Archive for the ‘Personal Essays’ Category

A few months ago I noticed on Twitter that the day was Neil Diamond’s 71st birthday. Just for fun, I posted this news on Facebook along with a YouTube video of “Holly Holy.”  Before too long, I was deep in a nostalgic mood.

Diamond’s provided music for my struggling adolescence. So many great songs were (and some still are) personal favorites: “Sweet Caroline,” “Solitary Man,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Shilo,” and others. The “Hot August Night” album figured largely in my life: I borrowed the double LP set from a girl on whom I had a painful crush (and I hoped this might be the start of some magic between us, but alas).  I recorded that album on the reel-to-reel tape deck that my parents bought for my birthday in 1972, and I played it a lot.  A little later, smitten with another girl who loved his music, I drew for her a picture of Neil from the 1968 “Greatest Hits” LP, but added his big hair of his “Hot August Night” period.  That sounds very “Napoleon Dynamite”-ish, but I was a pretty good artist, and the girl seemed to sincerely think (maybe?) that it was cool.

I found a site, http://www.scaruffi.com/vol1/diamond.html, that discusses Diamond’s ability to mix elements of soul, gospel, country, classical, reggae, and other styles while also having special talent in catchy melodies and excellent arrangements. His voice was adept at evoking the introspection and emotions of his and others’ songs. To me, even his songs of loss (so prevalent and distressing in the music of, for instance, another of my favorites of the time: Jimmy Webb) left me feeling good. Without thinking too deeply about it, I liked the religious imagery that was explicit in songs like “Holly Holy,” “Walk on Water,” and “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” but flavored other songs, too.

There was a combination of things going on in my life at the time: I had low self-esteem (and would have for a long time) but was working on getting better; I was able to drive for first time; I loved driving around our small town and taking the back roads on summer days as I passed little country churches and peaceful rural scenes; in my genealogy hobby, I was learning about my family history in our hometown and deepening my sense of belonging to that area; I felt all the more identified with my hometown and its history; I was looking toward my own future beyond high school and wondering what lay ahead. Within all these things, “Holly Holy” became a favorite, meaningful song. I loved the chorus’ A-D-Dsus4-D chord progression and imagery of faith, but I also loved the words from the first verse:

Where I am,
What I am,
What I believe in….

Or, as I felt in my heart: place, identity, and faith.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQwqQwD6OOw

Diamond has been in the news recently because of his third marriage and a resurgence in his record sales. As much as I loved his music, I purchased surprisingly few of his albums back then: only “Double Gold,” I think, and later “Serenade” and “Beautiful Noise.”  But I don’t remember how I had all the other great songs in mind and heart; perhaps I owned more LPs and 45s at the time than I recall. I liked the single “Walk on Water,” which followed “Song Sung Blue” and “Play Me,” but didn’t rise as high on the charts as those two and, as I recall, didn’t stay on the radio as long.  That annoyed me because I preferred the song to the other two, but I had the 45, with the extended piano coda. This past month, just for fun, I found some of his early albums on eBay and our local vinyl shops.

Reading now about his career, I learn things I didn’t think about at the time. That “Double Gold” album represented Diamond’s first two albums on the Bang label, “The Feel of Neil Diamond” (1966) and “Just for You” (1967). Those were the hits like “Cherry Cherry,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “Solitary Man,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Red, Red Wine,” and others.  In fact, “The Feel” LP had “Solitary Man” on the side of the record cover, even though that wasn’t the album’s title.  The author of the website cited above considers his early albums far ahead of other songwriters of the time.

Then Diamond moved to MCA Records (the Uni label) and released the albums “Velvet Gloves and Spit” (1968, and later it had a different cover), “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show” (1969, and later it had a different cover), “Touching You, Touching Me” (1969), “Tap Root Manuscript” (1970), “Stones” (1971), and “Moods” (1972).  Although the title of “Touching You, Touching Me” comes from the song “Sweet Caroline,” that single was not on this album or originally on any album.  It appeared on reissues of the “Brother Love” record.  His Uni hits (represented on the “12 Greatest Hits” album) included “Sweet Caroline,” “Shilo,” “Holly Holy,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Play Me,” “I Am…I Said,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” “Song Sung Blue,” and others.

Diamond then signed with Columbia, which has been his label ever since. Although the first two albums have never been released on CD, Bang Records issued several compilation albums based on those first two albums, and Columbia acquired the rights to those songs but not to the Uni albums. Thus, the several compilation albums represent different labels, as discussed at http://pw1.netcom.com/~zmoq/pages/repackage.htm

Another thing I didn’t realize: “Tap Root Manuscript” made use of “world music” over ten years before other artists like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon.  At my divinity school, some African American friends elicited my help for a Afrocentric chapel service by having me play the song “Soolaimón” on the piano as an anthem.  It occurs to me, too, that Neil was ahead of his time in using gospel elements, a few years before some pop and rock artists began to embrace religion and spirituality.

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Songs have been in my head lately: Gershwin’s “Summertime,” “Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer” by Nat (King) Cole, “A Summer Song” by Chad and Jeremy, “Lazy Day” by Spanky and Our Gang, “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry, “Summer in the City” by The Lovin’ Spoonful, “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley, and others. With the warmer temperatures, people in our neighborhood are outdoors in the evening. The trees behind our house are, in the words of artist Bob Ross, happy trees. Birds (and squirrels: gray and fox) empty our bird feeder more quickly than in winter. I noticed two mallards across the street. The hen was perched atop a house while the drake wandered around on the lawn, calling. The scene looked like a stereotypical “spat” between couples.

A few years ago our air conditioner went out, and of course those were the summer’s hottest days.  I kicked myself because, a week earlier, I’d postponed a scheduled routine maintenance call because of a minor illness. If I’d kept the schedule, the crew might have caught the problem before the AC died!   But I thought back to childhood, hot’n’ humid seasons.  When I was a kid in the 1960s (and a teen in the early 70s), AC had been available for years. Window units, in fact, became available after World War II: according to an online source, sales climbed from 74,000 in 1948 to 1,045,000 in 1953. I heard somewhere that the hospital in which I was born–the Fayette Co., IL Hospital, constructed in 1955–was one of the country’s first with air conditioning. My dad’s sometimes painful thriftiness is illustrated by his unwillingness even to buy a window unit at our home in southern Illinois. We had a huge fan that mounted in the back door, which created a breeze through the house.

The summer of 1967, when I was ten, was the most uncomfortable, not only because of the heat but also the mosquitoes. (Late that year or during the next year, my hometown’s government authorized mosquito spraying.) I recall many nights when I lay awake well into the early morning because of the heat and the buzzing. Fortunately, when you’re ten, you don’t have many responsibilities the next day.

The playwright Arthur Miller recalled a very hot September in the 1920s: “Every window in New York was open…People on West 110th Street, where I lived, were a little too bourgeois to sit out on their fire escapes, but around the corner on 111th and farther uptown mattresses were put out as night fell, and whole families lay on those iron balconies in their underwear.”(1) I suppose the small town version of that would be front porches and back yards instead of fire escapes. I certainly remember some evenings when my parents and I were outside visiting neighbors in respective yards, until twilight.

I was chatting with someone the other day who declared she hated to turn her AC on because she liked her windows open as long as possible. I understand the sentiment, especially its ecological aspects. Yet … I never forgot that summer of ’67, not for me the summer of love, but of sweat and mosquitoes.


I enjoy the anthology of essays and poetry, Summer , edited by Alice Gordon and Vincent Virga (Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1990). I happened to reread the essay by Roy Blout, Jr., “Tan,” just about the same time as I reread John Updike’s memoir Self-Consciousness (Fawcett, 1990) and browsed his essay about lying in the sun to get relief for his psoriasis. As I thought generally of childhood summers, and as I hummed summer-themed “earworms,” these essays reminded me of one of my most hopeless pursuits: getting tan.

These are memories of adolescence. I suppose I turned somewhat brown as a little kid who played regularly in the backyard sandbox with my cousin next door, improvised adventures with friends in the sunburned grass of our yard, cut across neighbors’ yards to play in the nearby park to wade in the creek there, and hiked to the town’s public swimming pool for a “dip” on a horribly hot day.

Cheerful memories… but I don’t remember if I tanned. The joy was being outdoors, messing around, getting out of our hot home, and living simultaneously in the real world and imagination. Being tan as an intentional goal wasn’t an issue until my teenage years, when I envisioned the joy of social approval and relief from bad skin.

My acne was so bad some months, that we worried (needlessly) that I’d be facially scarred. I don’t know the average age when puberty begins, but I seemed to hit it sooner than other boys, based on my terrible skin and the ribbing I received from clear-skinned jerks. I was 13 when I first shaved, and I remember the date, November 29, 1970, because my great-uncle Charlie Crawford died that day in my hometown, Vandalia. Up until then I was very peach-fuzzy and pimply, and since we had to drive to the St. Louis airport to pick up one of Charlie‘s daughters, I finally tired of looking so bizarre and asked Dad to help me use a safety razor. I also remember being horribly ashamed of my oily, broken-out skin when another relative passed away the following spring. Based on these and similar memories, my 13th, 14th, and 15th years must’ve been the worst for acne.

My folks consulted a St. Louis dermatologist. He advised me to get a lot of sun, because the UV rays helped acne. He even put me in a kind of tanning bed at his office, as a zits treatment. Obviously the advice is outdated today, with concerns for skin cancer and skin damage caused by excessive sun exposure. But at the time, the benefits of sunshine were still extolled, and looking brown signaled health as well as “coolness.”

The sun did clear my unruly skin. I knew in my heart, though, that I was just too fair to tan well. I inherited Dad’s complexion. Once, during a beach vacation, he got second-degree burns on his legs. No amount of shorts-wearing gave my legs any color beside red (accessorized with peels), while my insteps sported a pink spot from the sun and nothing more. My only hope was to be a browner shade of pale, to paraphrase that Procol Harum song.


I persevered. Perhaps someone among the tan girls who strolled around town in their shorts or culottes, in their sandals or bare feet, might notice me, if not as appreciatively as I noticed them. I went swimming, sometimes at the Vandalia Lake, sometimes the pool. I rode my bike a lot. I volunteered to mow my parents’ lawn, and even to pain the eaves of the house.  I didn’t play sports, so baseball and tennis weren’t options. I got a couple summer jobs painting houses and “bucking bales.”  Above the waist I only wore a tee shirt that I easily remove so my chest and back could get sun. My dad recommended a long sleeved shirt for outdoor work because one’s sweat was cooling. Apparently that’s how he and his friends survived the Pacific Islands heat during the war. But getting a lot of sun on my arms was the purpose of the hot, simple but tiring job, maybe more so than the $2 an hour we were paid.

Tan-getting has its own compartmentalized “dress code”, of course; acceptable attire at the swimming pool, or the relative privacy of your backyard is unsuitable for, say, a trip to the grocery store.  That was the premise of John Updike’s often-anthologized short story, “A&P”. The exception, I’ve noticed, are resort hotels on the beach, or with a pool; during a Florida vacation, I noticed little family pad into the hotel cafeteria with wet hair, towels, and swimsuits.

Some summer days, I relaxed on a towel in the backyard for half-hour increments. But it was so boring when I lay on my back! Even listening to my little AM radio didn’t help, and I felt too uncomfortable to nap. Lying on my stomach, at least I could read a book. Just as certain Beatles’ songs (especially “Paperback Writer”) remind me of “kidhood” swimming trips, later styles of music remind me of sunlight and beach towels spread upon backyard grass. I liked the Adult Contemporary station WDZ from Decatur, IL (which played Olivia Newton-John’s first and for a while only hit, the Dylan song “If Not For You”), then around 1972 I switched to KXOK out of St Louis, which played Motown like The Temptations, the O’Jays, and others.

Genealogy was my high school hobby, and when I decided to copy the inscriptions in our small family cemetery (about 250 stones in all), I found a perfect opportunity to work on my tan. “Soaking up the sun” is an incongruous expression when you’re visiting a graveyard, but I thought of it that way. The graveyard was (and of course still is) out in the country, down a lane into a clearing in a wooded area. Wearing only shorts, or shorts and a tank-top, I drove out to the place and recorded names, dates, and epitaphs on my paper and clipboard.

Then I went home, opened the windows and turned on the kitchen door fan in order to get a good breeze, and typed up my notes. Eventually I gave a copy of the manuscript to the local library, and I gained quite a bit of knowledge of pioneer families of that vicinity which I provided to the genealogical society. Although at age 17 I had no idea what I was going to do with my life (and, at 54, I’m still very much in process), I think I had at least an intuitive sense that my teenage hobby was a “cool” combination of the kind of research I might later do, and the childhood freedom that allows you to proceed out the door in play clothes with the goal of a happy day.


A few of those ages-ago, adolescent summers, I looked pretty decent.  I was thrilled when someone commented that I looked like I’d been outdoors a lot–and this was while I was standing next to my girlfriend who was quite brown. But then, kids who tanned easily (like said girlfriend) could say things like “Oh, I’m totally pale!” without irony. Arms were compared, and I marveled at friends’ shame at being medium-bronze instead of dark-bronze.

By the end of high school, my interest in being tan diminished. It was too much time investment for such minor results, and I v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y began to accept and like myself as I am. Thus, as I said before, getting tan is a set of teenage memories. My family and I have taken beach vacations, but the only other time I seriously “laid out” was with divinity school buddies on the beach of Long Island Sound at New Haven–and that was more to hang out with friends than to get brown. Whether at the beach, or doing yard work, I’m buttered with 100,000 SPF sunscreen.

