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

Monday, December 29, 2014

Ending 2014 with thoughts about my 2 percent

In the past year, I’ve uploaded my 23andme autosomal raw data to all Gedmatch admixture calculators, DNA Tribes and Family Tree DNA (where I have mtDNA results on file).  I sought out guidance on the accuracy of the tools that I’d used, and suggestions for better products. 

I wanted scientific precision, but have settled for impressionistic results that vary from tool to tool but basically reach a similar conclusion:  my ancestry is 98% European and 2% Something Else.

At 23andme, that Something Else is Unidentified.

At FTDNA’s “My Origins,” that 2% of my ancestry came from North African and Asia Minor.

At any of the Gedmatch admixture calculators, that 2% or more is +/- some combination of Amerindian and Sub-Saharan African, usually with a higher portion of non-European identified as African rather than Native.

I am, it seems, a geno-reflection of findings recently published in The American Journal of Human Genetics : “The Genetic Ancestry ofAfrican Americans, Latinos, and European Americans across the United States.

Using genetic information obtained from 23andme customers, Katarzyna Bryc, et. al concluded “the frequency of European American individuals who carry African ancestry varies strongly by state and region of the US (Figure 3A). We estimate that a substantial fraction, at least 1.4%, of self-reported European Americans in the US carry at least 2% African ancestry. Using a less conservative threshold, approximately 3.5% of European Americans have 1% or more African ancestry (Figure S8). Individuals with African ancestry are found at much higher frequencies in states in the South than in other parts of the US: about 5% of self-reported European Americans living in South Carolina and Louisiana have at least 2% African ancestry.”

Their findings also seem to illuminate my lower percentages of Native to African ancestry:  “Fitting a model of European and Native American admixture followed later by African admixture, we find the best fit with initial Native American and European admixture about 12 generations ago and subsequent African gene flow about 4 generations ago.”

My Native ancestry, which probably entered my “gene flow” in Eastern North Carolina twice as long ago as my African ancestry, has anecdotal roots.  Numerous distant relatives have repeated the story that my great, great grandmother, Mary Ann Armstrong Parisher, had Native ancestry, yet no one seems to know its origins. No one has ever offered up any anecdotal suggestions of African ancestry, even though it is likely that it would have been introduced more recently. Lacking anything but my own genotyping to work with, I suspect that Mary Ann Armstrong might be the source of both my African and Native ancestry.

I accept that I may very well never know the stories that explain my 2 percent --- although I would really, really like to know them.  For now, I’ll have to make do with the knowledge that like many predominantly European Americans with roots in the South that go back more than 400 years, I am a product of intimate knowledge that has been forgotten or hidden for generations, only to surface through genetic testing -- my most intimate level of body knowledge.

That going down home -- delving deep into an invisible storied past -- seems so scientifically possible, yet not.  I've met other people on the same journey, and suspect that in 2015, the journey itself will be what's important.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Down Home for the holidays

We never went Down Home for the holidays, but there were many years when the farm on Mill Pond Road came to us. When the box from Roper arrived, my mother would briefly forget her critical pretensions and delight in the warmth it brought to her in Pennsylvania.  

The contents that I remember best were from the land itself – shiny magnolia leaves for decorating, peanuts, pecans, jams, watermelon rind pickles – and gifts for me that my Aunt Margaret made by hand. 

When I was 10, she made a dark blue velvet dress with a white lace collar for me, with a matching one for my doll.  When I was a teenager, she made me A-line wool skirts with matching hand-knitted sweaters that rivaled the preppy manufacturers’ skirt/sweater sets.  

Those Down Home boxes, so filled with Margaret’s handiwork, never disappointed. What was disappointing – aside from the fact that I only remember two Thanksgivings and no Christmases spent with any relatives – was the Something that my mother missed. 

She’d mention yule logs or shooting guns and fireworks at Christmas.  (Not New Year’s, Christmas!)  She’d mention chess pie or her mother playing the piano and I’d get the feeling that those Depression-era holidays in Washington County, NC had been better than any I would ever know. 

