I love teaching a workshop called Memoir to Fiction–one of the tricky things that happens when you are writing about your family is that you sometimes uncover truths that no one wants to talk about. Therefore, you turn it into fiction! In this way, you can change names, orchestrate events and smooth rough edges, or, do the opposite–imagine “what if.” Since very often we don’t actually know what happened, we have to imagine what could have happened. In the video below, I share some family photos and talk very briefly about the family secrets that led to my writing Annie Laura’s Triumph.
It’s a blistering hot day in August, 1898. Four months pregnant, my great grandmother, Minnie Clara Bertha Brock must find a way to survive. Her parents are dead, her land stolen. She has nothing, and no extended family to take her in. Only her parents emigrated with her from Germany.
She is not afraid of hard work. But farm work is hard to come by. No one wants to hire a pregnant woman. If she were a man, maybe.
This story might have ended in tragedy, and the baby my great-grandmother carried may not have made it were it not for two wonderful women, Mary Grantham Gilmore, and her daughter, Martha Ellen Gilmore. These strong women lived and farmed a land-grant in Washington County, Florida, secured by Mary.
They took my great-grandmother in, nursed her through her pregnancy, and took care of her when the baby, my grandmother, Esther Lee Corley Stewart, was newly born.
They had suffered their own tragedies, and knew what it was like to bring a fatherless child into rural northwest Florida in the late 1800s. Martha’s illegitimate child, Christopher, carried their last name, Gilmore, rather than his absentee father’s.
Last night, I was having dinner with a dear friend who has faced some pretty dark moments over the past couple of years. And yet, she looks beautiful—her face glows with peace. She made this comment, “the Lord brought me through a really bad time. Maybe I can use it to help others who are going through the same thing. Maybe I can give them hope.”
My grandmother, Esther Lee Corley Stewart, was more terrified of water than she was of lightning.
I found out why when her fear became my pre-adolescent shame.
One hot summer day when I was ten, a friend invited me to join her swim team. I couldn’t wait.
“Show me what you can do,” the coach said.
I jumped in the pool and swam my very best stroke down the length of the pool, just like my mother taught me.
I surfaced at the end to the sound of laughter, and the coach’s eyes, wide as saucers.
Imagine Phelps swimming the freestyle with his head held high above the water, like a puppy paddling for land. That’s how my mom taught me to swim.
My mom inherited her fear of the water from my grandmother. But in her inimitable style, my mother conquered her fear and learned to swim. Still, vestiges of her mother’s fear of being under the water modified her stroke, and by imitation, mine. We swam with our heads raised high.
“Why was Mommee scared of the water?” I asked my mother.
“When she was a little girl a man named Ben Ganey (who I later discovered was Mommee’s birth father) held her over a well and threatened to drop her in.”
“Who saved her?”
“I don’t know,” my mother said and turned to her weeds, pulling them with a new vigor.
The story haunted me.
Why would Ganey want to kill his own daughter? Wasn’t my grandmother adopted by Sarah Elizabeth and John Sebring Corley? Why was Ben Ganey even there?
I’ll never know the real answer to those questions, but in Annie Laura’s Triumph, I reimagine that scene.
On a hot, Florida afternoon a girl hangs suspended over a well, afraid she will never see daylight again.
My grandmother did not smile for pictures. I’m not sure why. She smiled at us, her grandchildren in real life, except for when there were thunderstorms. Then, she would purse her lips and herd us all into her cedar closet where we would wait out the lightning.
When I came across a picture with my grandmother sporting a Hollywood smile, I could hardly believe it. But there it was. My grandmother grinning, her arm slung around her best friend, Miss Ruth.
Miss Ruth and my grandmother raised their babies together. Miss Ruth was there when my grandmother lost her youngest son in an airplane crash in the 40s.
This picture of my grandmother’s lifelong friendship is hanging on the wall of my study. It makes me happy.
It reminds me of what I know. Friendship is vital.
“I want to come home, Mama,” his letter said. Dated April, 1916, this poignant letter from my grandfather to his bride, and the mother of their infant son, was not from the battlefield of World War I.
It was from a battlefield of a very different sort.
By the time my grandfather was two years old, he had lost both of his parents. A kindly aunt took him in, but she had many children of her own to feed. At nine, my grandfather had to quit school to make his own way in the world.
Because he was tall, and older than he looked, he took up work in the lumber camps. How long he stayed I don’t really know.
Peonage labor. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, hundreds of poor men—both black and white—worked in the lumber camps of North Florida and South Alabama. Lumber barons wanted the old growth forests clear cut—the money was good, and the more quickly the massive pines and oaks—many the diameter of a good sized car—the more money poured in.
The work was hard, and the labor pool was scarce. The heavily populated centers of the country were northern rather than southern. Therefore, an incentive to keep the workers was necessary– the workers were kept in virtual slavery. Bonded to their bosses by the money they “owed” for food, clothing and board, most were unable to leave.
I don’t know the circumstances of my grandfather’s lumber camp. He never wanted to speak about it.
