Going Down Home Timeline

May 2018, Third trip Down Home

July 2015 Second trip Down Home

October 2014 First trip Down Home

July 2013 to October 2014 Online research and interviews

July 2013 23andme results received

Saturday, May 26, 2018

May 20, 2018: Part 1 - Man vs Nature

We decided to let the weather organize our day, and because it began with blue skies, we headed for the beach. Our first stop was Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. The pier I had known was a wooden pier, suspended over the surf on wooden pilings. After Hurricane Isabel destroyed that historic structure in 2003, the state approved funding for the reconstruction of a 1,000-ft pier with classrooms, concrete pilings, three wind turbines, and all the amenities of a modern welcome center. It is a beautiful facility and sits lightly on the landscape and water.
But the rest of modern development of the Outer Banks communities does not sit so lightly on the sand. Built out, landscaped, bike-pathed, with upscale shops and restaurants woven between closely-spaced, expensive beach houses, OBX seems a city dropped upon the shore. In the absence of damaging storms, Man has won. The wild, vegetated places seem neutered.
The Cavalier Motel in Kitty Hawk, where we stayed in the Fifties and beyond, still stands, dwarfed by new construction. Once I was a child in that very same spot, my mother pushing my hair away from my face, but the place as it was in that time, and the people who inhabited it, have been lost.
The randomly-built past has been replaced by a kind of homogenized affluence.
I  am still trying to process why I was so saddened by the present, with its overwhelmingly density of development. I’ve considered that so much change triggered some big mortality blues, but I didn’t feel that way about Manteo, where the transience of tourism blends with the permanence of a small town, and where I could imagine myself living in a vintage home on a quiet street.
Ultimately, I think I was saddened by the level of development, the triumph of the built environment over a place that once seemed wild and unwilling to give up its scrubby vegetation and mosquitos for high-end rentals.
I would have plenty of opportunity to see untamed land on this trip.


May 19, 2018: Landed

 It has been a long three years since my last trip to North Carolina, and while my July 2015 trip was about family, this trip was largely about the land: who owned it, how it was used, how it has changed, how it has nourished or limited the experiences of the people who lived there.
The East Coast storms that threatened the entire weekend held me back in Philly. I landed in Norfolk almost an hour later than expected, then headed south through patches of hard-driving rain toward my Google-mapped, homeplace destination.

Colors pop on dark days, and as I drove, I passed field after field of glowing flowers. Lavender and light green frothy blooms shaped like snap dragons reminded me of how much I don’t know about what is being grown in that sandy coastal plain. (Later I’d learn that those were fields of clary sage.)
When I finally arrived at the genealogical society’s cookout,  the eating had ended, and the group had moved on to grave dowsing. I don’t understand the science behind this work, although one of the participants is a nuclear engineer, and must understand its inexplicable powers.

I tried holding the metal rods softly in my grip as I walked over a family plot and was amazed when they took on a life of their own, crossing and uncrossing over the remains beneath my feet. The dowsers mark the heads and foots of the graves with cornstarch. They are mapping the long-dead that lie in orderly and disorderly formations on this land. They hold theories about what has happened on this farm and when.
My research partner and I are exploring different branches of a family of Ulster Scots who came to the Colonies and first farmed in Talbot County, Maryland. After a couple of generations, we assume that they wore out the land before moving south, where their holdings were once significant.

She has done extensive work in wills and deeds and understands how strategic marriages were used to increase real estate assets and build wealth. She has been following our extended family’s land ownership for decades. During less than four days, we’d visit four counties and look for secrets in the landscape, places that could be marked with cornstarch, places that could not.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A year later: family secrets and distance

It's been almost a year since my second research trip to eastern North Carolina and I am still trying to process its bits and pieces.   

Going back to North Carolina a second time was a heavier experience than I'd anticipated. 

I met living family I didn't know I had -- one of whom said Why did you bring this Yankee down here to see me, just kidding (he wasn't) -- and learned new sad stories about ones who had died. 

There was the cousin who died at 37 in Dix Hill asylum, having been committed 16 years earlier, her death attributed to a chronic kidney condition that might well have caused her behavioral symptoms.

There were babies that had perished shortly after birth, or who'd never been born.  Ghosts of where families once lived, homesteads long consumed by termites and back hoes, their foundations peeking out of rows of cotton.

There were revelations about the frailties of people who blustered and postured and talked tough, and the strengths of quiet women.