But, oh mercy, I hate the smell of tanning lotion and sunscreen! Even the most pleasant-smelling varieties make me want to shower quickly to get rid of that aroma. Olfactory memories are very powerful, and although these summer stories of mine are cheerful and nostalgic, that scent tempers my nostalgia considerably!  So does OFF!Ò mosquito spray.


1.  Arthur Miller, “Before Air Conditioning,” in Edward Hoagland (ed.), The Best American Essays, 1999  (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), pp. 185-187 (quote on page 185).

A large portion of this essay originally appeared in Springhouse magazine.

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Immediately following my seminary program, I was pastor of three small churches in for two years. The churches were located fifteen miles from the nearest village with a grocery store, about a half-hour from more substantial towns with hospitals and larger retail stores. “Why don’t you move to the country?” a visiting friend teased. I had a six-room parsonage to myself, with a pretty fence row, a silver-blue propane tank beneath which rabbits napped, a lawn large enough for two or three hours of push-mowing, tall shade trees which let through the light, and steep concrete steps where I could sit and look at my neighbor’s white-faced cattle, his pastures, the larger of the three churches (and its great old tree), and a landmark hill in the near distance. I heard birds call in the early morning and cows bawling late at night, and sometimes a coyote.

I’d say I was “fresh from seminary,” but freshness implies some sense of quality, and newly graduated seminarians (at least in my case) are fortified with excellent studies and a beginning amount of practical knowledge, but not yet the broader experience necessary to move knowledge on to the biblical gift of wisdom. What I had was a spirit of love and service and an openness to learn. I was also painfully unsure of myself, a quality I tried to put to work as empathetic leadership. Someone once said that serving God is like jumping off a cliff. You hold out your hands, knowing that God is holding them, and you jump. Perhaps you won’t know where you may come down, only that you will. I came down in a very wonderful place and, upon landing, injured myself on the second day when I cut my left thumb badly while preparing supper. I barely had furniture yet, let alone bandages, or directions to a health care center (since I should’ve had stitches). I ambled to the home of the elderly couple (church members) up the road. They’d have Band Aids, I thought. Two hours later, I walked home, bandaged and fortified with locally-grown watermelon and sherbet and two new friends. I still have the scar on my thumb, the closest thing to a stigmata I’ll ever have, and it reminds me of all those wonderful friendships I made before leaving to marry and pursue doctoral work. Some of those folks are dead now, like that couple; others still live in the area and we still keep in touch. I gained from that parish a lifelong appreciation of the laity; after doctoral work, for instance, I realized I was happier writing for church lay audiences rather than for academics, my original goal.

Most of my experiences during those two years are, because pastoral, confidential. But one aspect of my time at that parish was collecting classical recordings, especially opera. I browsed mall stores, used record shops, and mail order brochures. In Willa Cather’s story “The Wagner Matinee,” a farm lady is taken by her nephew to a Boston concert of Wagner’s music and, afterward and deeply moved, she couldn’t bear the thought of returning to her everyday rural life. I understood the feeling but since I had the benefit of recorded music, my rural life and my new passion for music enriched one another.

I had a reason for my unintentionally highbrow hobby. During my last year of seminary, I lived next door to a church organist, a good fellow more cosmopolitan than I. He disliked Italian opera, like Verdi and Rossini (he’d mockingly hum the opening piano of the Petite Messe Solennelle ), but he loved English music, Mozart, and Wagner. “Now, Stroble,” he said one day, when I wanted over to his room, “this is called the ‘Wagner chord,'” and he played the opening bars of Tristan und Isolde, turned up to Led Zeppelin level, where the themes of romantic passion and death are established in the unresolved dissonances of the music and the use of harmonic suspension. My friend (who was my best man a few years later) went on to inform me the innovativeness of this particular chord (difficult to assign to a particular key), Wagner’s advancements in tonality and chromaticism, and the way he used fragments of melody to depict psychological states and themes of an opera’s plot, so that whenever someone sings, the orchestra establishes more about them than the actual words sung.  If I remember correctly, it was my friend who identified motifs from Tannhäuser and Die Walküre in the cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?”

A collector of rock and jazz albums, but untrained in music beyond childhood piano lessons and high school band, I found this all fascinating and wanted to discover more.  My friend and I attended a choral concert one evening. Among the pieces was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of the Burns poem “Ca’ the Yowes.”  The chorus and the ethereal young soprano came together to make the hair on my neck stand up.

While waters wimple to the sea,
While day blinks in the lift sae hie,
Till clay-cauld death sall blin’ my e’e,
Ye sall be my dearie….

From then on, I wanted to see if other kinds of classical music would do the same. I wanted to find more music that could deeply touch my heart.

While still in school, I started my “quest” by visiting the record store in a corner of Chapel Square Mall in downtown New Haven, CT (http://www.deadmalls.com/malls/chapel_square_mall.html).  I’ve pleasant memories of the store where I found Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, conducted by Karajan, Don Giovanni, conducted by Karl Böhm, and also an LP of Mozart’s marches and dances, plus a record called “The Pastoral Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams,” conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Vaughan Williams’ double last name confused me and I looked for his music in the W’s.  I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that Mozart interested me because my favorite theologian, Karl Barth, played Mozart every day; checking out Mozart for that reason seems like such a dumb-graduate-student thing to do.  My friend liked the scene “Don Giovanni, a cenar teco,” where Don Juan, confronted by the Stone Guest, is confronted with his sins, urged to repent, and is dragged to Hell. That scene was affecting when played very loudly, as my friend enjoyed doing after I brought the LPs back to the dorms.

Once graduated from seminary and established at my three-point charge, I read up on music and acquired several recordings.  Some were classics of the LP era: Tristan und Isolde conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger conducted by Rudolf Kempe, Otto Klemperer’s recording of Der fliegende Holländer. I also purchased Böhm’s recording of Le Nozze di Figaro. I diverted from my friends’ tastes when I found some Verdi in used LP stores and mail order outlets: Rigoletto (with Sutherland, Pavarotti, and Milnes), Toscanini’s Falstaff, and Otello with Jon Vickers.  I also bought an old set of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and, oh horrors, a used copy of the Petite Messe Solennelle, which I enjoyed. I passed over a new LP set of what later became a favorite: Puccini’s Turandot with Sutherland, Caballé, and Pavarotti. One day at the parsonage I had Marriage of Figaro turned up loud so I could listen as I raked leaves outside. The first act concluded with the aria “Non piu andrai, farfallone amoroso,” where Figaro sends the annoying Cherubino off to “victory and glory in war!’ Just then a long V of geese flew over, making their own victory sign. It was one of those wonderful little moments when happy, small things coincide unexpectedly and memorably.

Eventually I purchased (used or new) LP sets of most of Wagner’s operas, even the Furtwängler and Solti recordings of Der Ring des Nibelungen. By the end of my pastorate I’d also found discount recordings of the 1953 (but then newly released) Ring conducted by Clemens Krauss, now recognized as one of the greatest versions. Of course, the whole 16-hour drama begins with one E-flat chord, sustained over 64 bars, depicting the depths of the Rhine River, then journeys among hundreds of themes until Brunnhilde sings her long aria at the end of Götterdämmerung, throws the ring into the Rhine and leaps with her horse into Siegfried’s funeral pyre. I liked to play the whole thing over periods of days, although in my loneliness at the parsonage, I found the operas emotionally draining. I was overwhelmed by the orchestra’s depiction of the bellows and flames of Siegfried’s forge (more self consciously dramatic in the Solti recording than any other); I’d never heard such music.  I was also knocked over by the the orchestral conclusion of Götterdämmerung. If I want a good cry, I just play that section, not just because of Wagner’s music but because it reminds me so strongly of this special time in my life. The famous “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Tannhäuser has nearly the same effect.

Der Gnade Heil ist dem Büsser beschieden,
er geht einst ein in der Seligen Frieden!
Vor Höll’ und Tod ist ihm nicht bang,
drum preis’ ich Gott mein Lebelang.
Halleluja in Ewigkeit!

(The grace of salvation is granted to the penitent,
who shall enter into the peace of heaven!
Hell and death cannot frighten him,
therefore will I praise God all the days of my life.
Halleluja for evermore!)

….but so does the end of Die Walküre in the Krauss recording (with Hans Hotter as Wotan). Wotan’s heartache:

Denn einer nur freie die Braut,
der freier als ich, der Gott!   (For only one shall win the bride, one freer than I, the God!)

….and his threatening authority, in the closing words:

Wer meines Speeres
Spitze fürchtet,
durchschreite das Feuer nie! (Whoever fears the tip of my spear shall never pass through the fire.)

I could list other examples.

Although I loved my work at the parish and the dear people, I disliked living alone, and I missed my seminary friends who, like me, had scattered around the country. Somehow a “journey” of musical discovery helped me deal with my loneliness.  When I started dating an old friend in another town and then when we became engaged, the loneliness grew, so the music became more comforting and interesting. But I also wanted to learn; learning for its own sake was important to me then and now. Discovering new (to me) kinds of music, broadening my taste so to speak, was important as I simultaneously learned to be a good pastor and caught up on reading delayed by the busyness of my seminary program. I might have waited a few years and purchased operas on CDs, recently introduced at that time, but I liked vinyl, and still do.

I also explored Benjamin Britten’s operas, although his music had a depth beyond my abilities to understand and fully appreciate. I found Owen Wingrave, The Rape of Lucretia, Death in Venice, Albert Herring, and others. I need to revisit his music again sometime. When I saw his opera Peter Grimes in a used record store–that uninteresting, white cover of the composer-conducted 1959 recording–I snatched it up and was quite overwhelmed by the music and drama. His music didn’t quite stir me the same way until I found the War Requiem (its cover uninteresting and black) a few years later.  But I did send an appreciative letter to Peter Pears who, during the last year of his life, kindly wrote back on a postcard.

On trips to visit parishioners in the hospital, I listened to the two classical stations of the area.  One of those stations had a long retrospective on Glenn Gould—whom I’d never heard of—when he died.  I enjoyed Karl Haas’ daily music features, “Adventures in Good Music.” I miss those programs. One evening, as I was driving after dark after a hospital visit, the “Adventures” show featured Eric Satie’s music, and Haas concluded the program with “Gymnopedie I.” I listened dreamily to the peaceful music: a piece I’d heard somewhere over the years but hadn’t known what it was. Suddenly I was frantically swerving, trying to stay on the road. A deer has strolled into my headlights. … I bumped its butt with the right fender, which may have injured it but it went off into the woods. Depressed at hurting the deer, I drove slowly home, white-knuckled, “Gymnopedie I” floating away.

I liked the Saturday broadcasts from the Met. I liked Fr. Owen Lee’s commentaries and wondered if I might ever become so knowledgeable. (The answer is “no,” but I still enjoyed his insights!) Back then I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a receiver from which I recorded some operas like Parsifal. Parisfal was fascinating to listen to. I waited for the last chord of the prelude to resolve, but next comes Gurnemanz—

He! Ho! Waldhüter ihr,
Schlafhüter mitsammen,
so wacht doch mindest am Morgen. 
(Hey! Ho! Forest guardians you, and sleeping guardians at that.  At least wake up with the morning.)

—The prelude ends on a chord that does not resolve! Of course, I thought of my friend and his explanation of Wagner’s innovations in tonality. The desolate third-act prelude is, I’ve read, even more tonally innovative.

One year, the Met’s Saturday matinee broadcast was Tristan und Isolde—but it was Christmas Eve, and I couldn’t yet be with my family because I had to preach the next morning. I don’t know why I listened to the opera anyway, since I was already blue. It seems like Figaro or one of Donizetti’s comedies would’ve been a cheerier choice for Christmas Eve… but, as they say, nobody asked me about it beforehand.

I never became an opera fanatic, despite what this piece may imply. After I left the area I found the 1953 LP of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony in a used record store and realized—as I explored more of his music, several years after I’d purchased that collection of shorter pieces at Chapel Square Mall–that I’d found the composer closest to my heart. So my essay about Vaughan Williams, elsewhere in this blog, continues this modest story, as well as my amateur (the word is French for “lover of”) essays about Mozart, Verdi, and other composers.

I still love to listen to and read about opera and appreciating contemporary singers like Natalie Dessay, Anna Netrebko, Nicole Cabell, Bryn Terfel, Elīna Garanča, and others.  Just this past week, during a visit to Manhattan, I walked up to Lincoln Center’s gift shop and purchased some CDs and DVDs.  I found the DVD of the Julie Taymor production of The Magic Flute, which my family and I saw at the Met a few years ago. As if I needed another set of the Ring, I also purchased the widely-praised 1955 Bayreuth Ring conducted by Joseph Keilberth, recorded for the first time that year in stereo but not released until recently. As for books: some time ago I found the book The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy by Bryan Magee; if I’d had this fascinating book at my little parish, I might’ve gotten nothing else done!

Even more felicitous, my daughter is a technical theatre major and has had occasion to work for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis! This past year she worked on the productions of Eugene Onegin and the new Willy Wonka opera The Golden Ticket. Although we don’t know which productions she’ll work this coming summer the theatre is daringly staging John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer, as well as Don Giovanni, The Daughter of the Regiment, and Pelléas and Mélisande. She learns about aspects of opera far beyond my own modest home listening and theatre-going.  Her former choir, the Summit Choral Society, toured Europe a few years ago, and we enjoyed visiting Bach’s Eisenach home, Schubert’s Vienna home, and Mozart’s house in Prague.

