A Letter to My Graduate

Dear Julia,

You are my surprise blessing.

In 2003, I was already a mother of two small boys. Another baby was the last thing on my mind. But God knew I needed a third child.

A few months later I was both surprised and delighted when the doctor said you were a girl. I was certain you were going to be another baby boy, but God knew I needed a little girl and so He gave me you.

After you were born, I was surprised at how different you were from your big brothers. You didn’t sleep through the night for the entire first year of your life, didn’t walk until you were nearly a year and a half old, and didn’t talk much at all (except for the word NO) until after your 3rd birthday. 

As you grew, the surprises continued – for example, I was surprised how the same little girl I didn’t think would ever learn to talk had to sit at a table all by herself in 1st grade because she wouldn’t stop talking to her classmates.

When you were in jr. high, you surprised me by suddenly becoming a vegetarian – and then I was even more surprised when you stuck with that diet for several months.

I could tell a lot of stories about how you’ve surprised me over the years. In fact, you surprise me so much that now I feel surprised when you aren’t surprising me!

But Julia, as surprising as you are to me, it’s important to know that you’ve never once taken God by surprise. Not one single time.

You see, God didn’t just decide on a whim in 2002 to create you.   

The Bible says in Ephesians chapter 1 verse 4 that God chose you as His own before the foundation of the world. For something to be chosen means it must be known because logically you can’t choose something if you don’t know it. Julia, this means that before God spoke the sun and the moon and the stars into existence, He already knew you. You were not a mystery to God.

Furthermore, the same God who knew you before the foundation of the world, created you in His image.

Ephesians 2:10 says that you are God’s workmanship. Another word for workmanship is masterpiece. Often, we talk about things like sunsets, mountain peaks, or Saturn’s rings as being God’s masterpieces, and yet the Bible never refers to any part of nature God’s masterpiece.  That title goes to you and me! Only humans were created in the image of the Creator.

A masterpiece is not just any old thing thrown together, rather it’s created with great care and intention. That’s exactly how God created you …  with intention. He gave you those beautiful green-gray eyes and your contagious laugh, and even though all your pediatricians said that based on your childhood growth charts you were going to be a very tall person, God ensured you would stop growing at 5 feet 3 ½ inches because that was exactly how tall He wanted you to be.

God took as much care creating your personality as He did with your physical features. He was the One who put that love for all animals in your heart and He gave you an overabundance of creativity. Julia, you are exactly who God intended for you to be.

But God just didn’t choose you before the foundation of the world or create you with intention, God also gave you a destiny.

The second half of Ephesians 2:10 says that you created for good works which God prepared beforehand so that you should walk in them.

For us, the future is unknown., Anything that is unknown has a way of making us feel anxious, and that’s why going into a new season of life can feel scary. And yet, God who knew you from before time began and created you to be a unique reflection of Himself, has also promised that He has a good plan for your life.

It’s important remember is that God isn’t orchestrating your life as you live it. He doesn’t wake up each morning and willy-nilly throw together things for you to do, nor does He let you go along doing your own thing until you run into problems and then step in with a solution. Instead, Julia, God planned every single detail of your life out beforehand, from the big moments to the small ones. He even planned out that you would be right here on this stage at this very moment receiving your high school diploma!  

That’s why as you think about your future, you can trust God already knows everything that will happen to you. And girl, if God’s got all the tiny details planned out, then you can trust He’s got it all under control too. No need to fret or worry!  

Proverbs 31 verse 25 says, “She laughs without fear of the future.”  My sweet girl, as you head out into this great big world of God’s, this is my prayer for you. The future is bright. Go with confidence.

God’s got this … and He’s got you too!

Love, Mom

Shine: A Story for Veteran’s Day

Do you remember the gummed foil stars teachers used to stick to schoolwork?

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I don’t think teachers give those out much anymore, but when I was in grade school every teacher had a box of star stickers in her desk drawer. The old kind you used to have to lick in order to stick.

I loved those star stickers. I really liked getting gold ones. You had to do something really good to get a gold star: make a perfect score, have the neatest handwriting, not have a single spelling mistake on your entire essay.

However, if I am honest, it wasn’t just the gold stickers I loved. Any color star stuck to the top of my paper made my type-A heart happy.

Confession: Whenever I see packages of star stickers in an office supply store or the school supply aisle in Walmart, I have a strong urge to buy a some.

They aren’t gummed anymore. No lickin’ and stickin’ these days. You just plop ’em down like any old ordinary sticker. Honestly, I don’t think that would be nearly as much fun as the using the old gummed ones.

Furthermore, even if I bought myself some star stickers, I don’t know what I would do with them.

Stick them on top of the bills I paid each month?

Mark my favorite recipes in every cookbook I own?

Print out copies of my blog posts and give myself a star rating?

I’m not sure star stickers have a place in my life anymore … but I sorta wish they did.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Of all the gummed foil stickers, the green stars were my least favorite.

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However, green stars meant something very special to my parents. Over the years, they handed out green stars to each other, but as to why I never did exactly understand.

“Thanks for taking care of the dishes tonight! You deserve a green star,” my mother might say to my father.

Or perhaps there might be a green star stuck to a note that said, “Don’t forget to pick up some dog food at the store!”

Once, my mother colored several small wooden stars with a green marker and put them on my father’s dresser. I asked her why she was doing it. She smiled and said simply, “Your father will understand.”

I guess he did, for several years later, I came across one in a box of my father’s old things … tie tacks with missing backs, lapel pins, random keys that had nothing to open, and that old wooded star now a rather faded shade of green.

As random as seeing a shooting star in the sky, those mysterious green stars wove in and out of my parents’ relationship. It was the perhaps the biggest mystery of my childhood … well, except for the mystery of what exactly happened to Virginia Dare, which has kept historians bumfuzzled for nearly half a millennium. I read a book about Virginia when I was about 10 years old. Nearly 40 years later, there are still nights I can’t sleep due to wondering about Virginia Dare!