Her brother would send us a Smithfield ham, but still, something was missing.  It was her mother, more than anything else, who had made the Down Home holidays so memorable, so rhapsodic -- Inez, who died when my mother was in her mid-twenties, before I was born. It wasn't the sandy soil or the Spanish moss or the bird dogs or the floating island custard she was missing.  It wasn’t the 400 miles between us and Roper that created the empty space in her life.  It was not having a mother in her 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond. 

I pull out her Lilly Wallace New American Cookbook (1947) and a falling-apart copy of The Joy of Cooking and rifle through the many handwritten recipes tucked between their pages, looking for some remnant of the regionalism she brought North with her.  On withered notepad pages, I find her recipes for corn pudding and spoon bread, white peach pie and sweet potato pie. Always appreciated, but not specifically holiday fare.

I find her scribbled notes for sand tarts, the ones she cut out in the shapes of hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades, dusted with cinnamon sugar, glazed with egg wash and a pecan half.  Down Home for the holidays, I think, and jump to Pinterest to find good pictures of sand tarts, only to find them described as an Amish Christmas cookie.  Really?  Not Southern?

Tell me what I’m missing.  Tell me about the down home holiday foods you remember and still make.  Tell us how you make them, serve them, why you still love them.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Who goes there?

It’s been almost a month since I traveled from Pennsylvania to North Carolina to learn more about my maternal line. Since I got back, I’ve been thinking a lot about people I’ve met along the way and the nature of this journey. 

Although I’ve approached this research as a writer, my own story is probably too small to constitute a book.  I’m not Edward Ball, who wrote Slaves in the Family.  Or Chris Tomlinson, who wrote Tomlinson Hill.  

There may be small-time slave owners in my family, and African-American relatives, and bigotry, and my own non-European ancestry, but I may never stumble upon a narrative that others would find compelling or uplifting.

What I am, it seems, is a writer who keeps meeting other people who have stories to tell.  And even as I struggle with my own narrative – my mother’s bigotry, my family’s secrets, my feelings about the Old South – I am drawn to other people’s stories.  Quintessentially American stories, the good and the bad.

And don’t I just go on meeting people who keep me believing that I’m on the right path!  Today, at a local authors’ event in suburban Philadelphia, I met two people with ties to North Carolina whose life experience seemed to intersect with mine in some way.  This seems to me to be a sign.

A sign that it’s time to open up The Going Down Home Project to other people who have Southern roots that include slavery; people who have moved away from the rural South but still feel its influence in their lives; people whose interest in genealogy has in some way been altered by genetic testing.

It feels right to me at this juncture to find a project collaborator, or to solicit stories from people who’ve delved into their own Southern family histories -- motivated by curiosity, questions or fantasies about identity.

It’s time to invite others to share their stories.

If you have been researching your rural Southern roots, and understand why you’re on this journey, I want to hear from you via mailto:dfries8503@comcast.net

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tyrrell (and Dare and Washington) County, Day 4, Part B

After my long walk on the beach, I drove back to Manteo and browsed through shops near Roanoke Island Festival Park before making arrangements with Sucelia Fahey to meet at the Outer Banks Visitors Center.  She’d gone home and brought along photos of her Hassell grandparents and great grandparents from Tyrrell County, arranged in a weathered window frame.  I remembered that somewhere in my family tree, someone married a Hassell.  In the month ahead, I hope to parse out any possible relatedness.  She was so very nice to share them, and meeting Sucelia at a lunch counter – like most of what happened on this trip – was serendipitous. 

The sun was out, it was still early afternoon, and I realized I had time to drive west from Manteo on Rt 64 to Jamison, and buy peanuts to bring back to Philly.  And buy I did – blister fried, French fried, salted in the shell, two kinds of peanut butter, trail mix -- and peanut ice cream for the road!   It’s good to know I can reorder from Mackey’s Ferry Peanuts, because the share that I kept for myself is dwindling.   Fast.