An opera book I’ve enjoyed is Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, and Koestenbaum’s interesting connections of identity, desire, and music. I realized that another aspect of my “quest” for music was the sense of place, one of my own strong sources of desire and identity. I’ve written about that sense in some of my other essays, but I should think about that more. Are there cognitive and neurological insights that link music, emotion, companionship, and the feeling of being at home? I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out–and so these thoughts are, in pale reflection of Wagner’s mastery, unresolved and developing.  But I know that the music I’ve mentioned here never fails to take me back to that three point charge, that little parsonage along the state highway, way out in the country, when so many good things in my life were just beginning.


For Jim

(This essay originally appeared in a different form in Springhouse magazine.)

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My mother remembers that, when I was young, I was a bit of a slob. She was startled that I kept my first house pretty tidy. She saw no evidence in my childhood of this sudden expression of cleanliness. I’m sure that, like most children, I didn’t have good housekeeping skills. But children aren’t automatically neat; they have to be taught, encouraged, and bullied into this habit, and perhaps the training will someday take effect. It did with me.

Since my wife has a demanding job with very long days, I try to care for the house. We also have a professional cleaning service, but there are always dishwashing, picking-up, laundry, waste-basket-emptying, and other daily chores between the cleaning team’s visits. Much of my own professional work–commissioned writing, other writing projects, and preparation for college classes–is done at home. So my mind and heart are divided among the work I need to do…. and washing bath towels. I do like this saying of the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, which has become a motto for me: “If you hold your head in the air and think great thoughts when you should be doing the obvious chores in life, the great thoughts won’t come.” I’ve known colleagues who impose upon underlings chores that they should at least occasionally shoulder, if for no other reason than to keep their heads level to the earth.

One’s house becomes messiest when one has less time to devote to it, which dampens one’s enthusiasm for the work. But keeping house can be therapeutic, too. When I’m downhearted or have a problem I can’t yet fix, I’ll go through the house and “pick up.” I’ll strip and make the beds. I’ll even tidy up the basement, always low on the list of household priorities. Cleaning house gives me a mild sense of control, of being in charge.

We’re cat people, so part of housekeeping entails cleaning abandoned fur. Our little buddy Domino shed with impunity; considering all the white and black hair on the floor, I marveled that he wasn’t bald. Our other cat Oddball, and our present cat Taz, shed much less; at least there aren’t many “tumbleweeds” of cat hair beneath furniture and along baseboards.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke felt an overwhelming sense of wonder at his furniture as he polished it. “I felt moved, as though something were happening, something, to tell the truth, which was not purely superficial but immense, and which touched my very soul. I was an emperor washing the feet of the poor, or Saint Bonaventure, washing dishes in his convent.” The humility of his work, the goodness of work, gave him a spiritual sense of glory. I wish I felt that way more often when I’ve my bottle of “Homer Formby” in one hand and a rag in the other!

There is a popular conception of Benedictine spirituality that links work and prayer (but see http://www.osb.org/gen/topics/work/kard1.html).  I’ve tried praying while housecleaning, but it’s more difficult (for me) to focus upon intercessory petitions. Sometimes I can do the next best thing: getting my mind in a prayerful sense of peace instead of a regretful ingratitude for everyday chores.

I remember my great-aunt Ruth kept her house spotless. If she was reading a book, she put it back on the shelf rather than leaving it out. Those habits gave her satisfaction. I used to marvel at that, but I’m becoming that way more and more. Being proactive saves time later. But one of the hazards of a very busy life is that one forgets what tasks lie ahead, so I usually have a few neat piles of projects at hand. For instance, right now I’ve our tax materials in a pile as I do computations to give to our preparer. Writing projects, books to read, bills to pay, form piles placed strategically around the house. You know you’re too busy when you dust and clean around those piles from week to week!

Having one’s house on the market provides an element of stress to housekeeping. If no one but you sees the house, you can keep it as tidy as you want, with elbowroom for imperfection. But if strangers are scheduled to traipse through your house, with the aim of purchasing the house, you feel like you have to pick up more diligently, lest the potential buyers say, “Well, it’s not very clean, so I’ll offer a few thousand dollars less.” One time I had to rent a storage room for a couple months when a realtor grumbled about a few storage plastic boxes, kept in the basement, which would detract from a nice presentation.

Or, insidiously, you fear the censure of people who may disapprove of your skills as a housekeeper, as if that reflected upon your character.

We do fear coming up short, even as we avoid elusive perfection. As Wendell Berry puts it, “One is afraid that there will be no rest until the work is finished and the house is in order, and the arm is in order, the town is in order, and all loved ones are well.”

Perhaps that was the problem of Martha, in that famous Gospel story of her and the contemplative Mary. Jesus did not correct Martha’s work, or her desire to work hard, but rather her fearfulness and fretfulness. That Christ doesn’t go over our work with a white glove, but instead looks to the place and the peace of one’s heart, is something all busy housekeepers can happily ponder.


Several years ago, the comedian George Carlin had a routine about one’s “stuff.” when one checks into a motel, one puts one’s “stuff” in a certain place and says proudly, “This is my stuff!” Everything else in the room belongs to someone else but this stuff is mine! We like to be in the presence of our own things, our own keepsakes, kept for the sake of beauty, memories, pride of ownership or whatever. We keep them, and keep them clean, like we keep a promise. Our “stuff” gives us a sense of identity. My and my family’s house, for instance, contains antiques from my hometown.

But how do you keep control over your stuff? Years ago I loved to watch The Mike Douglas Show. One afternoon, two actors visiting the show, a man and a woman, performed an excerpt from a play, essentially a bickering couple. I didn’t catch the beginning, but what I heard was, to me, loud and obnoxious. Afterward, Mike Douglas said that the play was by Noel Coward. I thought, impressed, “Oh! Noel Coward!” Then in the next instant I thought: “Why did I not like the play, but then did like it when I learned that the author is famous and respected?” Nothing about the play had changed. I knew more about the play, though.

I thought a couple years ago as I sorted our belongings in preparation for a move. I had ten bookshelves of books in our finished basement.  Prior to the move, I pulled all the books that I thought I’d not read or use and donated them to the local library’s book fair. Now I’m down to the essential books, I thought. But just a week before we moved, I went through the bookshelves again and pulled six more medium-sized boxes of books and donated them, too. Why had I earlier thought those books were essential? Nothing had changed except my attitude about how much “stuff” I want to own.

Similarly with other belongings. I’ve sold or donated items that, not so long ago, were keepsakes. But with the move imminent, we just didn’t need that stuff anymore. Emily sorted through her large collection of stuffed toys, for instance, and gave away about three-fourths. A year ago, though, she didn’t want to part with any.

What makes a keepsake? We have some kind of experience or association with that object, or else it wouldn’t be important in the first place. Time is a big factor too: how fresh can that association/experience remain over the long haul? Value may or may not be a factor: given the choice between Grandma’s wedding ring and a plastic commemorative cup from a Ice Capades, one has both emotional and monetary value while the other is purely a cheap souvenir. Yet, if not forced to make a choice, we might hold onto both and cherish them in different ways because of their particular associations.

What makes a difference, though, is quantity: what if you have too many keepsakes? That’s where some people fall into the trap of clutter: their homes are packed with things they hate to discard because, for whatever reason, they’re meaningful items. Moving, inconvenient and emotionally disruptive though it is, becomes an excellent time to judge what are your more precious keepsakes. Grandma’s ring stays; your favorite books stay; favorite knickknacks are carefully packed; but other things can be moved on. The difficult process of relocating your household can give you a change of attitude and, in some ways, makes you freer to enjoy your precious memories in a “lighter” way.

Robert Corin Morris relates a story (originally from Jane Goodall) about a group of chimps. A large shipment of bananas had arrived, eventually to be given one at a time to wild chimps. But the chimps, which are naturally cooperative in food gathering, became frenzied at the abundance, hurting one another, and fighting with an alpha male that had taken over the pile. But the alpha male was not happy: he was enraged and defensive.

Morris finds this story a good parable for affluent, “much and quick” culture. (As an aside, I think churches also succumb to “much and quick” thinking when, in an attempt to evangelize and minister, they expand facilities too quickly and cultivate an attitude of impatience and false urgency in their programs.) Abundance isn’t bad per se; the world itself is abundant and varied as God created it. Certainly the Song of Songs gives us a biblical example of sensate pleasure. But, as Morris surveys biblical passages, the Bible also criticizes unjust gain (Ezek. 22:13), craving possessions (Matt. 6:24), and hoarding (Luke 12:15-21) while praising God as the ultimate source of positive gain (Deut. 8:18). Morris notes, though, that we start to think so positively of our abundance that we want more and more so we become taken over by craving and base our identities on desire and acquisition.

On the other hand, he tells about impoverished Christians he’s met who appreciated basic things like friendship, sunlight, food, and water. This is not to say these people didn’t suffer or that poverty is a good thing, nor that all poor people have their values in line; but affluent people (who, like the chimps, are possibly very unhappy) become surprised at the joie de vivre of people who have no special possessions to give them joy.

Morris notes that he has learned several lessons over the years which helped him put his own affluence in perspective (including times when money was tight but, nevertheless, available), and which also freed him to give things away that he once would’ve hoarded. Perhaps I’m being too individualistic, but I think that for many of us, simply being told to become less controlled by our possessions is only a first step. A sermon on giving may plant the seed; on the other hand, we may feel put-off by a comparatively works-righteous message on money. We may also have to catch the vision of living “non-possessively” through life experience. Perhaps we’ll pass through lean times; perhaps we’ll discover that we can give more than we thought we could; perhaps God will lead us to new adventures so that we have to discard some “stuff.” Through our living, we discover how God helps us through varieties of situations. In turn, when God helps us, he commands us to put ourselves in the shoes of us so that we grow in concern and empathy. We “grow” a heart for the needy. We become less like those unhappy chimps, hating each other and ourselves…. over bananas.


Vaughan Williams is quoted in Michael Kennedy, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (London, 1980), 234-235.

Rilke is quoted in Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston, 1969), 70-71.

Wendell Berry’s quote is from his book What Are People For? (San Francisco, 1990), 12.

Robert Corin Morris, Wrestling with Grace: A Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Upper Room, 2003), 140-149.

(The first half of this essay first appeared in Springhouse magazine and in my book Journeys Home. The second half first appeared at my other blog, “Journeys Home,” paulstroble.blogspot.com.)

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Over the winter break, my daughter’s car needed repairs.  I sighed when the service department called and discussed the needed work; the cost exceeded the car’s value. It was a gold 2002 Saab 9 3 purchased when we lived in Ohio, and a good first car for her to drive around her college town and to travel home for breaks. She used that car for her 50 hours of driving instruction and another 50 hours practice-driving. We remember the difficulty of concocting bogus errands (e.g., visiting an ice cream place in another community) to use up the 50 hours. I was a “jumpy” instructor but I tried to think of experiences where she could learn how to merge, to pass, and other challenges, while building confidence.

For a trade-in, we got her a red 2005 Saab 9 3 Aero. She laments that, now, even more classmates will be hitting her up for rides. Of course, as we transferred seat covers, the GPS, CDs, and other items from one car to the other, we all felt wistful that a service appointment for the old car had unexpectedly led to its replacement. On the other hand, the number of necessary repairs and replacements for the car were lessening the pleasure of driving it.

My first car was a 1963 Chevy. In his book The Ferrari in the Bedroom, the humorist Jean Shepherd tells the story of “Lillian,” an old car which swore at him (the transmission had a repetitive noise that sounded like an oath) as he tooled up U.S. 41. My unnamed car was friendlier than the resentful Lillian, but no prettier. Only ten years old the year I got my license, the car had a serviceable, box-like body, a rusting underside, and a thin coat of rust on the hood and roof. It had no AC, of course. It had a poor AM radio and a hole in the floorboard. The stick shift, which emerged from the steering column, took a little effort. It wasn’t my car, but my mother’s; the title was in her name. My dad’s stepfather had owned it, and when he could no longer drive he gave the car to my mother, who had done him and my grandmother many selfless favors.

I learned to drive in that car, when I was 14 or 15. A clear stretch of Illinois 185 east of Vandalia seemed a good place for Dad to teach me. Dad was a truck driver, he knew driving. Generous and eager to help, he could also be imperious and impatient, and he made me hurt and nervous as he taught things I did remember:

Never let out the clutch too quickly; you’ll kill the engine.
Never ride the clutch, you’ll burn it out.
Always look over your shoulder to check your blind spot before you pass.
Always check your tire inflation and oil, especially before a trip.
Always pull up to the next gas pump so that someone can pull in behind you.
Always top off the tank when filling up; you’ll get more miles. (This is the only one of these things I had to unlearn later.)
Always remember that speed cops hide on interstate entrance ramps.
Always drive the speed limit through Odin, IL, because a state trooper lives there.

An acquaintance read this essay several years ago and declared, “I got pulled over by that same cop in Odin!!!”

Once I got my license, I drove the Chevy for a few years. I don’t think I felt the need for a fancier car; I was quite pleased with the Chevy. I made the car uglier still. I dented the fenders twice trying the master the vagaries of backing-out and turning, once at the IGA and once in the high school parking lot. If my dad was imperious, my mother was fussy and couldn’t understand why I might have to learn by doing, making mistakes, and trying again. As I recall, the car needed servicing only once. Some pipe in the engine cracked. We simply drove up to Yarbrough’s auto lot on U.S. 51, found a wreck with a comparable part, and bolted the part on. So simple, compared to the highly technological and electronic aspects of cars today.

One summer I had a girlfriend in Farina, Illinois, several miles down Route 185 in the southeast corner of the county.  My folks hated the thought of me driving to Farina: the busy Illinois 37 crossed 185 near Farina, and many people had been killed at that intersection.  From their anxiety, I had an image of a Road Runner cartoon where the coyote looks both ways at a completely empty highway, and once he steps into the road he’s suddenly flattened by a truck!  When I arrived at the intersection, I found it reasonably safe with clear visibility both ways: not a place for carelessness, but not a death trap, either.   

