ACCORDING TO NONIE
Allow me to introduce myself... Gracie Sherman, sixty-five years of age and proud to have lasted this long. After we both retired three years ago, my old man Harp and I traded in our big old split-level for this nice little bungalow in a senior community some thirty miles west of Laramie, Wyoming, population three hundred give or take. From our front verandah there's a grand view eastward. Of a fine evening we like to sit out there in our plantation rockers, working on a pitcher of margaritas and admiring the nightshadow sweeping across the grasslands from the Laramie mountains as the sun dips below the Snowy range behind us. Sometimes we talk and sometimes we don't need to. Sometimes the spirits of our ancestors who also loved this land speak to us. Not literally, you understand.
We got us a vegetable patch, flower beds all around, shade trees, a little orchard, a flock of Leghorns and a tidy little workshop for Harp's woodworking hobby. Life pretty much revolves around doin's over at the Mountainview Senior Center, which has got every kind of activity on offer. We keep two old plugs down at the community barn along with everyone else still able to keep a horse twixt behind and ground. There's still enough open range left to enjoy a good trail ride whenever the mood strikes although sometimes we like to join the Sunday after-church crowd for group ride, weather permitting.
Don't you think for a minute us old folks are cut off from the mainstream. Nosirree bob! Most of us are computer-literate these days and have probably gained more general and global knowledge from the Internet than we ever did in school or in our working lives.
Harp and I've known each other all our lives—the past forty-seven years in double harness. We're in relatively good heath and fairly decent physical condition, thanks to regular exercise and our indestructible pioneer genes. We each still have all our teeth and most of our marbles (although some folks might dispute that). Our two sons and two daughters have blessed us with a round dozen grandchildren and two greatgrands to date.
That's about the size of it. Or all I need to tell right now. You're probably wondering, where's this old lady going with this? I'm fixing to tell you...
There's a lotta good storytellers in our conglomerated tribe but I'm generally regarded as the best yarnspinner of the bunch. (There's a reason for that which I'll explain shortly.) Over the years I've many times thought about putting these stories down to paper but never seemed to find the time to get 'a round tuit', if you know what I mean. Life always got in the way. Well, now that I'm retired that excuse don't hold no water, is the way my favorite granddaughter Marybeth Harper Sherman put it when the subject came up in early summer.
Marybeth's got a bee in her bonnet about preservin' our pioneer family's heritage in print—so future generations'll know who their people were. I'm of two minds about that, given what all I know about some a them folks way back when. But she's dead set on me writin' up what she calls 'historical narratives' featurin' actual family members and has done chivvied me into doin' it. Truth to tell, she didn't have to twist my tail too hard. Nonie, she says, if you don't write these things down now before you kick the bucket, they'll be lost to posterity and that'll be a cryin' shame. Reckon she's got a point... but...
If and when some of this aforementioned information stored in my brainpan sees the light of day, it's gonna upset more than one cherished genealogical applecart and put some major wads in a number a union suits, my uppity sister Jolene's for one. Jolene's a foundin' member of that hysterical society and their museum over in Laramie and thinks she's queen of everything. For four decades Jolene's been suspicioning I know stuff she don't know about our family, and for four decades she's been pesterin' the livin' daylights outta me to find out how come I know what I know. Hah! As if I'd ever give her the satisfaction! Well, I suppose she's gonna find out someday if these stories a mine ever get writ and published. (Marybeth's got these same suspicions, I'm sure, but way too wily and polite to push me on it.)
Jolene's always held our ancestors to be pure lily-white Anglo-Saxon Protestant without no character blemishes to reflect on our (meaning her, mainly) sterlin' reputation in that there hysterical society, even though our granddaddy Jess Harper enjoyed a certain notoriety which ain't exactly no big secret around here. Well, I'm here to tell ya, what's writ in various family Bibles and chiseled on them near-century-old headstones in the family graveyard ain't necessarily the gospel truth. I'll go to my grave a happy woman if the last thing I ever see is that ratfaced sister a mine poopin' cinderblocks when she finds out what really happened!
But I digress... and before I go any further I need to mention a couple a things...