Once again, I drove by Washington County locations where my mother and her family once lived, without stopping.  Nothing about the area around Roper looked familiar after more than 40 years.  For some reason, it seemed more foreign to me than Tyrrell County, and less navigable.

Exploring Washington County will be on my agenda for the next trip Down Home.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tyrrell (and Dare) County, Day 4, Part A

Familiar strangers, a strange yet familiar landscape.

Until Thursday, October 16, it had been 44 years since I’d set foot in the soft sands of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  In researching a piece I wrote for Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments in 2002, and from vacation pictures taken by former co-workers, I realized that the Banks, as I knew them, were only a memory.

And so I felt a need to protect myself from the collision of memory and reality by believing that I could approach the beach on Rt. 64 and quickly head south into Cape Hatteras National Seashore without contact with the new.

That wasn’t the case, but neither did I feel a sense of loss about the built world that confronted me. 

I first stopped at the Outer Banks Visitors Center, where the man behind the counter, John Fast, turned out to be a retired Pennsylvania State Police officer who formerly had been assigned to my hometown, Bedford, PA.  John shared some insights into relocation to the Carolina’s from the perspective of a retired Pennsylvania state employee, which was an amazing coincidence of perspectives.

I asked John for a recommendation for breakfast in Manteo and he directed me to TL’s Country Kitchen, where locals gather, and where I happily ordered a Greek omelet with biscuits.  Eating at the counter, I struck up a conversation with Sucelia Hassell Fahey, a health care professional working on the Outer Banks who just happened to have deep roots in Tyrrell County. 

The lunch counter conversation had turned from infectious disease to genealogy.  I don’t know if we are kin, but Sucelia had pictures at home to share and we agreed to touch base in a few hours. 

I headed south on Rt 12 into the national seashore park, where the dunes have been replenished and re-vegetated over the decades to new heights, and the wide beach in mid-October was luxuriously empty, and reminiscent of the empty beaches I walked on as a child.

That empty beach restored my soul.  Truly.  I was able – through time and space – to have an exhilarating and solitary experience that I’d imagined could no longer be had on the Outer Banks. But it was fall, and miles away from the billion-dollar real estate investments to the north. 

It was perfect.  In fact, there were mirage-like places among the dunes more beautiful than I remember.  Those places seemed sacred.

Tyrrell County, Day 3

Rain, relatives and ghosts.
The road to Somerset Place, Creswell

On Wednesday, October 15, the day began with rain that had moved in from the west during the night.  It seemed like the perfect time to visit Jimmy Fleming, owner of Flemz Market & Deli, local historian, writer and – of course – kin.  Jimmy and I are related through the Parisher line, and although we’d never met, I felt an immediate sense of familiarity. 

A few days before I met Jimmy, Debbie Armstrong Cobb had passed along a death certificate for Olly Armstrong Voliva, A sister of Mary Ann Armstrong.  I had been trying for years to discover, online, what their mother’s maiden name might have been.  She is everywhere listed as Armstrong but I’ve wondered if that was truly her maiden name.  The death certificate noted Mariah Jarvis as Olly Armstrong’s mother, and Jimmy confirmed that – although from the same source document.  

One document does not a fact make, but what I found so interesting about Jimmy’s genealogical insight was “Jarvis is not a Tyrrell County name – more like Hyde or Dare.  Even Chowan.”
So now I’m trying to learn more about Jarvis families in those counties, looking for Mariah and possible Native roots among the Jarvis families.  (Jarvis is a surname that appears in the Lost Colony project rosters).

After visiting with Jimmy, I drove west to Creswell in a light drizzle to Somerset Place, a former plantation on the shore of Lake Phelps in eastern Washington County.  The soft rain created a kind of filtered experience.  I was the only visitor at the site, and without a rain jacket, walked around the grounds awkwardly taking pictures while holding an umbrella.

I had read about the history of the site in Dorothy Spruill Redford’s book, Somerset Homecoming: Recovering a Lost Heritage but without a sense of the landscape, nothing was quite as I’d expected. 