Without air conditioning, I drove the car with the window down in summertime.  The hot, rushing air blew my long hair. Pollen collected on the worn seats. My feet became dusty from the dry breeze that entered the hole in the floorboard. Once I tried to wax the car, but the finish had long since faded and the paint could no longer shine. For many weeks the hood showed great white circles where the wax had baked hard.

I never drove the car very far: just around the county, and to college during my first year.  The background photo of this blog reminds me of driving west of town to visit a buddy at his family’s farm; during one such trip, the Allman Brothers’ song “Jessica” came on the radio, surely one of the great “on the road” songs!  Eventually Dad traded my old car at Oldfield’s Auto Sales in Vandalia. For the trade he bought me a bright red Dodge two-door with black vinyl seats. I loved the Dodge but, as we drove away, I looked wistfully at the Chevy. In a small town one often sees former cars being driven around by new owners, but we never saw the Chevy again. It probably went to scrap.

Something about our first cars haunts us. My dad remembered his parents’ first car: a 1925 4-door Ford sedan, purchased with seventeen head of cattle from John Eakin in Vandalia. I’ve known people who kept their first cars, caring tenderly for them over the years. Adolescence can be a difficult time, and amid those struggles, one finds solace and pleasure in the ability to drive. Perhaps that is why we don’t forget our first cars. Thinking of my old Chevy reminds me of that special freedom gained as a teenager. It is a freedom which, once acquired, mastered, and then taken for granted, never again seems quite so sweet.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in Springhouse magazine and my book Journeys Home.)

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Whenever a relative writes me with a family history question [a more common occurrence during the early 1990s, when I wrote this essay, than now], I’ll go through my genealogical collection to find information or locate an item to copy or a photograph to reproduce. Today I’m looking at the material out of nostalgia.

Whenever I look through my family history material, my mind fills with peaceful images of “place”:  Four Mile Prairie, Route 185 as it crosses the prairie and curves into a grove of timber, the hills around Ramsey, IL (associated with the Carson and Washburn branches of the family), Vandalia, and Brownstown.  All these are locations in Fayette County, Illinois.  Genealogy, memory, and landscape sentimentally mix in my mind. 

My material—today strewn over the kitchen table—consists handwritten or typed manuscripts in folders, charts, photographs in albums, and an antique oatmeal container.  I really did a lot of genealogical research when I was just a teenager!   And I gained such a wonderful sense of family and local heritage.  A little later, when I worked at my local library during my college years, I always wanted to run from the genealogists who verbally depicted their family trees to anyone standing nearby. But I was the same. I could top their depictions. I could recount how my first ancestors settled Fayette County in November 1829. They were the Pilchers and the Gatewoods. Next came the Carsons about 1830, the Mahons in 1835, the Washburns and Browns separately in 1836, the Williamses about 1840, the Crawfords in the early 1850s, and finally the Strobels in the 1880s. I never meant to bore anyone; I aimed to show them how deeply go my ties to home. I wished nothing less for them.


I preserve my Pilcher keepsakes in a scrapbook with a copy of the family history. Most of Grandma’s Pilcher artifacts were lost in the fire, but I did have her handwritten copy of the family tree and a few pictures. The “tree” is the record of the descendents of Winslow and Averilla Pilcher. Grandma’s great-grandparents who came to the Four Mile area in 1829 along with Averilla’s parents, Thomas R. and Margaret Gatewood, and Averilla’s brother Thomas A. and his family. Blanche Harstad, Grandma’s first cousin, worked on the history during the 1930s and distributed carbon copies of the history in 1940. She begins: With all due apologies to anyone who might take offense to anything that 1 have compiled in these records. I started out to compile this Pilcher Family Tree for my own pleasure and interest. However it has turned out to be a good deal of work and most of my spare time was spent in making these copies this winter as I did want the secretary and one in each family of the first eighteen children to have a copy.

Blanche began with Winslow’s parents, about whom she knew little. Lewis Pilcher was born in England. He moved to Fairfax, Va., then to Frankfort, KY. Mary was from Wales. Lewis and Mary had eighteen children, twelve girls, six boys. One adopted boy, Robert Sage, fought in the Battle of Germantown. Mary Rogers Pilcher was the one who supposedly was George Rogers Clark’s aunt. General Clark would have been my first cousin seven times removed. It’s still a good story.

Blanche continues. Winslow came from Frankfort, KY. Their religion was called the Hardshelled Baptist. They were honest and respectable people. They had to endure many hardships. They settled on what is now known as Four Mile Prairie. They had to go with team and wagon to St. Louis nearly 90 miles. It would take nearly one week to go. Sometimes it would rain and water would come up so high they would have to wait until it ran down before they could get home. One time Great-grandmother (Averilla) took her seed beans down and was going to cook them for the hungry children when Great-grandfather came.

Averilla was a large woman. She was quick-tempered. She would often take her slipper off to spank her young offsprings.

One day two old buck Indians came to her home while Winslow was away, took down the shotgun which hung over the door. They grunted in their Indian fashion, hung the gun back, and walked away.

Averilla was a hard worker.

Among the several genealogical projects that I undertook during teenage, summer days, I set about finding all I could about the Pilchers. In my imagination they seemed a kind of Lincolnesque example of stalwart pioneers who “broke the prairie,” the kind of everyday people who helped found Vandalia. According to family lore the Pilchers hoped to travel farther north but the Vincennes Road was so muddy they resolved to stay where their wagons were mired. Four Mile is not mentioned among the named prairies in Fred Gerhart’s Illinois As It Is (1857) nor in local sources until later. Instead local sources call it “Wakefield Prairie,” after the first white settler who’d settled there in 1824, and also “Cumberland Township,” a reference to the nearest post office three miles north on the National, or Cumberland Road. The entire township was finally given the name Otego, after the New York location from which some settlers came. Several pioneer families began moving to the vicinity during the later 1820s and the 1830s; the county history names the several men who came to the township at that time, including other maternal ancestors of mine. Wives and children aren’t listed. As for the Pilchers, their “Hardshell Baptist” convictions apparently were fervent, for by 1830, according to the county history, the first church of the township was organized—in the Pilchers new home.

The family was an extended one. The adult children and their own offspring lived around the Four Mile area. According to the census records Thomas and Margaret Gatewood also lived nearby. Thomas sometimes ran for county offices and happened to be Fayette County coroner during the years when Lincoln served in the state legislature. Some of Winslow’s brothers apparently lived nearby, too, for in Winslow’s estate papers I located a transaction between two of them—a tragic transaction. Know all men by these presents that I Lewis Pitcher [the son of the first Lewis] have this day sold to Alexander S. Pilcher four slaves to wit Aaron about the age of ten years, Moses about eight years of age, and Ann and her child named Mary Jane, for and in consideration of the sum of one thousand and five hundred dollars to me in hand paid the reciept whereof I do herby acknoledge and do warrent them slaves for life, the title whereof I do bind myself forever to defend against any and all claims what ever given under my hand this 7th day of Oct. r 1839 Lewis his x mark Pilcher.

It is difficult to picture how Fayette County looked in those days, days of virgin prairie and the oldest stands of timber in Southern Illinois. I’m sure it would be entirely unrecognizable to me. Fayette County farms were just beginning to be productive by the late 1820s. Vandalia was eight miles east on the Vincennes Road and the new National Road; Winslow surely purchased many of his family supplies in Vandalia or at smaller settlements southeast of Four Mile.

Winslow set about farming but he did not limit himself to that. Like most men of the time, he hunted. The 1878 county history notes that Winslow purchased the first Durham bull in the township, so he must have raised some livestock also. Strangely no one in our family remembered that he made a hefty sum of money when Vandalia’s statehouse was constructed in 1836. Several downtown Vandalia businessmen and county residents pitched in on the building project that summer and fall, and records of state appropriations show that Winslow hauled timber to the public square during the summer of 1836. During the following winter he swept plaster from the senate chamber. For these duties he was paid $47, a very large sum considering that, forty years later, his widow received only $8 a month for a pension. Besides economic need I don’t know what might have compelled him to travel to Vandalia to help in the building project. For the sake of family history, I’m glad he did.

Winslow and Averilla died after the Civil War. Their two-story log house stood until the 1910s when, according to Grandma, it was torn down. It was located at a spot which is now a small fenced-in pasture adjacent to the family burial ground which had comprised the original property. According to family lore the little graveyard began when the eighth child, Octavia, contracted tetanus from a stepped-on nail and asked to be buried beneath a favorite bush. Winslow and Averilla were buried there too but their graves are unmarked, as (presumably) are the graves of those among their children who did not survive to adulthood. A marker honoring Winslow was later placed upon a simple grave there. Four other children—William Lewis Pilcher, Louisiana Smith, Charlie Pilcher, and Jonathan K. Pilcher my great-great-grandfather—are buried within the shady, peaceful space of their own childhoods. (Jonathan and his family comprise the stern group, circa 1891, at the beginning of this essay.)

I leaf through the history of the people and their descendents. Blanche’s text has a wonderful quaintness that enthralled me as I read the pages while sitting in Grandma’s house. The stories of the eighteen children are wonderful evocations of the Four Mile area from over a hundred years ago.

Hannah Pilcher was born in Catskilll, N.Y. At one time they [she and her husband William Lewis Pilcher] lived east and north of Jonathan K. Pilcher’s out through the woods. On their way to see them they often stopped to pick papaws. Mother can remember how they caught fireflies from the field of wheat across the road….

Cordelia was so small they could turn a teacup over her head and it rested on her shoulders. They carried her on a pillow for weeks…

Louisiana was a very large woman, plain spoken. They had one son who left home and was killed; the body sent home, buried as their son.

Uncle Charlie’s wife died leaving him to bring up the children to the best of his ability, and that proved to be extremely good. He would take them to church and parties and enjoyed the fun along with them. He was a Hardshell Baptist and believed what is to be will be, and in May there was one special Sunday that was always a big day at Four Mile. People would come for miles and if anyone got a new hat, it was always for that day. Uncle Ben Mahon would preach. They had a foot washing and Uncle Charlie was the one that always had his foot washed…. He was found dead in a chair outside his house. Aunt Cordie and family came to see them that particular 4th of July morning and found him dead..

My mother was hardly sixteen when her mother died in 1893. Her father, Jonathan K., was hard of hearing thus making it hard to carry on unnecessary conversation; therefore much of the family history was lost. Jonathan did quite a bit of carpentering, laying brick for brick houses, built wagons, buggies, and bobsleds. He owned 57 A. of land, also farmed, kept stock of all kinds. He sold the farm after Rhoda Ann died, and bought the farm on Route 185 owned by Steve Sidwell at that time, sold it later, and bought on the Brownstown Road… A kitchen lean-to was built on the house that extended to the smokehouse. It had a 10-ft. table with a bench next to the wall. Uncle Henry ate his first dish of oatmeal at this long table. The flue caught fire and caused the house to burn down. And again much of the family history was lost. Rhoda Ann loved to sing. Horseback riding was a delight to her. Aunt Martha says that I had as fine a grandmother that ever lived. She raised chickens, did some milking, made butter, baked eight or nine loaves of bread in an outside bake oven, and no doubt had many more responsibilities. She was born in Morgan Co., Ohio.

The stories of the third generation are similar.

Lottie, Lavina Litchenwalter, and Mother were together one Sunday. Loytie and Lavina were to go to church that evening. Lottie wanted her dress fresh and cream-colored, so she washed, starched and dyed it with strong coffee, ironed it, and was ready for church…

Clara was a large woman. She had well-behaved children. She dressed Ida like a doll. One dress that my mother remembers was embroidered with a long waist, wide ribbon sash, short puffed sleeves. Mother thinks they lived in Denver, Co.

John was a very small man; most Pitchers were rather large. Very nice sort of fellow.

Robert went with a Catholic girl at one time. During Lent she wouldn’t see him. He made the remark, “And by gosh, I respected her for it.”

Kate took care of the twins. She had a bed fixed in front of the buggy. There was where she put them while she drove around through the country.

Most of these people were Fayette Countians. Yet Pilcher is no longer a common area name. As in the case of Grandma the name was “married” into other local names.

Blanche wrote, I do not feel this book is complete until we have eliminated all the blank spaces that are possible to fill out. I do feel that you who have a book or see one can help make this a success by sending me the information that I have failed to get. Any remuneration will be guilefully appreciated. As I pursued genealogy I modestly added other branches of the family to sections which Blanche had found no leads. I do not know when Blanche died–she lived most of her life in the Dakotas–but I would like to think she’d appreciate my efforts to bring her chronicle to a greater fullness.


Here is my Pilcher Cemetery manuscript. In 1973 and 1974, when I was 16 and 17, I spent hours at the cemetery copying all the inscriptions. I tried to copy each inscription exactly, although I didn’t take time to double check my work.

Those were summertime trips.  A dermatologist had advised me to get a lot of sun for my acne, and I definitely wanted to get tanned.  So I wore a tank top or no shirt at all.  Usually I didn’t wear shoes, either. I reasoned that shoes were unnecessary for a morning spent outdoors in the grass and sticky but soft evergreen needles. The thought of going to work barefooted still sounds appealing to me. I remember startling a visitor to the cemetery who didn’t expect to see a long-haired, barefoot young man walking around the graves with a clipboard.