In case you aren’t familiar with colonial mysteries, Virginia Dare (who was the first English child born in New World, as the English called America at that time) and the rest of those brave colonists from the Roanoke Island all disappeared into thin air sometime after August 1587, leaving behind only questions without any answers.

Those curious green stars left me with a lot of unanswered questions too.

Why were my parents always giving each other green stars?

Why green stars and not red or blue or gold?

How come I never got a green star?

All I really knew about the green star mystery is that it meant something extra good.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Last weekend, my mom handed me my father’s Bronze Star.

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I had gone up to help her for the day. We spent most of our time together,  unpacking boxes in the dining room of her new house, placing her wedding china into the new china cabinet she purchased and organizing some serving dishes into the matching hutch.

In the middle of all that unpacking, my father’s army medals came to light.

How the Bronze Star came to be packed with the wedding china, I don’t know. Yet there it was, along with a few other army medals and a tin box filled with 4-H pins and a few other random items.

In her nonchalant sort of way, my mother asked if I would like to take Dad’s old army medals for my boys. Naturally, I did. The truth is that I wanted them more for myself than I did for my boys.

Somehow, standing in that room where my father never stood, touching those old army medals and 4-H pins … well, in that moment, it gave some sort of significance to my father’s life. Three years after his death, I still struggle with feeling as if he will fade away from me. I am often aware that I am grasping for the bits and pieces of what he left behind, as if it can bring him back or make him more real. Grief is strange like that.

Anyway, it wasn’t until I got back to my home that I realized I didn’t know why my father received a Bronze Star. I knew enough from my days as a military wife to recall that Bronze Stars are a significant award not given to every soldier.

What had my father done to earn it?

All I could do was ask my mother. Maybe she would remember. So I sent her a text message, asking for any information she could share with me about my father’s Bronze Star.

Within minutes, my mom replied:

Yes, I know why your father got the Bronze Star. He distinguished himself during the war. He was never in trouble. He always did his job, going beyond the call of duty. He was diligent in doing his part to win the war. He got it for his meritous service in a foreign conflict.

I read her words slowly.

Two times. Three times. Over and over and over. So many times I actually lost count.

As I stood there that night, thinking about my dad, I remembered how proud he was of his military service. But I couldn’t remember ever actually seeing his Bronze Star medal.

Slowly I opened the worn black box containing the medal. And there it was, pinned to a piece of yellowed velvet.

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The star had tarnished green.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

My dad got a Bronze Star because he was a good soldier who strove for excellence. His hard work and diligent efforts were noticed. He stood out from the rest of the troops.  And because of his good work, he was rewarded with a star.

Just like I got those foil stickers pasted to the tops of my best schoolwork … the ones I worked the hardest on and gave my best efforts. Lots of gold stars added up to being on the Honor Roll.

Even as a young child, I knew stars were a very good reward. Stars, whether the gummed sort given out by teachers or the bronze ones handed out by military generals, are reserved for those who excel.

Nobody gets a star for mediocre work.

In the Bible, the Apostle Paul encourages us to strive to do our best. He writes: “I urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received.” (Ephesians 4:1)

When our time on earth is done, God will welcome us home with, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  (Matthew 25:21)  These are the words every Christ-follower longs to hear.

More than that, we are promised a crown. “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” (1 Peter 5:4)  Crowns we will cast at the Savior’s feet.

Some days I think of my father in heaven… glorified body, worshipping the Savior, bowing before the throne.

Maybe it’s silly, but I almost hope his crown was embellished with a big green star.

It doesn’t matter though. My dad’s not wearing it.

He’s already laid it at the Savior’s feet.

Ripples

The old adage goes, “There’s no place like home.”

That’s probably true, though I might make one small change:

There’s no place like home … except Grandma’s house.

When I was a child, there was nothing more exciting than driving up to my grandparents’ home at 407 Kelly Street in Woodville, Texas. My brother and sister and I could hardly wait for my mom to park the car before we jumped out and raced through the kitchen door, each of us trying to be first!

My grandmother would look up, and say in a delighted voice, “Look here … it’s those Terry children! I was just telling Daddy Red that you should be getting here any minute now, and here you are! I am so glad to see you!”

Baby Paige with Red and Thelma
Photo: My first visit to my grandmother’s home in Woodville, TX.

I spent many summer days at my grandmother’s home. She loved to host a “cousins’ week” for all her grandkids. No parents allowed. Just our grandparents and our great-grandmother and all seven of us grandchildren.

Boy, did we have some fun adventures!

We set up tents and camped out in the backyard … at least until humidity melted us and the mosquitos got us and the night noises spooked us. Then one-by-one we snuck back inside to the comfort of the a/c and real beds and where the chances of meeting up with the boogie man were significantly less.

We swam in the backyard pool until we were too tired to enjoy our popsicles. We walked around the block and down the street to the old cemetery. We picked berries, played loud games of dominos (Chicken Foot was our favorite, but we liked Mexican Train too), and watched old Jimmy Stewart movies in the heat of the afternoon.

Breakfast never arrived without watching cartoons in bed with my grandmother and large mugs of sweet coffee milk served by my grandfather. Lunch was never served without a big plate of sliced tomatoes, and (thanks to my brother Reid) there was always rice with brown gravy for dinner. Bedtime arrived with big bowls of Blue Bell ice cream. (If we picked enough berries, rather than eating them all straight off the bushes until our bellies ached, our great-grandmother would bring over a big berry cobbler for us to eat with that ice cream.)

Galveston trip 1982
Photo: Riding the ferry to Galveston Island, circa 1981

Those summers with our grandparents weren’t complete without a short trip.  Sometimes they took us to Galveston Island, where the best part of the whole day was crossing over to the island on the ferry and feeding the seagulls bread that we tossed into the air. Other times we went fishing at nearby Dam B (later renamed Martin Dies, Jr. State Park) near Jasper, TX.  On other occasions they would take us to visit my grandfather’s family in Lufkin.

