In 1899, just as the drama of the Americanfrontier was about to take its final curtain call, Esther Sarah Johnsonand her family packed their possessions into a covered wagon and crossedthe border of western Arkansas into Indian Territory. They settled nearWetumka, I.T. and began to farm, living in a tent until they could builda home. Esther’s mother did not survive the back-breaking work anddied when her daughter was only seven. Word came from Arkansas thatEsther’s grandparents wanted to raise her and although life in thehome of successful merchants would have been easier, Esther chose tostay with her family. As the curtain fell on this scene, a tiny girlstood on a crate next to a wood-burning stove, taking on hermother’s job of cooking for the family.
A few yearsearlier, in a seemingly unrelated scene, another drama unfolded in theIndian Territory. The Pearce brothers, in a feud over a horse, killed aman and were sent to Arkansas to be tried before Issac Parker, thenotorious hanging judge. Judge Parker had executed 170 men, more thanany other in American history. George and John Pearce were two of thelast he sentenced to death, but they fought for their lives and stagedan unsuccessful jail break, and so this crime ended with the Pearcebrothers swinging from the end of the executioner’srope.
These stories are merely two of the blocks in my familyquilt. Esther Sarah Johnson was my great-grandmother, and the Pearcebrothers were my grandfather’s great-uncles. As one of the newgeneration of family historians, I am fascinated by the stories of theangel and the outlaws. Dozens of other family members are almostas colorful. There is my great-grandfather, Walter Lee Smith, who passedas white his entire life, forsaking his Creek heritage to avoid thestigma of being a half-breed. Walter later became the husband of EstherJohnson. They owned a country store and once encountered Pretty BoyFloyd, a man federal agents called public enemy number one but whostruggling country folks thought of as a Dust Bowl Robin Hood.
Ispent a lot of time last summer interviewing older relatives to recordthe details of the lives of the preachers, teachers, farmers, andmerchants who were my ancestors. Saints and sinners, I love hearingtheir stories in order to piece together the colorful quilt of myfamily’s history.
My favorite family narratives,however, are the ghost stories of a more recent era. Just as I combinethese colorful patterns with the tales of life on the frontier, I havefound a most poignant connection between my two favorite ghost stories,learning how to deal with the fear and pain of saying good-bye.
The house was little more than a shanty, an eyesore adjoining mygrandparents’ pasture. The three who lived there were desperatelypoor and relieved their misery with liberal doses of alcohol. They wouldcall out in the Creek language with angry voices to any children whopassed. My mother was afraid of them. One afternoon their home caughtfire and burned to the ground, killing all three. It was their deathsthat made Mom even more afraid. She believed they were still there,haunting the ashes, and she was terrified to walk to school. Until shecrossed the highway and turned away from the ruins, she shook with fear.She did not tell anyone how she felt because she was ashamed, so sheburied her fear deep inside where it grew in the soil ofsecrecy.
Part of the ritual of walking to school was to stop atthe corner of the highway to check the mailbox. If there was mail, Momwas to turn and wave to Grandma, who would watch from the window. If thebox were empty, Mom was to simply walk away.
But she could not doit. When the box was empty, she would vigorously shake her head and thenwave anyway. She could not separate herself from my grandmother withoutwaving good-bye, especially since she was afraid of those ghosts whowere sure to be lurking, waiting to call out angry threats to a littlegirl walking alone.
My grandfather died two years ago, and I didnot get to say good-bye to him. His once alert mind, gentle wit, andvast knowledge of history, politics, and poetry were stolen byAlzheimer’s long before his body gave up. I could not grieve hispassing since the grandfather I had known and loved had already beengone for a long time.
Grandpa did return to my grandmother,though. She dreamed she saw him standing by their car, and she asked ifhe was going somewhere. He, who had lost the power to speak and to drivelong before his death, told her that he was going to the ballgame. Sheasked if he wanted her to drive him. He looked at her quizzically, shookhis head, and waved good-bye. Then his image faded. What kind cruelty!My grandmother was comforted by the image of her beloved as he had beenfor the majority of their 52-year romance, but how she wished the dreamcould have lasted just a moment longer.
Family is what mattersmost. My interviews revealed that family stories provide both a sense ofgenerational continuity and great wisdom. From the ghost stories, Ilearned that it is inevitable that life will bring partings, somefearful and others painful. Yet empowered by lessons from the lives ofthose who have gone before me, I will simply shake my head and wavegood-bye anyway.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.