sees she received a letter from you about the time I did. I don’t think she likes it much about you writing to other girls. Miss Molly Drake comes up to see Ben Wright often. I saw Miss Alice Griffith about two months ago. I think she is one of the sweetest girls I ever saw. She told me she had a sweetheart in Idaho. I suppose it was you. If you ever have the good luck to meet Ben Lingenfelter give him my best respects and tell him I would like to see him in old Clay once more. You said that you did not think that you would come home for two years. I hope you will change your notion. I think that will be a long time to stay away from home and your friends. I hope to see you back long before that time has elapsed as it is getting late I will close.

Wishing all the pleasure that can befall a human lot. May the Angels of Heaven watch over you roam.

Lucy Davis

Note: Don’t fall in love with some of those girls and forget the girls you left in Clay. Answer this immediately. Write often and I will do the same…Lucy.

John Madison Pigg and family abt 1912

Thursday, September 4, 2014


I killed a snake yesterday. Its long, black diamond-stamped body coiled in ropes on the deck railing I was staining. The dogs alerted me to its presence by saying nothing -- noses pointed they stood like stone carvings at watch. I set my paint brush across the can, motioned the dogs into the house and retrieved a long-handled linoleum scraper from the lean-to.

The snake watched from the deck, its belly rippling a mouse-sized bulge to the center of the coil. A great white mouth opened with malice as it adjusted the shifting mouse weight. That's probably why it didn't move when I returned with the linoleum scraper, I reasoned.

Snakes don't die easily. Although it was the right thing to do, killing anything is unnerving and like the dogs I circled the ghost on the railing long after the carcass had been tossed into the woods for scavengers.

Courtney video called and the sight of Tucker's two-year old smile as he shuffled in and out of view a thousand miles away cleared the air. "What does the cow say?" "Moo moo," he squealed as he placed another animal magnet on the refrigerator. "I killed a snake today." "I know mom...that was really brave" she replied. I don't know if it was a good snake or not. Good snakes are supposed to have cow eyes although I didn't get that close and it was scaring the dogs and it had eaten something that was still in its belly which made me think of the cats and whether or not snakes in Arkansas eat cats but the cats are safe in the house so...

I'm not sure if I actually had that conversation aloud. Maybe I did. Maybe I waited so as not to upset my daughter and grandson. Walt said that I was protecting my children. He said most people would have run. He said I put the dogs and cats inside, killed the snake then called for help before shock set in. I fell asleep last night wondering if it had cow eyes.

My mother-in-law told me once that the best way to vanquish ghosts was to tell their story and move on. And I have the rest of the deck to stain.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Forgive; I am not my ancestors.

NPR has been writing this week about the Race Card Project, an effort started by Michele Norris to understand the American public's views on race. She explains that while on tour to promote her first book, The Grace of Silence, her "idea was to use these little black postcards to get the conversation started...I asked people to think about their experiences, questions, hopes, dreams, laments or observations about race and identity. Then I asked that they take those thoughts and distill them to just one sentence that had only six words...The submissions are thoughtful, funny, heartbreaking, brave, teeming with anger and shimmering with hope..."

My ancestors included indentured servants, sharecroppers and slave owners. I've worked on my family genealogy for over 14 years and find both the goodness and harshness of humankind interwoven throughout the generations.

Today, I'm working on the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules. It's rather a grim and dark chapter of American history and not one of which I'm proud. But to sweep it under the carpet is akin to condoning the practice. And so as George Bernard Shaw once said, "If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you'd best teach it to dance." gives me two choices with the schedules: one, I can just print out the index proving that my ancestor indeed lived in the specified location and move on. Or two, I can sift through the card catalog and get the actual data: the number of slaves, their age and their race (black or mulatto). I ran across the schedule for William B. Dudgeon first.
1850 Slave Schedules, Casey KY

The Dudgeon and the Weatherford farms stood side-by-side in Taylor, Kentucky in 1850. William "Buck" Dudgeon and his wife Sophia (Silvey) Phillips owned five slaves: a 60-year-old black woman, a 17-year-old mulatto male, a 15-year-old black male, a 5 year old mulatto female and a 4 year old black male.