My grandmother was a talented seamstress. She always had multiple sewing projects going on at the same time, as evidenced by the pile of bright fabrics by the sewing machine and the perpetually set-up ironing board next to it.

My cousins and I often wore matching holiday dresses. I was the oldest so I wore my dress only one season. My poor baby sister had to wear her dress, then my cousin Steffi’s dress, and later on my dress. If you look at old family photos, it seems that my sister Brooke only ever owned about two dresses her entire childhood.

Thelma Paige Steffi
Photo: My cousin Steffi and I wear our matching dresses, circa 1975.

My grandmother loved to host “hot water tea parties” with her granddaughters. She would cover a large cardboard box with an old sheet. Next, my grandmother had us set the table. We would pick a small bouquet of flowers from around the yard and set it in a vase on the center. Then we took the tiny tea set from her china cabinet and set out the cups and saucers, the sugar bowl with tiny sugar cubes, the milk in the pitcher. Meanwhile, my grandmother added some hot water (or rarely a weak tea) to the teapot. She put a plate of pink sugar wafer cookies on a pretty plate and set that on the table too.

Now we were all ready to enjoy our tea party.  My grandmother acted as hostess. You had to wait for the hostess to serve the food before you could eat, and no one could slurp their tea. Sometimes we brought our baby dolls, and practiced introducing our “children” to our friends.

Later on, when I was about 10 years old, my grandmother gave me about five old teacups. I kept them on a shelf in my room. Several years later, I decided I liked them so much that I started collecting teacups. Each time I look at my beautiful teacups, I am reminded of my grandmother and her hot water tea parties.

My grandmother also introduced me to England’s royal family.

Okay, she didn’t actually introduced me, but she is the one who turned me into an Anglophile, or lover of all things English.

During my teen years, my grandmother and I often discussed the antics of Princess Diana and Fergie, Duchess of York. Years later, when I watched the movie The King’s Speech, I recall how my grandmother had actually shared this story with me, recalling reading about many of these event in the newspapers. One if my dream vacations is a trip to England. I ever get to travel there, I know I’ll wish I could return home to share all about my English adventures with my grandmother.

There is so much more that I could write about my grandmother … for example, she was an avid traveler who visited 49 of the 50 states in this great nation, but loved Texas best of all. She enjoyed cooking and crafting and reading biographies. And while all of those things are special to me (and the rest of us who loved her), there is truly only one important thing about her life and that is my grandmother’s love for Jesus.

Thelma Kay Easter 1948
Photo: With my mother, her oldest daughter, on Easter Sunday 1948, perhaps a year after her salvation . 

Early in their marriage, my grandparents weren’t big church attenders. However, shortly after the birth of their first child (my mom, Kay), another couple began to invite them to come to church. My grandparents decided to go.

One church service lead to another and another. Listening to all the preaching had gotten my grandmother to contemplating life and whether or not there was a place for God in her’s.

One a stormy night in 1947, as she rocked my infant mother in her arms, all those thoughts about God and trusting Him just overwhelmed her. In the middle of that thunderstorm, my grandmother decided that she was going to follow God.

The next morning, she told my grandfather that she intended to join the church and be baptized the following Sunday. According to her, he didn’t say a word and the subject never came up again during the next few days. She assumed that he wasn’t going to try to dissuade her from joining the church, but he wasn’t going to join her either.

On Sunday morning, as the music for the invitation began, my grandmother moved to step out into the aisle. My grandfather stepped out of the pew, too … but she thought it was simply to allow her to get out. Then, to her surprise, my grandfather took her hand in his. Together they walked forward to join the church. They were both baptized and spent the rest of their lives dedicated to their faith in Jesus Christ and in Christian service.

From leading GA’s (Girls in Action missions) when her daughters were young to traveling the nation building churches with the Volunteer Christian Builders during retirement to knitting prayer blankets when she was homebound, my grandmother loved sharing her faith in her Savior and using it to bless others.

Her one decision, made as a young mother,  has rippled through my family through the generations, paving the way for the salvation of her husband, her daughters, her seven grandchildren and her 29 great-grandchildren.

Her’s is a legacy worth leaving. Her’s is a life well-lived.

Thelma Kay Wedding Corsage
Photo: My grandmother pins a corsage on my mother’s dress the night my parents got married.

All grandmothers are made of gold … but mine sparkles! ~Unknown

And sparkle, she did!

My grandmother was a beautiful, vibrant woman with a bright mind, big heart, and a bold personality.

Yesterday, she left this earthly home for her heavenly one.

I sort of imagine her walking through the pearly gates, stepping onto the streets of gold, and hearing her Savior say, “Look here … It’s Thelma McGee! I was just telling the Father that you should be arriving any minute now, and here you are! I am so glad to see you!”

I will miss her.

young Thelma
Photo: Thelma Stinson McGee, November 12, 1926 – July 8, 2019

Spending the Night with Ma

I was 7 years old the first time I stayed overnight with my great-grandmother, Ma.

Ma didn’t live alone, but that night it was just the two of us in the big, rambling house that she shared with my grandparents. Mammie and Papaw were away on an overnight trip. I suppose they were concerned about leaving my great-grandmother alone while they were away, although I am still unclear on what exactly they thought I could do should something unforeseen happen.

Yet there I was … Ma’s protector.

It turned out that from that night right up until the fall I left for college, whenever my grandparents left town, it was my job to stay overnight with Ma.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ 

Typically, one of my parents would drive me up to the big house on the hill, where they would drop me off.

I always tried to arrange things so that I would arrive sometime relatively in the early evening, yet late enough to have already eaten supper. Otherwise, all I might expect Ma to offer me would be a piece of dry toast or maybe some cornbread crumbled up in a small glass of milk.  I knew that whatever my mother might be cooking that night would be immensely more appetizing than either of those choices.

Still, I didn’t like walking in and going straight to bed. I needed time to get settled and maybe watch something on TV … hopefully, while my father visited with Ma for a bit.  Ma was a worrier, and I liked for her to get all her worrying out with my dad so that I didn’t have to worry with her after he left.