I didn’t really understand the relationship of the built environment to the lake, or how the cedar trees would look, or how I’d feel when I saw the canals and the scope of that slave-made infrastructure.

Although I didn’t see the interior of the plantation house, it was a gift to be there alone in the rain.  With the exception of a single parked truck near the office, there were no people, no aspects of modernity other than signage to distract my attention from the recreated physical world of 1860.  

Humid, isolated, evocative, sad.  Haunting.

View through the trees toward shore of Lake Phelps, Somerset Place

View of plantation house from path to cemetery, Somerset Place
Curtains like ghosts in the windows of Collins/Pettigrew plantation house, Somerset Place

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Tyrrell County, Day 2

I’m sure that not everyone in eastern North Carolina is a genealogist, but those are not the people I encountered during my stay in Tyrrell County.  

On Tuesday, October 14, women I’d met through the Tyrrell County Genealogy Facebook Group arrived at the courthouse, our starting point for a 10-hour road trip through local history. Both had driven two hours to convene in the place that grounds their research and imagination. Cathy Roberts had generously volunteered to be my field guide into the past; and Debbie Armstrong Cobb, an enthusiastic researcher of the Armstrong line, joined our expedition.

Debbie Armstrong Cobb on the landing at Lake Phelps
With Cathy at the wheel, we explored sites in the Riders Creek and Gum Neck areas, and traveled into eastern Washington County, where we stopped in Creswell and the Lake Phelps landing in Pettigrew State Park.  We visited three cemeteries in the Riders Creek area: Henry Cooper, Malachi Chapel Free Will Baptist Church cemetery, and Paramore. 

We visited with Buddy Brickhouse at his landmark country store.  Like everyone else I met on my first trip to Tyrrell County, Buddy was a generous fountain of information and probably kin.  He is also a storyteller, who brought out documents to feed our curiosity about the Armstrong family, and illustrated his stories with pictures and props!
Buddy Brickhouse illustrates a story

Buddy's store, Doris'
Back in Columbia, we made a brief visit to the courthouse, where Cathy provided an overview of the  available resources and Debbie found a deed that added to her knowledge of the Armstrong clan.  We ate dinner and regrouped at The Brickhouse Inn before parting.    Their passion for the past was truly contagious.  I was hooked.
Malachi Chapel Free Will Baptist Church cemetery, late afternoon light

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Tyrrell County, Day One

On Monday, October 13, I drove from Philadelphia to Tyrrell County, North Carolina.  

It rained until Virginia.  When the skies cleared, I entered an unending T-Mobile dead zone, which left me without that directive yet reassuring little voice that says “In a half mile, remain in the right lane and turn right onto US 17 South.  Turn onto 17 South!” 

At 20 miles long, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnels was a far longer and more beautiful crossing than I had imagined.  Everything was shimmering, silvery and ethereal.

After the bridge, I made a few wrong turns and had a few time-wasting off-road adventures.  Everything looked the same to this traveler: flat farm fields, planted with yellowed soy beans that shone golden in the late light, broken by the occasional cotton field and long expanses of forested swamp. 

As I got closer to my destination, Columbia, the billboards began to advertise Outer Banks destinations, and the horizon began to promise nearby water.  I spotted a road sign that said “red wolf crossing.”  There was a subtle shift in the landscape, a sense of increasing wildness and isolation.

It did not feel like going home.  It felt like going toward something unknown and unaltered by the 21st century, a perfect landscape for travelling back in time, hunting ancestors.

It was also blackpowder deer hunting season in North Carolina, I learned after I checked into the Brickhouse Inn Two hunters in the room across the hall from mine were also traveling back in time, using muzzle-loading rifles to recreate an earlier hunting experience. 

I was about to learn just how much Tyrrell County -- with its sparse development, swamps, forests and humidity -- welcomes retrospective pursuits.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ready, set, go -- down home!