First off, Harp and me are both former educators. I taught high school history in the Albany County School District. Harp was a professor of agriculture and applied economics at UofY over in Laramie. We can write and hold forth in grammatically correct English when necessary but since retirement we've got kinda lazy and reverted to regional speech patterns—the informal language of our youth, so to speak. It's in the blood and we can't help it. But Marybeth says that's okay, that I should write down my thoughts and recollections 'zackly as I think 'em—for flavor, you see—so you'll just have to forgive me the lapses in continuity as I wobble between voices.
About Marybeth... I know it's wrong to admit to having a favorite grandchild but there you go. In reality there's always that special one that stands out from the herd. That filly graduated summa cum laude with a degree in journalism from that toney Sarah Lawrence college back in New York. Hit the ground runnin' and nowadays has her a editorial position with one a them big-name publishers and a six-figure income. (Do I come off like a proud grandparent? Damn skippy!) Nonie, she says, just write it the way it flows outta your head and I'll polish it later. But before I get started on them stories, Marybeth says I need to work out a introduction to our blended and extended family—an overview of sorts—to explain how it got to where it is today. She says keep it simple and concise. I don't rightly see how that's possible but I'll do my best...
NONIE'S INTRODUCTION TO THE TRIBE
The relationships between the Shermans and the Harpers and their assorted shirttail relatives is as convoluted as a pailful a nightcrawlers. A DNA specialist would think he'd died and gone to research heaven if he had all of us rounded up in one laboratory.
There's a mess of us and that ain't no lie—mostly boomers born in the late 1940s and early 50s. There's more Sherman and Harper cousins than ticks on a hound. Daddy used to say you couldn't take a leak outdoors without splashing on one. I guess that would apply more to the boy cousins but you get the idea. Momma put it more genteelly: "If you stuck your head out the back door and hollered 'Harper (or Sherman), you get in here right now!' you'd be trampled in the stampede." (The reason for that is the baby-naming conventions popular back then, which I'll be gettin' round to by and by.)
Gettin' down to business... I'm gonna skip right over the first settlers and start off with our two foundation sires, who first met in 1870... (schoolmarm alert!)
Matthew Jacob Sherman II, familiarly known as 'Slim', was twenty-eight at the time and a consummate multi-tasker—running a swing station for an overland stagecoach company, operating a struggling cattle ranch, and raising his sole surviving sibling, thirteen-year-old Andrew Patrick Sherman. (Another older gentleman, a Mr. Jebediah Carteret Jones, lived with them but as he wasn't blood-related we'll disregard him for the time being.)
Somewhere between the family's departure point in Pennsylvania (where Slim was born) and their arrival in what later became Wyoming (where Andy was born), the original surname of Schirrmann was anglicized to Sherman. Slim was the second generation of his Prussian forebears to be born on American soil and a very model of Teutonic splendor: tall (over six feet, uncommon for that time) with straight blonde hair (which darkened with age) and pale blue-gray eyes. Having started off as the well-nourished scion of a prosperous farming family, he was a ruggedly-built, heavy-boned man who maintained robust health throughout his lifetime. A most handsome individual by all accounts and as seen in the images of that period. An officer who served with distinction in the Union army during the Civil War.
Slim Sherman was purported to be well-educated, even-tempered and pragmatic, somewhat anal retentive about policy and procedure, and generally lacking in humor (probably on account of having too many responsibilities and worries). In later years considered a stalwart of the community and served on a variety of boards governing the myriad concerns of the emerging metropolis of Laramie. Many an unwed rancher's daughter cast longing eyes on this fine specimen of manhood but Slim remained as unattainable as a cloistered monk. Courting had a low priority on his to-do list.
Jesse Ewan Harper, known as 'Jess' (the second 'e' having dropped off somewhere along the line), was a twenty-five-year-old saddle tramp with no outwardly redeeming qualities and a burgeoning reputation as a gunfighter when he arrived on the scene. Jess' people were Scots-Irish immigrants whose first attempts at planting roots failed in Virginia and did no better in Texas. Poverty-stricken and illiterate, the Harpers lost more than half of their offspring to disease and malnutrition, and eventually perished altogether aside from Jess and a sister called Frances. Jess was a Confederate foot soldier in the War Between the States. By the time he fetched up at the Sherman ranch, Jess Harper had no one and nothing except for his gun, his saddle and his horse. How such a hard-luck individual, on his own for a decade, managed to survive at all is beyond all comprehension.
