Sunday, June 26, 2016


Jemima Murphree

I’ve been spending some time delving into the Ancestry site---Sis and DBIL have done a lot of research, and have gone to Salt Lake City for the archives there, as well as a trip to Ireland and an upcoming trip back to Ireland and Scotland.   It’s amazing to look back and back, like down a hall of mirrors of your own past, selves and souls captured in a panoply of all the grays that there are.   Names and places I knew or simply heard, and great staircases of names and times stretching way into the WE of me are like shining presents to open and enjoy.

Romelia Best Newman
 My Mammaw's Mother, ca 1901

Learning about all those ancestors, seeing them stiffly caught in those depths of gray, squinting into the afternoon sun in their best mothballed silk, or standing gravely before a fern-painted backdrop in their Sunday best---that’s a gift of technology which I’m enjoying immensely.

Henry P Newman
Her Father, same photo

  I see these six tall, rawboned brothers, paling in the picture as their memories fade---three sitting and three standing in their unaccustomed suit-coats and decades of collar styles, with their hair slicked down or still fluffed from a last-minute hat-removal, and all those earnest, solemn sepia faces showing the tell-tale “farmer’s halo" of the final two inches of white covered by a hat in the relentless Mississippi sun.

Berry Ozro Best and brothers

Mammaw's Grandfather and his brothers

And the Census Pages!  What a treasure-trove of puzzles and tidbits to solve, with the heedless scrawl of the tired census-taker translating the names into mangled forms, further confused by a later-day transcriptionist who can make “Floyd” out of “Hugh” and the some several over the decades who changed my Grandmother’s name to a different starts-with-a-J every time.

But there’s one page---the one I discovered late yesterday and marveled and reminisced and laughed and dreamed over---it’s the 1930 Census, it’s like a time capsule to my Mother’s teens, with all the people up and down the street from Mammaw’s house---Mother’s childhood girlfriends and the ones she double-dated with in high school; the sixteen-year-old-self of the humble, gentle fortyish woman who lived with her married sister and came to “borry some ice” one sweltering noonday in my childhood, and unassumingly sat and ate herself some dinner, right from my Grandpa’s already-used place setting, refusing all offers of fresh with “No’m---thiss’ll be jes’ fine.”

There, on the same page, are at least five ladies, listed as “wife” beneath men designated as “Head,”---those ladies are the ones up and down the street whose hair Mother rolled later in the Thirties for a dime every Saturday morning, right there on Mammaw’s front porch.   They would arrive at their “time,” drippy-headed from the shampoo pan, or towel-wrapped, and she’d do all manner of rollings to suit them, on papers and bobby pins, or rag curls, or a “fingerwave” with some sort of viscous liquid you applied with a comb, and held your hand tight to the back of the shingled hair til the wave began to set.

There’s Mrs. Nelson, whose great cheery laugh could be heard all up and down the street, and whose “colours” I’ll never forget---she arrived one day with great drips of dye-stain on her towel, and to Mother’s concerned inquiry, said “I’m tryin’ this out---I don’t care if it turns it Piss-Munkum Brown.”  Not to be confused with a dress she referred to as “Piss-Ellum Green.”

And the Postmistress, right out the back door, who had the odd quirk of rolling a straight pin back and forth between her lips at all times, and whose lack of amenities at work occasioned her being seen several times by Mammaw out the kitchen window, doing a little business of her own right out in the shadow of the garden shed. 

I had a stunning thought last night in the wee, should-be-in-bed-but-I-can’t-leave-this hours:  I may be the only living person who remembers all these people, or at least knows their names and the memories that Mammaw related to me in the “swang.”   Their relatives today are probably looking up their own folks, and finding kin, but little knowing the lives and days that passed there amongst all that little group of folks thrown together by a small matter of real estate.   There’s just something about that little street that so impressed upon me, that I knew every soul, up and down and around the blocks, from Mammaw’s days and years of sharing in their lives.

My own microcosm, right there on the 1930 Census page, WAY before I winked into the world.  It feels like a responsibility, somehow, the keeping of this list, kinda like the Readers must have felt in Fahrenheit 451.   I guess having a nine-G's-back ancestor named Zealous Zeal will do that for you.


Val said...

Yes, yes, yes. ♥

Kathy said...

I am so in love with genealogy. My research has come up with working class people, soldiers, politicians and kings. So much royalty in my background that I am astounded. Then I turn around and see my 3 times great grandmother who took in sewing to make a living for her and her three children while her husband was off fighting (and dying) in the Civil War. So many people make up the us we see today. Ordinary people with ordinary lives and ordinary friends. Ah... I've felt like this for years, since I was a young teen, and want to know everything about everyone even if they aren't related to me. But after all, we're all related to each other in some way.

donna baker said...

Growing up, we were never around extended family. My mom was from Louisiana and the dad side lived out of town. My daughter has become interested in genealogy on both sides of our families and I found an old family bible of my grandmothers, so that has helped. So different that your family. I have cousins and relatives I've never met.

A Brit in Tennessee said...

It's so much fun learning about your genealogy, when we went to England in October, my brother drove us to Scotland, and my husband was able to visit the Crawford castle, home of his clan. So much to discover still....

bj said...

hahhaa...I really enjoyed this post...I have a cousin that loves this kind of thing and he has really done a great job on our family. I am too impatient to try to do any of the searching myself...and don't care for it like he does.
I can relate to being the only one left that remembers so many of our people..I have another cousin, Skeet, that is only a yr younger than I but her memory isn't all that great....and if she can't remember a certain thing, she makes up a great story...hahha
O, so many questions I wish I'd asked some of my people before they mother told me a lot but now that she's gone this almost 30 years, I've wondered about so so many things.
I suppose that's life...xoxo

steelersandstartrek said...

You are so right, dearie. It IS a responsibility. But mostly it is a gift, all for you. The stories, the memory-images transferred by Mammaw to you as if you actually lived them, all your private treasure box! It's part of what makes you special and unique and precious in this world, each of us -- we each guard our stories and stories by those that came before. Thanks for sharing a glimpse into yours, once again!

Rhonda Cook said...

I love the pictures, Henry Pryor Newman is my great great grandfather. His brother John W. Newman is my great grandfather.

Kim S. said...

I find this so fascinating! I'd love to know more about my family, but I'm too lazy to do all the work! Wish I had a family member with more energy! I have lots of old, unidentified pictures that intrigue me!