June 28, 1958, David’s birthday, the last served day of my internal medicine internship; I stood looking south out the window of the interns’ call room atop the Oklahoma City VA Hospital. I had buttoned up all my patients for the night. Among them was a farmer likely to die of tetanus the result of a blade of pasture grass that had become embedded in his leg. I never learned the outcome as, once in Atlanta, I fell down the rabbit hole of Grady.
It was the last time I would sleep in Oklahoma as home. Making note to remember this moment as personal history, I absorbed the beauty of the lights of the homes lining streets laid out north/south & east/west. The horizon blended them into a breathtaking summer night sky, every star and galaxy visible. Reflecting on that night I think of the summer nights of childhood, memorialized in Fireflies and Bonfires. I likely thought of those times then as I do now.
We are a family of pioneers, something brother David and I were reminded of many times by our parents and grandparents; they who were the last of the pioneer experience. My later research into the history of our ancestors has provided some surprise at just how many of these progenitors were born in or resided for significant portions of their lives on new land, not yet a state.
I don’t know that I thought of it at that time; but the imperatives to be aware and to remember extend back into my early childhood. Even at eight or so I knew it was important to me to not forget. On reflection today I wonder if that imperative has its roots much further in the past, perhaps hearkening to memory for place and nourishment our ancestors of the African Savannahs and Siberian Steppes experienced.
My brother and I both still recall our mother reading aloud each letter, fresh from the mail, that brought news from and of family. We recall our father, reading the paper, calling out comments on the news of the world as Mother prepared supper. In so doing they endowed us with a comprehension of connection with the world beyond the limits of home, town and country. It immunized us from paralyzing parochialism.
Unspoken but always implicit was the command to be aware.
Our ancestral imperative to remember was amply applied in the preservation of a large volume of personal letters written throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. The complete transcripts are included in our book Prairie Tree Letters, IUniverse, 2008. In the connecting narrative and in this online narrative I have tried to let the the authors speak for their eloquent selves.
They render many images in their writings; of curiosity, optimism and energy in beginnings. A gift brought by these authors has been the exquisite eloquence, awareness and sensitivity to all the environment around them, even the displaced and the oppressed peoples. This energy prevails in spite of their many struggles for just food and shelter as well as the premature deaths of disease and injury of so many children, siblings and parents.
Our early memories encompass developing respect and appreciation for the gifts of place, work and service to others. Developed in that harsh environment, our father’s determination that our success will be defined and arrive by way of beauty, service and regeneration remains a part of my brother’s and my perspective these 80 some some years hence.
Note has been made of Picasso’s Mother and Child (First Steps) depicting that first step to be away from the mother. It has also been long appreciated that one cannot take that first step fully without persons and place to leave. It is my hope to describe the “froms” in our family.
We know most of our ancestors came to the New World from the British Isles. Unfortunately the information at hand includes only fragments of stories of before they arrived here. As an alternative to personal histories I have gained some pleasure and I believe understanding through the study of the American family’s environment of leaving in the book Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer. It covers the history of Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries and the people who came from there. I found it to be a marvelous compilation and a particularly useful account of the folkways brought to the various regions of this country.
For this web project I have hoped simply for a literary expression presenting the lens through which most of us experience and best understand history and life … an ordinary family… in our case one whose roots in this nation go deeply into the early New England and Virginia experience.
One must begin somewhere. I begin with our documented early days in colonial America.