I have procrastinated, delayed, watched the weather, finally decided on a mode of transportation, stopped my mail delivery and in five days, I’ll be in Columbia, NC for a short week of research.  I’ll stay at the Brickhouse Inn B&B, and spend my time in courthouses, libraries and cemeteries, trying to establish a feel for a past I've never known. 

In the past few weeks, I’ve discovered Facebook groups that I wish I’d known about a year ago!  There’s  the North Carolina Genealogy Network, the Tyrrell County Genealogy group, and the Washington County Geneaology group.  Great group of serious researchers, some of whom are familiar to me, such as Taneya Koonce and Shannon Christmas

Through these groups, I’ve discovered some new relatives, learned that I’ll be missing the 23rd annual Scuppernong River Festival by two days, and generally found myself moving out of the abstract world of family trees, old photos and paper ephemera and into an excited anticipation of being in the present and among the living in a different landscape.
I’m planning to visit Somerset Place, and hopefully, with one of my DNA relatives from Virginia.

My next post will be from Down Home.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

plantation houses

There is the process of going home, and the process of letting go of the idea of ever being able to go home again.  The letting go is easier when the house becomes less desirable -- through ruin, redesign or reputation. 
The first time I wrote about my childhood home was in Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments in 2011.  A year later, I saw the house for the first time since it was sold in the fall of 2004, five months after my mother died.  It was occupied in 2012, but leased.  The buyer who purchased it from my mother’s estate had moved away. 
This month I saw it again -- once in late afternoon light, a second time in morning rain. Ten years after buying it, and making surprising, large structural changes in some parts of the property and almost no changes in others, the owner has put it on the market.
The lawn looked parched and the unoccupied house, lifeless.  The 35 online photos posted by the realtor showcase an empty house where first floor period decorating has been cobbled together with a finished attic that looks like an Ikea ad.  The only change that appeals to me is the use of a warm cocoa paint in the foyer, oddly similar to the original shade my mother chose for the entire downstairs in 1952.
The house that was so long Home to me was not a plantation house.  No crops were grown in the subdivision.  It was a make-believe post-war plantation house, one that incorporated white columns to suggest a storied past.  Now it has that, and the stories are sad.
Yesterday I read Derek Walcott’s poem, “Ruins of a Great House.” 
It seems that the original crops were limes, he writes, Grown in the silt that clogs the river’s skirt;/ The imperious rakes are gone, their bright girls gone/The river flows, obliterating hurt.”
Decay overtakes institutions that were once powerful, in St. Lucia and in small towns in western Pennsylvania.  My childhood home has not fallen into physical ruin, and its institutional power was limited to a small, nuclear family. 
But there is some familiar sense of the tragic attached to that empty house.  My parents’ dreams were the original crop, grown in fertile discontent and escapism. 
The original house reflected my mother’s Southern roots, her fantasy attachment to a lifestyle she had never lived down home in Washington County, North Carolina.  (Well, maybe there had been a few imperious rakes.)
The house is a clash of dreams: built to evoke plantation on three lots in the North; altered by its current owner to insert modernity where it seems least needed; designed and redesigned for hospitality, but uninhabited, ghostly, and a place you don’t go back to. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Home, remembered and revisited

I've been traveling since the last post -- out to Minnesota for a week for my daughter's wedding, then back home to Philadelphia.

There is never just one home.  My daughter grew up in Wisconsin, which was once Home.  Then I moved back to Pennsylvania, my home state, and even though she remained in the Midwest, she referred to her visits to Philly as "coming home."

She has been comfortably at home in St. Paul and Minneapolis, but soon Home will be an apartment with her new husband in a new city.  Only two hours away from me, now there will be weekends when she visits.  She will probably call it Going Home to visit Mom.

I was only a few months old when my mother took me down home for the first time. That's my grandfather, Ben Snell, holding me, the second born of his grandchildren.

The last time I'd go down home to the farm on Mill Pond Road, I'd be 18, a college freshman who was trying to carry an impossible academic load, partying too much, caught between grandiose, manic ideas about what I could accomplish and the gravitational pull of freedom.  There is no picture from that visit.

