Staking a Claim
As a girl, I thought the most interesting part of my ancestry was the whispered mention of an Algonquin great-great-great grandmother. The English considered the Algonquins to be the upper crust among the indigenous peoples of the East Coast.
Her story slipped around our sun lamp family rumor sessions. It was something discussed only on the fringes of family gatherings. The role this mysterious woman played in my family’s history never became clear. It later drew me to the work of American-Indian poets like Joy Harjo, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Sherman Alexie.
In an early issue of Café Solo, I published a piece by New Mexican poet Keith Wilson that included the line, “Every American is an Indian.” It made me realize that I’d used this American-Indian woman as the touchstone of my heritage, forgetting that she married one of my Scotch-Irish ancestors. There was so much gossip around his Algonquin wife that I’d gotten caught up embracing her existence. While I enjoyed embodying her, I overlooked the importance of my Celtic roots, the roots that also birthed my mystical bent.
Where I come from fueled my studies of Spanish and Portuguese, the languages of two cultures with prehistoric Gaelic roots. I feel as much at home in the lush green highlands of North Carolina, where Bill comes from, as in the vivid streets of Bogotá.
I think that life by the Atlantic sea informed both the Scottish laments and the Portuguese saudade. In learning about them I discovered that this sense of melancholy also infuses the ancient Gaelic church, with its pentatonic music that sounds like people weeping together.
Safe Deposit Box
In the vault I view the birth
and death certificates, finger
Grandmother’s engagement ring,
cavity in the center where the diamond shone.
We picked an acre of iris and peony
every Decoration Day.
(I adored her spotted arms.)
And here’s the pistol.
My forebears are buried here in Furnas County
where Grandmother defended her brother
against murder charges.
Nebraska’s first ballistic test
proved the bullet came
from Grandmother’s pearl-handled revolver.
Uncle Ott got off. I’ve got one remaining bullet.
Grandmother was a great shot
and so was my mother in the days
of Bonnie and Clyde, but I’m the Wing
I spirit away the lore
of family gone before.
My son asked me for the diamond for his wife.
My daughter-in-law with eyes
like smoking pistols
wears the stone that traveled across the prairie,
that calmed me in the root cellar
during the tornados.
During those storms
Grandmother sang, taught me to spell.
She won her fifth-grade spelling prize:
a watercolor of Grace Darling.
Grace rowed out to her shipwrecked father.
She saved him from drowning.
I gave that painting to my daughter.
In my family, daughters save the men,
brothers defend the secret.
I lock up the lore of family gone before.
On the cold February evening of my fourth birthday, as I dozed in the Sick Room, grandmother and grandfather Stevens appeared as if by magic. I was recovering from a mastoid operation to excise my ear infections and felt like I was dreaming. Grandmother Stevens’ face was lit with love as she glided toward me out of the darkness, holding an angel food cake decorated with pink buds and four glowing candles. Whenever I see camellias growing next to my California ranch, I think of that pink icing.
While the candles sputtered and shone in the dim room, my grandmother told me the story of her 10th birthday, August 16, 1875. She had baked an angel food birthday cake that day, stoking the old wood-burning stove and beating all the egg whites by hand. The cake was cooling, its pan upside down on a bottle.
Earlier in the week, Arapaho Indians had ridden through, pillaging the homestead. When she heard the horse hooves thundering across the prairie again, she was afraid the raiders might smell the aroma of her cake and steal it. She carefully wrapped it in a muslin sheet and slipped out the back door. She climbed up into the loft of her father’s barn and hid with her precious cake among the rafters.
My great-grandfather stood in front of the door into their prairie home and told the hungry Arapaho chief and his band about a hog he’d cured and buried in the ground for safe keeping. He offered it to them. The Arapaho dug up the cache and rode away with it, never looking into the barn where Grandmother was hiding with her delicious cake.
By the time she finished telling me the story, the candles on my own cake had flickered out and my eyelids felt heavy. Her candlelit face and thrilling story filled my dreams that evening, even though my throat hurt too much to taste my special angel food cake.
While grandmother sat with my rosebud cake on her lap, Grandfather too told me a story.
“It was on the same day as your birthday, Glenna,” he began, “that our folks set out in a prairie schooner to come to Nebraska.”
His family, originally from West Virginia, left Iowa on February 11, 1878 on their pioneer journey to Red Cloud, Nebraska, with four boys and a girl. The oldest was twelve years old and the girl, the youngest, was four that day, the same age as me.
Two covered wagons held all the family treasure. Great-grandmother Stevens had sewn 600 dollars in gold into a feather-bed tick and seeds in her apron hem. The lead wagon was equipped with a spring seat on which she and great-grandfather rode, rolling their way west across the Missouri and into the Nebraska Territory.
