Saturday, February 2, 2013

Research, resources, and ready to roll - Day 2 of the Family History Writing Challenge

“Mama,” she yelled as she slammed the door behind her, “He’s home!”

Polly McCollum looked up from the pot she was stirring. “Who’s home?” she asked.

“John is home. Abijah and John are home,” she said. “Lucy just saw them and couldn’t wait to tell me. I expect their mother is happy.”

“I suppose she is,” replied Polly. “Will you please call your sisters, dinner is ready.”

Martha Jane hurried to find her sisters. Maybe now, he would ask her mother for her hand. He’d been gone almost three years and she’d heard that the Confederate Army was ready to surrender. It didn’t matter to her. John Carter Rhea was home and she was 17- yrs-old, in love, and all grown up. After all, John’s sister Sarah got to get married at 14, the same age that she had been when John went to war.

Polly filled the plates and set them on the table. The girls sat down and offered a prayer.

“I got a letter from your father today,” Polly started but 15-yr-old Caroline interrupted. “Is he coming home?” she asked. Martha and 13-yr-old sister Sarah waited expectantly for the answer.

“No, he said that they were finding gold all over the place and he thought he might have a lead on a vein”, she replied.

“Mama,, if I get married, will he come home?” Martha wanted to know. Caroline and Sarah looked up sharply. “Married,” they squealed. Martha looked a little smug. “John came home today”

The photo is James Northcross McCollum

James Northcross McCollum, born in 1820, grew up in Sneedville, Tennessee not far from the Gray farm. He and Polly Gray spent their early days together. Like his daughter would later do, he married his childhood sweetheart in 1847 when he was 26-yrs-old and she was 22-yrs-old. Polly knew that James had grander plans than living his life in a backwater town. When he came to her in 1853, seven years after they married, and told her he thought that he could make much more money for the family if he went off to California to find gold, she knew she couldn’t stop him. Martha Jane was just five when he left, Caroline was three and Sarah was a year old.

Polly was a little surprised that Caroline and Sarah still wanted their father to come home. Neither of them remembered him. Only Martha had memories of being Daddy’s little girl.

James had not found gold but did find a life that suited him. The weather in Northern California was similar to Sneedville and he lived in the Redwoods that lined the coast. By the time Martha decided she was going to marry John, he had been gone for twelve years. None of them knew that James Northcross McCollum would not return until 1886. By that time, Polly had divorced him and had been working all those years as a domestic servant for a wealthy family. 33 years is a long time to be gone from home but he did well. Even though he wasn’t fond of farming in Tennessee, he owned land that he farmed in Klamath, California.

If I were to write this as a short story, fleshing out the middle, this is how I would end it.

Martha quietly closed the door behind her. It the darkened room, Polly was asleep on the daybed in the front room. It had been a rough year for Polly who was not the robust person she’d once been. She was 61-yrs-old now and time had taken its toll.

The year was 1886 and Polly lived with her youngest daughter Sarah and husband, Henry Depew. She was no longer working and spent most of her time resting. She’d used up much of her strength and energy comforting Martha when John Carter was murdered in 1884. Martha was 8-months pregnant with Lillie on the day that John Brewer shot John Carter.

Martha tiptoed into the kitchen to find Sarah sitting at the kitchen table, pen in hand. Pausing in her writing, she looked up and answered the question she saw in Martha’s eyes. “Yes, I’m writing to Caroline. I imagine she’ll be shocked. I wonder if she and Robert will make the trip all the way from Oklahoma.”

Martha looked skeptical. “That’s a long way to go with all those kids and Robert may not be able to leave his job for that long. The lumber business is volatile as it is.”

“Still,” Carolyn said, “I’m going to let her know. This is the biggest news in years. Do you want to tell Mom?”

“I guess someone has to tell her,” Martha replied. “There’s no time like the present” and with that, Martha headed back to the front room.

She walked over to the daybed and touched her mother on her shoulder. “Mama,” she whispered. Polly opened her eyes and smiled at her.

“Mama, he’s home,” she said softly.

Polly looked confused. “Who’s home?” she asked.

“Daddy’s home.”

It seems to me that the story of James and Polly should have its own place. I like the thought of the ending and the beginning being the same because that’s how it would have gone down. Since this is only Day 2 of the challenge and I have already somehow changed the focus, I am going to leave this as is. Who knows where this will lead but I find myself more than vested in the lives of these people, my family.

BTW, 1886 was the 1st Rose Parade, something that my family attended all the years I was growing up. The first continental railroad transported the first oranges across the country. My husband and I were docents at the California Citrus State Historical Park in Riverside, California and we know all about this major event that made Riverside the richest city in the country at that time. The history that I know about California is colliding with the family history that I am learning.

991 words - 9 short

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