Back home, I typed my notes and made several pages of lists of inscriptions—just over 250 inscriptions in all. I also painstakingly created a chart that showed how many of the people in the graveyard were interrelated and intermarried. About this project, I was particularly proud of my identification and indication of unmarked graves. My grandmother and other older relatives knew where certain people were buried who, for whatever reason, never had a tombstone. For instance, one of Grandma’s cousins told me that six of her young siblings were buried beneath a tree in the smaller family cemetery.

As I wrote in the previous essay, the Pilcher Cemetery is actually two graveyards. The Winslow Pilcher Family Cemetery is a small area near the site of Pilcher’s homestead. Thomas R. and Margaret Gatewood, Winslow and Averilla Pilcher, several of that couple’s children and grandchildren, and also Averilla’s brother Thomas A. Gatewood, are buried here. A few people not related to the Pilchers are buried here, too: my distant uncle Ben Mahon and his wife, children, and mother in law. The last burial here was 1928.

The graveyard is a pleasant small place, distinguished from the surrounding fields with a farm fence. Tall evergreens lay a carpet of shade upon the area. Sometimes cows had peaked at me over the fence. When I visit the place I like to see monuments for Louisiana Pilcher Smith, with its rounded plain top and its fading, soft-looking inscription; the old broad stone for William L. and Hannah Pilcher (on which Hannah’s death date was never carved); the small tablet for Charlie Pilcher; and my great-great-grandparents, Jonathan K. and Rhoda Pilcher, who died in 1908 and 1893 respectively. I remember how thrilled I felt to discover that these people are my ancestors; their gray obelisk stands at the west side of the graveyard at the edge of the evergreens’ shade.

Beside that obelisk is a row of small tombstones for the couple’s young children: children who would’ve been my grandma’s uncles and aunts. As a childless teenager I didn’t quite grasp the tragedy of this smaller cemetery: how many our children and infants are buried here. A few epitaphs reflect the terrible grief:

Jesus said suffer little children and forbid them not for such is the Kingdom of Heaven Mat. 19

Our darling one hath gone before
To greet us on the blissful shore.

The larger Pilcher Cemetery is just up the narrow road from the family cemetery. Until the mid or late 1970s, a beautiful large oak tree dominated the cemetery, which is a pretty clearing a grove of timber. The name is a bit of a misnomer, because fewer Pilcher descendents are buried here. But seemingly the place began as a community graveyard, separate from Winslow Pilcher’s family but associated with the pioneer. The cemetery was called “Mr. Pilcher’s Graveyard” in an 1840s family letter. A cluster of plain stones crudely inscribed with initials and 1830s dates mark the oldest known graves. The place was also called the Washburn Cemetery in turn of the century obituaries–and several Washburns are buried here. My great-great-grandparents Josiah and Margaret Williams actually deeded the land in 1893 to cemetery trustees.

In this larger cemetery are buried my grandparents, great-grandparents (Crawford and Pilcher), some great-great-grandparents (Crawford and Williams) and great-great-great-grandparents (Williams and Washburn), as well as distant uncles and aunts and cousins. All but one of the original eight Crawford children are buried here.  Altogether, twenty of my ancestors are buried in the two cemeteries, along with many other relatives. Over the years, more of my great-uncles, great-aunts, and cousins have been interred here, as well as my mother’s brother and his wife.

Whenever I visit the cemetery I read the inscriptions of relatives: Crawford, Fink, Williams, Washburn, Rush, and others. As I indicated in the previous essay, as a little boy I loved the archaic names on older stones. Gravestone symbolism isn’t plentiful but interesting: a finger pointed toward Heaven, hands clasped in greeting, a dead dove, a bare-bottomed cherub. A double stone for the babies Elvina and Lemuel Parks stands in the far corner of the graveyard because, according to Grandma, the babies died of smallpox. Nearby are a pair of tiny stones of Williams infants who died in 1861. They weren’t even named. Not far away is a young man who, according to the inscription, died at Vicksburg, and nearby is another Civil War veteran with a military marker but, hidden in the grass, is a flat circular stone that indicates he died in 1862. And not far away is an epitaph:

Farewell my wife and children all
From you a father Christ doth call
Mourn not for me it is in vain
To call me to your sight again

The epitaph is a fragment of a tombstone but I never could find the rest of it

As I look through my painstaking recorded and poorly typed manuscript, I remember that, when I was young, I tried to imagine what these people looked like based on their stones—like David Copperfield who thought of his infant brothers as having been born with their hands in their pockets. If I saw photographs of the people, of course they never looked like my preconceptions.


I sort through other pictures and items, letting memories intermingle. Here is a photograph of Andy Stroble, my long-dead grandfather. During the era when it didn’t matter Andy changed the spelling of the name according to the whim of the moment and happened to spell it “Stroble” on Dad’s birth certificate. Thus my name is different from my cousins. Here is the beginning of a Strobel family tree that I never completed before I left for college. John and Emma Strobel, my great-grandparents, lived north of Vandalia on U.S. 51 and had ten children. John was born in Bavaria in 1840 and emigrated with his parents a few years later. I never discovered much about my Strobel and Hotz ancestors, settling for a few family facts from the trivial to the bitter, concerning the immediate family. John was a farmer for 75 years until 1929 . . . John and Emma both died of myocarditis and senility . . . George Strobel worked in the coal mines . . . Lillie Strobel was the daughter of Ellen Watkins and her second husband; Ellen was the maternal grandmother of Grace Crawford, mother of Mildred Stroble, by Ellen’s third marriage to George Washburn . . . Gustav Strobel died when he drank some lye while his mother washed the kitchen floor; he was two days shy of his first birthday . . . Ed Strobel raised and sold horses, and served in World War I . . . . Andy died of a stroke walking to the harness shop in downtown Vandalia . . .

Here is Dad’s picture of John and Emma. Wearing work clothes and standing before a rose bush, they look like a German American Gothic. Dad remembers they grew rhubarb and cabbage and once “put up” 55 gallons of wonderful sauerkraut. He remembers sitting on their front porch with his cousin Delmer, practicing their slingshots, and Dad’s shot hit Delmer’s brother Fred in the head, momentarily knocking him senseless. “Damn! Paul! Damn! You killed the son of a bitch!” Delmer had yelled, laughing, and I hear his laughter in my father’s. Dad still has the gun which, according to family lore, John carried into the Civil War. The gun was found, loaded, after John’s death in 1932. In order to fire it but also to protect people if the old gun exploded, someone tied it to a stump, tied a long rope to the trigger, hid behind a tree, and pulled the rope… The gun fired, one last time.

I’d love to be able to add that a duck fell from the sky, and all the cousins feasted on duck and “roastineers” in memory of Grandpa Strobel, the old German farmer. But that would be adding to the truth.

Here is a Polaroid photograph of my dad’s mother and her siblings-Ross, Roy, Peg, Pauline, Lonnie. Grandma’s brothers and sisters were people who still elicit grateful memories from their kin. I remember how Aunt Peg loved to tease me about the time when I was a toddler and, during a family visit to her house in Decatur, I tried to fold a live cat in half and place it into a toy dump truck. I heard about that until I was in my twenties. Janie died when she was 101–the third of fourteen children, she survived them all–and her body finally outlived her mind. Before she went into the nursing home she’d tell me she and her mother (who was, at that time, dead for over 25 years) had taken a buggy ride that day. While visiting her I realized that sometimes, when the ties break between our minds and reality, our family ties remain strong.

Here is a photo of Mac Carson, my great-grandfather on Dad’s side, who lived in the northern part of Fayette County. James S. Carson, a Revolutionary War veteran and Mac’s great-grandfather, had settled the country in the 1830s. Mac has his gloved hands on a saw with which he is cutting a log, a cigar is in his mouth beneath an ample moustache, and he looks up at the photographer. His broad rimmed hat shades his face. But another picture shows him wearing a suit and looking slightly bemused. His wife Alice holds a squirming infant, Uncle Lonnie.

Here is a photo of Alice’s father, my great-great-grandfather, who also pauses from sawing a log. His beard extends to the middle of his chest. The photograph is an old postcard on which he affixed his own name and address: John T. Colburn, Loami, Lock Box 94, Illinois. That branch of the family settled in Sangamon County and helped found the town of Loami. Grandma Janie also gave me a picture of John wherein he sits beside animals and toys that he whittled from wood. He has an almost childlike look in his eyes.

Here are photocopies of Carson and Colburn family information that Uncle Roy Carson had obtained for me. The two-column page from the History of Sangamon County, Illinois (1881) states that John’s father Paul Colburn and his family traveled through rain, mud and unabridged streams for about five weeks, which brought them to the south side of Lick creek on what is now Loami township, where they found an empty cabin. From sheer weariness they decided to stop…. Having succeeded in bringing so many of his descendents to the new country, and witnessed their struggles to gain a foothold and provide themselves with homes, Paul died Feb. 27, 1825. near the present town of Loami… Elsewhere in the same history my great-great-great-grandfather John Carson–a Fayette County resident who left many descendents in Sangamon County–is mentioned as a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War. One day Mom, Dad, the family dauchshund, and I found John’s grave in a Fayette County cemetery high above the Kaskaskia River. Beside the grave was that of his son, James Carson, Mac’s father, who was killed while hunting wild turkeys in Fayette County In 1859, aged only 39.

“What a way to go!” my mom remarked.

Here are several sheets on the Mahon family, related to me through the Crawfords. An old gentleman in suburban St. Louis gave me information about the descendents of John Mahon, an Irishman who had emigrated in the 1760s and was killed by British soldiers as they ransacked his home. We know nothing about John’s wife but their sons were named Doctor, Barren. Dennizen, Pliant, Thomas and James. Doctor Mahon was my great-great-great-great-grandfather who, along with Thomas, settled Fayette County in the mid-1830s. Doctor’s son John was my ancestor who wanted a gravestone no more ostentatious than Jesus’ stone, but Doctor had less than Jesus did, his grave is unknown.

John had a brother named Benjamin who was a “Hardshell Baptist” minister in Fayette County for many years. My own ancestor emerges relatively colorless compared to his younger brother “Old Ben Mahon,” one of the very few clergymen in my family. He was a circuit rider of great local note in the nineteenth century. The county history calls him “a rough diamond, loving his joke,” and states that he took 150 preaching engagements each year, but he accepted no money for his evangelistic work. Grandma told me there was some uproar when he was disinterred in 1902 to be buried beside his wife, who had already been buried in the old family graveyard. The men opened the casket before reburial. Apparently Ben had rolled over.

Here are photographs of the separate graves of my great-great-grandparents, George and Ellen Washburn, and also the grave of their younger daughter Susan England. The graves are in a small cemetery in the hilly, northern townships of Fayette County. Grandma Grace liked to tell me the story of how George walked away from the Civil War, missing an arm, and came home to Fayette County only to discover his wife had recently died. He lodged with a family that included the recently widowed Ellen Watkins, and they eventually married. In her endearingly hard-headed manner Grandma always stressed that George and Ellen both had several children from previous marriages but that their own marriage produced only two children. Grandma’s mother Abby Pilcher and “Aunt Suze” England. It was essential that we know that Aunt Suze was not a half-sister but a “real” sister. It wasn’t that we’d have hurt Suze’s feelings if we got it wrong, though; she had died in 1931. Grandma just wanted us to know. The cemetery is pretty, nestled in a grove of trees beside a gravel road, far from the two-lane; to get there we pass “my” Miller High Life silo on a high hill along U.S. 51. A few years before I discovered genealogy Mom and Dad took me to the cemetery along with some cousins. I remember catching some good butterflies for my third-grade science project. I couldn’t have cared less about my ancestors.

Here is a sheet of paper on which I wrote that my ancestor, David Washburn, was a Cape Cod whale fisherman. His wife Esther Griffith was the daughter of a wholesale dealer in New York. I do not recall who gave me the information; perhaps Grandma’s distant cousin who ran the Four Mile store. The sheet of paper is stationary from “Hasler Oil Co., 501 S. Fifth, Vandalia” –Dad’s old employer. I always like to look at the beautiful cursive script upon David and Esther’s tombstones in the family cemetery. They came to Four Mile in 1836. I was able to trace a few of their descendents in Fayette County, including George’s and those of David and Leroy who married Crawford sisters, but eventually I gave up. I find the reason why: Leroy’s 1908 obituary states that David and Esther had seventeen children. Some of them were small children buried in the family cemetery; but I found insurmountable the task of locating even the names of all the original seventeen.

Here is a photocopy of a page from the 1878 History of Fayette County. The pioneers of [Otego] township were Henry Scroggins, Thomas Crickman, Wm. Crickman, Mr. Riall, Mr. Clements, and Mr. Stanfield, who came in 1828. In 1829 came Jacob Tinker, Thoams Osbrook, Winslow Pilcher, Thomas R. Gatewood, Edward Healey, Hardy Heafy, Thos. A. Gatewood, Cole Norris, Mr. Robeson, and Wm. D. Brown. In 1830, came Ezra Griffith, Rutherford Shelton, Wm. H. Mabury, James Beal, Sr. … In 1832, Mr. Roe and Henry Brown In 1833, Hezekiah Brown, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Taylor …In 1835, ’36 and ’37, Harvey Lee, Asa Lee … and David Washburn … There, in one paragraph, I found several ancestors, as if they had gathered in Otego Township like pilgrims. I always thought of this paragraph as somehow fundamental to my very identity. 

Here is a wonderful picture of my ancestors Josiah and Margaret Williams. Margaret’s family, Henry and Hezekiah Brown, had settled Four Mile several years before the Williamses. Bearded and dressed in an old suit Josiah looks clear-eyed out at the camera; she stands as tall as he seated. She was twenty years younger than he was. But they died within months of each other, in 1893.