Behind them in the wagon bed sat a small cast-iron wood-burning stove, its pipe extending up through the top of the wagon’s canvas bonnet. This essential tool, clattering behind my grandparents in the prairie schooner, held a special place among the family belongings. It served my great-grandmother as she cooked for her family and other pioneers during their journey. The stove later presided over the makeshift kitchen of a temporary sod house, while they fashioned their dugout home on the prairie.
My grandparents told these two stories just for me on my birthday, the three of us making our own world in the magical Sick Room. To this day, a story or a poem is still the best birthday gift I can imagine.
On other evenings, my sister and brothers and I would huddle together; Connie, Steve, and Tom in bed with me, listening to family stories or making up ghost tales. Connie, who was jealous of my long curls, blew bubblegum into my hair. My brothers kicked me under the covers.
“Mom, Connie got gum in my hair!”
“Tom and Stevie hurt me!” I earned my nickname, “Squealer” pretty early on (and that was before I told my parents that my siblings had burned down the barn).
When we all were healthy, we gathered around the dining room table, to listen to grandfather Stevens’ stories about homesteading in Nebraska. As we listened, we stuffed our mouths full of grandmother’s angel food cake. She had told us the cake would not rise if there were a cross word in the house, so we made temporary truces with each other for the promise of that delectable dessert. Listening to the past move among us on stormy summer nights, our eyes shone in the lamplight as grandfather recounted dramatic tales of his law practice on the Nebraska frontier.
Prairie Schooner Poem
The fog settles over us
Oh, how it tucks in the shouting and screaming.
We sit around the table
and Russian Easter eggs
talk of wolves
white nights on the prairie.
What is it in winter
protects the family?
Iron beds and bunks
draw in together, the baby’s cradle
We’re secure in prairie schooners;
is the snow circling us like Indian ponies?
I’m a snow princess; I’ve summoned this storm
to offer peace to my dear ones.
See the colors in my prism?
See tonight, the coldest night
brittle gold and crimson?
In the morning
won’t frozen cream
pop out the bottle tops?
It’s only a childhood dream.
This is California
where trucks carry onions from Salinas,
rooster combs of chili pods.
The grass inside out redwood fence is green
and turning greener.
During their travels, many prairie pioneers abandoned furniture by the side of the trail when the wagon proved too heavy to climb a hill or cross a river. Luckily for me, two Stevens’ family heirlooms that arrived safely in Nebraska were handed down to me: my great-grandfather’s Civil War sword from the Vicksburg Campaign and grandfather Stevens’ mandolin. I gave the sword to my oldest son, Erich, but I kept the mandolin. Maybe one day I’ll finally play it in a bluegrass band, a cowboy hat pulled low across my forehead.
A prairie schooner in good repair offered shelter almost as sturdy as a house for overland immigrants. A fully outfitted wagon lumbering over the horizon must have been quite a sight to behold, with a coop full of clucking chickens raising a ruckus as the canvas top billowed and the schooner rollicked up the rocky trail.
My great-grandfather Stevens crossed the prairie in a covered wagon with five wheels (the fifth improving the wagon’s stability). He’d fought in Mississippi during the Civil War, a bloody and traumatic experience, and wanted to start over, to escape the war demons. In Nebraska, the family homesteaded in a sod house built with their own hands. I inherited the house gene. I’m always preoccupied with designing, building or fixing up a house, though I’ve never dug one into the ground. Selling a house kills me; I lose a part of myself.
My great-grandparents cherished their hard-won home, where they held spelling bees and musical evenings. I imagine it as a haunted place where the earthen ghosts of our ancestors hover. Decades later, eroded by the relentless winds of the dust bowl years, bit by bit, every grain of sand and rock and board, the sod house simply blew away. Only a stone staircase remains of their home, yet everything reverberates in the stories.
Great-grandfather Stevens went on to serve in the Nebraska legislature in the 1870s. His son, my grandfather, read the law. Self-taught like Abraham Lincoln, he was admitted into the Nebraska bar and served as a district attorney. Many of the stories he shared in the Sick Room and the kitchen came from trials held on the dangerous Nebraska frontier. One night, my grandparents’ house was guarded all night by the sheriff. In those days, relatives of a defendant sometimes murdered the prosecutor if it looked like he might win the case.
When I knew them, my grandparents lived in a Victorian home on a farm outside Beaver City, Nebraska, near the Kansas border. The summers I spent there were the joy of my youth. Besides my great-grandfather’s Civil War sword and my grandfather’s mandolin, I also inherited my grandmother's gorgeous and everlasting linen tablecloths. They still cover my pride and delight: a huge tiger oak dining room table that seats sixteen.
Everything they say about Leo the Lion
on Grandmother’s August birthday.
through golden wheat,
lazed on petrified wood
along the creek.