In the 17 years in between, there were visits to the farm in tandem with Outer Banks beach vacations.  To me, they were visits to relatives, but not a homecoming, even though I'd been going there since infancy.

The house where I grew up in western Pennsylvania was sold in 2004.  The house in the picture above was torn down long before that.  They are places that no longer exist as they were, except in pictures and, less reliably, in memory.  They are no longer Home.

I'm not sure what I'll find when I travel to North Carolina.  Landscapes that may or may not look familiar.  Graves.  Documents.  People who know things I don't know.

This week I learned that there is a 93 year-old relative with a sharp memory still living in the area that was my mother's Down Home.  I am hoping that bits of my family history reside in her mind, that somewhere in that trip, there will be a kind of homecoming of memory.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A little color

Earlier this year, when I was telling a friend about my interest in my Southern mother’s family, he asked “So you have a little color in you?”  When we met, we both had blue eyes, straight hair.  But he had a little color.

Not me. For most of my life, I believed I was of only European ancestry. I have light eyes that have turned hazel with time; skin that burns, then tans; a vanilla exterior that will always seem colorless, thanks to my known English, Irish, French and German ancestry.

When I married a second generation Greek American, my mother started reading Edith Hamilton. “Did you know that the Greeks were originally blondes with blue eyes until they were invaded by the Moors?”  She seemed triumphant.  The fantasy that that my husband had a little color in him seemed to validate something she suspected, something that would define him long before his grandparents landed at Ellis Island. 

It wasn’t until I saw a picture of my great-great grandmother in 2000 that I began to wonder whether my maternal line might have ancestry other than European, and if so, whether that most intimate and lost knowledge was discoverable.

This week I uploaded my 23andme raw autosomal genetic information to Gedmatch in the hope that their admixture tools would provide more information about our supposed Native American ancestry.

Their tools gave me bits and pieces of NA identifications, ranging from .06 percent Artic-Amerindian to .21 percent Amerindian – some modeled results with more than one NA designation, which could be totaled, but never to more than 1 percent.

My African admixture, however, was expressed in ranges from a conservative .82 to wildly speculative 19.66 percent, with Sub-Saharan ancestry in the 1.06 to 8.06 range. 

I’ve included the genome painting from one of the admixture tools, Ethiohelix. Turquoise blue, which is by default called French, is my predominant European ancestry. But on every genome, there are splotches of orange—large and small – and elsewhere, bits of red and yellow and cornflower blue. 

I do have a little color.   

These admixture tests are scientific, yet impressionistic.

Somewhere between colonial America and this digital painting were people who knew who was in their family, people who lived in fear of the “one drop rule,” of the hypo-ascendancy that racial identities could confer.  There were also people who hid what they knew, even after to social consequences had changed, understanding the titillating, gotcha moment of discovery and revelation.

Family, not admixture calculators, are where real information lies.  I have no family to ask about my Gedmatch results.  Next month, in North Carolina, I’ll be talking to strangers.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Mary Ann's story

There is one woman in my maternal line whose story haunts me.  Mary Ann Armstrong Parisher, born in 1835 in Tyrrell County, North Carolina to parents William Graham Armstrong and his wife Mariah, my great great grandmother, appears in a picture given to me by a Parisher family researcher to be biracial or tri-racial.  

There are several reasons why her appearance and unknown racial identity are of special interest to me:

1.  Her father, William G. Armstrong, and his father, Holloway Armstrong, were both slave holders.

2.  A various times throughout Mary Ann's life, there were "free colored" members of Armstrong households.  In the 1850 and 1860 Tyrrell County, NC census rolls (and earlier) we find people with the surnames Hill, Bryan and Rousom in the households of Mary Ann's father, her grandfather, Holloway Armstrong, Charlotte (his widow), and other Armstrong kin (Jones D. Armstrong, and Bennett Armstrong.) Sometimes, as in the case of Micajah Rousom, a member of Mary Ann's household when she was a girl, they were apprenticed children.  