I know the Tuckers and Weatherfords lived nearby in Casey and so looked through those schedules as well. Abel Weatherford and his wife Frances Tucker only had one slave: a 21-year-old black female.

One of my uncles had told me that Frances Tucker, Abel's wife, had inherited a slave from her father Dandridge and that Abel didn't approve of slavery. The woman had been granted her freedom and stayed on as a housemaid. This story set a little better with me but I wanted to know more.

Abel fought in the 13th  Kentucky Volunteer Calvary, Company D: a Union regiment. His father, George Weatherford had twelve slaves in 1950; his father-in-law Dandridge Tucker had seventeen. One of those slaves was a 42-year-old black man; he would have been 8 years younger than Abel at the time.

Able mustered in on 19 November 1865 in Columbia, Kentucky and transferred to field and staff on 23 December 1863. He was honorably discharged 26 April 1865. He would have been 63 years old.

Also in his company was one George W. Tucker, a black man born in 1810 who mustered in 22 August 1863 in Columbia, Kentucky and was discharged 10 January 1865. It's not hard to put those two together, especially if George's middle name turns out to be Weatherford.

The 13th Calvary joined the 5th Colored Calvary in the Battle of Saltville. You can read more about this historic battle here (click).
I'll flag the Weatherfords, Dudgeons and Tuckers and come back to them in a later post.

Since I grew up without really knowing aunts, cousins and grandparents, I imagined them larger than life. Farmers. Inventors. Cultivators of the human spirit. What I found are just people.

And while I'd like to latch on to an exceptional granduncle and tell myself that I'm just like them and beam with the notion that living the life I do would make them proud and carry on some noble family name, the truth is that I am my own person. Not the Irish immigrant factory worker, the indentured colonist or the Ulster-Scot landowner. Not the Missouri sharecropper, the accomplished musician and not the slave owner.

I submitted a Race Card today. It seems to me that continually beating ourselves up over our ancestors' transgressions serves no point but to fuel the dark times. As a world nation, our goal should be to learn from our mistakes, to move on to a better place and to forgive. We are not our ancestors.

You can find the Race Card Project here: (CLICK)

And NPR's articles here: (CLICK)

Thursday, January 2, 2014


I was never one for New Year's resolutions thinking that a resolution is simply the outcome of a personal continuous improvement process. I managed large departments and projects ensuring that continuous improvement processes identified defects, measured the effectiveness of the improvement and ensured the resulting processes were implemented as culture. But to measure success, you must first document the thing to be improved upon and so began 2013's Bucket List.
The Circumcision (Luca Signorelli)

I figured I'd start simply: handwritten letters versus email, go someplace new with Walt, paint something. I've refined 2014's Bucket List to be a more specific: handwritten birthday cards to my relatives, go someplace new with Walt outside the 50-mile ring encompassing NW Arkansas and paint the house.

New Year's celebrations began with the Babylonians in March. The Romans later changed the beginning of the new year to January, named for Janus, the two-faced god who looks both back to the previous year and forward to the new year. The custom of setting a new year's resolution began with the Romans vowing to be good to others. When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the official religion, moral intentions were replaced by prayers and fasting.

The Catholic (and Lutheran) church replaced the early Roman new year's festivities with the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ: a naming ceremony in accordance with Jewish tradition where the child is formally given his name and then circumcised by the priest.

In contrast, the Puritans spent their time reflecting on the past year and looking forward to the year ahead. In this way, they adopted the old custom of making resolutions.

Jonathan Edwards, the great American theologian, took resolution writing to the next level penning 70 resolutions over a two-year period which he committed to reviewing each week. You can find them here (click).

My mother alternated between Catholic mass and Lutheran mass taking us to the latter for sacrament. I loved the ceremony and bells and chanting and incense and especially the stained glass and art adorning the walls and ceilings, and tried hard to keep up in my prayer book. But I don't remember any reference to circumcising a baby at New Year's mass. My guess is that when the church found parishioners partying with Janus and the Romans rather than attending mass, they revised their new year's service to focus on their commitment to treat their neighbors with charity and avoid habitual sins.

Three cheers for continuous improvement.

Thanks to Bill Petro ( for his article "History of New Year's Resolutions: Where did they begin."