What Jess lacked in stature (being half a head shorter than Slim), formal education and social graces, he more than compensated for in temperament (alternately fiery and morose, rarely calm) and personality (gallant when needs must, sparkling on occasion—when romance beckoned, and even funny—not always intentionally). Again, descriptions and early images portray an extremely attractive young man with dark wavy hair, a perpetually earnest visage and a slender, wiry physique. It's said that his sapphire-blue eyes could melt the pantaloons off a female at fifty paces. At any rate, this particular rolling stone came to rest at the Sherman domicile and there it stayed, aside from a number of feeble attempts at breaking way.
Jess was frequently to be found recuperating from injuries incurred as a result of his reckless lifestyle. He'd been gunshot so many times he should have leaked like a sieve whenever he sneezed. However, he was rarely ill—probably on account of a natural overabundance of antibodies from being tore up all the time. Jess stepped in love early, often and deeply—usually with the wrong kind of female. Plus, he'd been drifting for so long he'd more or less forgotten that the right kind expects her man to stay put. Jess was frankly terrified at the idea of being tied down by marriage. He tended to shy away from proper girls but wasn't hesitant about straightforward business transactions with improper ones.
Let's fast-forward a bit here... Despite being polar opposites—or perhaps because of it, these two men formed an unlikely alliance as employer-employee which quickly evolved to friendship. In 1871 younger brother Andy was whisked off to boarding school in St. Louis in the company of Mr. Jones (who never did return), leaving Slim and Jess on their own for about a year. This has led to some disrespectful speculation on some people's parts which I'm not about to dignify with commentary.
That year was noteworthy for a couple of reasons: First and most important, the relationship between the two men solidified to a brother-bond as tight as any forged in blood. Secondly, they gained expertise in and a humble respect for the complexity of and sheer labor involved in household management—so-called women's work. (In later years their wives would appreciate their willingness to pitch in when asked.)
Although having served in loco parentis to Andy for some years, Slim was used to Jonesy looking after the cooking, doctoring and housekeeping. Always on the trail, Jess could feed himself and perform personal maintenance but was entirely ignorant of the mechanics of what went on inside a house. They both had a lot to learn. Here's some examples: Never put a brand-new bright red union suit in the same wash boiler as the white bed linens. When soaking dried beans overnight, fill the pot only halfway up, not all the way to the brim. Pay attention to household inventory levels; if you notice you're getting low on a particular commodity, write it down immediately. Always keep extra packages of Gayetty's tissue in the outhouse so you won't get caught short.
Anyway, by the end of that year another youngster entered the picture—Michael Williams, an orphan taken in under Slim's guardianship. (Though not factored in as blood-kin himself, Mike's descendants certainly are, as evidenced by the numerous Michaels and Williams amongst us.) Slim undertook to formally adopt the boy, with Jess as unofficial co-parent, but this required a female presence in the household. A housekeeper was engaged—a sweet widow lady by the name of Mrs. Daisy Cooper. Being of mature years (seventy-five upon arrival), Mrs. Cooper contributed no genetic material to the admixture but her name lives on in affection and respect, as does that of Mr. Jones. (Daisies and Jebediahs abound.)
The decade rolled on, bringing with it the rapid decline of the beloved Miss Daisy... and here's where it starts to get really interesting:
Miss Jemima Evangeline Ross, spinster, had had offers aplenty in her teens—after all, there was a dearth of suitable women on the plains in those days—but the proposals had trickled off and ceased altogether as it was made perfectly clear to all comers by the senior Rosses that their only child was expected to remain on the farm caring for them into their old age. So Jemma set aside her own expectations to fulfill her filial obligations. Other than that, Jemma was very much her own woman, doing pretty much as she pleased and not giving a fig what anyone might have to say about it.
Some weeks after both parents simultaneously succumbed to the influenza in May 1875, Jemma sold the family farm, banked the proceeds and checked herself into a boarding house in Laramie to examine her options. Pushing thirty and well past her shelf life as prime marital material, Jemma's employment prospects were limited to what she knew best: domestic management and nursing. Fate and the Daily Chronicle's want ads yielded up the perfect opportunity: live-in housekeeper to two bachelor ranchers, governess to an eleven-year-old boy, and nurse to an elderly widowed aunt.