Besides, Ma firmly believed in that “early to bed, early to rise” business. I knew she was going to start turning off lights and shutting down the house about 8:30 pm. Bedtime in the big house came quickly.  Being something of a night owl, I needed time to prepare myself for an early night.

Most nights with Ma went pretty much the same way.  My dad would visit with her for half an hour or so. Then he would get up and say, “Well, ladies … I guess I will leave y’all to it.”  (Exactly what he thought he was leaving us to, I still don’t know. Your guess is probably as good as mine.)

My father would go and there we would sit.

Just the two of us, together in an oversized living room …alone in that big, dark house, sitting high on a hill.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Those first few moments with my great-grandmother were always slightly awkward. We would look at each other and exchange small smiles, unsure of what to do next.

Usually, at this point, Ma would ask me if I would like to eat an orange or an apple before bed. Most of the time, I did.

She would heave herself up from the chair, and march off to the kitchen to fetch me a piece of fruit. A few minutes later, she would return with the fruit, a knife and napkins. Once she had settled back into her chair, Ma would carefully peel my fruit for me.

Now, I could have certainly gone to get my own piece of fruit, and I could have even peeled it for myself. Nevertheless, I always allowed her to do these things for me … perhaps because whether she got me an apple or an orange, Ma’s method for peeling fruit fascinated me.

With oranges, she peel off the thick skin so exactly that not a single speck of the white pith remained stuck to the juicy fruit. Oh, but watching her peel an apple was my favorite! Somehow she could cut one long, unbroken strand of peel away from the apple’s flesh, until it finally fell into a heap on the napkin in her lap. Many a night I sat transfixed, holding my breath, until she had made the final cut and the peel came away in a giant curl.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

As I ate my snack, Ma would talk.

She had only two topics of conversation:

  1. anything related to God or the Bible
  2. anything related to sickness or death, particularly her own sickness or death

I personally preferred topic #1, which is why I learned very quickly that I could steer the conversation this direction if I asked her about that week’s Sunday school lesson.

Ma loved to study her Sunday school lesson each week, and diligently read the scriptures to prepare for the class discussion. My favorite nights were when she would direct me to read the week’s passage to her from her large-print Bible because generally she would allow me to read aloud for as long as I wanted. In this way, I found I could easily keep the conversation from drifting to more unsettling topics … like death and hell.

Death was probably Ma’s favorite topic, and she talked about it a lot. She talked about people who had died recently, or people she thought might be about to die. She talked about tragic deaths, not-so-tragic deaths, and her own death.

The last one was her most favorite topic. However, as you probably imagine, I did not share her opinion.

I’m sad to report that this distressing topic of conversation seemed to arise with regularity, generally right about the time we began to prepare to go to bed.  It was nearly always a one-sided conversation, which went something like this:

Now, Paige, you know there’s a good chance I could die in the night. It happens to people my age all the time. They go to bed and do not wake up in the morning. You should know that I am not afraid to die, but I worry you might be afraid to wake up and find me dead. So, if that happens, I want you to know there is no need to worry. Just call Malcolm. He will know exactly what to do.

Malcolm, of course, was my father. I can assure you that if I had ever woken up to find Ma lying in her bed dead, I would have screamed so loudly there would have been no need to pick up the phone and call anyone, Malcolm or otherwise.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Every time I every stayed overnight, Ma wanted me to share the bed with her.

I always felt rather conflicted about this arrangement.

There were quite a number of reasons I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in the same bed as her, the main one being the very concerning issue of her dying in the night. I wasn’t too keen on sleeping next to a dead person for any length of time.

Secondly, my great-grandmother was definitely NOT used to sharing a bed. She hogged the covers, and made all sorts of strange noises.

Finally, when Ma took out her dentures just before bed, it gave her face a strange sunken look  … which, I hate to say, reminded me of what I thought a dead person might look like. Truthfully, I hadn’t seen many dead people at that time in my life, so I didn’t really know what to expect a corpse to look like. Sunken cheeks definitely could be something one might see on a dead body, so therefore it was another good reason to find another place to sleep besides my great-grandmother’s bed.

However, the thought of sleeping in a bed all alone wasn’t exactly a comforting thought either. My grandparent’s house was rambling old home, with floors that creaked and doors that squeaked. Who knew what was lurking behind all those shadows or what creatures might be making those strange nighttime noises?

Then there were large paintings of my aunts and uncles which hung on some of the walls. I had seen enough Scooby Doo episodes to know that large portraits sometimes have shifty eyes that actually hid some sort of terrible swamp monster.

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Scooby-Doo and Shaggy

Yes, the more I thought about it, if something bad were to actually happen (like monsters appearing from behind portraits or burglars sneaking in to steal the stale cornbread from the kitchen counter), then it might be comforting to have another person in close proximity … even if that person made strange noises and had sunken cheeks and claimed she might die before the sun rose in the morning.

Clearly, I had an overactive imagination. The truth is that the decision of whether or not I should sleep next to Ma was probably the hardest part of staying overnight with her.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

For the first few years, I generally slept next to her. After all, it seemed the safest choice. But by the time I was 10 or 11, I felt embarrassed about this sleeping arrangement. Yet deep inside, I was still very much a scaredy cat. I really didn’t want to sleep alone in a bedroom all by myself. I often resolved this problem by inviting  a friend over to stay the night with me.

But sometimes, I couldn’t find a friend to stay … and then I was left to work out whether or not I was brave enough to sleep alone.

Once, when I was about 12 years old, I thought it would be nice to bring my younger sister Brooke along.  Brooke is 4 years younger than me, and at that time we didn’t have a lot in common. But I knew she would stay up to watch TV as long as I wanted and I figured she wouldn’t complain about sleeping next to me in a bed.

It seemed like the perfect solution to my sleeping dilemma!

My father was the one to drop the two of us off that night. I recall him sitting next to Ma for a short visit.

On this particular night, Ma immediately started complaining about every ailment she had or thought she might have. At one point, she started telling my father about how she was likely to die soon, perhaps even that very night. My father simply patted her hand and told her not to worry.