I smoothed my palm along her whiskers.
That night on the prairie
grandfather pointed out constellations.
Perseid showers lit lightning rods.
He told stories about the Greeks Agamemnon’s Feast.
No feast as mouth-watering
as Grandmother’s lemon meringue pie
from the black
Mornings I climbed out of my iron bed
to the smell of coffee
I drank it thick with cream
from the cow. Mother never allowed me coffee.
Grandmother allowed me life.
When we went for ice
that blistering day
I carried the block home on my lap.
To Grandmother I was not wet,
I was the child who picked chicory.
I arranged coke bottles with zinnias
in my attic room. When my parents
fetched me home, I hugged the running board.
“Let me stay!”
My granddaughter held up mint for me to sniff
plucked a whisker from my chin.
I remembered the heat
of harvest wheat
on Grandmother’s August birthday.
Grandfather often sang the melancholy Civil War songs his father had taught him, such as “Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground.” Other times, he played mandolin while grandmother sang, “My dear did you know, such a long time ago,” the song about Robin Redbreast who died in the snow. Even though I haven’t heard it played since childhood, when I think of that song, the sorrow of losing my loved ones, all of them, remains fresh.
Words and music, stories and singing, were our lifeblood during the difficult 1930s and the early war years. We had almost no other forms of entertainment, except the occasional movie in town. Money was so tight during the Depression that even a nickel was horded. We rarely made it to the cinema once my mother stopped playing the piano for the movies, as she did in her youth. A nickel could, however, buy a ticket to the cowboy shows on Saturday afternoons. There was usually a nickel for all of us. Nonetheless, when the theater had “Bank Night”, my parents—and grandparents, if they happened to be visiting—would go to see if they could win the local lottery. Some of our stoneware pieces were prizes. I prized the Carnival glass.
Our family also passed on a string of haunting proverbs, like “Death knocks but does not enter.” Sometimes when I hear a knock on my door I shiver. My entire family had a fascination with the macabre and we dabbled in its excitement. As kids we loved to tell horror stories, and a favorite pastime of my grandparents was visiting coffin factories. They loved to listen to the salesman describe how each coffin would keep its occupant “safe.”
My cousin Lillian and I sometimes accompanied them on these outings. I thought the white satin coffin linings looked like wedding dresses. One coffin had a bell so if the “dead” person woke up, he or she could ring it and a loved one could exhume them. Lillian and I loved stories of people who survived cataleptic seizures and came back to life in their buried coffins. Of course, the loved one had to be near enough to hear the bell, which I always found morbidly romantic.
Great-grandmother Stevens, while sitting by her husband’s body during his wake, saw a ghostly line of family ancestors walk in through the front door. They filed past the coffin one by one, and quickly vanished out the back door. I wonder about one of our family proverbs, “Go out by the same door you entered.” Where did that saying come from? What does it mean? Perhaps it indicates that we all must follow the parade of ancestors moving ahead of us through life.
When Bill and I used to drive through misty summer nights in the Blue Ridge of North Carolina during our vacations to his family home, the fireflies reminded me of souls reaching out through the dense mountain laurel, ancestors trying to share their history with us. Many Appalachian stories took me back through time to a place I felt but never really knew.
Our families made their marks upon the land.
In Scottsbluff, Nebraska, we saw
the deep imprint of wheel ruts
on the Oregon trail:
carved into stone at Philippi.
On February 11, 1878,
my grandfather’s family
set forth on their prairie-schooner journey
from West Virginia to Nebraska.
When they came to Red Cloud,
they met settlers running back
crying, “Indian raid!”
unafraid, staked his claim
and made his dug-out home.
Retracing these steps,
engravings in the stone,
to the home in Happy Valley, North
Carolina, where my husband’s family lived
for seven generations,
we search for those who pioneered
this valley of mist
between the Brushies and the Blue Ridge.
We see the Brown Mountain Lights,
the soft, dancing flares,
where Cherokees were massacred
In the Civil War
a soldier hid his sweetheart there
among the cradled rocks.
He never returned.
Still she makes her way to Brown Mountain
with her candle, winding
to the top
looking for him.
North Carolina’s local history and folklore captivate me, reminding me of my own Appalachian forebears. Their beliefs and superstitions, such as putting salt out on the porch to make sure the souls of the dead are safe and not roaming about the mountains, calls me to seek what lies beyond death. I have seen the Brown Mountain Lights that storytellers claim flicker in the washes and hollows, the wandering spirits of men and women long passed, eternally connected to their home place.
In the sunny nooks of our relatives’ houses in the North Carolina hills, I’ve spent long hours listening to their stories of ancestral bones laid bare. As I read and remember and write down the tales, I fit them together like the joints of my father’s ebony piccolo flute, trying to decipher their ancient tune.
"The Power of Prose"