After discreet inquiries brought assurances of trustworthiness and good character on the part of the bachelor ranchers, Miss Jemima Evangeline Ross hired herself a rig and drove the twelve miles out to the Sherman ranch to interview for the position. The rest, as they say, is history...
You can just imagine Jemma's reaction when Mr. Sherman and his partner Mr. Harper turned out to be fine-lookin' gents around her own age rather than the crabbed old farts the description 'bachelor' usually brings to mind. The little boy was adorable and the elderly aunt just as sweet as could be. A job offer was made and accepted.
In view of the impropriety of a single woman living under the same roof as two single men, a formal atmosphere at first prevailed. Soon enough, though, they were all on a first-name basis with Jemma easily joining in the camaraderie already existing between Slim and Jess.
Jemma thoroughly enjoyed being châtelaine of the joint Sherman-Harper estate, where she was given free rein to run the household as she saw fit. She had a decent, if not magnificent, salary and a generous household allowance. She had a spacious bedroom comfortably furnished with the few items she'd kept from her previous life. A lively saddle mare was provided for her personal use, and a team and buggy available for when she needed to go into town. Slim and Jess were thoughtful and entertaining companions. Bed-ridden Aunt Daisy was an uncomplaining patient. Little Mike was an unusually biddable child who minded Jemma with very little resistance. What wasn't to like?
Aunt Daisy crossed the river in late August. When school resumed in September, Mike boarded in town during the week and came home at weekends. Now alone from Sunday through Friday evenings with only Slim and Jess for company, Jemma found herself with lots more time for inner contemplation.
Every once in a while thoughts of future commitment with one or the other of those gentlemen would flitter through her head, and these she promptly dismissed. She wasn't yet willing to give up her independence. However, she decided it was beyond time to surrender her maiden status. Was in fact quite looking forward to it (women have their wild oats, too, you know). All she needed was a willing participant, preferably one of those closest at hand. Either or both would do.
Jemma was a plain-spoken forward-thinker for her time and held strong opinions on a variety of subjects, especially the injustice of society's restraints on the conduct of women. Why shouldn't what's sauce for the gander be sauce for the goose as well? Unfortunately, with no advances having been made upon her person and having received no instruction in the area of seductive arts, Jemma had no recourse but to come right out and ask for what she wanted, which she did one evening at the dinner table. Laid it right on the line for them, whereupon Slim dropped his fork on the floor and Jess snorted coffee out his nose. Both were so acutely embarrassed and beet-faced they couldn't look at each other much less at her, mumbling protests to the effect that, no, they couldn't possibly... Jemma merely shrugged and queried, why not?
Now, Jemma was no great beauty—her square freckled face wouldn't have launched a rowboat much less a thousand ships. But she was a comely enough wench, pleasantly plump in all the right places, with sparkling green eyes, russet ringlets that defied confinement to plaits, and a pleasing contralto voice often raised in song as she went about her duties.
Jemima Evangeline Ross was aware she wouldn't have set the town on fire with her grace and beauty. What she didn't know was that on the day she'd first appeared at the door, she'd certainly ignited coals of desire in the hearts of those two bachelor ranchers. Although Slim and Jess both strove to keep their ardor tamped down and out of sight, each sensed the other's attraction to their flame-haired housekeeper and neither wished to risk putting their friendship in jeopardy. Nor had they ever voiced their feelings to Jemma. So, while we're not privileged to know the exact dimensions of the conversation that followed, it must have been some kinda humdinger. Slim and Jess each counteroffered with a proposal on the spot. Both were politely but firmly declined, as were the many others the men regularly trotted out over the next few years. Thanks, but no thanks.
Slim and Jess could have refused to go along with the program but... they were males after all... more easily driven by natural inclination than common sense. And who was to know?
By this time an additional bedroom had been added to the original structure: the one first occupied by Jonesy and then Daisy was now Jemma's; Mike had inherited Andy's. Slim and Jess were quite content to continue sharing the bedroom they'd occupied for six years. They were used to it. What they weren't used to was sharing a woman. It was awkward at first but they eventually managed to iron out an arrangement to everyone's satisfaction. (Think: Paint Your Wagon.) The good people of Laramie would have been mortified had they but known.
