Story Security

My parents and all of my aunts and uncles have now passed away, and I am now the senior  generation of my family.  Instead of looking to my elders for information, I am now the one who has the knowledge about the olden days, of how we lived without electronics and instant gratification. While I am still on this earth I hope I tell or write down everything I know for the benefit of future generations.

Because I know how it feels to be curious about the stories of my forebears, to know that no matter how desperately I  about long to hear  about their lives I will likely never know more than I do now. To wonder why some relatives moved from Missouri to Arkansas, or who sewed the ruffled dress worn in a black and white photo, or even the circumstances on the day a picture was taken, is normal I believe. Knowing our stories makes us feel more  connected to those who came before us and worked  through many hardships to make a decent life. Stories make us feel secure.

Recently a friend of mine who has an interest in genealogy started a family tree for me on ancestry.com.  I wasn’t sure if the family tree  would lead to anything I didn’t already know, but at least I would have some things recorded for my children. Imagine my surprise when my friend received an email from a cousin on my Father’s side! I remembered meeting her, Sherry B., once at my grandmother’s house long ago. ( It was  so long ago that girls were wearing baby doll bathing suits, and Sherry’s grandmother, my Auntie Vera, was trying to sew a row pf lace across the top of Sherry’s bathing suit because she thought the neckline too low.)

We always knew more about my mother’s side of the family than my Father’s, because my mother’s family all lived here, while my Father’s was from Arkansas. We knew that our  Father became an only child when his sister Betty Jo, aged five, died of meningitis. Shortly after my parents married my Father’s father died at the age of 53 from a heart attack, leaving only my grandmother and my Father in Memphis. My Father told us very little about his family or growing up years. I had a few pictures of my Father as a child, but the accompanying narratives died along with him.richardson (1 of 1)-5

When our cousin Sherry B. contacted me through ancestry.com, I was delighted to find she lived not too far away and was willing to come to Memphis to share any pictures or other information she had. Last Saturday my two Memphis siblings and I met Sherry B.  for lunch. We were all eager to share whatever snippets of information we knew about that side of the family. I mentioned that my Father used to have a notebook that had belonged to our great grandfather John M. Richardson.I had actually seen it but did not know what happened to it after my Father’s death.

“Wait a minute,” cried my brother John, who is named after the man. “I think I’ve seen that at my house!” And he raced off to get the book while the rest of us repaired to my house for decaf and further discussion.

Soon my brother arrived with the notebook, which was bulging with pictures of people we had never met. The notebook itself appeared to have been used by J.M. Richardson to record finances and work hours.

And to save beer recipes.

And to save beer recipes.

Every time a new picture was gingerly removed from the book and passed around, it was like Christmas morning. Thankfully my grandmother, or someone, had written on the backs of most of the pictures. That was a gift in itself.

John Michael Richardson

John Michael Richardson

Eventually the picture passing slowed, though it never quite stopped, for we were mesmerized by these people, these faces, these lives, but we were at last able to pool our respective information. As far as tracing back many generations, we were all stuck at a frustratingly recent place, that of our great  great grandfather John Michael Richison. We can find no evidence of his beginnings.

J. M. Richison died in the Civil War and his body was never found. His widow, Anna Doyle Richison, remarried to a man named Crow. We know nothing more about her except that she is buried in Ash Fork, Arizona.

Anna Doyle Richardson Crow

Anna Doyle Richardson Crow

My great grandfather Richison/Richardson fought in the “Indian Wars”richardson (1 of 1)-30 and married a divorcee named Hannah Dow. At some point in his life he changed the spelling of his last name; we do not know why.  In addition to Hannah’s daughter Irene, the couple had four more daughters: Rheba Vivian,

Rheba on the left, with my grandmother Blanche.

Rheba on the left, with my grandmother Blanche.

Vera, Tora,

Vera on the left, Tora on the right.

Vera on the left, Tora on the right.

and Blanche Anna, my grandmother.

My grandmother

My grandmother

Tora died at age ten.

A poignant entry in the notebook.

A poignant entry in the notebook.

J. M. Richison/Richardson  worked for the railroad,richardson (1 of 1)-31 but at some point the family moved by covered wagon to Ferndale, Arkansas, where Richison may have farmed crops or lumber.richardson (1 of 1)-8

The girls grew up. Rheba married and moved to California where her sons supposedly still live. Vera, Sherry B.’s grandmother,  married but divorced after having three children,one of whom died at the age of nine.

Vera in the front, early in her marriage.

Vera in the front, early in her marriage.

At some point  Vera, likely for financial reasons, sent her children out to work and board with area farmers. Vera worked as a nurse’s aide, became a Seventh Day Adventist, and never remarried.

Blanche graduated high school, married and had two children.

Blanche

Blanche

The death of her daughter Betty Jo cast a pall over her marriage. As an adult I once asked my Father where his sister was buried and he said he did not know.

Before Betty Jo's death

Before Betty Jo’s death

That broke my heart, to think of a five year old’s grave going untended through the years. My guess is that sad things were just not discussed.

