An Open Letter to My Great-Great-Grandmother

Dear Lucinda, no, no perhaps I have no right to be so informal. After all, I didn’t know you nor you me. In fact, I didn’t even know about you until last summer when my husband and I drove out to Jewell County, Kansas to see the land where my mother was born, where my grandmother and my great-grandfather and great-grandmother were born, my great-grandfather your last son, the one born in Indian Country at the end of the 17th Century.

I knew my great-grandparents but not your granddaughter, my Grandmother Margaret. She died when I was young, maybe four, after the time my sister was born. We lived in Arkansas. She lived in Kansas. There’s a story of her driving down with my grandpa to visit a year or so before she died. I was somewhere down the dirt road past our house. I’ve always wandered, even when young. I guess I got that from you. Their car slowed, I expect. I imagine my grandfather rolling down his window to ask a little blond-headed, blue-eyed, barefoot girl where my daddy lived. Well, he probably didn’t say where’s your daddy, he probably asked if I knew where Jeanette Sunderland lived, that was my mother. It seems I pointed down the road and said the famous line repeated in family stories, “Ya’ll comin’ to ah house?”

That’s all I know—the story and the line. You might have been appalled at the slurring casualness of my speech; I expect your granddaughter, Grandma Margaret, might have been, as she was an educated woman and wrote poetry. All I knew was that people laughed when they heard that line at the end of a very short story. My mother was educated, and she might have cringed at my accent, I don’t remember, but then she had three children and ducks and chickens to tend. She might not have done much reading in those days. Or much pronunciation training. I was born in San Francisco, but we’d lived in Arkansas all the time I was learning to talk and my favorite neighbor, Mis McNeil who fed me peanuts, talked like that. You’d be pleased to know I grew up to be a writer and a public speaker who is very particular with her words and pronunciation.

But I knew your son, Great-Grandpa Moore and his wife Great-Grandma Moore. By the time I knew them, they’d moved to Marshall County, following their daughter Margaret who’d married a railroad man. Married outside the church—a wayward girl, I gather. I probably get that part of me from her. You wandered but I doubt you were every wayward. Great-Grandmother was a Dillon and stern but she had beautiful white hair. I guess I get that from her. The hair, I mean, and sometimes the sternness. Great-Grandpa always had bad breath but I loved to sit on his lap. He laughed all the time. I guess that means you loved him pretty well, even after moving across the country from the Carolinas, step by step, marrying and burying husbands, moving on, collecting new last names and assorted children, until Great-Great-Grandpa Moore (you outlived him too) made you a home in a dug out against a hill above a stream in Jewell County. Family legend says my great-grandpa, your youngest son, was the first white child born west of the Missouri, but I don’t know how true that is. You’d probably know. I know Kansas Pioneer is written on his tombstone just below his name.

We’re a story-telling family, so I’ve made up a story you might have told my great-great grandfather when he was young. I hope you like it.

You’re sitting with an open Bible in your lap beside the pot-bellied stove in your dug out, the home you lived in until you died at ninety-three, and a neighbor has come to visit and see if you need anything. You’re already in your late eighties and Mr. Moore, your husband, my great-great grandfather has died. You hair is still dark and pulled back into a severe bun at the back of your head. You’re wearing a hand-knit shawl.

The neighbor woman asks if you’re doing all right and you nod. “I’m fine,” you say. “I didn’t see you in church this morning,” she says. “Figured I’d ask if you needed something.” You run your open hand across a page of the great book in your lap, smoothing a fragile page. “I was reading. I’m fine.”

I didn’t know about Quakers until last summer, either, but now I’m shortchanging your story to tell another of mine. I mean, I knew about them and I’d heard Mother’s stories of her Quaker family, especially Uncle Henry who said to a stubborn mule, “I shall not beat thee, I shall not curse thee, but I shall yank on thy dang-blasted head!” I always liked that line. What I didn’t know was that there weren’t any rules or rituals in the Quaker church, nothing to argue about. Just read the Bible and be kind. That’s a pretty good rule, no rules. Maybe there’s more I don’t know about, but I never heard any stories about Quakers arguing. Just Uncle Henry, yanking on the mule’s halter because he wouldn’t drink from the tank Uncle Henry led him to.

Anyway, your story con’t.

“I was thinking about Mr. Moore this morning,” you say. “And I was remembering something that happened shortly after we got here. He went out to check on those cows we’d managed to keep alive from Indiana, and he found a party of Indians skinning one to cut it up. Isn’t that a strange way to say it…a party of Indians. Well, they were elbow deep in grease and blood, but they threw down their skinning knives and ran toward the horses. Mr. Moore said two of them had grabbed bows before he got their attention. He held up both hands, faced them with open hands, and he hollered, ‘Wait.” (You hold up your hands to demonstrate.) Not real loud, he told me, just loud enough to get their attention. They stopped. He turned one open hand toward the half-skinned cow and he nodded. Then he rubbed his belly and nodded again. They were staring at him real hard, he said, bows in one hand, reaching for something, maybe arrows. He patted his chest once and pointed over his shoulder, turned his horse, and rode away. He knew they didn’t have food, we’d heard stories of villagers starving, children mostly. They didn’t follow and they didn’t shoot. A couple of mornings later, we found a big pile of firewood down by the stream. The Indians had brought it in trade. He was a good man, Mr. Moore. I was proud of him.