Inevitably, in due course (1877) Jemma was delivered of a lanky, fair-haired agreeable baby with slate-gray eyes. No one could be absolutely positively sure, you understand, but it seemed obvious enough to the concerned parties. They named her Matilda (the feminine form of Matthew) Jessica Sherman. An eyebrow or two was raised amongst their friends and neighbors who all tactfully refrained from comment.
In 1878 another daughter made an appearance, causing a ripple of disapproval amongst the mostly conservative citizenry. This one was pretty much a no-brainer—her headful of dark curls and deepest, truest-blue eyes (once they settled) pointed directly to you-know-who so she was christened Frances Jessamine Harper.
The minister who presided at the baptism of Andrew Harper Sherman Ross in 1879 was both appalled and highly amused but didn't dare say so. Harp was a big baby with auburn hair, hazel eyes and a squall that could peel paint off a barn. The parental triumvirate had been well and truly stymied this time so had settled on the only name they were sure about.
At the 1880 census, the population of Laramie hovered around 6,400 and the town now considered itself quite civilized. Concessions had to be made in order to maintain a respectable profile in both business and society. Jemma realized that her children would be vulnerable to ridicule once they started school and were old enough to understand their unique family composition. Something had to be done. Jemma decided to remedy the situation by making an honest woman of herself.
Now, Jemma had herself a good long think about which of her two beloveds would constitute the better choice for the long run. There were many factors to consider here. When the stagecoach business had petered out, supplanted by rail service, the two men had turned their full attention to acquisition of additional land and better breeding stock. The cattle operation prospered beyond all expectation and there was a surplus of funds in the bank. Some time back Slim had started making cautious but sound investments outside the cattle industry. Jemma was now an equal, legal partner and all three, plus the ranch itself were amply insured. Trust funds had been established for the children. Financial security was not an issue, so her consideration focused on the men themselves.
At age thirty-five Jess appeared to have exhausted the last of his wanderlust and was spending the majority of his time on the ranch, overseeing the hired help and directing operations. He hadn't quite lost all his youthful exhuberance or his penchant for a good punch-up every now and again, but his periodic disappearances were fewer and farther between and he hadn't caught a bullet in recent memory. Also, his sporadic fits of depression were short-lived and not as debilitating as they'd once been.
Slim, on the other hand, was starting to develop the itchy foot (which nowadays we'd call having a mid-life crisis) and finding all sorts of excuses to absent himself from the ranch—some legitimately business-related and others patently specious. (He'd long ago outgrown his compulsion to micro-manage.) It was as if he'd awakened one morning thinking, I'm thirty-seven years old and I've never been anywhere! Jemma noticed he was as well absenting himself from her bed with increasing frequency. And Jess had mentioned that Slim sure seemed distracted lately.
Mike was sixteen and, following in Andy's footsteps, away at school. The children, who'd been using the appellations 'papa' and 'daddy' interchangeably for their putative fathers, were definitely more attached to Jess although Slim was an equally attentive parent.
In the end, Jemma examined her heart to determine which one occupied the larger portion.
One evening after dinner and after the children had been put down for the night, Jemma made her announcement as casually as if requesting that the butter be passed, leaving one man very happy indeed and the other not so much—though not devastated. (To be perfectly honest with himself, Slim acknowledged that while he remained greatly fond of Jemma, he was no longer passionately in love with her.)
Shortly thereafter, Slim Sherman waved goodbye to the newlyweds and hopped on an eastbound train, secure in the knowledge he was leaving the ranch in their capable hands.
Slim stayed away about two years, more or less. Oh, he came home every now and then just long enough to check in and distribute marvelous presents before leaving again. Jess and Jemma and the children followed his travels and adventures via postcards sent from all over the world, which Jemma carefully accumulated in a scrapbook. Not too long before returning home for good, Slim shocked them with the news that he'd acquired a young wife in Hawaii, of all places. Her name was Anel and she was a 'native Polynesian.' (But that's a whole other story I'm saving for another time.)
