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.

Tuesday’s Tip: Don’t Climb Trees With Your Glasses On!

It all started, this tree climbing, with my grandmother’s handwritten family history and my father’s stories of growing up on the family farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia.  I scrambled up the lowest branches, then higher and higher into the tree; deeper and deeper into my past, discovering dreams and disappointments among the families’ leaves.  Blogging as I connected the dots of dates and events and folks’ names, I attracted the attention of a fellow enthusiast and descendant.   And the letters she posted via snail mail continued to support my generational study of the Sayles/Dodson family.  Kind of.

Read this excerpt:

“I could get and make a splendid home there (Virginia), at a very low price.  But it is all of no use.  The means of making such a home are his/hers.  Where s/he says invest, there investment will be made, or nowhere.”

Which ancestor wrote this:

a) the stay at home mom with three boys, 18, 13 and 7?

b) the former Captain in the 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteer Infantry?

c) the Principal of Rushford’s secondary school?

d) the French teacher in the town’s academy?

If you said (a), you would not be alone, for that was exactly what I would have said, were I listening to this letter, author unknown.

My great-great-grandmother, Serena White Sayles, was a stay at home mom in the summer of 1869, and a former French teacher at both Rushford Academy and Alfred University in Allegany County, New York.  She and husband, Ira Sayles, moved to a farm outside Christiansville (Chase City), Virginia by the 1870 census, with their boys, upon the advice of Ira who might have become aware of this fertile region while serving at Camp Suffolk, Virginia – just east of Christiansville –  in 1862-1863. 

That’s the story I saw, prior to this letter, because I stared through the lens of old English common law, in which  women’s wages, property and their very identity were merged with that of their husband.  This framework dominated the legal and social  landscape in the post-war era. Except in New York, where the legislature had first passed laws governing the rights of married women as early as 1848. In 1860 it had updated the law to read in part:

Section 1: The property, both real and personal, which any married woman now owns, as her sole and separate property; that which comes to her by descent, devise, bequest, gift or grant; that which she acquires by her trade, business, labor or services, carried on or performed on her sole or separate account; that which a woman married in this state owns at the time of her marriage, and the rents, issues and proceeds of all such property, shall, notwithstanding her marriage, be and remain her sole and separate property, and may be used, collected and invested by her in her own name, and shall not be subject to the interference or control of her husband, or liable of his debts, except such debts as may have been contracted for the support of herself or her children, by her as his agent, ¹

So the author of this letter was not a powerless wife, but a former Captain in the Union army, and a community and educational leader.  It was Serena who owned the family’s real estate, properties gifted to her by her father, Samuel S. White of Whitesville, New York and Serena who held control over those assets.  And it was Serena who instigated the move to Virginia, not Ira, as revealed in another section of this same letter:

She wanted me to invest her means in Virginia lands.  Then she thought she didn’t dare trust me alone, so she went with me. 

Taking my common law lenses off, I have read and reread this letter.  Each pass through yields a different clue to the nature of Ira and Serena’s relationship, its distribution of power and its lack of harmony.  How different the family story is shaping up to be, now that I am climbing without my glasses on. 

¹ New York Married Woman’s Property Act of 1860, approved March 20, 1860.  1860 N.Y. Laws 90, Session 83, pp. 157-159.

Amanuensis Monday: A Letter From Ira

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to a blog-reading  cousin, Sharon B., who contacted me after perusing this site.  After a flurry of excited email, I received a packet of letters written from MY great-great-grandfather to HER great-great-grandfather.  Today I transcribe the first of these brotherly exchanges.  Thank you, thank you, Sharon!

From Rushford, Allegany County, New York, my great-great-grandfather, Ira Sayles, wrote a letter to his younger brother James Sayles.  The circumstances of that summer of 1869 must have been strained; the weather was unpredictable, his marriage unsatisfactory, his birth family scattered far and wide.  Ira seems unsettled and forlorn.  On a Saturday, July 24 he wrote:

My Dear Brother, James,

Yours of the 18 inst (of the present month) came to hand, last evening.  I need not say I was somewhat surprised: for I had lost all trace of you.  My last to you was directed to LaPorte, and was never answered.  I received a paper published at Austin, Minn. sometime last summer, a year ago.  Your name was onit, and I supposed you sent it.  This was ll the clue I had to your whereabouts.   I could not discover where that was mailed.  So I supposed you would rather I should not know.  Of course I was quiet.  I am glad to receive a line now.  Since I wrote to you, my matters have run along in the usual track.  My year’s expenses devoured my year’s salary, and left me as poor, today, as one year ago today.

