31 May 2011

Great Grandmothers

Her name was Violet Nancy Greene, and she was amazing 


For the grave of Moses Blanton Keats, Memorial Day 2011

27 May 2011

Pearl May Bartlett—An American Legacy

My great grandmother is one of the first people I found when I began doing genealogy when I was 15 or 16. My father, whose grandmother she was, lived down the street from the cemetery at Union Methodist Church where she was buried.

My father never knew his grandmother because she died before he was born. Added to that, he was raised in California and didn’t return to the East Coast with his family until high school. The only time I ever heard my father mention his grandparents was to tell me that their farmhouse wasn’t far from that cemetery, or where he was living at the time. He told me it had been demolished long ago. He also made mention that his grandfather was an abusive man, but if he knew anything of his grandmother he never mentioned it to me.

To me, Pearl May Bartlett was nothing more than a date on a tombstone—a name to gather on my way to someone or something more interesting. I don’t know that I could’ve seen her any other way at the time because I’d certainly never known her, and I needed to flame my budding interest with at least a smidgen of grandiose fantasy. I don’t know what I was hoping to find—royalty, renegades, or maybe some martyrs.

But who I found was ultimately much more satisfying. For me, reality usually ends up that way.

Her mother’s name is Emma McKenzie, daughter of James Peter McKenzie and Margaret McKenzie. James P. McKenzie was an interesting find, as are his siblings and family.

James was a soldier in the American Civil War. He enlisted as a Confederate on July 25, 1861 in Carrol County, Virginia. He joined the Virginia 29th Infantry Regiment, Company C on the same day as his brother, Ezra McKenzie. Ezra died on February 27, 1862 in a hospital in Abingdon, Virginia. He was 22 years old.

Their brother Aaron was 18 when he enlisted in the same Regiment and company as his brothers. By the time he died on July 18, 1865, he was only 20 years old. My family is full of veterans. We have representation in both World Wars, the Korean War, and the Civil War. I have reason to believe that we have representation in the Revolutionary War, but I haven’t documented it back that far. But seeing these young men, barely younger than I am, who had barely begun to live before they died for their country… that really hit me. Especially since they didn’t die on the winning side, or for the neat and tidy agenda of the Union.

The Civil War wasn’t about slavery to my ancestors. It was a war they fought about land. All of my ancestors were farmers, so they understood that as well as anyone. To them, having land was having a life and a future. Knowing that they fought to protect that land makes it so I can never condemn their cause.

James McKenzie was born to a man named George Washington McKenzie, son of Greenberry George McKenzie and Rebekah Blair. Greenberry McKenzie, according to this descendantwho has spent many years researching him, was appointed to committees over the elections of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. As a delegate to the Virginia General Assembly from Grayson County, he was involved in the oldest legislative body in the country.

Because that’s such an interesting claim, I wanted to make sure I could document it. Turning to Google Books, I was able to do so from this book, a composite of records from the Virginia State Library. This record verifies that Greenberry G. McKenzie was a delegate for Grayson County for the sessions of 1794, 1795, 1797/98, 1798/99, 1799/1800, 1804/1805, 1805/1806, and 1806/1807.

I love this discovery, and it solidifies in my mind what I’ve always said about my family. When I’m asked about my ancestry, I’ve never known what to say. Many times, I’ve simply stated that my mother and father’s family has been in this country so long, we’re nothing but American. Usually people look at me and say something to the effect of “No really, what are you?” or “Where did they come from before that?” As if being an American is somehow deficient when it comes to claiming a heritage.

To be honest with you, I don’t know where the lines go from here. Better family historians than me have tried to document Greenberry McKenzie, but the home in which his records were kept was destroyed in a fire. To this day, no one has yet discovered anything about his lineage. The best guess, based on the origins of his surname, is that he’s Scottish. But I maintain that his parentage wouldn’t make my family any less American. With so much of history tied to the history of this nation, I couldn’t claim to be anything else and be truthful to their lives as they’ve lived them.

At the onset of my discovery with Pearl May Bartlett, she was a name on a tombstone I knew nothing about. Now, hers is one of the richest stories I have to tell. In the end, I didn’t find royalty, renegades, or martyrs. I found something better—someone I was really searching for, and really hoped I would find.