We continued to share and muse as we perused the pictures from the book my brother realized he had had in a box for many years. I think each one of us learned some things we had not known before, but many questions remained unanswered. Why the name change from Richison to Richardson? Why the move from Missouri to Arkansas? Why did our forebears tell us so little while they were alive?

No, we don’t know those answers and likely never will. But at least we share the bond of looking and wondering right along with Sherry B. There is a kind of security in that.

Looking forward to our next visit!

Looking forward to our next visit!

 

 

An Afternoon With R.

One of the perks of living to be 56 is that I’ve had time to collect a few people with whom I can completely be myself. Actually I’d like to think I’m completely myself whether I’m with someone or not, but with my comfortable people I truly appreciate the lack of pretense between us. I am “seasoned” enough now to be authentic, and to value that characteristic in others.

One of my authentic people is a friend I’ll call R. I’ve been thinking lately of some afternoons we’ve spent together in easy companionship. Our friendship has lasted through at least twenty years of graduate school, raising children, careers and career changes. We are vastly different yet love many of the same things. He is endlessly practical, yet hilarious at the same time. I’m sure I’ll say more about this in future posts, but he knows how to do EVERYTHING. EVERYTHING!

Anyway, I’m going to describe one of our recent  afternoons. R. doesn’t care for flowery or pretentious writing, so I’ll try to be straightforward, in  case he reads this. What am I saying? He’s my friend, so I’m sure he will read this!

One Sunday last November R. and I planned  to go to an estate sale in West Memphis, Arkansas.  We naturally got lost, and kept circling around the back of the Southland Greyhound Park while disagreeing about which way to go next. R. was driving and as is his wont, took us into a fairly sketchy neighborhood to ask for directions, whereupon, as we escaped without harm, found the estate sale. By then most things were picked over, so after we crossed back over the bridge we stopped at Tom Lee Park.

The afternoon was perfect; blue skies, bright sun, mild temperatures. DSC_0369We explored up and down the river bluffs, pausing to watch  the boats on the river. DSC_0346 DSC_0367 A tug was laying some sort of pipe in the river.DSC_0343 DSC_0363In a leisurely fashion we walked from Tom Lee Park to the end of the Beale Street Landing project, imagining what it would all be like when completed.DSC_0351

DSC_0354

I suppose the crane isn’t really going to pick up the Pyramid?

DSC_0356A party had been held the night before in the partially finished building above. When the  building is complete, people will be able to see straight through the glass windows out to the River.

DSC_0340It was fun to be in no hurry, just to have fun watching the progress of this enormous undertaking  on the river. I pondered the passing of time. We were not far from where Tom Lee risked his life to save the passengers of a wrecked ship. Somewhere along this water my father as a young man  had a job as a fireman on a boat, and a little further down my grandfather worked at the Army Corps of Engineers.  A little further the other way, on the cobblestones, my Aunt Bessie sustained fatal injuries from the propeller of an airplane that was giving pleasure rides over the River in the 1930s.

I can’t go to the River without reflecting on the many lives that have been lived here before me. I would give anything to know all their stories, but my relatives are gone now, just as Tom Lee, the accident victims and so many others are gone. We live with our memories just as build for the future.

R. is not from here, but he has extensive knowledge of those who came before him. He also became pensive that day, mentioning that his mother was not doing well. This determined widow in her early 90s could no longer live alone in her rural home. R. and his ten siblings had made plans to care for her. R. did not say so but I knew he was doing his best to prepare for her eventual death.

Underneath the surface of the idyllic afternoon, I was uneasy for my friend. I worried that he may not be ready for all that could change in a family when a parent dies.  Reactions to loss differ among family members. Alliances can shift, and long held grudges can roil to the surface.  Of course, intellectually he did know things could change, having helped so many families with this as a social worker. But since both of my parents were already deceased, I had actually lived it. He had not.

I knew from experience how becoming an orphan, even at our age, is an unsettling experience. Suddenly there is no place to go back to.  Though we may not have been in the habit of going back, we suddenly realize we had always counted on having a place to return.  The house may still stand, but there’s no “there’ there. And of course, the un grasp-able ideas of our own old age and mortality mingle in with the sharpness of the loss.

Certainly he could no more be ready for any of this than any of the rest of us. No one can adequately prepare for the death of a parent. Though I wished I could protect him., I knew I couldn’t. Inevitably he  would go through what he would go through. I would stand by to listen, to be a reality check if necessary, and to assist in any other way I could.

I’m so glad I had that afternoon with him. Soon after he was called to see his Mother who had taken a turn for the worse. R. did not leave there for two months, until after she passed away. He, with some of his other siblings, took care of her around the clock, shirking no duties, for the rest of the days that she lived. Many adults would not be so brave as to be the front line caregiver for their dying parent.

The next time I saw R. he was in a new stage of life. We both had known that change was in the air that day at the River. Change is always in the air; we just don’t know when it will be. I think it has been said before me that part of the beauty of life is knowing it is all temporary. The impermanence of life is just why we all need friends like R., to enjoy silly times as well as sad ones, and to weather the days that come.