Here is the Williams family history along with a print of a daguerreotype purported to be my ancestor Comfort Williams, whose tombstone fascinated me as a child. Her husband, the first Josiah, died in 1826 at the age of 40, leaving Comfort a widow at the young age of 32, and she never remarried. One wonders how she supported herself and their five children, but we know that she lived near Columbus, Ohio several more years. Her parents also lived there, as did other family members who are all buried in a small churchyard in Obetz, Ohio. Comfort did not join them there, however; some desire within her compelled her to travel the National Road to Illinois, and she and her five children settled in the Four Mile area around 1840. She lived there seven years. The author of the Williams family tree gave me a typed copy of a letter that one of Comfort’s daughters wrote when Comfort died. April 2n AD 1847 Dear sister I embrace the painful opportunity of writing a few lines to you know that we have had to endure great trouble we have lost our dear mother she died last Tuesday morning between eight and nine o clock. . . she had the Pleurisy or what is here termed the winter fever I do not think that she thought much about getting well after she was taken sick she was not able to be up any she was helpless as a child. . . Josiah write home every month we got a letter from him the Friday before she died and he told her if nothing happened he should be home before harvest and she calmly says poor boy I shall never see you she told us to not let him know anything about her death till he came home he had been verry well ever since he crossed the gulf he was in Tampico when he last wrote but I expect he is now at verry cruz . . . she looked as pleasant and natural in her coffin as though she had been sleeping with a smile on her countenance I trust she is better off than the rest of us I trust she is happy she is buried about a mile from home in Mr. Pilchers graveyard I can have the consolation of visiting her grave…

Reading through the Williams history I remember its author fondly. She was a dear woman named Helen Dickes. Helen was in her seventies when I knew her: she was blue-haired, short and broad and had a very clear intelligence. I don’t remember exactly how we came upon each other but some Brownstown Williamses must have given me her name, and Grandma and I were happy to obtain her family tree. Helen was descended from the first of Josiah and Comfort’s five children and I from the third, and I remember how interesting—exciting! —it was to learn about the history of Comfort Williams, and how grateful I was to Helen for the photocopy of her history. Her history provided another good windfall for my various genealogy projects because one of the five Williams siblings had married one of “my” Crawford pioneers and another had married one of the first generation of Fayette County Pilchers. Thus Helen’s book gave me two entire branches which neither Blanche nor I had been able to find. We had a lively correspondence during the early 1970s, and I’ve saved all her letters. Then we dropped out of touch and I never heard when she died.

Before we stopped writing, though, I visited the cemetery in Obetz. Bronze markers had replaced the tombstones of my ancestors. An unmarked grave lay between the graves of family members, and I’ve always assumed that the grave is that of the first Josiah Williams. But his tombstone was not replaced by a bronze one. He lies forgotten, while many miles west his wife’s grave has fresh flowers each year—for a very large number of Williams relatives live in the Vandalia area.

Genealogy is a mixture of historical, heritage, personal identity, and family pride. Sometimes I think I confuse these people’s real lives with the few materials before me, their real faces with old photographs, and I confuse their lives with the place. My family keepsakes comprise a hodgepodge of information — less a local “saga” than fragments and images about the first generations of Scot-English-Irish-German forebearers in a small Midwestern community. Yet I’ve counted the material a precious store of knowledge which takes my love of place to a different level. If one counts genealogy as a kind of self-knowledge, a way of knowing “who you are,” the hobby has helped me know who I am and where I am. Fayette County was home to generations of my family. I could by no means decorate all their graves.


Along with various photographs, keepsakes, notes, charts, and typical genealogical paraphernalia on other branches of my family, I keep my Crawford material. I leaf through my own family tree, embarrassed by my adolescent phrasings and my poor typing. Thanks to my Utah cousin I could begin the history with additional information about Paul Crawford (to whose name I affixed “1809-1849”) and his wife Susanna (whose dates remained “1809- ? ” until I learned that she died in 1875). So many “shirttail” cousins around Fayette County provided information about their own branches. Still, my little history emphasizes the descendents of my great-great-grandparents Andrew and Caroline (Mahon) Crawford. Like Blanche and Helen, when it came to writing the family history I had the most information about my own branch.

The photograph of Andrew is striking, for one of his eyes seems tired and weak and the other is wide open and penetrating. The effect must come from the Vandalia photographer’s light, for half of his goatee is washed out by the light and half is dark. Andrew was killed the year their last child was born. I have a photograph of Caroline and her five children in 1899. It is a wonderful picture; the Crawfords all look fairly fierce—Andrew’s penetrating look must have dominated the family genes. They also look fuzzy; only the tree beyond them is in sharp focus. John sports a moustache that droops to his chin; his brother Will, who lived in the same house all his life, stands near him. Paul, Alice, and Andy Jr. complete the picture; one infant daughter had died many years before.

Coming to Vandalia I sometimes see cousins who are descended from John, Will, Paul, or Alice (Rush), but the younger Andy Crawford lived a mysterious life and had no children. This 1899 photograph may have been taken around the time he ran away from home. Apparently he resented Caroline’s 1890s remarriage, left one day, and never came home again. My great-aunt Nell told me he would cruelly write or wire information about his whereabouts; the whole family would come to meet him, but he’d not be there. This happened several times every five years almost to the day. Caroline died in 1921, never having seen him again, although some of the brothers apparently met him sometime, somewhere. When Andy died in 1959 he was living in a shack near Caseyville, Illinois, with two women, who reported his death and weren’t seen again. The family buried Andy in the Pilcher cemetery.

Here is another photograph of John from 1899 He and his wife Susan sit together with their young children; there is Josiah my grandfather, who is thirteen years old in this picture, Marvin (who, like my grandfather, I never knew), Charlie, Jean, Ruby (holding a doll), and the infant Mary. Nell and Ruth were not yet born. They’re nearly all gone now — those dear older relatives who figured so importantly in my childhood. How wonderful it would be to have just one more day to speak with them, to embrace them, now that I’ve become an adult and see how deeply they became a part of my life!

John Crawford kept his personal papers in a “Farmer’s Pride Quick Cooking Rolled Oats” box.  I reach for the box, open the cardboard lid, and empty it out the contents.  Among my ancestors I knew the most about him because of his white-haired daughters’ fond remembrance (Jean, Ruby, and Nell, especially) — and the contents of his box. I assume my grandfather acquired the box after John died. Most of the material therein dates from the years 1925, 1926, and 1927, the last three years of his life.

What records would any of us want to leave at the time of our deaths? John’s papers reflect local history. Brownstown and Vandalia during their busy, railroad eras when my parents were small children. John lived just south of Brownstown on the Brownstown Road; thus he kept a number of receipts from Brownstown businesses like Bingham Brothers and Brownstown Lumber and a few from Vandalia businessmen like George A. A. Dieckmann and Polk Atkinson. A receipt from Pevely Dairy Co. in St. Louis may have been from the company’s Brownstown station. (There are, however, some St. Louis trains schedules in the box; John has written home 10 o clock on one.) Brownstown during the early 1900s had a wide assortment of stores, physicians, churches and schools, a lumberyard, a blacksmith, a hotel, a mill, an I.O.O.F. hall, farm machinery and feed stores. Like Vandalia, its economic mainstays were the St. Louis, Vandalia, and Terre Haute Railroad and the county’s agriculture. “Crawford” is an old Brownstown name, as are Washburn, Williams, and Mahon, and I imagine John was a local fixture as he walked the village streets.

There is nothing in the box concerning the purchase or repair of automobiles. I wonder if John owned one. Grandma and Grandpa owned a car at that time. But in 1920s Four Mile, considering reliable horses and buggies and the handy train depots at Brownstown and Vandalia, a family could have gotten along without one.

When Susan was diagnosed with stomach cancer, she had to spend time in the Mark Greer Hospital in Vandalia, and died there in 1926. Several of John’s checks from his account in First National Brownstown were written to the Mark Greer Hospital, and endorsed by “Dr. Mark” himself (Dr. Mark, with his downtown waiting room filled with animal heads, was just winding down his local medical practice when I was a boy.) One hospital receipt has Board & Room 8 days at 3.50, 28.00, Operating Room 10.00, Special Nurse’s, 7.00. Today, those decimal points have moved to the right! John kept several get-well cards that Four Mile people had sent to Susan, posted with 2-cent stamps. A receipt from the Brownstown undertaker totals the funeral expense for Susan at $277.50, most of which was for the casket.

John was a farmer. There are mortgage papers in the box for his farm, which in 1899 was 80 acres. That is insufficient acreage today for a profitable farm; it was quite sufficient then. John’s neighbor up the road, Jonathan K. Pilcher, had only 57 acres. A statement of John’s 1925 Fayette County taxes indicates he paid $38.29 that year. John had livestock; in those days one took stock to Brownstown for shipment by train to Indianapolis or East St. Louis. One item from the box, which I’ve since had framed, is sad, for it announces the sale of John’s and Susan’s property. Public Sale of live stock and personal property. The undersigned will sell at Public Sale at his residence two miles south of Brownstown, in Otego Township, on Thursday, October 29, 1908, the following described property: four head of horses consisting of 3 good work horses and I good 2-year-old colt, 2 good dairy cows and 1 spring calf, 13 good head of hogs weighting from 100 to 250 pounds. Farm implements: 1 Champion Binder, 1 McCormack Mower, 1 McCormack Sweet Rake, 1 Wheat Drill, 1 Steel Harrow, 1 Cultivator, 2 Breaking Plows, 1 Wagon, 1 Top Buggy, nearly new, 2 sets Double Harness, and 1 set Single Harness. Also about 5 tons of Hay and 20 acres of Corn in the field. 1 Estate Steel Range and other Household Furniture . . . John Crawford. According to my great-aunts, their brother Marvin had contracted tuberculosis by 1908 and the sale was necessitated by his illness and subsequent move to Texas for his health. He and his wife had needed money badly, especially after the birth of their child. Grandma had a heartbreaking letter from Marvin to John and Susan when Marvin’s little boy died. The poor little Kenneth is at peace with the Angels now and I Pray we will all Meet him there when we leave this world of Sorrow. Marvin himself didn’t live long after that and was brought back to Four Mile for burial. The older aunts–Jean and Ruby especially–remembered with abiding sadness the early death of their second brother.

John and Susan must have rebuilt their holdings in the years ahead. There is little evidence in the box that they remained in deep debt. The only mortgage papers in the box are from 1899. They both died just before the Great Depression which, Mom says, struck the area very hard. Although oil exploration around the St. James Field took place throughout this period, the major discoveries did not come until the late 1930s, at which time the area began to recover economically. Widespread mechanization of farms didn’t come until later, too.

John kept several credit vouchers from Sears, Roebuck & Co.—2 cents, 3 cents. I’ve thought of taking them to the nearest shopping mall where I live and jokingly try to redeem them with interest.

John tore a First National Bank Brownstown check in half and wrote on the back: Andrew Crawford 218 South 4th Street St. Louis Mo c/o Erie House. I wonder if John was, at some point, able to meet his prodigal brother there, or if this is an artifact from one of Andy’s cruel wires home. I’ll never know. But John did keep the address.

One interesting thing to me in all these papers is John’s religious work. He was a very active lay person in the Methodist Episcopal Church. John left several Sunday school and denominational materials in his box. In the 1910s and 1920s he was a delegate to the Fayette County Sunday School Convention and the township president of the Otego Township Sunday School Convention. A statement from the Brownstown Methodist Episcopal Church states that he paid $19.50 to date for the 1924-25 year. The Nashville, Illinois Methodist minister wrote John a sympathy letter when Susan died. I rejoice in the fact that Sister Crawford had such resolute faith in her Lord and Master that no powers of life or death could separate her from His love. An older letter, from 1906, is a note of thanks from the Casey, Illinois Methodist pastor for John’s 50-cent contribution to the parsonage fund. Susan was apparently active in the church, too; two note pads from the M.E. Women’s Home Missionary Society gives the upcoming programs as “The Way of Christ in Race Relations” for 1924-25 and “The Slavs in the United States” for 1925-26. Susan was hostess for the May 1926 program; but I wonder if she was sick with cancer at that time.

There is a page from “Our Senior Lesson Quarterly” from 1906. This old book will survive the century, correctly states an editorial on one side. Brethren, let us study the Bible; let us love it; let us obey it; and if we do, we shall share in its immortality. “All flesh is grass, and all the glory of man is the flower of grass. .. but the word of the Lord endureth forever.” On the back is a hymn: Jesus is my Savior, is he yours? is his yours? John must have found the words especially moving. So he kept the sheet.

John Crawford went to Vandalia during the time when the old business blocks which I love were new and the trains made Vandalia a popular, exciting place; he knew Four Mile, the old Vincennes Road, the family graveyard, the route which became U.S. 40 about the time of his death, the schedules of the local trains. Like many of his relatives—and unlike many people of his generation who fled the farms for the cities— he didn’t budge from Fayette County. How did it move him within?


I know better than to think that these keepsakes will last forever. But I’m grateful for them. I wish we had more from my wife’s side. I’d like to think that, if Emily becomes interested in such things, she’ll treasure her relatives too.  Hopefully she’ll treasure, too, the place.



Sketching my family background in an essay form, I was inspired by a wonderful book, Ancestors by William Maxwell (New York, 1972).

Nearly forty years ago, my relatives Grace Crawford, Janie Stroble Plinke, Harold and Tillie Crawford, Charles and Fanny Crawford, Jean Boughers Parker, Ruby Wiseman, Mary Philboork, Nell Storm, Ruth Kistler, Ella Braun, Erma Hachet, Ann Link, Roy Carson, Helen Dickes, Bessie Marquis, my parents Paul and Mildred Stroble, and others gave me family stories and keepsakes, inculcating in me a love of things historical–and a deeper love of Vandalia and Fayette County.  All are gone except my mother, but I’m grateful for their gifts and love.