Now Malcolm, you know I am not worried one bit about dying.  I just want to be sure you know what to do in case these girls here wake up in the morning and find me gone. Now, I expect pretty quickly they will call you, so you will be the first to know.  Then you should go ahead and call Ken and Greg. It doesn’t matter which of them you call first, but let them both know before you tell anyone else. Then one of you boys can call Herbert … but tell him not to rush home. I don’t want to ruin his trip, and besides there is nothing he can do here anyway. I guess you might want to call the preacher after that.

My dad laughed. “Ma, I don’t think you are going to die tonight. You still have too much fight in you. But I promise that if you do, I’ll take care of everything.” 

And then, he quickly changed the subject. Probably to the topic of her Sunday school lesson.

Half an hour later, my dad got up to leave. He kissed my cheek and called for my sister to come give him a hug. But Brooke didn’t respond.

We both called. After several minutes, I finally got up to go look, but in that big rambling house, I couldn’t find her. Eventually, my father said he must go on home, and for me to tell her he said goodnight.

I waved as he stepped through the kitchen door.

But just half a minute later, Dad walked back in … grinning from ear to ear.

I have found your sister. She’s sitting in the car with her overnight bag on her lap. She says that if Ma is dying tonight, she will not stay here for it. I’m afraid you are on your own.

Ditched by my sister. Too late to invite a friend. I really was stuck in the big house alone with my great-grandmother … who seemed bound and determined to die on my watch.

As I recall, I hardly slept a wink that night.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Ma didn’t die that night… or for a good many years to come. In fact, she didn’t die at all on “my watch.”

The last time I saw Ma, she was lying in a hospital bed. Even though she was 91 years old, I didn’t think she was really going to die. After all, she was mentally sharp as a tack and every bit as feisty as I had ever seen her.

Later that evening, she drifted into a coma. The next day, May 25, 1994, she passed away. No drama. Nothing traumatic or tragic. Just a peaceful and quiet transition from earth over into heaven.

What she longed for most of all, finally had come to pass. She got to meet Jesus face-to-face.

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Today is this 26th anniversary of the day Ma died, yet not a day goes by when I don’t think of her in some way or another.

I miss the way she would pat my hand when she talked to me, or shake her finger in my face whenever she imparted some important truth. I can still see her face clearly: the big smile, the sly grin, that fiery-eyed look that made me want to hide.

She gave the best hugs, and the worst baths! (If she ever caught hold of you in a bathtub, look out! That woman knew how to use a wash rag, and chances were excellent that you were going to emerge from that bath missing an entire layer of skin! Every Terry child old enough to remember Ma knows the truth about this.)

Oh … and her chicken pie! How I miss her chicken pie!

When I finally get to heaven, I hope there’s an empty seat next to her at that great banquet table … because if there is, then the first thing I am going to do is walk straight over, sit down next to her, hold her hand, and tell her how grateful I am for all those nights the two of us got to spend alone together up in the big house on the hill.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believe Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not be judged, but has crossed over from death to life.  ~John 5:24

My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. ~John 14: 2-3

The Strange Romance of William Batchelor Denmark

It’s Valentine’s Week, and I wanted a romance story to share for my weekly 52 Ancestors posts. Several weeks ago, I began digging around in my family tree, hoping to come across a sweet romantic story to share.

Sometimes, when you go rummaging around in your family tree, you come up with a family skeleton … a story you wish could remain buried and hidden away. That’s what happened when I went hunting for a family romance story among my ancestors.

You see, instead of finding an inspiring or thrilling romance, what I found was a rather bawdy story sordid enough to make you blush!

Lest you fear, trust me … I’m not about to get X-rated or share any raunchy details. However, this strange tale is sure to make you scratch your head at the indecorous behavior of my 7th great-grandfather.

William Batchelor Denmark was born in 1740 in North Carolina to William Denmark and his wife Mourning Moye Denmark. Records indicate that during his adult life, he was known as WB and fought during the American Revolution. He died in 1821 at the age of 81 in Georgia. During his life, he married three times and had 17 children.

So far, nothing seems to be out of the ordinary. But hang on … William Batchelor Denmark was anything but ordinary.

In 1765, WB married his first wife, a lady by the name of Mary Moye (1745-1793).

Wait? Wasn’t WB’s mother a Moye?

She was, but it wasn’t unusual for families to intermarry during colonial times. This probably wasn’t a shocking situation, even at the time.

What might be shocking, however, is that census records show WB and Mary’s first child, Eleanor, was born in 1759, a full six years prior to their marriage. Mary was just 14 years old at the time of the birth.

Having a child out of wedlock isn’t exactly unheard of, even back in the mid-18th century. I mean, it could be a source of gossip, but this sort of thing does happen quite often. And while I do think that in 18th century American society most respectable men would have married their lover prior to the child’s birth, I’m sure WB wasn’t the only man who waited six years to do so either.

A quick look at WB and Mary’s remaining children shows that they were all born after their 1765 marriage. So far, WB and Mary seem to be on the up and up.

Keep reading. I promise you, this tale grows more salacious the further you dig around.

You see, two years after Mary’s death, WB married for a second time. This wife was a woman named Anna Moye (1742-1806).

Wait a minute. Wasn’t Mary’s last name Moye, too?

Yes, it was. In fact, Mary Moye was the younger sister of Anna Moye. (I’m still not sure how these two sisters tie into William’s mother, Mourning Moye. Obviously, there is bound to be a connection.)

Perhaps now you are thinking this situation certainly is a bit odd … yet, marrying sisters (even if they were your relatives) probably wasn’t totally unheard of back in pre-Revolutionary America. History is filled with stories of families that intermarried.

If you are looking for the shocking stuff, just stay with me … because the tale of WB and the Moye sisters is far stranger than just a story about man who happened to marry two sisters who were probably already related to him in some way or another.

The first odd thing I noticed was that Anna had two children with WB prior to his marriage to Mary.

