My sister Ellie was a year younger than me, and we were always together, in fact we were often mistaken for another set of twins. The real twins, Jackie and Carrie, were only four, so a lot of times Ellie and I would sneak away so we could play on our own.
After I washed off the dandelions and set them in a bowl in the refrigerator, I grabbed Ellie’s hand and dragged her out to the swing set, our big old Collie right on our heels. Mama was still at her knitting and the twins were playing at her feet with the baby. They barely noticed us.
“Something funny is going on,” was the first thing out of my mouth. Ellie hopped on one of the swings and gave me a funny look. (I was getting used to these funny looks by now.)
“You mean, like a mystery?” she asked. My eyes grew wide at this realization, and I nodded. Papa was always telling us mystery stories, and Mama always read us the Boxcar Children books. All of a sudden I got this big idea about turning into the kids from the books. We’d be detectives.
I got so caught up in this little idea that for a few moments I completely forgot to fill in Ellie. Before long she was waving her hand in my face. “What’s so funny that’s going on?”
“Aah!” I snapped back to reality, and hopped on a swing myself. “Well, it all began with….” And I related my story about grandmas and grandpas and Papa and his papa and ended with, “so we gotta figure out what they’re hiding.”
“But Papa said his papa died when he was really little. Maybe he just doesn’t want to talk about it.”
I stared at my shoes sailing over our big house as I swung up and up. Maybe Ellie was right. I didn’t know. I decided I’d give it a while and ask Mama about her parents later if Papa didn’t want to tell me about his.
Up until then, I looked at my parents as people who could do no wrong, and as people who knew absolutely everything. They’d always been good at telling us stories and reading us books and helping us with homework, but after that I felt like I couldn’t ask them any questions without them getting worried or upset. So after a while, I just stopped.
Ellie and I started spending an awful lot of time at Rachel’s house and at Libby’s house, too. I found out that Libby knew her grandparents, too. Both sides lived a couple hours away in southern Indiana, but they visited a lot, and there were even lots of pictures of them in Libby’s house.
I sure did like Libby’s house. She told me it was an old farm house that had been in their family for over one hundred years, and her family had farmed their land for a long, long time. I also found out that they used to own all the land that our neighborhood and our school were on, but that her great-grandpa had been forced to sell it because he needed the money. Now they just had a little bit of land left.
We started learning about Indiana history in fourth grade. We learned all about the Native Americans, and the pioneers, and everything. Libby brought in a bunch of old photos and even an old family quilt to share with the rest of our class about her pioneer ancestors. Rachel brought her grandma to school and she told the whole class about what
used to be like when she was a little girl. And I found myself once again
aching for my grandparents. Indianapolis
Then my teacher got an idea. We were all going to make family history books, complete with a family tree, so we could all learn about our family’s ties to Indiana history and why our family came here. Needless to say, I panicked.
She sent us home with a blank family tree for our parents to fill in, and a list of questions to ask them about our family history. Those things were due on Friday, and then we would start in on making our books next week.
I tried to talk to my teacher about how I didn’t know anything about my family, and how my father didn’t know his father, and I tried to come up with any excuse I could, but all my teacher could say was, “Well, now would be a great time to try to find out!” Now I was really panicky.
The whole way home on the bus I stared at the questions I was supposed to ask my parents. Their full names, their places of birth, their parents’ full names and their places of birth, their grandparents’ full names and their places of birth… pretty much everything that Papa had avoided telling me.
Ellie sat next to me on the bus. I showed her the book and all the questions, too. She gave me the same panicked look. Our young detective adventure had been quite awkward and consequently short-lived. We didn’t expect anything different this time around.
So I started in on my math homework first. That was never my strong suit, so Mama usually helped me. I inconspicuously laid the family tree book out next to my math textbook in hopes she might pick it up first and I wouldn’t have to make the first advance, something I was surely dreading.
For once I wished the teacher had assigned more math homework, because my fraction problems were done all too soon. I hesitantly drew the family tree book across the table.