Jumping way ahead to around the turn of the century, we find the Harper's live-birth count closing in on double digits and the Shermans the proud owners of six cubs of their own. Good Lord! Seems they was hellbent on reproducing as if solely responsible for continuation of the specie! So now we have a batch of Sherman calves by Slim and Anel who are half-siblings to at least one and possibly two of Slim's by Jemma. Then there's a remuda of Harper foals by Jess and Jemma who are half-siblings to one or possibly two of those three oldest children.
To compound the confusion, there's one other complication… Grandpa Slim shuffled off this mortal coil following a traffic accident (buggy versus automobile) not too long after Grandma Jemma went to meet her Maker (having given up the ghost bringing her last child into the world). Family lore has it that Grandpa Jess proposed to the freshly widowed Anel about two minutes after the interment and she accepted with alacrity, having a brace of fledglings still under wing, as did he. A most practical arrangement, understood and accepted by their peers.
To her great consternation (according to her), Grandma Anel dropped two more fillies in rapid succession. She once told me that Grandpa went around grinnin' like a mule eatin' briars—right proud a hisself and rightfully so for a man pushin' sixty.
You're no doubt thinkin' that sure is a wretched excess of rugrats, when in this day and age more than two is ill-considered. (I read online recently that the current estimated cost of raising just one child in the United States, from birth through college graduation, is in the neighborhood of $227,000.) But keep in mind it was still the Victorian Age—big families were the norm then, and I do mean BIG. A man who couldn't field his own baseball team with the fruit of his loins was considered a slacker. Jess Harper and Slim Sherman might have been many things, but slackers they weren't! (Not in that department, anyway!) Enough about that...
On to bloodlines and the aforemention baby-naming conventions... Sorting out blood kin according to family names, as handed down in our family anyway, is a subject that would confound Mensa. All them young 'uns grew up, as children tend to do, and quite a few of 'em ended up marrying each other. Following the exhortation to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28), they went at it with gusto. Multiplied like bunnies, so they did.
A time-honored tradition used to be naming children after grandparents (not so much these days). Or else they just didn't have a whole lot of imagination back then, not havin' at their disposal all them lists of baby names you can find on the Internet. Didn't matter if a brother/sister-in-law or a sister/brother-in-law beat your time in the baby-naming race. Thus, my parents' generation was littered with multiples of Harper Sherman and Sherman Harper, not to mention Matthew Harper and Jess Sherman. Not just limited to male offspring, either. This proved to be an issue for me and my intended when we decided to jump the broom.
See, Harp and me are half-first cousins and then some... that is, his momma and mine are half-sisters. I ain't even gonna begin to try to unravel that one for you. Been there, done that, gave me migraine. Suffice to say, Harp's full name is Harper Andrew Sherman and mine is/was Harper Grace Sherman. Remember what I said about girls being stuck with last names as first names? I guess you can see the problem here. Although we've gone by Harp and Gracie for forty-seven years, the duplicate names continue to pose dilemmas for the likes of government officials or anyone else havin' forms to fill out.
Now I don't want you gettin' the wrong idea... that we intermarried to the point where we fostered a tribe of inbred morons and village idiots. (Although that's how we get good racehorses, ain't it?) Oh my no! Far from it. If you gave our family tree a mighty shake or two, many a fine old settler's name besides Harper and Sherman would tumble out of it.
Us boomer-generation Shermans and Harpers were famous for (and still are, to some extent) thumbin' our collective noses at state law (within reason) by carryin' on the tradition of marryin' cousins. Face it—if we excluded everyone related to us within a hundred mile radius, there'd be damn-all left to pick from. By the mid-1960s when the majority of us was comin' of an age to consider matrimony, it'd got to where you'd better first consider how closely you were or weren't related to an object of affection. Or you might find both yourself and your mate consigned straight to hell in a handcart. Six degrees of separation my foot! Weren't none of us off by more than one or two at the most. We sure coulda used a pedigree registry.
While marriage between cousins wasn't an uncommon practice back in olden times (keeps land in the family, doncha know?), it's a illegal one in the State of Wyoming. No problemo! A thirty-mile jaunt (from Laramie, anyways) gets you over the state line to Virginia Dale, Colorado, and voila!... the deed is done did. Frankly, in the sixties we were more concerned with civil rights and Viet Nam than the slow but steady depletion of our gene pool.
