Serena White Sayles–are you there?
That is what I ask every time I sort the Sayles’ family records.
My grandmother was a miracle baby. Anna Florette Sayles was born in December 1901, less than a year after Lilly Dodson and Clifton Duvall Sayles married, a second shot at happiness that these two grabbed. Clifton had paid court to Lilly shortly after arriving in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, but in the early 1870’s feelings ran high about Yankees. Lilly’s oldest brother, Greene, and an uncle, Benjamin F. Dodson, had been killed in the Seige of Petersburg, 1864; Clifton’s father had served as captain in the 130th New York State Volunteer Infantry in 1863. And Lilly’s parents, James and Sarah Rowlett Dodson, would not hear of Lilly marrying the young New Yorker.
Clifton stayed on the farm purchased in 1869 by his dad, Ira, and married Annie McCullough in 1879. His mother, Serena White Sayles, had moved by that time to Mecklenburg County, while father Ira had returned to teach in New York. The 1880s found Serena helping Clifton raise a family and teaching at private Chase City schools, while Ira Sayles traveled the east coast collecting and analyzing rock specimens for the young United States Geological Survey.
Ira fell ill in 1892 and finally settled in with Serena, Clifton and Annie, and several of his grandchildren. He filed for a pension under the 1890 Civil War pension program and after his death 24 June 1894, Serena filed to receive the widow’s pension. She had a cat and some books. Serena received the pension from 1897 until her death 16 July 1899.
Annie died sometime between 1 June 1900 and January 1901.
And Clifton, age 50, immediately paid court to Lilly, who had never married. She accepted his proposal and they were wed in Chase City, 9 January 1901. At the age of 45 Lilly had her first and only child, her miracle, my grandmother, 21 December of that same year.
It is Florette’s handwritten family history that has clued me in to how special Serena was. Brought up in western New York during the 1830s Serena attended Alfred Academy where she met fellow student Ira Sayles. They married and remained in the Alfred Academy family through its growth to a college. In fact, Serena taught after she was married, quite an avant garde position for a woman. That much was conveyed through family lore. I have found all sorts of letters, poems, scientific notes, and journal articles that Ira wrote. Given Ira’s considerable correspondence that is public I keep hoping that sooner or later I will trip over letters he and Serena exchanged. But so far I have nothing.
What and who was Serena? This educated woman who loved French? This New Yorker of Seventh Day Baptist sensibilities, who relocated from a thriving women’s suffragist community to a sleepy agricultural county in southside Virginia? What did Serena do? Who did she befriend? How did she keep up her French and her thinking? Did Serena write poetry, like Ira? Because my grandmother was the child of the second marriage, those details she would never have heard. And the children of Clifton and Annie, whom Serena help raise, have long left the collective memory of my family’s lore. I just keep wondering.
Serena–are you out there?