“This is my social studies homework, Mama,” I said quietly. I saw Ellie’s head jerk up from across the table, then slowly shrink back down. “I need your help.”
“Oh, are you writing a story?” she asked, taking it. I watched her as she opened it up to the first page, where I was to list my biographical information. I had already filled it all out. “It’s all about you?” She turned the page slowly. “Oh.”
That “oh” got me right in the stomach.
“We’re doing a family tree project, Mama.”
“I see that.” The hesitant, worried voice was back, the one I hated so much.
I yanked the book away, and slammed it down on the table.
“I tried to tell the teacher you and Papa didn’t know anything – or didn’t want to tell me anything – but she said I had to ask anyway. I really, really, really didn’t want to.”
“Maddox.” There was my full name. I stopped. I could feel Ellie’s eyes boring holes into my head as I stared at Mama. “Maddox, I don’t know much, but I do know some. And I can tell you what I know.”
Ellie and I both gasped. Mama gave us both looks, and Ellie hunched right back over her homework. I scurried to open the book.
“What’s a maiden name, Mama? It asks for yours.”
Mama smiled a smile that lit up her face. This was turning out alright, I thought.
“A maiden name is my last name before I married Papa. My last name wasn’t Fox until we got married.”
“Oh. So what’s yours?”
“Well, you’re going to laugh, Maddie. My maiden name is Ashby.”
My eyes grew wide. “Like my middle name? Did you do that on purpose?”
“Yes, of course, Maddie,” she said smiling. I wrote down Mama’s full maiden name: Evelyn Ashby. So pretty, I thought. “Now what else do you need there on that paper?” she then asked, peering over at it.
“When and where were you born?”
The worried look.
“Now, that’s a question you ought never to ask a lady,” said Mama, quickly laughing to cover up the look. “I was born in
. But I’m not tellin’ you
when,” she said with a wink. “My birthday is October 14. You knew that.” Holston,
I wrote all this down, then saw that my next questions were the ones that I dreaded the most. “So, now it’s asking for your parents’ names – and your mother’s maiden name, too.”
“Okay,” she said, taking a deep breath, and I thought I caught her glance around worriedly before she gave an answer. “My father’s name was Malcolm. M-a-l-c-o-l-m. Ashby, of course.” She waited while I wrote this down, then continued slowly. “And – you’re going to laugh again – my mother’s name was Caroline – yes, like your sister. And her maiden name was
Ellie’s head shot up again.
“Alright, miss. You’re never going to get your homework done. Into the other room you go.”
Ellie scowled, then picked up her books and drug her feet into the next room in protest. I turned to Mama.
? Like our neighbors?
Are we related to them?” Ames
A worried look shot across her face again, and I realized I had overstepped my bounds. This was going to be a territory I would have to tread very softly.
“No, dear, we are not related to them. It’s just a coincidence.”
“Do they know that’s your mother’s maiden name?”
There was the worried look again. But Mama pushed it away and smiled softly, then shook her head. “No. Now, what’s the next question?”
“When and where were your parents born?”
“Ah. Well, honey, I never really knew my parents so I don’t know the answers to those questions. I’m sorry.”
I nodded slowly. Something told me this wasn’t entirely true, but I didn’t push it.
“Now, I’m sure they need to know about your father’s side, too, yes?” she asked lightly, but her eyes looked nervous.
“Well, you know how it is painful for him to talk about his family, so I’ll go ahead and tell you about his side so you don’t need to ask him.”
So, I found out that Papa’s parents names were James and Eleanor Maddox Fox. For two people that really didn’t want to talk about their family much, they sure did want to remember their names. In just ten minutes I found out how Mama got my name, Ellie’s name, and Carrie’s name.
When I brought in my half-completed book the next day, my teacher looked somewhat skeptically on it. My tree did not go past my grandparents, and it had no dates. Then she moved past my desk to Libby’s, and completely gushed. Her tree went all the way back over two hundred years, and was complete with full names, dates and places of birth, even photos. In fact, as we all shared with each other, I realized that I was the only one whose tree didn’t got back at least three or four generations.