That’s right. WB fathered two children with Anna BEFORE he married Mary. In fact, Anna was the mother of WB’s first-born child, a daughter named Sarah Margaret born in 1757 when Anna was only 15 years old. Anna also gave birth to Stephen in 1763, which was a full two years before WB and Mary said their wedding vows.

All told, WB and Anna had nine children, all of whom were born either before or during WB’s marriage to Mary. By the time WB actually marries Anna, their youngest child is approximately 6 years old!

According to several other researchers on the Denmark-Moye marriages, it seems that there were some discrepancies about which children belonged to which mother. Even the kids, later in their lives, couldn’t sort themselves out consistently.

I know that I saw several different versions of which children went with which mother. However, I attempted to piece together a list of William Batchelor Denmark’s 17 children, along with the years of their births and their assumed mothers based on the most reliable sources I could find on the internet. (Again, this is my best guess and I’m sure if you google William Batchelor Denmark, you will find plenty of genealogical researchers who match the children and the mothers up differently. Researchers even disagree on the names of some of these kids. It’s not easy to figure out who is who in this mixed-up family tree!)

  • Sarah Margaret born in 1757 to Anna
  • Eleanor born in 1759 to Mary
  • Stephen born in 1763 to Anna
  • Seaborn born in 1765 to Mary
  • Susannah born in 1765 to Anna
  • Jemima born in 1767 to Mary
  • Louisa (AKA Lavina) born in 1768 to Anna
  • Elizabeth born in 1771 to Mary
  • Redden born in 1773 to Anna
  • James born in 1774 to Anna
  • Margaret born in 1775 to Mary
  • Clarissa born in 1775 to Anna
  • Martha born in 1777 to Anna
  • John James born in 1780 to Mary
  • James Thomas born in 1782 to Mary
  • William Batchelor Jr. born in 1884 to Mary
  • Malachi born in 1787 to Anna

After Anna and WB married, they moved to Georgia, apparently following their children who were headed westward. It is said that while traveling through Georgia, Governor Mitchell gave W.B. and his party “passports” which attested to their “character and honor.” These passports then convinced the Indian Chiefs to allow WB and Anna to travel through the newly-acquired Creek Indian lands, in order that they could visit W.B.’s sister Abigail and their daughter Susannah.

After Anna’s death is 1806, WB married for a third time in 1813. This wife’s name was Mary Cochram, and it appears that she is not connected in any way to the Moye family. No children came from this marriage.

For the record, I am descended from William and Anna’s daughter, Susannah. She married a man by the name of Reverend Adam Jones. From all appearances, Susannah and her preacher husband seemed to live a much more honorable lifestyle. Thank goodness!

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Last week I missed my weekly 52 Ancestors post. But that’s okay … it gives me the chance to write two posts this week. On Thursday, I’ll be sharing about my great-grandmother on what would be her 117th birthday. Can’t wait to share more about this amazing lady and her influence on my life and faith.

A Yankee Drummer for Dinner

I don’t know exactly when my mother started researching our family tree, but I must have been rather young. My childhood memories include walking around old, abandoned cemeteries, hours upon hours spent in the library while my mother scanned unreadable censuses taken long ago, and stacks of papers lying around with strange names and dates scribbled on them.

Early on, I was fascinated by the names I heard my mother repeating as she told my father about the ancestors she discovered … and this was especially true about the name of my great-great-great-grandfather, George Washington Allbritton.

Back when I was about 8 or 9 years old and first heard that name, I felt absolutely certain it meant we were somehow related to the real George Washington. After all, why else would his mother have named him that?

Sadly, George Washington isn’t even remotely anywhere along my family tree … but George Washington Allbritton and his wife Sarah are still worth talking about. In fact, there’s a great little story about this family.

Photo of George Washington Allbritton and his wife Sarah during their later years of life.
 Photo of George Washington Allbritton and his wife Sarah during their later years of life.

My son Joel wrote this version of the story for a narrative speech he gave way back in the 9th grade. He’s a college sophomore today, but I still feel pretty proud that he chose to retell this family tale all those years ago.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

BANG! BANG! BANG! 

BANG! BANG! BANG!

The steady beating rang out across the rural countryside.

The year was 1863. My great-great-great-great grandparents lived deep in the heart of the Confederacy, somewhere in the piney hills of Catahoula Parish in northern Louisiana. They were dirt poor, just simple farmers trying to work hard just to get by, certainly not wealthy land and slave owners.

The man of the house, George Washington Allbritton, had gone off to fight in the Civil War. He left his wife, Sarah, behind to care for their 12 children.

Early on this cold December morning, Sarah awoke to a steady drumming noise.

BANG! BANG! BANG!

Over and over, the sound continued, steady as a heartbeat. And the one thought racing in Sarah’s mind was that this must surely be the sound of Yankee drums.

Sarah quickly woke the children.

Hurry with your chores! Milk the cow and gather the eggs, and come right back inside!

Sarah tried not to panic, but the drumming continued as she cooked their biscuits and bacon for breakfast. As they bowed their heads over the meal, Sarah silently added an additional prayer that the Yankees wouldn’t come by their house today.

By mid-morning the drumming sounded louder. Sarah instructed her children to hide their meager possessions.

Wrap the family Bible in the quilt made by my mother, Maggie. Then you take it and bury it in the garden, Tom. Take all our corn meal, flour and dried salt pork, and hide it in the barn underneath the wagon and cover it with some hay, Ben. Hurry children! We don’t want the Yankees to take our things!

BANG! BANG! BANG!

Shortly after noon, Sarah was feeling frazzled from the constant pounding of the drums. Hardly a minute passed without hearing the beat reverberating throughout the hills surrounding their home. She sent the older boys to turn the old milk cow and the chickens loose.

We will not give the Yankees any of our hens for their supper tonight!

Later in the afternoon the sounds of a wagon could be heard, coming over the road. Swiftly, Sarah rushed all the children, from the youngest to the oldest indoors. She stood just inside the doorway of their small log home. Finally, after an eternity, a horse and wagon came into view.

