Assembling The Pieces
A Quest for the Recovery of Heritage
Thanks so much for being here!
I have two excerpts from my memoir for you today. I Must Have Wandered: An Adopted Air Force Daughter Recalls is about my quest to recover the heritage I lost by severance and adoption. I’m fortunate that my search for a biological family was a success — I’ve connected with wonderful, loving kin. I do hope you’ll check out my memoir. I’ll continue to share pieces here, and plan to keep my work free until it is eventually archived. Thanks again!
Assembling the Pieces
“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” —Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
1. Wash Day
Nana was in charge of the laundry room, the unfinished side of the basement where her Maytag wringer washer was, for many years, stationed in front of two smooth, built-in concrete washtubs. “I won’t use that thing,” she said quietly of the new washing machine. She used the reliable Maytag, the one she’d owned since 1928 on the front porch of the Pennsylvania clapboard house she and Mike rented from the mining company. It ran on diesel. When Granddaddy trucked it to their most recent New York apartment, he wired an electric motor to it. It still needed to be lubricated, and Nana kept a flat enamel pan under it to catch oil drips. From the time I was four, the rhythm and hum of the motor, the soft clunk of the agitator, and the swish of suds interested me. “Here, make yourself useful,” Nana said, handing me a little muslin bag tied with white string, “to whiten the clothes.” I’d let it drop into the rinse tub on the left side and watch blue swirl against the cold water. She cautioned and showed me how to feed Granddaddy’s wet socks through the wringer and how to retrieve them on the other side. I released them to swim in the blue rinse. Nana and I sang as we worked. While she washed Granddaddy’s greasy work clothes, she sang in a plaintive voice one of the hard-luck songs from the Great Depression, the story of the drunken spouse and orphaned daughter.
Mother, oh why did you leave me alone? No one to comfort, no friends, and no home? Dark is the night when the storm rages wild God pity Bessie, the drunkard’s lone child…
Nana flipped off the motor switch and pulled the cord to the ceiling light bulb. She hoisted the bushel basket of wet clothes onto her left hip, and we climbed the concrete cellar steps. I remember her steady, determined footfalls on the steps to the roof of her Fifty-Eighth Street apartment. We crossed the grass in the sunshine to the metal pole that opened up and could twirl like an umbrella. I picked out clothespins from the hanger bag and held them up two at a time. Some were spring-hinged, and some reminded me of gingerbread men. She held one between her lips while pinning a shirttail to the line and then took it out to pin up the other tail. I imitated her. I liked the woodiness of the clothespins and their taste between my lips. Nana bent for a blouse, towel, or Granddaddy’s trousers, and then reached to fasten them to the revolving plastic lines, her motions a rhythm. Her housedress rippled in the sweet summer breeze, a world away from the Pennsylvania farm where she hung up her farm clothes and later her husband’s coal-dirty overalls.
3. Grove Farmstead
When I imagine my natural great-grandmother, Mary Henriette, she piles and twists her long, dark hair up high, ties a muslin apron behind her back, and pins its bib to the bodice of her ankle-length calico work dress. She is brown-eyed, strong, and tall, born in 1868 on a Greenville autumn day ninety-three years before my birth. Mary Lenderman leaves her father’s home at twenty-six to marry a neighbor, John Cox, who farms seventy acres of rich loam in a place called Grove, near the Fork Shoals of the Reedy River. In those post-Civil War days, as the second surviving daughter of a prominent Greenville farmer and soldier, Mary takes on the housekeeping and care of the little ones when her mother dies. Together, John and Mary have eleven children while she continues to care for a few of her youngest siblings. Among the brood is Frank Cox, my birth mother’s father.
Before sunlight stirs the little ones, Mary stokes the wood-burning range while John completes the morning chores with the boys. Children’s voices fill Mary’s day. Eva, Lizzie, and Leila help roll out dough for loaves and biscuits from wheat and corn ground in the Lenderman’s mill. Her summer kitchen is alive with the garden’s harvest. Glass jars filled with summer green beans, okra, corn kernels, peaches, plums, sweet corn, sweet peppers, tomatoes, jellies, and jams sparkle on her pantry shelves. On wash day, the boys build a wood fire a distance from the house and then haul water from the well to spill into two large tubs. One is set on the coals to boil; the other is for the rinse. Mary makes cake soap from lard and lye, and with her strong hands and arms, she scrubs the clothes on her wood and rippled glass washboard. Until she can modernize with soap powder and a wooden washing machine equipped with a mangle, she twists the heavy, wet clothes in her strong hands and plunges them into the tub of cold water. She twists them again and hangs them between two wooden poles to dry.
Thanks for reading Roots and Branches! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.