3.  Members of those three families living in Armstrong households are free persons of color identified in census records as black or mulatto.  Those surnames are also associated with Native families of Tyrrell County.  It seems likely that the Hills, Bryans and Rousoms who lived with the Armstrongs were not only biracial, but tri-racial.  (Alternate spellings: Bryant, Rowsom, Rowsome)

4.  Mary Ann's mother, Mariah, had both the maiden and surname Armstrong. I have not yet been able to find a record of Mariah's parents.

5.  Which brings me to a question that I'm hoping my trip Down Home might answer: were the Hills, Bryans and Rousoms, who were related to each other, also related to the Armstrongs?  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Women's Stories

Both of my parents lost their mothers before I was born.  

My dad did not talk about his mother, but my mother spoke often of hers, and always as if Inez Chesson Snell had been an angel.  She could sing beautifully, play the piano by ear, make a dress without a pattern.  Quick to laugh, resourceful, a woman of faith, humor and resilience. My mother would sometimes examine my hands and declare them a genetic copy of Inez's hands.

The underlying message was that this lovely good woman who I never had the chance to know did not deserve the hard life she led with her alcoholic, irresponsible husband.  She did not deserve to die at 50 of stomach cancer, wasted and skeletal thin.  

My mother often seemed stuck in loss.  I would give anything in this world to have a mother, she would say, especially when she was making the point that I did not seem to appreciate her.  And although I don't think she ever told me that her mother would have adored me, I liked to think that would have been the case.  

Fact is, I didn't have the opportunity to know any of my four grandparents, not the women who died before I was born, not the men who showed no interest in me.

And so I am drawn to this lovely, imagined, magical woman, who was a hauntingly beautiful child, as if she were the ancestor who could serve as the link to all family stories.

Without a male relative to genotype, mitochondrial DNA is all I have to tell our story.  And so it becomes women’s stories.  Me; my mother; Inez; her mother, Sarah Parisher Chesson; her mother, Mary Ann Armstrong Parisher; her mother, Mariah Armstrong.

Mary Ann Armstrong is the last for whom I have a picture.

Mariah Armstrong is the last woman in my maternal line for whom I have a name.

My mother is the last for whom I have a story, and even that is incomplete.  I don’t really know about her life Down Home, before she settled down, became a mother and a Northern housewife.  

I often imagine that it was wild, and full of secrets.  Actually, I’m pretty sure it was.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Snells of Lee's Mills Township, Washington County

Let's begin with what I know about my mother's family, and the things she told me that may or may not add to the factual narrative of her people.

She was born in 1917, the second and last child of Benjamin McClellan Snell and Inez Victoria Chesson Snell.  Ben was 13 years older than Inez.  Their first child was a son, Alger Ben.  In those days, having only two children would have been viewed, clinically, as a fertility issue.  Both Inez and Ben had come from large local farm families, so large that two of Inez's sisters, Eva and Cora Chesson, had married two of Ben Snell's brothers.

Ben and Inez and their children lived on a farm near Roper, North Carolina, and although the Great Depression hit them hard and shaped the way my mother would forever view money and security, they had the sustainability advantages that a farm afforded.  

Inez was the grandparent with initiative.  When times were tough, she did whatever it took to generate revenue.  She made things to sell at the local farmer's market, including birdhouses and sausages.  She doted on and spoiled her only daughter, picking tobacco for hire to buy my mother a class ring, sewing evening gowns for her so she could enjoy the illusion of being a young Southern belle.

Ben was less responsible.  A drinker, who never wanted to be a farmer. According to my mother, before marriage Ben had joined the merchant marine, following a young man's wanderlust that he relinquished to settle down.  But he remained unsettled and unmotivated, and spent much of the Depression sitting on the porch telling stories to children and drinking while his wife worked hard to hold things together.  He was a reluctant farmer, who made moonshine "somewhere back in the Swamp."

