Tag Archives: Dionne Ford

Joy of the Journey

Fall in full bloomLast night I spent several hours researching in the tall stacks of a nearby college where the vibrant tree above stands at the campus entrance, a festive welcome to the all girls school in rural Virginia.  The smell of musty books, thumbed by scores of coeds, faculty and visitors like me over the years, ignited the possibilities I always feel when I’m standing at the beginning of something.  Being surrounded by information inspires me.

Like the shocking colors in that tree, the smell of possibility was just the jolt I needed. Lately, as I near the end of this first draft of my novel and wade deeper into my search for my family’s history I’ve  hit some roadblocks with both and I’ve felt my excitement wane. For the past week of my writing fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I’ve been counting the pages I write, reprimanding myself for not producing more.  My kids are missing me and my husband has rearranged his schedule while I’m gone.  The least I could do is return with a finished manuscript. For the past month of researching my family history, I’ve felt the pressure of similar unreasonable demands to make some important discovery about the people I came from, especially my great grandmother, Josephine.

It’s still a mystery whether or not she was the daughter (like my grandfather told me) or, if as her age suggests, the granddaughter of  Col. W.R. Stuart and Temple Burton. I have yet to find any death certificate to pinpoint where and when she died.  The only frame I have for her life is a 1920 census that puts her at age 45 and my father’s account that she was dead by the time he was born in 1934. These two bits of information are the bookends for the life of a woman who didn’t live to see her sixtieth birthday.  Maybe she didn’t even live to see 50.  Having grown up with both my grandparents and great grandparents, I can’t help but feel like my father and his siblings missed out on something precious.

The precious stuff is not so much in the beginnings and endings of people’s lives or the stories we read about them, real or imagined, but in what happens in between.   When I got an excited text message from my fourth cousin two days ago that said,  “Found Josephine,” it reminded me of how thrilled I was when she first found me and our subsequent visits together pouring over her big  binders full of information on our family. Turned out she had found some other Josephine, but I was more buoyed by her tireless enthusiasm toward our search and the opportunity it allows us to get to know each other better than I was disappointed that the information didn’t pan out.

After a full day of writing yesterday (I did not finish my novel but I at least came closer to knowing how to),  I took a jog along the Sweet Briar campus,  Michael Jackson on my ipod propelling me along when I saw that tree.  I ran by it twice before I doubled (or tripled) back, realizing fall colors are brief and tenuous.  If a strong wind kicked up that evening, those leaves could all be blown to the ground by the next time I rode or jogged by.   So, I stopped running,  just stared at it for a while and let a wave of contentment wash over me. I had the privilege to write uninterrupted by the demands of real life at an artist’s colony,  a husband who encourages me to do so, gladly taking over the fulltime care of our daughters and home while I’m here and in my cousin, Monique, a kindred spirit and research buddy.  With the sun disappearing beyond  the Blue Ridge mountains, I heaved a huge sigh of relief.  In both my novel and my family research, I was beyond the frenetic excitement of the beginning but had not yet reached  the relieved exhilaration of the end.  I was in the middle where the precious stuff, the joy of the journey resides.

Do you find the middle of a project as  challenging as I do?  How do you stay connected to the joy of the journey?

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Filed under Michael Jackson, Uncategorized, VCCA

An Oral Tradition

My Grandma Louise told me her stories while we swam on Hilton Head Island

My Grandma Louise told me her stories while we swam on Hilton Head Island

When I read the New York Times article last week about Michelle Obama’s ancestry, the fact that her family lore had suspected a white relative for years underscored the importance of gathering oral history.  For blacks, the paper trail often runs cold since many slave births and deaths weren’t documented.  Even my grandmother, born in 1910 never had a birth certificate.  This was the case for many poor  people (not just blacks) as well as those born in very rural areas around the turn of the century.

It’s easy for family history in general, but the history of African Americans in particular to die with our ancestors. That’s why I’m  so grateful for all the story tellers in my life like my grandfather Martin Ford, and my grandmothers, Lillie Mae Ford and Louise Coleman Walton.  When Martin and Lillie Mae were alive, they were generous with their stories of their lives in segregated Mississippi and Louisiana, and Louise at 93 continues to regale me with her tales of picking cotton and potatoes as a sharecropper, first in Oklahoma and then in California often with my mother, then just a baby in tow.

I’ve inherited my grandparents’ storytelling genes  and for the next two weeks, I have the privilege of spending uninterrupted time spinning tales at a beautiful hilltop artist’s colony in Amherst Virginia. While I’m here at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I hope to work on a fictionalized version of my maternal grandparents’ adventures.  (No one would believe the true stories).  So, I’ll turn this story over to  my fourth cousin, Monique and let her tell you how we found each other in our parallel quests for our family’s history.

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Filed under family, family history, geneology, Hilton Head, S.C., Uncategorized, vacation