Serena (White Sayles) does not dispose of much of her landed property, though, of course.  She is moving to sell her Alfred property, house (1) and all, for six thousand.  It ought to bring ten thousand and she wanted me to invest her means in Virginia lands.  Then she thought she didn’t dare trust me alone, so she went with me.  It was exceedingly warm; and I suspect she will not go again, very soon.  (2)  I could get and make a splendid home there, at a very low price.  But it is all of no use.  The means of making such a home are hers.  Where she says invest, there investment will be made, or nowhere.

Loren (another younger brother) is in East Boston, I suppose.  He has twice inquired of me for you.  I could not tell. so the matter has rested.

I am again engaged in this school (Rushford Union School/Academy), for another year.  So you will know where I may be found.

This season has been a very unfavorable one for corn with us; but wheat has done well.  Grass has a heavy growth, but the weather for haymaking is tremendous.  No on can guess what hour it may rain like Noah’s flood.  These rains are frequently cold as April rains.

We are all very well.  I have not recently heard from any of our brothers and sisters.  My respects to Lucinda and Anna.

Very truly, Your Brother,

Ira

(1) The Gothic house on Alfred University’s campus, built by her father, Samuel S. White, in 1852 to house the Sayles’ family.  Both Ira and Serena were on faculty at the time.

(2) In fact, the family had purchased a farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, just south of what would become Chase City, by the spring of 1870, when it was recorded to be the residence of Ira and eldest son, Clifton.

Family Secrets Lurking 1.0 – Amanuensis Monday

Family Secrets Lurking 1.0

Family Secrets Lurking 2.0

Serendipity Surrounds a Secret

A family secret lurks in my work room, its edges smudged by family pride and shame and simmering disputes.  Penciled thoughts leap from papers long forgotten; stamps and postmarks reveal clues that no one thought to hide.  The secret’s outline is becoming sharper.

Robert Minor was born in 1869, the youngest child of a well-to-do stock dealer in southwestern Pennsylvania.  Francis Marion and Mary Jane Gwynn Minor passed on Greene County farms to each of their four children, with Robert inheriting the Home Farm, also known as the Jacob Myers farm.  Like his family before him, Robert was to become a stock dealer, raising his two children, Helen and Donald, with his wife May Laura Stephenson Minor, on the Home Farm.  What was on the land was far less valuable than what was IN the land, and once the coal  rights were sold in the early 1900s, the family’s opportunities multiplied. Stories floated during our family reunions, whispers of fabulous wealth and travel, all lost to the depression and the world war that followed.  The details remained in the shadows.  I thought nothing of it, until I began collecting and curating family records.

Four days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, my great-grandfather wrote to his son, Donald Minor, from the Mercer Sanitarium, Mercer, Pennsylvania.  The nurses were all working somewhere else and the “guests” receiving Dr. Richardson’s treatments needed to find new quarters.

December 11, 1941

Dear Donald, Received your letter and will say that you got a good price for your calves. Please excuse this pencil riting (sic) My ink is set up in the (cupboard) or the (clothes press) will in riting these few lines. Dr. Richardson wants me to write you. Won’t you please get me a room in the Washington Hospital. Please do that much for me as he says all the nurses are away working. Do it at once and please and thank you. Yours respect (sic), your Dad

My mother was a young girl at that time, and vaguely recollects discussions surrounding her grandfather’s hospitalization.  One fact stuck with her – Robert Minor ended up at Mayview, a psychiatric hospital outside Pittsburgh.  A cousin remembers stories of misery and desperation, with Robert pleading to be removed from the hospital.

Did deteriorating wealth lead to deteriorating mental health?  Were Robert and Donald estranged? What circumstances led to Robert’s stay in the sanitarium and from what was he recuperating?  Was the Mercer Sanitarium more hotel than hospital, like the Victorian health resorts?  If so, then a move to Mayview would have been a very jolting experience.

A secret is lurking in my work room and I aim to coax it out.  “Please do that much for me. . . “

This slideshow requires JavaScript.