But most of all, there was the pervasive sense of disconnection and the irony of researching dead family in the hope that I might find connections that felt better, truer, more meaningful than the ones I've had with family I've actually known. 

Even as I've been collecting ancestors like baseball cards, I've known that in this lifetime, I will not form deep and sustaining connections with most of my extant family.

We were isolationists. I don't know what it is to attend a family reunion, to identify with family members, or even to go to Grandmother's house for Thanksgiving.  My grandmothers died before I was born.  I had no relationship with either grandfather.  My parents always encouraged individualism, separation and competition over community and cooperation.  They didn't even like each other.

Late in life I am challenged to understand why family was not -- on the surface -- important to us and what family dynamics and secrets shaped our particular brand of separation. 

Maybe it started when my mother married a Yankee.  Or when my great grandmother, Ida Fritz Fries, met my Southern mother and flashed back to the day the Confederate soldiers had raided her Franklin County, Pennsylvania farm, on their way to burn Chambersburg.

I know pieces of how my parents' lives derailed from all they had known, how they struck out on their own and created a failed experiment. In the past year, new pieces were given to me, laid at my feet.

Some of them, mysterious bits like the cousin who lived and died in Dix Hill, shimmer and pulse in my brain.  Figure this out, they say.  Make sense of it all.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Unexpected in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania

Daisy Century as Sojourner Truth, Dec. 6, 2015 St. Paul's Elkins Park

You never know when you will be taken Down Home.  Say you are at a historic Episcopal church in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and after the Right Reverend Clifton Daniel III, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, gives the invocation, he mingles among the crowd and you learn that he is from Goldsboro, NC.  And you find yourself talking about Creswell, NC and looking together at pictures of Somerset Place on your Android phone.
Or a woman you’ve met in a genealogy group on Facebook, Marilyn Nance, learns about the event and drives down to Elkins Park from Brooklyn with her husband, combining a visit to the celebration with meeting one of her DNA cousins, who lives in the Philadelphia area.  And then you learn that you and Marilyn are both related to genetic genealogist Shannon Christmas.
Or you meet local poet Bernadine Davis, who asks you about your Going Down Home project, and confirms that the process of weaving together our past and our present is necessary work, often guided by the God of Second Chances, and meant to find substance that is missing. 
Those abductions into the past and Eastern North Carolina occurred over the weekend, Dec. 5 and 6th, here in my community.  The two-day celebration combined music, lectures, a gospel concert, author’s table, tours of the church (built by Jay Cooke in 1861) and the replica of a station on the Underground Railroad. There were wonderful actors who portrayed Harriet Tubman, Lucretia Mott, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sojourner Truth.  There were members of the 3rd Regiment, US Colored Troops who marched, presented colors, staffed an exhibit.
There was no escaping the past – not America’s legacy of slavery, the enviable courage of the abolitionists, music that still calls to us from fields of memory.
There is no way of escaping how we are led to each other in the present.
Shango-Jamal Lewis, Old York Road to Freedom Concert
Dec. 5, 2015

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Day Five, What Remains

We met on the West Millpond Road in Roper a little before 11:00 a.m. at Millpond Crawfish, where it was hot in the sun and almost cool in the shade.  We drove around the countryside in a truck that seated five, over paved roads, grass and sandy lanes, hugging tracks next to fields, looking at empty spaces where family homes used to be. 
Weeks earlier, I’d looked for pictures of my mother’s childhood home.  I have no picture of the house, which was torn down long ago -- just the sense of it standing off stage. Most of my pictures were taken with the house behind the photographer’s back, the subjects framed by trees and the Millpond Road.
When we stopped on July 7th to look at the space where the house once stood, I felt the familiar orientation of the view beyond the missing house.  But I could not quite picture the exact footprint of the farmhouse that had once been home to Ben and Inez, Alger Ben and Reinette, then Alger Ben and Margaret and their children.
The big tree, draped in Spanish moss, which appears in most of my pictures from the old homestead (and here sits above my grandfather’s shoulder) is gone, but a tall pine still remains.  It may be the same tree seen here in 1942, to the left of his bent elbow, smallish. 