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Along with other things of my childhood, Four Mile haunts me. I love to see those familiar barns, homes, and turnoffs, the old country store, the old fences, the far-off timber that turns feathery and transparent in autumn. The prairie is typical, Midwestern landscape that one finds off the interstate, but for me it is more. It is also my “essential thing” which has changed slowly overtime.

All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. Four Mile has also been my deepest link to my family’s heritage upon the landscapes of my home. I remember being shown so many times, where things used to be along or near 185. I knew the location of the family peach orchard of 40 years before, the place where Harold found over six dozen morel mushrooms, where the mail came to the farm by team in winter, where kin had lived in the early part of the century, where their barns had stood. Besides Four Mile, I had notions of where my father’s kin had settled in the hills of northern Fayette County, for Dad reminisced about his family during our trips north on U.S. 51 to visit his aunts Pauline and Peg. Thus, very early I sentimentally confused family ties, and rural midwestern geography along old two-lane roads.

Driving to the cemetery was a longstanding family ritual, one which, it seems, I share with many Midwestern families. On Memorial Day (or as I always heard it, Decoration Day) and other times, too, we took Grandma to the Pilcher Cemetery near her home. We backtracked on 185 and turned north onto a blacktopped county road. We passed a hog farm and a pasture and a farmer’s gasoline storage tank, rounded a corner, and finally turned down the old, bumpy gravel lane to the graveyard. Another three miles north we’d have accessed U.S. 40 near Brownstown, but we were also very isolated

I was told that one ancestor, Winslow Pilcher, had owned the land first but that another ancestor, Josiah Williams, had formally deeded the property as a cemetery. The graveyard was located in a bright meadow surrounded by thick timber. A single massive oak stood in the clearing. A few houses have since been built along the gravel lane, but for many years the graveyard was indiscernible through the trees. We could see no houses and hear nothing except sounds of nature, our own voices, and the slam of the car trunk as the adults removed the “decorations” and then placed the flowers on graves of my grandfather and other relatives.

My grandfather’s monument was red granite. It read, simply, “CRAWFORD Grace 1890- Josiah 1886-1954.” To each side of the stone were the graves of my mother’s grandparents: John and Susan Crawford and Albert and Abbie Pilcher. Grandma had a picture of Albert’s stone—an impressive gray stone and one of the largest in the graveyard–as it looked before Abbie’s “1949” was set thereon. The date was carved from the raised bar which followed her birth year of “1869” once Abbie had lived the unhappy remainder of her life.

A vigil lingers around these kinds of stones, a waiting for a person’s open-ended life, symbolized by a mere hyphen, to provide a date of closure. It is as if the stone abhors an unfinished life. As a child I did not understand such a thing. In fact, the old section of the cemetery intrigued me most A new stone, so plain, solid, and unfinished, seemed less interesting to me than some falling marker which carefully tallied the person’s exact age at time of death and contained odd names like Comfort, Alonzo, Mortimer, Elvina, Reuben, Ulysses, Tabitha, Jahiel, and Eudoxy. A few of the old stones had fatalistic inscriptions.

Remember, friends, as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you must be.
Prepare for death, and follow me.

Others had more explicit promise of a greater peace beyond.

The rose may fade, the body die,
But flowers unmarked bloom on high
Beyond the land of sinful powers
Our son is safe in Eden’s bowers.

The stones had extremes of brevity and wordiness, from the mere initialization of names (“J A T 1835”) to one particularly long epitaph upon my great-great-great uncle’s stone:

When Jesus comes to reward his servants
Whether it be noon or night
Faithful to him will he find us watching
With our lamps all trimmed and bright

Chorus [sic!]

O can we say we are ready Brother
Ready for the soul’s bright home
Say will he find you and me still watching
Waiting waiting when the Lord shall come.

A hymn carved in stone in a beautiful meadow, where the shadows of oak leaves played upon new grass.

What makes something spark an interest in a child? Thanks to Grandma’s house, I was already interested in old things and reminders of time’s passage; thanks to our church, I liked poetic words of theological assurance. Too, the cemetery was a favorite grassy place, a place to lovingly tend. Every year I walked back to the cemetery’s north side to read inscriptions. I tried to tabulate the people’s birthdates from the numerical series subsumed under years, months, and days, for the oldest stones provided only a death date and the person’s exact age at death. I liked the stones that were the oldest, the most elaborately caved, the ones that were in half and strewn like ancient tablets of law. No one any longer decorated these monuments, except for one surprisingly erect and readable monument:

SACRED to the Memory of Comfort Williams
Who Died March 30th, 1847 Aged 54 Years

Each year a Williams descendent places flowers on her grave. Eventually I learned I am her descendent too.

The cemetery was a place of lonely peacefulness. Every year, too, the adults interrupted that peace with remarks about the peacefulness, about how long that tree might have been growing there, about how badly Cousin So ‘n’ so said he misses his wife (who’s buried over there) when we last saw him in Tri-City, about why Cousin Such ‘n’ such hasn’t been out with flowers because she’s usually decorated by now, about how old Grandpa Crawford would have been (” 196- minus 1886 is — so he’d be —”). Sometimes we’d arrive in time for a trustee’s meeting beneath the oak and the grownups would talk about how much mowing costs had been last year, what kid was going to be around this summer who could be counted on to do trimming, and…on and on. Mourning doves made their haunting call.

These are childhood memories, tenacious as any, but all the more fond, perhaps, because they join with those of Grandma’s farm, and they also provided me a kind of lesson in history which, only after several years, I put to good use.


Memorial Day marked the beginning of summer. My summertime memories are local but no longer strictly chronological. I remember proudly checking out books on science from the library; the retarded man named Mark who walked around downtown all the time and greeted everyone with a smile and hello, and led every parade; the crowded Saturday afternoons on Gallatin Street as I went with my parents to one store or the other—the lumberyard, the Purina store, the clothing stores—thoroughly ashamed to be seen with them. I was in junior high and my hormones were right on schedule. I remember popular songs which variously filled my mind as I walked the Illinois Central tracks home: “Good Morning Starshine,” “A Day In the Life,” “Incense and Peppermint,” “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys,” “Tumblin’ Dice,” “Purple Haze,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Out In the Country,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Get Together,” “Levon,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Come Saturday Morning,” “Closer to Home,” “Aqualung,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Locomotive Breath,” “Break On Through to the Other Side,” “Gimmie Shelter,” “Baba O’Reilly,” “After the Gold Rush,” “Holly Holy”. . .

During my childhood the Sixties era hung like psychedelic drapery among the more muted but still colorful tones of the pioneer, Victorian, and world war eras of downtown. The Carson’s dime store sold Beatles memorabilia and tie-dye bubblegum. Mom brought home issues of McCall’s, Look, and Life from the library and the models had flowers in their hair and their bell-bottomed clothes. Pictures of Apollo VIII appeared on books and magazines. I think of these things, sentimentally perhaps, in terms of summertime and the freedom to do and be what you wanted. In those days I had several summer hobbies. On St. Louis trips Dad patiently took me to the stamp department of Famous Barr. Another summer I liked numismatics and eagerly sought oddities among Lincoln Head pennies. I saved all the “wheat” pennies in change and was overjoyed to find one with no obverse. When we visited the old Four Mile Store I’d save interesting bottlecaps which had been discarded in the parking lot. Rocks and minerals filled my time another summer, butterflies the next. One summer I stayed with Grandma and copied lines of music from Peanuts comics, in collections of strips that Mom bought me at Vandalia’s old Rexall. Another part of me wanted to be a writer, and I looked at poetry with interest. I was briefly interested in collecting beer cans, a hobby I remember less for the brands than for the hot days of exploring the trees and streams within Vandalia’s city limits.

In one sense I was a busy kid because I was bored and lonely—an only child eager to please my parents who were, in turn, eager to encourage me. In another sense, I think my parents’ memories of the Depression made them give me freedom to find a satisfying work. Thus free, I surveyed the sunny, small cosmos in which I lived and found plenty to interest and engage me, although, paradoxically, Vandalia nurtured me amidst my boredom. I had psychological space in which to grow.

History almost “won out” among my hobbies. History was “happening”–it was the Sixties, after all. I can scarcely recall my family’s big “get togethers” at Grandma’s house without recalling things they talked about around the house and farm: Ho Chi Minh, George Wallace, Dean Rusk, Bernadine Dohrn, Spiro Agnew, Kent State, John Birch, Sharon Tate, Martin Luther King, ABM, ICBM, General Westmoreland, escalation and Vietnamization, Bobby Kennedy, “war in the streets,” Martin Luther King, the Silent Majority, “love it or leave it.” In that farm house, built when Teddy Roosevelt was president, the view of history was fantastic.

But my interest also had to do with downtown Vandalia and Four Mile. At some point, the obvious and overlooked features of downtown stirred in me an interest and a longing for the past. In sixth grade I’d walk to town after school to get a haircut and, idly standing under the awnings of the Hotel Evans during a cold, autumn rain I’d look at the cornices upon the old commercial block. They had names of “old time” Vandalians. I’d ride my bike to the South Hill Cemetery and see the nineteenth century tombstones sweep that hill like proud beacons from the past. Andy Stroble’s stone was there. On some of my errands I’d read the several sidewalk plaques which the local historical society had placed at the site of capital-era buildings, or instead of looking through the science books I’d survey the many Lincoln biographies at the library. Other times I’d notice mundane things like bridges across the town branch, remnants of concrete pedestals where filling stations had stood, broken sidewalks from previous years—one sidewalk was dated 1914 and contained the names of Vandalia’s mayor and aldermen–forms of local architecture, old signs for “Rail Road Crossing Two Tracks” and U.S. highways, and the remains of U.S. 40’s realignment across the river. Still other times, as I have written, Mom and Dad reminisced about the furniture stores, groceries, tobacconists, saloons, highway garages, coffin dealers, and jewelry stores that had operated downtown during the 1920’s and 30s. Anything old and well-used, anything preserved from the past interested me in a general, unfocused kind of way.

And I liked the old biblical maps and ragged religious books at our church and I liked the family cemetery and I liked Grandma’s house and her Pilcher family history and her old household items close at hand. All my acquaintances with history sentimentally converged. Eventually I went on to study theology, and perhaps I did so because I liked local history first: if this life is so filled with old, dear things, what must eternity be like? What is older, more dear and close than God himself?

Or, as Thoreau put it in another context, “Why has man rooted himself thus firmly in the earth but that he may rise in the same proportion into the heavens above?”


I became interested in genealogy late in 1969. During a unit on heredity a seventh-grade science instructor assigned us to trace our ancestors as far back as we could. Overjoyed to find a new hobby, I proudly began the assignment with myself—Paul Edward Stroble, Jr., born in Vandalia, Illinois on Wednesday, January 2, 1957 and not yet deceased (nothing right of the hyphen)–and added my parents, Paul and Mildred (Crawford) Stroble, and then my grandparents, Andy and Janie (Carson) Stroble and Joe and Grace (Pilcher) Crawford. With my parents’ help I added my great- grandparents (Grandma Grace knew of some other ancestors–her own grandparents—so for my original project I could go back as far as my maternal great-great-grandparents.

But the basic chart wasn’t enough; I did not have many lifedates. So I begged Dad to drive me to the Pilcher Cemetery and as he kept the motor running I trod through a light blanket of snow and carefully copied inscriptions into a little notebook purchased from the Ben Franklin. I also copied names and dates from stones in that smaller, unused graveyard. We returned to town and Dad drove me to his father’s grave. That may have been the first time I heard the story of how Grandpa died downtown. I copied Andy’s dates. Then Dad took me up the hill and showed me two graves I’d never seen before: his maternal grandparents, Mac and Alice Carson, who had died many years before my birth. Next to their graves was the 1909 stone for Dad’s young great-uncle. Dad told me that, while duck hunting in a boat, he had stumbled with the gun and it went off and killed him.

It was a sad and terrible story but I was a twelve year old boy and therefore enjoyed the horrific. I don’t remember what grade I received for the heredity assignment but the original reason for my work was soon forgotten. For the next five years, mostly during summer vacations, I pursued genealogy and discovered all I could about our family’s history.

It was a local hobby; I rarely left Fayette County. The generations of our families had been there for many years. My father’s side of the family was either difficult to trace or already researched. Dad was 44 when I was born, most of his uncles and aunts were deceased by the early 1960s, and so many of the generation’s stories had been lost. Not enough information remained to trace that line back to Bavaria. As for Grandma Janie’s side, I knew more. One branch had settled Fayette County in the 1830s while another settled Sangamon County, Illinois in the 1820s then came to Fayette County as well. My father’s uncle Roy Carson, a genealogy enthusiast for many years, had traced the descendents of the various branches and shared his material with me.

Then there was Mom’s side. Talking to Grandma Grace and consulting her 1891 county platbook and the old Fayette County histories, I was thrilled to learn for the first time that my maternal ancestors had all settled in the same general location— which, as I wrote before, was Four Mile Prairie and the old Vincennes Road (185). Ancestors who came from Virginia, southern Ohio, New England and Kentucky had arrived at the prairie during the first wave of local settlement in the 1820s and 1830s. The National Road terminated at Vandalia in those days, and some of the families came to the county via that highway.