“No. I don’t need anything. Thank you for coming. I didn’t have anyone to tell this story to and it needed telling. Now it’s done.”

In a Quaker Cemetary

In a Quaker Cemetery

14 thoughts on “An Open Letter to My Great-Great-Grandmother

  1. Hi Janet! I’m doing a family tree and I was just laying here wondering who my great- great -great grandfather and great- great- great grandmother was. I know who my father’s father and mother names are and I know who my great grandparents names and I know my great – great grandparents names are, but I was thinking, what is my great- great- great grandparents names. I went on Google in put my name in there and ask about who my great- great- great grandparents was, and you pop up. I read your story, and really enjoyed it. My dad Byron Petty Moore Jr. Work for Rock Island railroad years ago. His fathers name is Byron Petty Moore Sr. My grandfather. He was married to Lela Margaret Moore ( born Shilling) . His father’s name is Charles Emmet Moore. He’s my great grandfather. He was married to Musa Emily Moore ( born Petty). My great- great grandfather name is Weston Moore and he’s was married to Martha Moore. What I was wondering is would you know who Weston parent’s was. Thank you for your story and thank you for your time. Teresa

    1. Hi Teresa! How nice of you to reach out. Since you read the essay, you know my family was Quaker and settled in Jewell County, Kansas. I know more about my great-great grandmother than I do about her husband Mr. Moore. I haven’t researched him, or the Moore family, but if I remember rightly, he came from either Illinois or Indiana before moving to Kansas. Have you tried a search on Ancestry.com? You could enter any of the Moore names you mentioned and get a family tree. And I think for a first-time visitor, you could do a search for free. If you know where your father or grandfather were born, you’d be well on your way. Hope this helps!

    1. What a kind thing to say Rebecca. Thank you! This was a new form for me. One of the things I’m thinking about is writing a one-woman show on my lineage of women. And this open letter came out of that. You’ll probably see more of this as it seems to free up my ideas for them.

  2. Wonderful powerful story Janet. It’s very nostalgic for me ad I love reading anout the early settlement days; although my family stayed in NJ & PA. My dad and Aunt Jenny, now 95, told me stories of their father, my grandfather, who traveled to Colorado and California. Will have to tell you in person. Best, Phil

    Nice way to begin my morning.

  3. How lucky you are to know your ancestors. Both my parents lost their parents when they were young. They had no information about them they wanted to share with us. Dad died in 1985 mom 1994.

    1. I agree. I’ve heard stories of my family – and wider family – for as long as I can remember. I had two dads as my father died young, and Dad and his dad, Grandpa Albert, were also storytellers. It’s hard for me to imagine not having family stories….I’m trying to think about that. Because it’s only through family stories that I really know who I am. Knowing there’s been writers and other odd people makes me feel a little more stable! But I suspect there’s other ways of coming to know who one is and you’ve done a good job with it. I also think there’s many families who just don’t tell stories. Interesting that stories are so much a part of who I am, I don’t even know how to think about not having them. Thanks, Sue. You’ve given me an interesting thing to ponder!

  4. Janet,
    This is wonderful.
    “I shall not beat thee, I shall not curse thee, but I shall yank on thy dang-blasted head!” — sounds like a good rule for child-rearing as well as farming.
    Theresa

    1. Thank you so much! The genesis of that story was me thinking about doing a one-woman play about my family women and wondering what I could have a great-great-grandmother, of whom I’d heard no stories, say. And that story came to me. The cows and firewood came from a story Grandpa Albert would tell, Dad’s dad. He and his dad were killing cattle that had hoof and mouth disease and the Indians who lived just north of our farm came along and said they wanted them. The two men explained they were sick cows, but the Indians insisted. Took them, dried the meat, and no one got sick. And the tribe kept the family in firewood all winter.

  5. It’s fascinating to imagine them, isn’t it? And your story is a good one. Firewood for food is a fine trade, and I suspect that sort of thing went on more often than we imagine.

    Nice to have you back and posting!

    1. Thank you! I’ve been writing a lot lately – and basically not leaving the house for days at a time. It’s been great! And yes, food for firewood probably was common. As I wrote in the above reply, my Grandpa Albert and his dad were killing cattle with hoof and mouth disease, the tribe men rode down and asked for them. No one in the tribe got sick, and they kept the family supplied with firewood all winter.

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