The Middle Distance 1.3.14: Stories of a Pioneer American Family

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Apple Tree and Irises by Myron Wood, May 1980. Copyright PPLD. Image 002-9202.
Apple Tree and Irises by Myron Wood, May 1980. Copyright PPLD. Image 002-9202.

When I arrive in Galveston on the next-to-last day of 2013, my mother has made a soup from the bones of the Christmas turkey. Just a few rags of meat on the bones, but the broth is rich and brown and fragrant. She has tossed in the last scraps of vegetables from her refrigerator and a handful of wild rice.

She is shorter since the last time I saw her but still glides around the house in sock feet, nimble and silent like a cat. A very old cat with jutting hip bones and a curved spine. We sit and sip our soup and she tells me her news — who has died, who is sick, and who has made a miraculous recovery. She is saddest about a second cousin from my generation who died in a far-off state and left her children with no parents and no grandparents. She wants the children, grown now with children of their own, to have copies of the bulky family history put together by another cousin many years ago but she doesn’t know how to reach the author. She worries that our second cousin’s children will never know what the rest of us are doomed to forget — our heritage of sharecropping and large families with enough kids to work the fields, most of them with at least one child who ended up in the Liberty Church cemetery before his or her first birthday.

I tell Mama that I will find the family historian on the internet and will order copies of the book, and sure enough, one brief search followed by an email and he is located. The books will arrive in two weeks.

An uncle gave all of us copies of the book — grandly subtitled “History of a Pioneer American Family” – when it was first printed in 2004. I filed mine on the bottom shelf of a bedroom bookcase beneath the family Bible, barely even giving it a look. I assumed it was one of those run-on charts of who begat whom, a bloodless list of bloodlines.

But this week, on a midwinter vacation at my mother’s house, while she is napping in the afternoons I leaf through the oversized pages of my family’s history and find its stories as gripping as any bestseller. Here is a farm boy’s earliest memory of riding on a steel-wheeled tractor with his father until he falls asleep and wakes to find himself on a pallet in a wooden wagon beneath the branches of a heavily laden apple tree. Here is another boy’s first memory of living in a house with electricity, climbing to the top of a chest of drawers to reach the pull chain that will switch on a lone lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. In the memory that follows, his father cannot afford to pay the electric bill and the family lives in that house for another year with no power.

Here a boy remembers his mother and father saving a few leaves of the family’s cured tobacco crop. She crumbles hers into a corncob pipe for an after-dinner smoke and he twists his into a wad and chews it.

Here is the tragic tale of a first child, a son, attempting to ford a swollen stream, washed from the back of his horse and found drowned a half-mile downstream. And here is a faded photograph of his brother who would have been my great-uncle, born in 1900 and dead at 18 of a gunshot wound suffered while he was out in the woods alone hunting rabbits.

Here is a cautionary tale of a family’s horses huddled beneath a tree in a violent spring thunderstorm. When lightning strikes, one is killed, one is permanently crippled, and a third is left badly burned, the scent of its sizzling hide forever imprinted in a boy’s memory. The same boy remembers a fig tree that bore fruit and kept its leaves throughout the winter, warmed by waves of heat from the stone chimney it grew next to.

Here is a young girl caring for her baby goats while her mother stirs boiling iron pots of water drawn from the pond, making soap and washing clothes. Here mother and daughter load their buggy and hitch the horses to peddle eggs, milk and butter in the nearest town.

My mother, awake from her nap, spreads a tea towel, dusts it with flour and cuts biscuits from a soft yeast dough for our supper. The recipe was her mother’s and her grandmother’s. Now it is mine.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.