So that's where we stand today and this is as good a stoppin' point as any. My main intention was to illustrate how the clan got started and I believe I've accomplished that.
END OF INTRODUCTION
ADDENDUM: The last time Marybeth come to visit, I pulled up my introduction in Word and let her read it. Asked if it was what she had in mind. She said it were close enough and pretty much covered the essentials. Then she looked me square in the eyeballs. Nonie, she said, there something's been troubling me and I hope you won't take offense. There's loads of journals and diaries over at the historical society's museum and I've read them all. Not a one was written by a Sherman or a Harper. I've often wondered why. Surely there must be some... at least one... somewhere. All my life you've told me stories about Grandpa Jess and Grandpa Slim and I always believed you were making them up on the fly, but after reading this—things I'm sure you've never mentioned before—I do believe you've been holding out on me...
She left that statement twistin' in the wind and there I was, knowin' I couldn't lie to my own grandbaby. She had me by the short and curlies, that's a fact... and she knew it, too.
I did have a big fat secret I'd been squattin' on since God made dirt, seems like. Actually, it's only been since right before Meemaw passed. Meemaw was, of course, my granny Anel, Grandpa Slim's wife. Also my step-granny, as Grandpa Jess' second wife. (Way too complicated to get into and I simply ain't got the energy for it at the moment.) She gave something into my safekeeping that I promised to never reveal to another living soul (well, 'ceptin' Harp, of course—we've never kept secrets from each other) until I chose a successor. Which I've decided to do right this minute. It's Marybeth, naturally. Who better, I ask you?
The third bedroom in this house we use as an all-purpose storage room for odds and ends too heavy to carry up the attic, or that need a climate-controlled environment. In that room are several old wooden army lockers, and inside of one of them is an antique cowhide brass-bound travel trunk with an arched lid. Its faded red leather is crackled with age and marked with one-hundred-seventy years' worth of nicks and scratches. It might even be older than that. This trunk traveled over the rivers and plains, mountains and high country with Mary Grace Johnson Shirrmann and has her initials—MGJ—stamped on the lid. (Mary Grace was Slim's momma.)
That trunk is plumb full of diaries and journals of all sizes, each one wrapped in a scrap of calico. They're all in there—Matthew Sr., Mary Grace, Slim, Jess, Andy, Mike, Jonesy, Daisy, Jemma, Anel... a full spectrum of their daily lives from inventory lists dry as toast to highly detailed reminiscences of events and loved ones.
Long ago, in the ages before instant or global communications, journal-keeping, letter-writing and belles-lettres were the only outlets for the everyman to share his thoughts and feelings. Almost everyone who was literate kept a diary or journal of some sort, even if only for a short period—even my gunslinging granddaddy. Perhaps it serves our human desire to leave an indelible personal mark after our oh-so-brief passage through this world.
An interesting side note here is that journalizing appears to making a comeback in the form of 'blogs' on the Internet. Not of the private and personal hand-written kind, of course, as folks are slowly losing the ability to actually manipulate a writing device and what with the tree-huggers advocating going paperless. But I suppose it's better than nothing.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have assembled in one place an incredible collection such as this one, focusing on a relatively short segment of history as observed, interpreted and recorded by a closely aligned group of people. After having read all these little volumes many times over and comparing points of view, any one event takes on a virtual three-dimensional effect for me. From that I can extrapolate facts, understand motivation and even almost empathize with the writer's emotional state. These personal musings and recollections and accountings of significant events are where the stories in my head come from, and the ones I hope to write. Though I never personally met my grandfathers, Slim Sherman and Jess Harper, I feel like I know them inside and out and can see through their eyes and feel what they felt. Is that weird or what?
There's no way I can do all their stories justice in the remainder of my lifetime, so I've made up my mind... the next time Marybeth shows up I'm gonna introduce her to Grandma Nonie's Trunk of Memories—legacy of our crazy, mixed-up wonderful family.
And that's where I'm gonna leave it for now. This is me, Harper Grace Sherman Sherman (aka Gracie or Nonie), signing off.