What a relief! It was just her brother Martin. Perhaps he was on his way over to warn her or maybe he wanted to ensure that she and the children were safe from a Yankee raid. Sarah ran outside and flagged him down.

“Martin! Do you have any news of the Yankees?”

But to Sarah’s astonishment, Martin was unaware of any Yankees marching in the area. In fact, he hadn’t heard any drumming noises all day, though he could certainly hear the steady beat now!

BANG! BANG! BANG!

Martin listened closely for several long minutes. Finally he said, “Sarah, has that drumming sounded just like this all day?”

“Why, yes, it has. There might be an occasional small pause, but mostly it’s been steady since early this morning.”

“Well, it’s not getting any closer. I don’t think you need to worry about Yankees, but we do need to find the source.”

So Sarah and Martin took a walk around the farm, and there behind the barn they found an overturned barrel. Trapped underneath was Sarah’s Yankee drummer a old chicken trying to peck its way out.

As the sun sank low, Sarah sighed a sigh of relief as she stood in front of the stove to cook their supper. She sent the girls up to the garden to retrieve the family Bible, wrapped in her mother’s quilt, and the boys went out to find the old milk cow.

And later that evening, they bowed their heads and with thankful hearts said grace … before they ate their Yankee drummer for dinner!

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Joel’s rendition of this story mostly accurate, however he did use some writer’s liberties and changed or added a few details in order to make the story easier to tell for his speech class.

For example, when George Washington Allbritton left his wife Sarah to go fight in the war, only 2 of their children had been born. The remaining 10 were born after the Civil War had ended.

George Washington Allbritton and his wife Sarah with 11 of their 12 children.
George Washington Allbritton and his wife Sarah with 11 of their 12 children. We descend from their daughter Minnie, who is the last woman on the right on the back row.

Additionally, we don’t know if Sarah’s brother Martin came by to help her figure out it was a chicken under a barrel instead of a regiment of Yankee soldiers … but we do know that she did have a brother named Martin Van Buren Cassells. (Sidenote: I was pretty fascinated to discover a second presidential name in the family tree, even if I am not directly descended from him. There also happens to be a man by the name of Benjamin Franklin McGuffee in my family tree, who is a direct ancestor. Obviously, my ancestors were extremely impressed by certain historical figures.)

Other than those two details, the story is a true: Sarah did hear a steady beating and hid much of the family’s treasured items thinking that the Yankees were marching through the area. Later, she discovered the sound she heard was just a chicken trying to peck its way out from beneath an overturned wooden barrel.

Urilla Xerena Lampton

When I was about 11 years old, I decided I no longer liked the name Paige.

I had a whole list of reasons why this was a terrible name for my parents to have chosen:

  1. No one else had the name Paige … at least, no one I knew.
  2. All of my friends had nicknames. There was no nickname for Paige.
  3. Someone (maybe a teacher or another adult) once told me that the name Paige used to be a boy name spelled and was more commonly spelled PAGE. I asked my mother and this unfortunately turned out to be true.
  4. My mother said she decided to name me Paige because it was one syllable and sounded like a last name. She did this because my last name, Terry, was two syllables and sounded like a first name. People outside of my normal circle of acquaintances often switched around my names. It was annoying.
  5. And maybe the final nail in the coffin … my mom said she first saw the name Paige on the sign at a vet clinic. The vet was named Dr. Paige. It was absolutely mortifying to my 11- year-old ego.

Thus began an earnest attempt to get my mother to agree to legally change my name.

Now you must understand … my mother was not at all sympathetic. Apparently, as difficult as it was for me to understand, my parents both happened to like the name Paige quite a bit and were very fond of having a daughter named Paige.

However, I can be very persistent. I pled my case often. After several long months of asking, my mother finally agreed to allow me to change my name.

I was elated! After a short moment of celebration, I moved on to part two of my plan and gave my mother a short list of new names that were more suitable. At the top of the list was Diana. After all, I was a HUGE Princess Diana fan and followed the British Royal Family with enthusiasm. I thought Diana Elizabeth (after the beautiful princess and the reigning queen) would be a perfect and lovely name for me. It was certainly much better than plain old Paige.

My mother, however, told me (using her most no-nonsense, elementary school teacher voice), “I don’t need a list. I’ve already picked out your new name. I’m going to name you after your great-great-grandmother.”

Oh?” I tried to act like I wasn’t too disappointed I wouldn’t be named Diana after all. “What was her name?

“Urilla Xerena,” my mother said. She didn’t make eye contact with me. She just kept chopping vegetables for our salad.

Urilla Xerena? What an awful name! Surely my mom was joking!

Turns out, she was not joking. She was completely serious.

In fact, my mother said that since I needed my parents to to pay the fees to make my name change all legal, then they would be choosing my next name too. Furthermore, my parents were in total agreement about my new name. She ended the conversation saying that if I didn’t like this arrangement, then I would need to wait until such a time as I could afford to legally change my own name.

That night, three things suddenly became crystal clear to my 11-year-old brain:

  1. My mother wasn’t very good at naming people.
  2. She was getting worse, instead of better, at this skill as time went by.
  3. On second thought, Angela Paige really wasn’t such a bad name after all.

Naturally, by the time I was old enough and rich enough to legally change my name, I no longer felt nearly as strongly about the name Paige as I had during middle school.

I suppose that being threatened with a name like Urilla Xerena had an affect on me because all these years later and I still think of my poor great-great-grandmother, who was stuck for her entire life with an awful name. As soon as I started this project, I knew old Urilla would have to be one of my 52 ancestor stories.

Recently my mother and I talked about information she had on Urilla, and as it turns out, she happens to have an interesting life story.

Urilla Xerena Lampton Joyce with her husband Marion J. H. Joyce

Urilla was born March 2, 1857 to Edmund and Mary Jane (Neafus) Lampton. They lived in Hardin, Kentucky.

