As Dickens wrote in his 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities about London and Paris during the French Revolution of the late 1770s:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
This year ending 2015 is 156 years later and the novelist’s words resonate as they have for every era before and since, and arguably for every year that humans have walked the Earth.
Certainly the 20th Century was a mess for all creation with the Great War erupting, though none of the participating European countries initially had a compelling reason to fight. Nonetheless, the war destroyed a generation of young men in Flanders field and on other pointless killing fields. Our 7th-grade English teacher had us memorize the poem In Flanders Fields, written by John McRae, a Canadian officer who wrote it for a fellow soldier killed at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. Later in the war, McRae also died.
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Beneath the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Writers have called World War I an end of innocence, which it probably was for many. But every war has been an end of innocence for that generation as well.
Innocence most certainly, and sadly, ends. But it is hard to say innocence ever had a fighting chance as humankind has somehow survived through disease, pestilence, drought, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, superstition, inquisition, religious war, hunger, starvation, bigotry, prejudice, stupidity, mental illness, genocide, and mass murder.
However, for all the conflagrations of bad news and horrors visited by humankind upon each other, nature upon humankind, and humans on nature, life abides and love flourishes. And there is indeed light in the world. The sun comes up, joy glows from tiny human faces as well as the sweet smile of my 80-year-old father. He may have dementia, but he holds my hand firmly, puts his arm around me, and gives me such a delicate kiss when we say good-bye.
What brought me to this particular epiphany was the loss my father suffered throughout his life because he had no mother, as he said to us countless times. Daddy’s mother, Darcas, died at the age of 31 when he was only four months old.
For nearly 80 years Daddy never knew why his mother died, and for 78 years he had never seen a photo of her face. But by chance while visiting Daddy’s cousin, Evelyn, in her assisted care facility, Mama noticed a photo of Daddy’s father seated beside a woman, presumably on their wedding day. Darcas at last–and Daddy was able to see what she looked like for the first time. Amazingly no one in Daddy’s paternal family had thought to share this picture of his mother.
Daddy was ecstatic to see her for the first time, but his cousin would not give him the photo. So my husband Kurt and I, along with my parents, visited her, and Kurt snapped a photo of the picture so Daddy and the rest of our family could finally see the woman who gave Daddy life: Darcas Nickaline Montgomery Allen.
That was just the beginning of our journey to find the missing side of Daddy’s family. Through a peculiarly wonderful piece of luck, fate, or good fortune, Daddy’s mother’s family was (and is) Mormon, and they are people who care deeply for their ancestors. This fact has helped us immeasurably as we have followed the barely visible crumbs of information leading to my father’s Montgomery family. We finally found and contacted what we found to be the grandchildren of Darcas’s siblings and will soon be able to show Daddy photos of his mother when she was young and happy–before she died in 1935 of pellagra psychosis, a nutritional disease leading to madness.
Through the reminiscences of her Montgomery family (and a photo of the family in 1906), Darcas came to life: She was sensitive, child-like, loved children, but was afraid to have children of her own. She was especially close to her sister Eutaw Regina who was two years younger, and together they worked in a cotton mill in Virginia, then one in Tennessee, as teenaged spinners. Eutaw and Darcas were the only two daughters in the family who lived past childhood with their parents, John and Cordelia, losing three small girls: Rose Elizabeth lived one day, Willie Hazel died at 1-1/2, and Luva Vera was 10 when she died of the Spanish influenza that swept the world in the wake of World War I. Sadness and loss of innocence also visited Carroll County, Virginia, as they were put to rest in the small family cemetery.
Although her mother and sister sheltered and protected her, Darcas undoubtedly was devastated by the death of her little sisters which probably increased her fear of having children of her own. Yet, at some point, she met Hodge Allen and decided to move 100 miles away from her family to start a new life in Knoxville, Tennessee, with this good-looking, but barely articulate, man. Like her, he had not married until his 30s and had always lived with his mother.
What she, a sheltered Mormon who was probably raised not to drink coffee or alcohol, could not have known was the maelstrom she was entering by living with Hodge, his mother, and his alcoholic brother. Daddy remembers bootlegging, “women”, the abuse of his drunken uncle, being threatened with a hot poker, and the scar on his cheek that he was told was from a rat bite he received when he was a baby.
Just 18 months after her marriage and four months after giving birth to Daddy, Darcas died a monstrous death in the county’s combination insane asylum and workhouse for the poor, the George Maloney Home. Daddy’s illiterate father, Hodge, did not have the money or the wherewithal to have his wife committed to the state’s facility (Eastern State Psychiatric Hospital in Knoxville) where she might have received better care. Nor did he–as far as we know–contact her family in Kingsport about her illness until after she was dead. According to her family, Darcas was never able to hold Daddy after his birth.
It was a tragedy that Daddy never felt a mother’s love, his upbringing was grim, and he was thrown out of his home by his second stepmother when he was 16 and lived for a few years at the YMCA. Heartbreaking. And I would have so loved to have known my grandmother. But suddenly it dawned on me, that I do know my grandmother because I know my father. The description of Darcas shared by my Eutaw’s granddaughter describes Daddy as well: emotionally and physically fragile, sensitive, and somewhat child-like. Just as her mother and sister protected Darcas, my mother, sister, and I have tried to protect Daddy. His naiveté, childhood neglect, and temperament have never made him a good fit for the harder jolts of life.
But he lived through his abusive, motherless childhood; he and Mama effectively reared two daughters who have been able to make their way in the world; and he adores his family. He was not a good provider, but he is a good man.
So I know my grandmother Darcas–my wish has been granted. I never got to hear her voice or hold her–and she never got to hold Daddy–but in October I finally stood beside her grave and felt her sweet spirit as the wind blew over her family’s cemetery on what used to be the family farm. And, as singer/songwriter Feist wrote in her whisper of a song: I caught a long wind under my wings.
Little bird have you got a key?
Unlock the lock inside of me
Where will you go?
Keep yourself afloat
Feeling old until the wings unfolded
Caught me a long wind
Where will we go?
Keep ourselves afloat
I caught a long wind
A long life wind
Like a swallow
A night owl
A little chickadee
Good morning bird
I took a deep breath
And caught a long wind
We caught a long wind, my grandmother and me. And we flew, together, at last.
//Anna – 12/31/2015