Three thousand two hundred eighty four miles and seventeen days–my trusty little brown Prius served me well. No flats, no wrecks, no tickets, no suicidal deer diving for my bumper.
I sometimes felt like I was a little blue dot on a very red map. Saw quite a few confederate flags, despite never setting foot in the confederacy. Well, Missouri was actually claimed by both the North and the South–even had two sitting governments during the war. But the rest of the states stood with the Union. Many billboards urged me to find Jesus’s love but hate my president; choose life but buy a gun. Luckily, I didn’t have to talk to any billboards. The people I did talk to were kind and generous, like most people anywhere. We talked about family and local history and how amazing our pioneer ancestors were. Very few of us are as scary, dangerous, or stupid as the media on either side would have us believe. So if the screen you are sitting in front of is making you mad at the world, I highly recommend stepping away from it, getting in your car and driving out to the middle of the country. It’s a big beautiful country and we are lucky to live here.
Really loved being on the road this long but man was it nice to sleep in my own bed last night! I was pleased with all my Airbnb stays (even the $25 flop house in Barnesville). All of them except…the Hoarder House in Columbus, Ohio. It was described as a beautiful old house–and it was on the outside. Stepping into it was a like walking into an episode of Hoarders. My friend Margie would have started hyperventilating. The host had a good heart, offering me tea on the only tiny open spot of the kitchen. She shares the house with a sweet, very hyper and thankfully medicated rescue dog. In my room, between books stacked wall to the ceiling, there was space for a twin bed and a small bedside table. The upper hinge on the bedroom door had pulled out from the frame–so I closed the door very gingerly. The sheets were clean though! That’s something. Cigarette smoke and dirty sheets are deal breakers for me. I left very early in the morning, managing not to wake Rescue Dog from his Valium slumber. I love Airbnb and even this experience would never deter me from booking again. But if you ever plan to book a place in Columbus–call me first!
I’ll finish this set of blog posts by bringing you down to Oklahoma, where my great grandfather and his brothers landed after leaving Kansas as young men around the turn of the century. Although I was only a few miles from the Oklahoma border on this trip, I stopped short because I went there last fall. I flew down to meet a distant relative I learned about through Ancestry.com. Her name is Norma and she and her husband live in the country outside Ardmore, Oklahoma. Kindest people you can imagine. I didn’t know anything about Norma until she messaged me out of the clear blue sky saying she had a wedding picture of my grandmother’s parents among old family photos. We worked out our family connection–something like step great granddaughter of my 2nd great aunt…? We spent a few days driving around south central Oklahoma, searching library shelves, pouring over giant ancient deed books in the basement of the county clerk’s office (see photo), and tenderly leafing through crumbling old newspapers. It was great fun and very fruitful. Norma and I still keep in touch and we often share discoveries or places we are stuck in our family searching.
So back to William and Emeline and their family. This is an old picture of Red River Ranch–it was taken in western Oklahoma, on the first homestead the Purcells had there. The man with the long white beard is William; Emeline stands next to him. I think my great grandfather, Frank, is on the other side of William; the others are his brothers, his sisters, and his sister’s husband and kids. This was taken right around when Oklahoma became a state in 1907. When you look at this picture–the flat dry land–do you think: “Wow! What a great place to farm! Let’s live here!” Boy, I sure don’t. I am glad they stopped there for a few years though–long enough for my great grandfather to meet my great grandmother, Rockie Webb. Her family was living on a farm nearby. Frank and Rockie weren’t spring chickens: he was 35 and she was 27 when they married.
They promptly set about having four boys: Paul Truman, Coy, Weldon, and my grandfather Frank Lyal (born in 1916).
When my grandfather was quite young the Purcell clan must have decided they’d had it with western Oklahoma and they all moved 118 miles east to Pauls Valley–a beautiful part of the state with rolling hills covered with native grasses, red clay outcrops, honey locusts, white oak and red bud trees. The little town had boomed when the Acheson Topeka and Santa Fe railroad came through in the late 1800s. The local historical society is now housed in the old train depot. When I visited, the historian pulled out a quilt stitched by several ladies in town, including Nell Purcell, my grandfather’s cousin’s wife. I love the idea that this quilt had been waiting nearly 100 years for me to come see it.
Rather than telling you about life on a farm in Oklahoma in the ’20s, I’ll let my grandfather do it.
“Picture a beautiful early spring day, because that is what it was. Each of us boys had a turning plow to fit our age. Paul and Coy had 14-inch plows. Weldon had a 12-inch plow and since I was twelve or thirteen years old dad gave me the 10-inch plow. For you that do not know, those inches are the cutting edge width of dirt the plow will turn over. That morning is very clear today as I type this. We got up as usual at sunup to feed and harness the horses and milk the cows; I do not know how many we had at the time, the most was sixteen, if my memory serves me right. When the feeding was done, we would take the milk to the house and eat a big breakfast of hot biscuits, bacon or ham and eggs, then out to the field. That was the daily routine till we would come in at sundown.
This particular morning we were to plow, as near as I can remember, an 80-acre plot, ½ mile long, ¼ mile wide. Nice level ground. I think Coy started out first. A 14-inch required four horses to pull it. Then Paul started next. After he had gone several yards, Weldon started with his 12-inch plow which required three horses to pull it. At last it was my turn. Already the fragrance of three furrow of fresh-turned earth was beginning to fill the air. As I started, Dad’s plowing instructions were fresh in my mind. We all had been instructed to pick a point up ahead and plow toward it…So that morning what I saw ahead were three brothers plowing furrows I had to follow to plow a straight row. In addition, I saw beautiful picture of three plowmen against the background of an early morning sky with faithful horses pulling their plows so we could plant our crop for the season. I think the reason I remember that picture so well was because that picture was repeated several days in a row before eighty acres were finished. Day after day, the fragrance of fresh turned earth was there. The fun part was to walk barefoot in that soft fresh soil and watch the birds as they circled the field looking for their favorite food. At the end of the day my weary feet still appreciated the soft cool touch of Mother Earth as we finished the last furrow at quitting time.”
I love the imagery in that passage–I can smell the turned soil and feel it between my toes.
My grandparents, and Rockie and Frank stayed in Pauls Valley until early 1930s when the Depression, the Dust Bowl and a series of hardships unmoored them again. They and thousands of other Okies headed for California. But that’s a story for another time.
On this trip I’ve been out “following ghosts,” but my grandfather is very real to me. He died only three years ago. I’ve never been one for regret–certainly not out of lack of opportunity. “Blessed” I guess, with the right configuration of denial, practiced powers of rationalization, and an optimistic outlook, I tend to move on rather than ruminate about things I wish I had done differently. But one regret that gives me a bit of heartache is that I started this project after my grandparents died. It would have been amazing to bring all these long lost bits of their ancestors’ lives to them. Several times, especially after finding a particularly interesting piece of information, I catch myself thinking, “I can’t wait to tell Granddaddy about this.” I imagine sitting next to him in the big swing in their backyard, listening to it squeak as he looked at something I found. He’d smile his big smile and say, “you don’t say!” Then he’d tell me a story.
So many things left unsaid.
That’s it from me for a while. Need to sort through my notes and findings, get to writing, and start packing for India. I last saw Nat in July and I’m looking forward to spotting his face among the crowd at the New Delhi airport. May post a page or two here while we’re there. Thanks for reading!