The teacher clapped her hands together and exclaimed, “What a rich heritage we all have. You should all be proud of where you came from.”
And I just wanted cover my face in my hands and shrink away.
It was getting on into autumn, and Mama was on us about helping her preserve the harvest from our garden. She had all us girls sitting down stringing beans and dried pumpkins while she seeded vegetables, canned her tomatoes and turned her currants into jam. She had me and Ellie running outside to mulch the herb boxes, picking most of the herbs to seed and then hanging the leaves from the ceiling of the screened porch while she carefully transplanted the rosemary into pots to bring inside for the winter. Before we knew it, our screened porch and kitchen were quite full of hanging herbs and colorful draperies of beans, peppers, and pumpkins, and our pantry shelves were filled to the edges with canned vegetables and preserves. Once this was done, Mama would start carving out her gourds into dippers and bowls and containers for the vegetable seeds while she had us grinding what seemed like hundreds of dried ears of corn into cornmeal and then bagging them for the pantry so we could have cornbread and johnnycakes throughout the winter. I remembered doing this every autumn, but this time I started to wonder why Mama didn’t just go to the supermarket like other mothers to buy these things during the winter. It sure would be a lot easier, and we’d have more time to play. But of course I didn’t ask, because then she’d probably get that worried look again.
Even though I really wasn’t too fond of my teacher that year, I’d always liked school. I was starting to get pretty excited because we had a field trip coming up. Apparently it’s quite a tradition for every fourth grader in central
to go visit Conner
Prairie, this living history museum. I’d never heard of it, so I was rather
intrigued. But again, I started to feel a little behind when I found out that
several of my classmates had already been there “like a million times” with
their families. Indiana
As soon as I stepped off the school bus on the crisp autumn morning when we visited, I caught a whiff of smoke that sent my head spinning. It smelled so familiar, so close, but I didn’t know when I’d ever smelled anything like that. I shook it off, and followed the mass of fourth graders through the door.
We got a small tour and introduction in the big air-conditioned building, and I’d almost forgotten about the smoke smell until we headed outside again towards
, the main part of the museum, a
little pioneer town set in 1836. And it hit me again. Prairie Town
I walked through the place in a daze. Some of the kids were dragging their feet, complaining just how “bo-ring” it all was (“stupid history”) – other kids, like Libby, were bouncing from place to place, squealing over the animals, pointing out the neat old fences, and dragging me along. But my stomach was in knots. It was like the worst déjà vu somebody could ever, ever have. But I couldn’t place it. Was it something out of a dream? Why was everything so familiar?
And then we walked into this little house, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. A nice woman greeted us, and said she was preparing everything from her garden to get ready for winter. She was sitting in a small corner chair stringing beans while her daughter stood at the little table in the middle of the cabin seeding her herbs. An iron pot was sitting in the middle of hearth, a stew bubbling merrily.
Libby turned and stared at me. “That’s just like what your mom does, Maddie,” she whispered.
“Oh, does your mother do this, dear?” asked the older woman in the corner. I furrowed my brow and nodded at her.
“Yes, ma’am. We – we have strings of beans and peppers and pumpkins all over our kitchen right now, too.”
The woman’s eyebrows rose. “Really? Well, your family is all set for winter, then.” She smiled, then set her beans down in a small basket beside her. “Would you all care to see my garden?” All the students around me nodded nervously, our teacher exclaimed an excited “yes!” and we followed her outside.
Another young woman was outside mulching herb boxes, doing exactly what Mama had had Ellie and I do. The woman from the cabin explained to us what she was doing, but I completely tuned her out. I already knew.
It was a memory. It wasn’t déjà vu, it was a memory. Scents always have that effect on people – getting them to remember things that they’d long since forgotten. This wood smoke smell was bringing up some old memory from some distant time or place. I sure didn’t know where, but I was sure that wherever it was, it was somewhere Mama didn’t want me to know about.
Thoughts? Theories? I'd love nothing more than to hear your feedback. If you don't have a gmail account, you can always post to facebook! Thanks :)