In Annie Laura’s Triumph, James (the character based on my grandfather) does not show up for his wedding week. Annie Laura hunts him down, and finds him in a peonage labor camps, a virtual slave. Her quest is to free him and bring him home so that the child that was taken from her at birth—James’s fiancée — might have a chance at a happily ever after. It’s all fiction, of course.
I met my cousin, Sandy, nearly a decade ago. She has become my inspiration–the blood of our great-grandmother is strong in her. Sandy is good and kind, and she is relentless in her pursuit of the truth about our family.
She has searched out long-lost cousins for family reunions. There, family members are able to share stories passed down from their mothers and their mothers before them, stories that would be lost if not for the telling.
Annie Laura’s Triumph, takes place fifteen years after Minnie’s child was taken from her. Storytelling at one of those family reunions gave birth to my book.
One of my new-found elderly cousins was a very young girl when Minnie was alive. She remembered Minnie going to Panama City to meet with her lost daughter, my grandmother, Esther Lee Corley Stewart. My cousin couldn’t remember the year, nor anything else.
What happened at that meeting? My grandmother never shared.
My grandmother had a strange habit that embarrassed her children. She wrote on the inside of her closet walls. She filled the clean, white walls with words, then painted over them and wrote more.
The compulsion to write, to understand, to be remembered is the very heart of a writer. My grandmother’s silence, fueled by the shame of being an illegitimate child, closed a door on the truth that I will never be able to open. If I could go back in time, I would read the writing on those walls. All of it.
I hover around my grandmother’s closet door. I yearn for access. And as I hover, I, like my grandmother, scribble. The words I scribble are books, and this book, Annie Laura’s Triumph, is a book of my heart–my own truth about that secret meeting.
My new-found cousin, Sandy Moore, arrived at my house one sunny spring afternoon.
Sandy, relentless in her search for the truth about our family history, came across a query I had left on a genealogical website ten years before.
“Esther Lee Corley Stewart, born January 4 1899, Chipley Florida to unknown mother. Father: Benjamin Franklin Ganey. Any information about who her birth mother was would be greatly appreciated.”
“So how did you find me?” I asked Sandy.
She smiled. “That’s mother’s story.”
Her eighty-year old mother’s eyes filled with tears. “I used to sit in my English class at Bay High School and look at your mother and think, I wish I could tell her.”
“Tell her what?” I asked.
“That she was my first cousin. That our mothers were sisters.” The words she’d sworn not to utter decades before burst forth, rattling the windows of my world.
Clarence Thomas became a Supreme Court Justice.
Anita Hill didn’t allow this defeat to ruin her life, nor her career. She went on to become a distinguished Professor of Social Justice at Brandeis—one of the most prestigious universities in the country.
My great grandmother, Minnie Clara Bertha Brocksch Gilmore did not allow the shame that must have been heaped upon her head for a sin she did not commit keep her down. She went on to reclaim the land snatched from her by the corrupt sheriff of Chipley, and by the sweat of her brow and the fruit of that land, she raised seven healthy, happy children.
Two precious objects, passed from Minnie’s children, to grandchildren to great-grandchildren remain.
Minnie’s reading lamp, and the German Bible she read every night before she slept.
I heard Anita Hill interviewed yesterday. It has been twenty-five years since she and other women testified to the sexual harassment perpetrated by Clarence Thomas. Even after her testimony, Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court by George Bush in 1991.
Anita Hill, now a Professor of Social Policy, Law and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University sees hope in the changes in the law since those dark times. “Victims brave enough to come forward and speak of their abuse empower others who have been abused.”
One bright, hot summer day in the early twenties in Wausau, Florida, my great grandmother, Minnie Clara Brock Gilmore worked in her hard-won fields alongside her daughter, Viney.
At some point during that day, she paused.
Her words must have gone something like this. “There is something I need to tell you. I don’t want you telling anyone else, but someone needs to know.”
I’m sure Viney must have stopped dead in her hoeing or picking or whatever it was she was doing. Her mother’s tone must have been frightening.
What was it that she needed to know? Maybe she stood there and wished her mother would pick someone else to tell her secret to.
But she didn’t. Her mother chose Viney.
“When I was 22 years old, my mother died. Some say my father killed her, but I don’t think that’s what happened. Soon after her death, all of my father’s equipment for casting and making his cooking stoves, all of it was stolen. My father was so overcome with grief over the death of my mother and the loss of his livelihood that he went away and died.
Soon after he died, the county sheriff seized all of our property. I was forced to make my living working on someone else’s farm. My baby sister, Eva, was kidnapped away from me while I was out working. I never saw nor heard from her again. My sister, Annie, was adopted by a kindly woman.
The family I worked for had two sons. One was very kind and good. The other was not. He took advantage of me one day in the north field. My baby girl was taken from me soon after she was born. I grieved myself nearly to death. Your father found me and helped me, and we married and had all of you. Later I found out my first-born was living down in Southport with her adopted parents.
I tell you this so that one day you might meet your sister and love her for my sake.”