Interestingly, Urilla’s Lampton family was connected to the same Lamptons that Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) descended from. Not only is Urilla’s family and Twain’s family from the same area of Kentucky, but they share a lot of the same unusual names. As a side note, Mark Twain is known for stating that the L in his given name stood for Langhorne. However, Twain’s sister Permelia once quoted her mother (Jane Lampton Clemens) saying, “My son Sam was named Samuel Lampton Clemens after my uncle in Kentucky, one of the best men I ever knew.”

Back to Urilla and her life’s story …

Urilla married Marion J. H. Joyce, a doctor, in 1877. The two of them relocated to southern Arkansas. They were the parents of ten children, the first five of which were boys. Their fourth son, John Jefferson Joyce, was my great-grandfather. I never knew him as he died about three or four years before I was born. However, my dad loved his grandfather and told me some great stories about him. I’ll write a blog post about him soon.

While I still don’t find the name Urilla Xerena to be attractive, I am partial to the name Rilla. Of course, I became enchanted with this name after reading Anne from Green Gables when I was in high school. My beloved Anne, who does marry Gilbert, names one of her daughters Rilla in honor of Marilla Cuthbert, who adopted her from the orphanage. Ever since, I’ve thought the name Rilla would be a really sweet name.

I’ve never gotten to name a daughter Rilla, though I tried really hard to get it on a short list every time I was expecting a baby. At this point, I’m hoping one of my kids will fall in love with the name Rilla so that someday old Urilla Xerena will be a namesake yet!

Penelope Goodson Daniel

Last week, I introduced Theophilus Daniel and shared a photo of a square of homespun fabric he made for his granddaughter sometime in the mid-1800’s. It’s said that he owned a flock of sheep, as well as a spinning wheel and a loom. The details of the fabric have long been lost to history, but our family assumes that Theo used wool from his sheep to spin thread and then weave the fabric.

After I wrote the story of Theo, I began to wonder about his wife, Penelope, and if there were any interesting tales from her life.

Penelope Goodson

Penelope Goodson was born in 1874 to James and Jane Goodson of Darlington, SC.  Her father fought in the American Revolution.

In 1803, Penelope married Theophilus, a man two years her junior. They were living in South Carolina at the time. However, two years later in 1805, her first child was born in Washington, GA.

Over the next 25 years, Penelope seems to have spent a lot of time doing two things: giving birth and moving. Here’s a list of her children, along with the years and places of their birth:

Washington, Georgia

  • Ephraim Elias (1805)
  • Abel (1808)
  • Jane (1810)
  • William Eli (1811)

Rome, Georgia

  • James (1812)
  • Sarah Jane (1814)
  • Josiah Goodson “Squire” (1816)

Crenshaw, Alabama

  • Elizabeth “Betsy” (1817)
  • Leonard (1818)

Butler, Alabama

  • Theophilus Jackson (1822)
  • Martha (1822)
  • John Adams (1825)
  • Zachariah (1827)
  • Penelope Louisa (1830)

That’s 14 children and 4 moves!

According to the Alabama Department of Archives and History (Alabama Surname Files Expanded, page 55), Theo and Penny came to Alabama by way of the Old Federal Road. They settled in what was then Creek Indian Territory. This same source also noted that the first acreage they purchased is now located within the city of Montgomery, AL.

Theophilus and Penelope were married 62 years. She died in 1873 at the age of 89 years old. She had outlived her husband by 8 years.

Whenever I read about Theo and Penny, I can’t help but think of what an interesting lifespan they both had … born prior to the United States Constitution being ratified and dying after the end of the Civil War.

During that period of American history, our nation was growing and expanding across the continent. And even though Penelope and her husband didn’t manage to go all the way to the West Coast, they did joined thousands of others in settling across the middle areas of the South.

paige-signature

This post is part of a 52-week series on sharing the stories of my ancestors.Fifty-two Ancestors

 

 

Meet Theophilus Daniel

 Allow me to introduce you to Theophilus Daniel, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

Theophilus Daniel (1786-1865)

Theophilus was born around 1786 in North Carolina to William and Elizabeth Daniel. During his life, Theo moved, first to Georgia and later to Alabama. He married Penelope Goodson, and is known to have supported his family by farming. Records seem to indicate that he had a small flock of sheep, as well as owned a spinning wheel and a loom. He also was reported to have made furniture. We also now that Theophilus Daniel was not a slave owner even though he lived in the south during the years when slavery was legal.

           

Church records indicate that in 1817 Theophilus was kicked out of church for “not filling his seat.” It is unclear why he skipped church services, but one must wonder if it might have been due to having moved away from the area. Later, in 1827, he was instrumental in the formation of Sweet Water Primitive Baptist church.

At the time of his death on October 2, 1865, Theo was living in Butler, Alabama. His life spanned 79 years, with his birth prior to the ratification of the United States Constitution and his death coming just at the end of the Civil War.

One of the first things I remember my mother having among her genealogical possessions was a very old piece of woven brown cloth.

This material, handed down now for six generations, was actually homespun by Theophilus himself. He made it for his granddaughter, Matilda Caroline Daniel, perhaps as a wedding gift for her marriage in 1851 (although the exact date the cloth was made is unknown). I wonder if the material was woven from thread spun from the wool sheared from Theophilus’ sheep.

Facts about Theophilus Daniel and his life are fairly sparse. His exact date of birth is unknown, and the truth is I have a lot more questions about him than answers:

  • Why was he skipping church in 1817? Was it due to a move or did he find himself feeling disconnected from the Lord?
  • What prompted him to form a church ten years later?
  • And what is that large growth on the side of his face?!

Yet, touching the cloth that he spun for his granddaughter suddenly makes this man leap off the old census records. A piece of cloth doesn’t get saved for 170+ years for no reason. It meant enough to his granddaughter that she passed it down to her children and grandchildren. It meant something to her because she loved her grandfather … probably, I’m imagining, because he loved her too.

Whatever the reason, Theophilus more than lived. He loved. And 155 years after his death, he is still remembered for it.

The memories of the righteous is a blessing … ~Proverbs 10:7