Living Through Stories

As the header of this Blog indicates, I intend to write about many things here. I might have plagiarized Moby Dick and titled it, “Call Me Ishmael,” the wanderer. That would fit. As a child I was moved often as my dad followed his trade in the lumber industry.

I love history, perhaps because all my life I have been so aware of my own. My father was a storyteller and his stories were those those of his own life and those of the lives of his parents and grandparents. In his stories the relatives who lived long ago were vividly alive, and listening as a small child I saw them as I assumed he did, the ages he portrayed them, living pretty much as I lived and dressed as I dressed.

I am the eldest child of a second marriage. My dad was 53 when I was born, my mother 20. He was born in 1888 and she in 1921. Yeah, that makes me old as dirt. It is what it is; get over it. I have seen firsthand many events and lived through the effects of others. Through my parents’ and grandparents’ eyes the experiences reach back to antebellum times.

Dad was also the eldest child of a second family. William–Billy–Stiles married the niece of his first wife, Rebecca, after she died. Rebecca left him with three boys, the youngest still a baby. Billy’s second wife, Jane Ellen Baker, was the daughter of Rebeca’s brother, Will Baker. Will was a Civil War veteran whose chest wound left him permanently weakened until he died of pneumnia at the age of 59.

The Bakers all were Unionists and wore the blue. The Bakers, like the Stileses, lived in the mountainous SE corner of Tennessee, Monroe County, in various small towns.

“At the outbreak of the war there seemed to be 3 sentiments in SE Tennessee,” Arthur Stiles wrote in his unpublished autobiography, “Union, Confederate, and a good many neutrals who could see no sense in fighting each other. Grandpa (William McConnell) Stiles was a neutral, as were several hundred others, and as the war raged back and forth these men were forced to hide out in the Smoky Mountains along the Tellico River where they waited out the war.

“I remember a tintype picture in our family collection of a commissioned officer in Federal uniform and, I was led to believe, the rank of captain, and Mother told us children the name but I have forgotten. It was either Baker or Smith, Grandma Baker’s maiden name.”

William McConnell’s son Leander—“Lee”—Stiles, however did wear the gray (whether of his own volition or conscripted I have no idea) and was injured. Lee Stiles survived many firefights, always refusing to take cover. His buddy constantly berated Lee for refusing cover until finally he prevailed, and in the next engagement Lee took cover behind a tree. The first time he stuck his head out to fire, a bullet plowed a deep furrow. The surgeons put in a silver plate which he wore until he died.

So a part of my personal history are stories like these transmitted to my dad by family he knew well, family who lived through the war and Reconstruction. William McConnell Stiles and his wife, Elizabeth (Eliza) Pack, both died in April 1880 during an influenza epidemic that swept their area, so my dad never knew either. Their stories came to him from Billy Stiles and Billy’s numerous brothers and sisters, including Lee.

All of this sounds so dreadfully long ago, especially to those young now. And I understand that. My dad lived quite a full life before his second family came along, and when he would talk about his experiences as a young man in his late teens and twenties his stories were always entertaining and the people real, but those times were so foreign to me, and so many events and innovations had happened in the meantime, that those were worlds I could picture only like the worlds I knew.

Earlier this week I mentioned to a granddaughter that during my career as a journalist I had interviewed Dave Brubeck. THE Dave Brubeck. “I’m sorry, Grandma, I don’t know who that is.” Well, EVERYBODY knows who Dave Brubeck was. But they don’t, and he died not so long ago, as famous then as he was much earlier. But most of her generation never heard his magical jazz.

© July 16, 2022 Notmae

‘ . . .It was the worst of years.’

Bleak Days

COVID-19 virus. Mutant C-19 viruses. Impossible vaccine hurdles. Isolation. Weather. Insurrection. Intolerance. Narcissism. Ineffective leadership. We’ve made it to mid-February. Of all the above the weather is most likely to be resolved first, but that is cold comfort right now with a continuous cover of snow that looks to be extended if forecasts prove correct. It is so easy to feel discouraged.

But I read, and reading places my own life in perspective. I’ve been thinking of Samuel Pepys’s Diary. I know I have a copy somewhere but could not find it, and online I found Phil Gyford’s site that uses the text from The Gutenberg Project, which makes available free online the text of out-of -copyright classic publications. Reader comments at the end of each day’s entry are enlightening.