I sat in the truck and looked toward the field with the physical memory of that view.  There was a big tree where I remembered a big tree, but a different species.  There was a view toward a field that seemed timeless, and a line of trees to my right, but the house they once shaded, gone.
I should have gotten out of the truck, put a little of that sandy soil in a baggy, brought it home.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Day Four, A Farm on the Sound

I had several goals for this trip to Washington County, and one of them was to visit the Spruill Farm Conservation Project, then write about it for my Plein Air column at www.terrain.org.  I was able to visit with owner Jack Spruill twice during my brief stay in the county.

The first visit began with Jack telling me about his connection to the land, as we sat under a cool shade tree at nine in the morning, drinking coffee and eating meaty Coinjock Creek Farm cantaloupe.   I quickly learned how that tree, and the chairs and benches beneath it, serves as a gathering place for a cadre of talented and like-minded friends of the project.   

The Friends share Jack’s vision for the 110-acre farm, which abuts the Albemarle Sound with 1,600 feet of undeveloped shoreline, and has been in his family for 100 years.  And while the farm currently supports a variety of activities – a community garden, bee-keeping, fig-growing – its ultimate incarnation would be as a beautiful piece of land donated for perpetual conservation and some combination of low-impact public access, organic or sustainable farming, environmental research and education programs.

The public access issue is especially important to Jack, who is quick to note that there are only two places on the Albemarle – the world’s largest freshwater sound – where direct public access exists, even though there are nine counties that have direct frontage. 

By providing low-impact public access, the Spruill Farm of the future might accommodate a kayak and canoe launch, enclosed swimming area, benches, picnic tables and a pier for crabbing, fishing and nature activities.  It would make access to the Sound available to local children who have never waded in its waters.

One of the Friends – Jack’s cousin, Bob Spruill -- offered to drive me down to the water before I left.  We joined his wife, Georgia, and two grandchildren, traveling along the eastern edge of the planted fields to descend to the shoreline. 

Like the kids, I waded in the clear, cool water where generations of Spruills and their friends had waded.  Before the Spruills, there had been Chessons, descended from one of my maternal lines.  But the tree line showed that where I now waded had once been swamp or solid land, not sound. 

In spite of bulkheads and good intentions, shorelines and farms morph, disappear, sprout condos. Jack Spruill intends to protect his family’s farm with a conservation vision that has a lot of supporters.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Day Three, Womenfolk

On Sunday, July 5, I met Rebecca and her daughter, Cora.  At 87, Rebecca is likely my mother’s last living first cousin and such a lively representative of her generation that I felt I’d gotten a crash course in Life on the Millpond Road. Details that my mother had parsed out over the decades came tumbling out of Rebecca with a specificity and quick recall that I hadn’t truly expected.

Like my mother, Rebecca left Washington County with a World War II serviceman from the North.  She married at an age when girls today are not yet able to drive, and traveled from place to place with her older husband and growing family. She had a sense of adventure and good humor, tempered by a religious faith that has stood her well over the years.  These qualities persist today.  She has an impish smile and twinkling eyes.  There are, as my mother would have said, no flies on her.

But unlike my mother, and in spite of leaving the South, my sense is that she remained part of a cohesive sisterhood.

She and Cora gave me a glossy print that features two generations of Chesson women.  Three sisters – Inez, Hilda and Cora in their spectator pumps– are flanked by Hilda’s daughter, Sarah Mac, on the left and Cora’s daughter Rebecca on the right.  Missing is my mother, Reinette, daughter of Inez.

That she is not part of the group haunts me.  Had she been there, each mother would have had a daughter beside her.  Had she been there, this picture might have implied that there would also be solidarity with the next generation: mine.

Instead, I am looking at three women who had difficult lives, and two daughters who don’t yet know their fate.  One will be funny and smart at 87; the other will die in the Dix Hills asylum at 37.

From what Rebecca told me, it's likely that my mother did not see those cousins again after that day.  

In a 1995 interview at Tulane University, writer Dorothy Allison said: “I don't know any southern writer who doesn't begin with momma. You know, she's like the air you breathe and it's a little dangerous because in fact there is this concept of the southern mother in literature. To get serious attention is to give a kind of reverence, you have to write against the stereotype. And the stereotype is frightening. The stereotype is inhuman. The stereotype IS the mother who starves herself to feed her children, you know. And then the other stereotype is the mother who eats her children alive if they do not quite measure up to what she wants them to be. And you're always caught up between those two things if you're a southern writer….”

What will I do, I wonder, as I write my own book, with the stereotype of the ambivalent Southern mother who loses her place, who tries to eschew all things country, many things Southern, and who is often missing from the picture?