Monday, March 1, 2010


We recently put two photographs up on our living room wall, both circa 1890 or so, of my great-great-great grandparents.  My Dad gave them to me; he's sort of the family historian.  He and I were driving with the girls somewhere one day, and he told us this story:

Their great-great-great-great grandpa, William Walbridge Wood, was traveling with his wife Louisa (that's them pictured above), some time in the 1860s, and when they stopped to water their horses found a 6 year old girl sitting in a chair at the bottom of a cistern (a basin used to catch rain-water).   She was sitting down there because she was being punished.  Not by her parents - they had left town on a train, said they'd return, never did - but by whoever it was that was raising her.  William and Louisa took the girl with them, and raised her as their own.  Her name was Bessie.

It is maddening incomplete, but that's what I love about this story: the huge gaps in it, the details that will never be known.  What was Bessie being punished for?  Who were the people raising her?  Were they abusive, or merely strict, to punish her by having her sit in a cistern?  William was 59 at the time, and Lousisa, as a Choctaw woman, had suffered greatly on the hellish Trail of Tears years before.  What was their motivation in taking her, in raising her?

It makes me wonder about what odd scraps of story will cling to my own family 150 years from now, when my great-great-great grandchildren are driving in their flying cars, telling their kids about how strange and primitive life was back in 2010.  What questions will they be asking about us?  What stories will define us in their eyes?  What will be lost?  What will remain? 


Last Tango said...

From Praying Small: "Thousands of years of heads and then tails and then heads again and then maybe tails...all the accidents that make up my presence."

Yep. Fascinating stuff, J.

ArtSparker said...

Oh, my goodness. I think I'll have to link to this.

Sabra said...

I wonder if some of the details are a bit mixed up. I wonder if this child Bessie was one of those shipped out west from the east. The sad "orphan trains" that stopped and allowed local residents to adopt a child -- often taking them on as farm hands rather than children to adore and raise as their own. I have often wondered what it must have been like to sit on that train and wonder where you'd end up, who'd see you at what stop and would they be kind or awful? There's a children's book about it. In fact, that might be how I first learned of that historical item. I find it almost as sad as the Carlisle Indian School where children were sent by tribes and force to abandon most of their own culture to adopt "white" ways.

slommler said...

What a great story and does make you wonder!?! I just can't imagine poor Bessie just sitting there all by herself. Talk about lonely and scared!!!! What a great thing they did in taking her and raising her as their own.
Yes, what stories will be told our heirs about our generation. LOL!

Anonymous said...

My father, and now myself, have both followed along the twisting paths that make up our shared past. My grandfather was a soldier in three different armies during the years surrounding the second World War. I have tidbits on relatives with names I can't pronounce. I have a firsthand account from a man on my mother's side of the family, old enough to remember having gone out west in the early days.

My wonderings are of a different nature. On my mother's side, my family has been in the States for about as long as white men have. My father, though, comes from lines in Germany and Latvia, from states that didn't even exist when he and his parents were born. Even had those countries not been involved in World War II, there has been so much conflict in that region that records have been destroyed and misplaced. We have managed to go back a few generations, and no more.

Something in me sees the tree where it stops, and feels a pang. I can't help but wonder what we all come to, to be swept away so easily by the sands of time.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

Hopefully your grandkids will come read your blog and then they will know. You document well.


Scarlett & Viaggiatore

Eva said...

Bessie's dungeon keepers must have been glad to give her away. Your ancestors were heaven-sent! What a story.
When I was eight, I saw a movie about a Navajo boy being taken away -- kidnapped -- by authorities who put him in a boarding school. I was so upset about this act of violence that I can remember parts of this picture today.

California Girl said...

Came over from Art Spark Theatre. Your story reminds me of a story about my grandfather, born 1871. He was one of four boys (I think) and his mother died. His father remarried and the step mother did not like the boys. Apparently, his father was away and it was dead of winter in southern Illinois and she decided to punish two of the boys, one of them my grandfather. They were probably somewhere between 8-10 though I'm not sure. She made them go outside in the dark of night in the freezing cold with snow all around. They apparently huddled together, eventually falling asleep. Their uncle found them and rescued them. He'd come over unexpectedly.

I cried like a baby the first time I heard that story. My grandfather was a very sweet man. I have a vague memory of him. He died at 85, when I was 4 years old. But my aunt, father and cousin all said he was a wonderfully kind person.

Who does these things to little kids?

Clowncar said...

I'm not sure quoting your own work is considered quite kosher there, Brando.

Thanks for the link, Art. Some nice people with interesting family stories stopped by.

Perhaps, Sabra. My Dad knows alla bout the orphan trains, though I had never heard of them until your mention. What's the children's book? I'd love to read it.

SueAnn, that image of the girl in a chair at the bottom of a well is at the center of it - so strikingly lonely.

Ah, Bliss, yes, there is a pang. But just because the tree can't be traced doesn't mean someone isn't telling a story about one of your relatives, perhaps this very second. Stories have such staying power. They stick like barnicles.

Scarlett, I have no illusions this blog is a lasting document of any kind. Some part of me will last, I think, in things I create, or stories I tell, or lessons I pass along. But I doubt this blog will be among them.

Eva, they were heaven sent. Imagine how they felt coming upon that child. Imagine how the child felt upon seeing them.

Cali Girl, that story got me a little choked up as well. Four boys huddled together in the snow, trying to keep warm, trying to stat alive. My.