Family Stories

I was very excited to have Nancy Turner as one of my writing teachers. She wrote a novel based on early twentieth-century journals of one of her family members called These is My Words. Two subsequent novels continued the story, Sarah’s Quilt, and The Star Garden. These is My Words has been one of my favorite books since I first read it. It introduced the spunky woman, Sarah Prine to me. Through the years I’ve collected family stories also.

Family lore, oral tradition, is a way of connecting generations and a treasure chest for writers to plunder for story ideas. One such legend is of my great grandmother, Nellie Mae, who as a child traveled with her nearly blind father from Nebraska to Washington D.C. in the 1880’s to obtain a civil war pension. Her father James A., had been in the Union Army during the Civil War and was injured when a shell exploded in his face. He was taken prisoner. He tried to escape and was shot again. When the war ended, he went back to his family in Nebraska. Disabled by war wounds, he earned a living by writing and selling songs and poems; and, he played music with a small crank box-type organ. When government pensions were offered to Union soldiers, James A. traveled with his young daughter Nellie by train to Washington DC to obtain his. She was nine or ten at the time. James found he was listed as a deserter because his status as a prisoner of war was never verified.  Pension denied, he played music and sang with Nellie at the train station to earn enough money to get back to their home in Nebraska. He tried until his death to straighten out the records but never succeed. James moved his family to Woods County, OK where they all did farm labor for local farmers. His wife died when Nellie was young. Nellie grew to be a very pretty Irish lass. She left school in the fifth grade to work to help support her family. She had several older brothers who worked the farms in the area too. One of Nellie’s jobs was to cook for the threshing crews in harvest season and keep house for her father and brothers. She met a skinny German man, named James K who worked at a nearby ranch. (He always emphasized to me that he was Prussian, not German.) James was twenty-two, Nellie was fourteen. James charmed her into leaving with him to start a new life. Late one night, they met in a peach orchard and fled the territory in his wagon. When their absence was discovered, Nellie’s brothers set out hot on their trail, not just because she was their sister but because she was their cook. The brothers chased them on horseback across Oklahoma into Kansas, then gave up. Nellie and James were married in 1888 in Hugoton Kansas and were together nearly 70 years until James’ death in 1956. They raised six children.

They were my great-grandparents and I remember them well. Great-grandpa had a big hooked nose and grew a fabulous garden that would feed an army. He rocked in his chair with grandkids on his lap. Smelled of tobacco chew and occasionally spit tobacco juice into the coffee can by his rocker. Great-grandma was the matriarch. She cooked meals for large family gatherings. She always had a fresh onion from the garden by her plate and ate it like an apple. Her hugs were magnanimous. She smelled like baking. Great-grandparents were fixtures in my life; old folks I saw for Sunday dinners, at birthday parties, and holidays. It never occurred to me they had a STORY beyond my knowing. I regret not having those conversations with them. I’m currently researching letters, family notes, photos, and history to piece together a narrative of their unique story.

Just like Nancy Turner and me, every family has legends and unique stories to tell. My co-author Jackie put several of her family stories in our book Telling Tales and Sharing Secrets.