With a commitment that pleases me today, I copied tombstone inscriptions, wrote to state historical libraries, and found census records. I gratefully accepted old pictures from relatives who knew I’d keep them safe and not (in one lady’s phrase) “take them out and burn them.” I found wills and probate records in the county courthouse. I watched the mail eagerly to see if a distant relative had sent me new information. I obtained family information from my cousins who good-naturedly tolerated my naïve enthusiasm to inquire of their age. From old county platbooks I found locations of ancestral properties and reread with eagerness the stories in the Pilcher history.

I no longer remember when I discovered particular genealogical tidbits. But I recall the sense of wonder and excitement as I built my “tree” with the names, stories, and in many cases the photographs of my ancestors. Too, I recall feeling a sense of reverence as I stood at particular tombstones which, I’d discovered, marked the graves of ancestors and when I realized that particular fields near 185 were sites of ancestral homesteads.

In addition to its locality I liked the difficulty, mystery, and lore of genealogy. People who trace families know that an entire branch of a family may be missing due to a name omitted from a will, an abraded tombstone, or the want of one more source. Sometimes a family may be so vast that tracing it becomes impossible. Grandma’s maternal grandfather was one of seventeen children and merely tracing his descendents by three wives look several summers. I heard family stories which could’ve been truth or lore, for instance, one relative told me an ancestral family was intermarried with the Cherokee tribe, but could no further information. According to family lore one Pilcher ancestor was first cousin to George Rogers Clark but we lacked the previous generation to know for sure. Unfortunately my research disproved the legend, and my claim to fame was fleeting.

But I learned more truth than legend. Inspired by the Pilcher history to dabble in genealogy, over the years Grandma had collected material for a Crawford family tree: clippings, photographs, letters, funeral parlor keepsakes, turn of the century obituaries; she owned a large quantity of cancelled checks, receipts, credit slips, and Sunday school announcements which her father-in-law, my great- grandfather John Crawford, had kept in a rolled oats box. Grandma even had a lock of hair from the head of John’s mother, who died in 1921. Grandma also had many old photographs of kinfolk—hilarious pictures in a way, since no one in the 1800s smiled at the camera. But she had never found time to do a Crawford history and seemed pleased I wanted to help. By the summer of 1971 we mutually resolved to compile the descendents of Paul and Susanna (Straub) Crawford, my great-great- great-grandparents. Susanna had been the widowed pioneer who settled Four Mile. Our plan was to write the history and then to place the material with each family branch to form a kind of family scrapbook.

She knew plenty of family stories, some of which she had already written down and some of which I recorded for her. For instance, in her tiny handwriting, she had written these words about John Crawford’s mother:

Caroline was the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, which carried significance in those days. She spoke tartly, and when asked why, when they had been so much apart of the area, didn’t they record some of the things that happened, she said, “We were too busy making a living to think about history!” She never kissed any of her family, because she felt that they should know she loved them without having to periodically show it…

At the time I thought that was terrible. Now I think, how like many of us; too brusque and too busy. Grandma knew that one great-great-great-uncle had married a young woman whose health was poor. He was known as a great whistler, Grandma said, and so once when he cut his foot badly, he did not want to shock his wife, so, bleeding badly, he entered his house whistling. She knew that our cousin, Lewis Crawford, for whom the local American Legion post was named, was a religious young man torn between enlistment in World War I and the care of his widowed mother. He saw his Brownstown friends go “over there” and felt that he should go too, and he died in France of influenza. She knew that my great-great-grandfather Andrew Crawford had been killed in 1880 at Four Mile by an overturned farm implement; a spooked horse threw him and the wheat drill’s lever struck him in the stomach. He died after a few days, for no doctors lived nearby. She knew all the family stories that I’d heard along Route 185: the field where Andrew had been killed; the places where my ancestors John Crawford and Jonathan K. Pilcher had lived. She knew that my great-great uncle Will Crawford had lived in the very same house all his life, and died in the very room in which he was born. She knew that a certain ancestor, John Mahon, was buried in a roadside graveyard beneath a plain rock, for he had wanted no more ostentatious a marker than had Jesus.

Family stories. I wrote them all down, enthralled.

We began to organize all the photos, clippings, funeral notices and other items according to families. Some of the oldest, locally-published obituaries of Crawford and Pilcher cousins were very quaint. Here are two.

It was in 1905, when Brother Wilson was telling anew the wonderful story of Jesus that Ruby said to her Mother; “I am going to give my life to the Master,” and stepping down from the platform she confessed Jesus and took Him as her life’s teacher…

A short time before he died he called the family, brothers and friends to him and said he was ready to go. “My advice to all is fear God. I want you all to meet me.” Then he offered a short prayer, saying “Dear Lord I have prayed thee thy will be done and this seems to be thy will. Pardon every sin I ever committed.” Then he sang a line and said goodbye to all…

I didn’t know what to think of such words. They seemed too fervent. But I loved to hold the old, brittle papers in my hand and look back, so to speak, into the past and to believe what the words said. Grandma read the same words and looked back to a time- a time we were now able to share–when such faith wouldn’t have been deemed “quaint.”

Grandma and I got closer during that time. We also talked politics, because the Vietnam War seemed to have no resolution and she deplored the fact that a Republican succeeded her beloved LBJ. Sometimes Mom drove us to Brownstown where we’d visit older relatives and gathered their stories. I discovered that many older people have remarkable memories Grandma Grace’s memory was clear to the end. I remember one afternoon in 1971 we were looking through the old Fayette County history.

“George Sandage!” she exclaimed excitedly.


“George Sandage! He was my father’s friend!”

I looked at the picture. The man, a prominent local person, had a long wavy beard and very clear eyes. The adjacent biography stated that he died in 1904. Grandma was fourteen that year. I’m sure, from how she talked, she’d never seen a picture of him since.


As it happened, I had many of our materials at my parents’ house when the fire happened—photos, clippings, the Pilcher family history, the 1891 platbook, even the lock of my ancestor’s hair. Having inadvertently saved the material from destruction, I knew I had to persevere with the project. Grief necessitated the pursuit of truth: I had to make something lasting from the work which Grandma had started.

The origin of the Crawfords was shrouded in enough mystery to keep me persevering. Susanna was a “Pennsylvania Dutch” woman from Lancaster Co., Pennsylvania; the Fayette County census indicated that she was born in 1809. According to Grandma, Paul Crawford had been killed by Indians in Ohio in the 1850s and Susanna had then emigrated to Fayette County. No one knew where he had died, though. Was it in a known location? Was it en route to Illinois? Was he buried somewhere or left for dead as his family escaped the attack in their wagon? No one knew. (The story is surely folklore: most Indians had been driven from Ohio by the 1850s.) Susanna and Paul had eight children, all of whom grew to adulthood and seven of whom settled at Four Mile along with Susanna. The other son was a Baptist minister in Central Illinois; I knew very little about him and did not expect to find leads. Susanna’s grave was entirely unknown. Grandma was sure it was in the Pilcher Cemetery but no one knew where or even when she had died. Family tradition said that she had “taken sick” at a church quilting and soon after died, but when? Why did no one erect a stone for her? (As one wag in our family said, who knew that church quiltings were so dangerous?) Searching public records proved futile.

But besides these mysteries the family was not difficult to trace. All the seven were buried in more or less continuous line in the meadow of the Pilcher Cemetery. One grave was unmarked but Grandma possessed the man’s obituary from a 1904 Vandalia paper. Thus with one visit to the graveyard I obtained the lifedates of most of the first Fayette County generation. From Grandma’s material I could pursue leads and know whom to contact for more recent information.

Some of the joys of adolescence attend my happy memories of genealogy. It was a time of my life when popularity, girls, rock music, and getting a tan ranked high among my priorities. Once licensed to drive I happily used my freedom to finish the research—including a search for “missing” relatives’ graves in local country graveyards—without having to be chauffeured around the county’s backroads. It is a minor thing, perhaps, but an essential aspect of my discovery of the pioneer generation was “filling up,” and I carried into my genealogical forays the smell of fanbelts and tires hanging from the ceiling of the local Mobil station, and the sight of the red Pegasus symbol, and the smell of “regular” upon my hands. Free, easy, and usually barefooted, I set about the work. I liked to make my drives in the morning when the heat hadn’t climbed high and the light was soft on the leaves. I liked blending the historical with the familiar as I passed highway sights I knew best: the oil wells, gas pumps, and New Deal trees along 40 and 185; the country churches, the fields which stretched toward timber, the country stores and farmhouses. At the cemetery I took notes of nearly-obliterated inscriptions—some too gone for even pencil rubbings to pick up. With my mind filled with Neil Diamond songs I took pictures of Four Mile places Grandma had showed me a few years before. I went hiking across tilled fields in search of gravestones or homestead sites and, in a reversal of my childhood whining, I was loathe to go home.

The work finally wound down. I had found many descendents of the original Fayette County branches when a distant relative in Utah wrote me. I hadn’t known him or heard about him. But he stated that Jacob Crawford, the son who did not settle at Four Mile, was his great-grandfather and that he had traced all of Jacob’s descendents but knew little about the families of the other seven Crawford children, His genealogical dilemma had been exactly opposite mine, and he and I turned out to be each other’s last, best lead. It was a windfall of spectacular proportions. Most exciting to me was that he knew about Paul Crawford’s ancestry and his lost grave. Paul had died in1849 and was buried in Waldo, Ohio beside his father, William. William himself was the son of a Scottish fanner named James who’d settled in central Ohio. Guided by my relative’s description of the place, I finally traveled to Waldo and found Paul’s blank, broken stone in the place beside William’s readable marker. It was so much more than I had ever had, and I was grateful to stand at their graves.

Yet one mystery remained unsolved. While driving Four Mile near Grandma’s farm I was always intrigued by the spread of thick roadside timber where Susanna Crawford had homesteaded. Her church still stood along 185 too. But I felt frustrated that I could never locate her grave at the old cemetery. I wanted to stand at her grave too.

After several months of note-taking, copying, and sitting in my hot, non-air-conditioned bedroom typing by the “hunt-and-pick” method, I completed the Crawford history.  Sunlight from the yard brightened my room as I typed and listened to my LPs. Later, I produced slick, gray photocopies for distribution to relatives. In the manner which Grandma and I envisioned it I also put all the Crawford memorabilia together into huge scrapbooks, which I have always kept close to our family’s agreed-upon fire exits.


Now I leaf through all these pictures and clippings the way some people leaf nostalgically through their high school yearbooks. The work validated an enjoyment of research and intellectual problems–and a willingness to spend my energies on something beneficial to others — which have never left me. But although relatives often write me for genealogical information, I haven’t pursued the hobby for many years. The following summer I went off to college and eventually graduate school and beyond.

My genealogical forays were, in one sense, an extension of my childhood games–my blissful setting-out into a world of my imagination, except, this time, based on real things past instead of make-believe–along with a poetic kind of outlook toward the land which I gained as an adolescent. But more than that: if, in my small town I gained my “first affections” thanks to felicitous space, and if my father’s work caused me to love movement through space, then in my genealogical forays I came to love space precisely through my pursuit of time—history-“on the road.”

And genealogy was, for me, a spatial rather than temporal thing. In genealogy one scarcely makes reference to concurrent national history; instead one speaks of branches, leads, paths, lines, dead-ends, and although I later became more historically conscious this informal, “spatial” imagery appealed to me greatly. It was as if each “branch” of my family had its own invisible but felt space, just like, as I might have associated it, a particular road on 185 had its own space, or a parcel of timbered land owned by a remote ancestor, or a room in Grandma’s beloved, destroyed house. I wanted to go to a distant destination as if to an apex of a two-lane road, but I could not, because the destination was the time of my forebearers and it had passed away, leaving me haunted by the rural geographies which we, my relatives and I, had shared.

To quote Thoreau again, “Both place and time were changed, and I dwelt nearer to those parts of the universe and to those eras in history which had most attracted me.”

But I still travel the region, allowing space and time and the sense of place to mingle in my mind. I remember one genealogical discovery, more for what I felt than what I found. A graveyard was shaded by tall trees. It was on the road to Grandma’s farm, a way which, I realized, had been transformed. I had a name and birthdate for a distant relative, but little else. One day I found her legible stone beneath a great oak. After I photographed the grave I walked around the yard and felt deeply moved by the plain landscape, the quiet sounds, and the memory of Grandma. Across the minimum of fence the field was yellow and unharvested; sunlight lay across it. The lonely sound of mourning doves drifted across the field. The sky and earth looked soft, like the pastoral scenes on Grandma’s Sunday school literature, symbolizing God’s tender care. To the north I could hear and see traffic on 1-70. An overall-clad farmer drove his tractor half on the shoulder and half on the two-lane and didn’t see me wave as he bumped along past shade trees and farmhouses. Thick timber grew, faded for the distance, upon the horizon as if planted by a long-ago gardener. Beneath the midwestern sky, I stood among the mossy antebellum stones, among the buried dead and, in a sense, among those pioneers who left their dead behind.

The country graveyard was surrounded by a field that stretched to timber west and east and to highways north and south. I knew a thousand sights along both roads. I knew the ancestral plat of this land, and the plat lay across us all. History seemed a warm embrace, like the green far-off timber. The distant passage of traffic sounded like time, indifferent and confusing yet at the same time comforting. I wanted to be, with all due humility, omniscient in just this respect: I wanted to know every story for each farm fronting every road, to know all fields and roads and stories, to know each poor soul like me who couldn’t tell any longer between the memories of a happy home, and the way there.



On this era, I enjoyed William Machester, The Glory and the Dream (Boston, 1974), especially chapters 31-33.  The two Thoreau quotations are from Walden, “Economy” and “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” See also the History of Fayette County, Illinois (Philadelphia, 1878), and Robert W. Ross, History of Fayette County (Chicago, 1910).

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