Where is the Story?

Her palms hovered just inches from her ears, fingers-spread.  As if a metronome, my mother’s hands rocked back and forth as she spat, “You are JUST like your father!”  I never needed a decoder to understand that this phrase conveyed a mother’s disappointment; her eldest child, and only daughter, carried on the mannerisms and point of view of a barely tolerated ex-husband.  My parents’ divorce was amicable as formal separations go.  Since all the children were fairly grown up, no custody duels were overtly fought.  But the covert competition for our allegiance and love was ceaseless throughout my adult life.

You cope, when your parents are divorced.  You just cope, raising your own children as best you can, fending off the birth family battles with as much panache and courage as you dare, navigating the second marriages and blended family get-togethers without losing your mind.  And finally you start feeling a bit old, mortal, and you set out to reclaim your childhood, your birth family, your ancestors.  Or that is what you do when you get bitten by the genealogy bug.

I wandered the shoals of family memory, curious about how and why !?! my parents ever got together.  There was a college romance.  At RPI in Richmond.  Norman transferred to VPI (Virginia Tech) and they got married.  In Greene County, Pennsylvania. Then they lived in Blacksburg.  Norman got a job with General Electric, and they moved to Boston, where Lyn finished her degree at Tufts. GE transferred the couple to Roanoke.

I had to DIG for this stuff, people.

Finally, late in life, my father admitted that he would always love the girl he married.  Which plants the question: was Norman ever Lyn’s beloved? I would never hear the profession from her lips.

What was once lost has now been found

The letters

My father mailed a letter from Virginia Tech Station, Blacksburg, Virginia, to my mother’s dorm at 819 Franklin, Richmond 20, Virginia, every day from January 28, 1953 until May 28, 1953.

And my mother saved. them. all. *

The love letters chronicle the spring of their engagement; the Barnes Junction rendevous, unreasonable professors, wedding dates, and rambling musings of twenty-somethings. Sometimes the story is not left in the ink of a letter.  It is inferred by the mere presence of that artifact.  The words speak of my parents’ love for each other, once upon a time.  The preservation of this seven inch stack says my mother always loved the boy she married.

It matters to me that my parents married because they wanted to, because they were in love, and optimistic, and happy to be together.  It matters to me that I was welcomed with delight.  Perhaps, after all, my mother was a teeny bit glad that I turned out to be just like my father.

 

*Norman S. Strickland, Blacksburg, Virginia, 1953, Letters to Marilyn Minor; Marilyn Minor Strickland Collection, archived with the author.

This Day in Family History: September 21, 1952

Sixty-one years ago, my mother left campus life behind to visit a little town a couple of hours south.  In truth it wasn’t the little town she wanted to see, but the family of the man she loved.

Letter 2 September 1953Marilyn Minor was a junior occupational therapy major at the Richmond Polytechnic Institute that fall of 1952.  Her man, Norman Strickland, was a junior transfer from RPI to Virginia Tech, where he was studying electrical engineering.  Norman had been asked to come home for the weekend of September 20-21, because his brothers, Sidney, Clifford and Paul, were all coming to Chase City, bringing their wives and children.  A conflicted Norman must have told his mother of his commitment to see Lyn that very weekend, and, as one can imagine, his mother offered a compromise that no one could turn down: ask Lyn to come along home with you!

As Norman proposed in a separate letter, received under separate cover, he would pick Lyn up that Sunday morning and take her back that night.  They would be all together for church and lunch.  These plans were made  in early September as the young couple prepared to return to school, since Lyn would need both her parents’ permission and the school’s permission to leave campus. “I do hope you will come for the joy will be all mine,” wrote the Chase City boy.  

The fact that my mother kept these letters suggests that Lyn dashed to her parents upon receiving the notes, and accepted the invitation before leaving her family home in Greene County, Pennsylvania. That year the fall equinox marked more than the changing of the seasons.  The courtship of Lyn and Norman took a very serious turn.

The Prayer-Centered Life of Florette Sayles Strickland

A most touching note came by snail mail last week.  My uncle, a darling man with a twinkling smile and gentle eyes, shared a memory of his mother, my grandmother.

“Mom went down on her knees beside her bed to pray,” he wrote, “EVERY night before going to sleep.  The attached is her adaptation of The Lord’s Prayer.” (copied in her hand sometime in November 1971)

Wordless Wednesday: The Old Home Place

A fire licked the home of memories, back in 1947.  My father recalled being summoned by the farm’s bell, and dashing up the pasture with his dad to watch a chimney fire consume the Dodson Home Place, built in 1860 just off of Butcher’s Creek, Mecklenburg County, Virginia.  Family Bibles, photographs, letters and clippings; beds, clothing, sheets, tables, books, piano – all gone in a matter of hours. Family and friends gathered food and clothing to comfort the Stricklands, and others shared photographs – like this one – that the memory of Oakview and her history might not be buried in the ashes of that tragedy.

The 110th Anniversary of Anna Florette Sayles Strickland’s Birth

Today is the anniversary of the birth of my grandmother. Born December 4, 1901 to two middle-aged farmers in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, Anna Florette Sayles was a bit of a miracle girl.

Her father, Clifton Duvall Sayles, had five children from his first marriage to Anna McCullough, both Yankees drawn to the south after the Civil War.  After Anna died sometime during the year of 1900 Clifton paid court to his first love, Miss Rebecca Eulelia “Lilly” Dodson, a spinster who lived down the road near Butchers Creek on the family’s farm with her two spinster sisters.

Lilly and Clifton had fallen in love right after his arrival in Mecklenburg County in 1870 but James and Sarah Jane Dodson would not accept Clifton’s proposal to marry their daughter.  Feelings ran high against Yankees for the Dodson’s had lost both a son and a brother to the Cause.  So Lilly lived her life, without ever marrying.  Clifton met and married Anna in 1879.  They had five children, two of whom were still at home when Anna died in 1900.  Clifton set out to complete his family.

In January of 1901, no longer needing anyone’s approval, Lilly and Clifton were married in Chase City, Virginia.  Just twelve months later, the forty-five year old bride gave birth to her only child.  Anna Florette grew up pretty much an only child, for all the McCullough Sayles had married or moved off the farm by the time she was a young girl.

In 1920 George R. Strickland, who had been adopted by Lilly Dodson Sayles’ sisters and unmarried brother, hitched up a wagon and drove his team to the Sayles’ house to pay court to Florette. They were married September 28, 1921 in the Baptist parsonage in Chase City, Virginia by the Rev. H. L. Williams.  Four sons were born to this union:  George Sidney, Clifford Ricks, Paul Warren, and Norman Scott.  The family survived the depression by returning to the Dodson farm.

By 1951 all the boys had left Mecklenburg County, and my grandmother and grandfather lived in Chase City, keeping up the farm with the help of tenant farmers and the like.  My grandfather ran several school buses for the Chase City district and was landlord for several city properties.  My grandmother kept George straight, and the home running smoothly.

Florette Strickland loved music; she made sure all of her boys could play an instrument, and that they played together regularly.  She played the piano; my granddaddy had purchased this big old piano which sat in the living room of their home.  Her pile of music contained anthems for her church choir, as well as popular ballads and tunes.  One of my favorite memories is of me on the bench, playing Clair de Lune, by Claude Debussy.  Grandmother sat on the couch, crocheting another blanket.  When I finished I turned to see her smiling and she said, “I believe you just made that piano sing.”

Anna Florette Sayles Strickland died in March 1981, leaving behind a rich legacy of music loving family.

Anna Florette Sayles Strickland shares a chuckle with her husband George Ricks Strickland, circa 1951