20 May 2011


From the News: Civil War buffs enlist to publish records

I'll be spending some time in the near future expressing my thoughts on my relatives who served in the Civil War. It has been enlightening to do so because they all served in the Confederacy--a position that my grade school education didn't prepare me to understand. The state I live in is in the mid-Atlantic region, which means we're neither comfortably North or South. The viewpoint we were taught on the Civil War wasn't a grandiose Southern pride, or a staunch anti-slavery, pro-Union rhetoric against the heathen South. The situation wasn't as simple as that, and that was never so clear to me as when I realized that my fiance's ancestors fought for the Union side. Our families were enemies at one point, but were removed by enough states that they probably never knew each other.

Those stories have instilled a compassion in me that make for an interesting conflict to my loyalties. It's worth exploring though because like it or not, it's my history. I was born of the men and women who fought in that war, and my experiences have taught me that I can't just neatly label the Confederacy as "the Losing Side" and move on with my life. In that way, I'm grateful for my kinship.

To be challenged to see the good in a losing man's fight is pretty much the story of my family--men trying to stand up for what they believe in, even when they're wrong about many things. To see through their eyes is to understand their struggle. To understand their struggle is to re-write the history which is too neatly told about the Civil War.


Every Thanksgiving we would travel an hour downstate to visit my grandmother and my mother's side of the family. Every year it involved the same chaotic effort.

After getting up later than was reasonable and watching the parade as we took turns rushing in our tiny bathroom, our aim was to be in the car by noon. Not only was this a reasonable time to leave, it would also ensure that our one family tradition would be upheld.

Every year on Thanksgiving, one of the radio stations out of Baltimore plays the song Alice's Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie, which we would listen to on the drive down. It made the race against my sister's car sickness more entertaining. Even though I didn't follow the story very well until a certain age, I've long thought that the song was secretly about my Uncle David. 

To this day, I can recite long portions of this song, which I do in mixed company for those who've never heard it--true to the tradition as expressed in the song. I'm looking forward to handing down the tradition to my children, knowing full well that they'll enjoy it and do the same.


My grandmother's house has been a deeply important place to the current generations of my family. It has been the place of gathering for my aunts, uncles, cousins, my parents and sister. Spouses and significant others have joined us there for over a decade, some also leaving in divorce and death. But they were always welcome, which was understood by all. For a group of people with both loud and sensitive personalities, many hurts and wrongs would be put aside for the sake of our assembling together in my grandmother's home.

Looking back, I believe the success of that gathering has everything to do with my grandmother. All felt welcome because she was always welcoming. Even when death and divorce would remove some from our company, pictures lining the walls and rooms of her home preserve their memories. As new members come and celebrate holidays, birthdays, or even nothing in particular, their picture is taken and their memories join the others--never to be removed. If not on the walls, their photographs appear in albums in the drawers and on the shelves, but no one is ever forgotten.

 As one who has poured repeatedly over those glossy memories and tried to piece them together into a true story, I've thought about the woman who has taken care of them so well. My love for her deepened as I thought about the goodness of her heart, and how that has strengthened and unified our family. As the members of our family have grown older and their circumstances have changed, we don't gather together the way we did when I was young. I miss that very much, and I wonder now what will happen when she retires and moves away as she plans to do.

 I've given that some thought, and I've realized that my grandmother's kindness and generosity, the peace she lives by, is what invited her children to see her, and to treasure their relationships with her. As I grow older, I hope to offer the same thing to my children and grandchildren. It's the best way I know to have my grandmother's example come alive to them in ways they will never forget. For a woman worth remembering in a home I have always loved, it's the least I can do.

19 May 2011


at Shirley Keats' house, 2007


Years of family history research have taught me that a person's life doesn't rely only on a heartbeat for survival. When done properly, family trees are as vibrant and living as any tree in the ground. The ink on census records and in journals are whispers from the dust, waiting to be heard.

The voices in my history are dominantly from the American South, from Virginia and Tennessee. Some of them would fight in the Civil War--a few would live, but many would die. Most of them were farmers--marrying young with very little money, then spending a lifetime multiplying and replenishing the earth. Those who live long lives divide their land among their children, to begin the process again. Like the crops they live by, their story is one told in seasons of growth and plenty, devastation and loss.

Everything I am is because of who they were. As I strive to know them better, I believe that I am preparing to see them again. Eternal life wouldn't be heaven without them.
One branch, one page at a time, I gather them home...