I have read excerpts but never the entire work. I am hooked. Pepys diary begins in 1660 and records momentous times: the ending of the English Civil War; the failure of Richard Cromwell to form a stable government after the death of his father, Oliver; the Restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, claimant after his father Charles I was executed, ascending to the throne; the Second Pandemic of Bubonic Plague that began in the 1300s and returned periodically to kill anew; the Great London Fire.

It was a time of great instability. In Pepys’s social class people socialized with their friends (they TALKED with one another), they married, babies were born and people died of war wounds, of accidents, of disease and, the fortunate, of old age. In the lower economic classes people socialized with their friends (they TALKED with one another), they married, babies were born, and people died of war wounds, of accidents, of disease (an equal opportunity leveler but the poor were far more likely to be malnourished, overworked and suffer other privations that made them more susceptible) but the fortunate still died at advanced ages. Not so much has changed today, it seems, though the particulars are different.

Samuel is 26 when the diary begins, a civil servant under the patronage of Lord Montagu. His job in the Exchequer rests on the political survival of this aristocrat, and in this time nothing is certain. Terms for restoring Parliament, pardons for combatants, retention of titles and lands are being negotiated, everything is up in the air. Who’s in? Who’s out? Where to place your bets? Some who backed the wrong horse are being dispatched to the Tower for their sins.

The political state of affairs bears an uncanny resemblance to our own times. There is no telephone, no television, no internet to carry the news of the day so one depends on social contacts and a pint of wine at the local pub or a dinner with relatives and friends in one’s circle; Pepys’s circle was wide.

Early on, one of his friends is diagnosed with smallpox, another killer disease that ravaged the population, but finds herself instead the victim of a lesser pox and is soon back at cards again.

Before Covid-19 tests were widely and immediately available there were also missed diagnoses. It seems still true that the more things change the more they are the same.

© Feb. 17, 2021

Just a Glimpse of Summer

Digging for Clams

Newcomers to Pittsburgh are often unprepared for the number of gray days we experience. Likely the one area with most similar weather is the Northwest Coast–Washington and Oregon. We felt right at home there.

Late September found the Oregon coast bereft of users on a weekday save for the hardy few clam diggers hoping to fill a pail or so with the sea’s bounty. It was chilly, the sun cast over by deep clouds and the wind quite sharp. We strolled the rocky shores for some distance without encountering anyone. Oregon’s coast is publicly owned, so shore visitors have ample room to spread out but sandy beaches are few.

© 2022 Maburl Schober

A Winter Snowfall

Despite the cold there are some things I do love about winter.

I grew up in the deepest South: annual snowfall two inches every two years. A snowfall of one inch or less provokes a run on the supermarkets for eggs, bread, milk and toilet paper. Fear that these items will be depleted before the snow melts tomorrow prompts sometimes strange behaviors, and too many drivers assume the rules of the road are unchanged. That means good business for the body shops. But mostly there is appreciation for the rare beauty od a somewhat unusual event.

I live in Pittsburgh now, and though snow is no longer a rare event I still am awed on awakening to the softened landscape of a snowfall.

Unless I have been up unusually late the night before or am ill I am often awake around 5 am; I may have padded down to the kitchen even earlier and and found almost enough reflected light to navigate without turning on the overhead light. The light snowfall during the night laid a fresh coverlet, and the light it reflects back, even on the cloudiest nights, is amazing; it’s so easy to pick out all the details of my surroundings: the houses across the street, the lyre-shaped oak in the back yard, someone out for an early walk with a dog (the road crews already have made their passes on this school bus route). In the clear sky of the last full moon it was astounding, the pergola’s shadows sharp on the snow.

As I wait for the coffee to drip, through the bare trees I see the lights of the various houses all across the valley and on the hill behind me wink on as their occupants arise and light their ways inside, and I watch the lights of cars coming down the distant section of PA 910 about a mile away.

I share the woods behind my house with a variety of animals and in the morning’s snow I see their wanderings during the night: deer, squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, groundhogs. Sometimes a fox trots through the yard. And later in the morning the local flock of crows will be flitting from tree to tree and commenting on all the activities in their domain.

Biologists tell us that we are losing billions–that’s right, billions–of birds, insects and other fauna every year because of our own activities, and the possible consequences of this loss of diversity may be far more and far worse than we imagine.

As I pour my fresh coffee and take my cup to sit before the fire I think of this and hope we have not come too far down that road to make a course correction.