I never knew them.  Inez died of stomach cancer before I was born, shortly after she turned 50. Ben died when I was five, and the only memories I have of him were from that last year of his life, when we brought him north to live with us, a brief fiasco that left my mother thwarted and bitter.  From the day he arrived until Alger Ben came to get him, my fragile, Parkinsonian grandfather repeated the refrain, "Where's my boy?  I want my boy!"

His boy came for him and that was the last time I saw Ben Snell.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"Down Home," the poem

I hope that this poem, which is included in The Bright Field of Everything (Kore Press 2014), might resonate with those of you who ever had a parent who felt displaced.


He brought her 400 miles north, left her
in a little white house with a bay window
that stared blankly over a golf course.  Left
Monday, stayed away all week making sales.
Uprooted from women who knew what
she meant when she said I swan or pass me
a tea towel.  Exchanged for coffee shop friends,
rapid talkers she’d correct through her baby –
“say ah-gayne, like we say down home, honey,
not ah-ginnn,”  And I’d say ah-gayne and search
her face to understand how it was brighter,
better, righter in that rhapsodic somewhere else.

Oh how sweet evenings fell through the sour
smell of the pulp mill, how recklessly they ate
the melons’ hearts and threw the rest to hogs,
how deep the smoldering peat, woody earth
burning back in the Dismal Swamp, Lake Phelps
steaming at sunrise.  The most gorgeous mornings,
sharpest rooster, gentlest mule.  And they’d had
the best pecans, sweetest spoon bread, saltiest
Smithfield ham.  How perfect the corn pudding,
bubbling in a glass casserole, how crisp
and translucent the watermelon rind pickles. 
Nothing better than a breakfast of ham biscuits
and streaked gravy, her mother’s quince jelly,
warm bag of boiled peanuts in your pocket.

Down home, where they’d had fireworks and shot
guns into the sky at Christmas, piled magnolia leaves
on the mantle, made fruit cake and floating island
custard and sand tarts.  She’d been content there,
sleek bird dogs sleeping in the sand under the porch,
crop dusters droning in the distance, her mother
singing I come to the garden alone, making mayonnaise
cake, sweet tea and deviled eggs for company.  No
money, evening gowns sewn without a pattern, food
coloring dropped in a vase to tint Queen Anne’s Lace,
tough muscadineg grapes pressed into summer wine.

Lord, how I wish I could be down home, she’d say,
the two of us alone in the little house, looking out over
the golf course through a curtain of snow, cold in pastel
winter robes, our damp hair in pin curls, dark skies filled
with deepening winter, the frame farmhouse in her mind
receding another hundred miles, and another, the rutted

Mill Pond road freezing over in memory, slippery.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

There's home, and then there's Down Home

For the 57 years that she lived in the North, my mother spoke longingly of a place in eastern North Carolina that she called Down Home.  Down Home was alternately the farm where she'd once lived on Mill Pond Road in Lee's Mills Township, Washington County, or the larger stomping grounds of her youth that included parts of Tyrrell, Chowan, Edgecomb and Dare counties.  

Not only geographical,  Down Home was cultural.  It was how they did things, what they believed, who they loved, who and what gave comfort and was embraced, who and what was rejected and devalued.

It was the overlay of my mother's sensibility, and like other children whose parents longed for a lost place -- its rooms and weather, foods and smells -- I adopted a thinner version of the mythical place that was so compelling, so wonderful.  The place that I once believed kept her from being present for me, that she missed on Sunday mornings and holidays or when she was making spoon bread or a white peach pie, was a place I visited annually with my family for 18 years, and then rejected.

For reasons subtle and traumatic, personal and political, I could no longer connect with the people or places that she loved and called home for her 86 years, long after her mother, father, brother and childhood home were gone, all evidence of the life she once lived leveled, as if by a hurricane. All that was left were sepia and black and white photos.

This summer I'm going back to the place that used to be, and although I want to experience what it has become, my purpose will be to hunt and fish through records, finish building my family tree, excavate the deep past.  Figure out who we were, what we did and didn't do.  Who we loved, and who we hurt.  

You are invited to join me in going Down Home.