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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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.

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