Writing has become hard. I’m writing a book. I’m nervous because the stories seem to be expanding and expanding and expanding. This is tough for me because I spent years as a consultant. I excel under conditions that are 1) project definition, 2) project execution, 3) wrap up. This is driving me mad.
So, the book…
My dad grew up on a farm, the Pitman Brothers farm to be exact. My dad’s dad, Emery, and his brothers worked it until the 1990s. In their heyday, they were known for raising Black Angus cattle. They also planted crops, corn, oats, soybeans. Neither my dad, nor any of his siblings wanted to take on the farm. They moved into blue-collar jobs. None of the nearly 50 grand kids or great-grand kids were interested either. And so the future seems uncertain as my great-uncle, who currently lives in the house, approaches 90.
As a kid, I was at the farm at least once a week. I never spent much time in the barn, out in the fields or near the machinery. I understood that serious work, dangerous work was happening and that I should stay out of the way. So I spent most of my time there in the house with my grandma Verlee either reading or watching TV. Some days I would help her with the laundry. Though they had an electric dryer, she used one of the old wringer washers. She never let me put the clothes through the wringer, as she was terrified I’d crush my hand. I wanted nothing more than to put those clothes through that wringer.
My grandfather would come in from outside mid-morning and hold court with whoever happened to have popped in for a visit. An aunt or uncle here or there, or various cousins would be around to visit with grandpa. He drew people in. He had the most reassuring chuckle.
My grandfather could tell a story, usually about family or neighbors from years ago. Observations, funny tales, anything that would entertain or make you think. If I was there, I would guide the stories toward our ancestors. The ones who lived in that very same house, as many as 130 years ago.
I feel such a connection to those people, those ancestors. I believe the connection is so strong because I spent so much time in the house in which they lived. They walked where my feet walked. Their voices rang through the walls that enclosed me. I spent years in their house. That, and the way in which my grandfather made them come alive.
I should explain about the house. My understanding is that it was built sometime in the 1850s. I say that because the family began squatting on the land in 1836, which made them eligible to buy the land in 1841. I have copies of the land deeds that show that they did indeed buy the land in 1841, as well as another chunk in 1845. What usually occurred in those days is that the settlers would stake their claims and build log cabins on the land. My great-uncle Silvis remembered the original log cabin when he was a kid. It had been relegated to an outbuilding at that point. Silvis was born in 1903.
Once a claim was established and farming commenced, the settlers would need a few seasons or sometimes years to build wood frame houses. The farm had to be successful before a more civilized home could be built.
I’ve also got a picture of Pap sitting in a rocking chair in the front yard. Now Pap, as I’ve heard since I was a kid, was a bit of a son of a bitch. Having been accused of the same thing, I’m not put off when I hear this.
Pap was the first ancestor that I became a little obsessed with. Born Joseph Levi Pitman (or possibly Levi Joseph), he was smooth, mean and to the point. That was always my understanding of him. As a child, I began doing genealogical research because I wanted to know more about this guy right here.
I learned of his wife, Eliza Jones Pitman. Truth be told, she’s got the most interesting story of the whole bunch, but I didn’t know that at the time. I only learned that as an adult. She was a pioneer child, who was orphaned fairly young and brought the land into the Pitman family. She had siblings that took off on the Oregon trail. I’ve also been able to uncover that she had a strong love of reading.
Strangely enough, it was really the men that I was interested in as a child. I had grandmothers great-grandmothers and great-aunts doting on me constantly. I just assumed that I understood those women. I knew them. The old farmers were the ones that seemed foreign and larger-than-life.
After Pap, I focused on his son, Amos.
Amos and Carrie actually never spent much time on the farm, though I didn’t know that until I was an adult either. They lived on a farm close to Pap and Eliza. Amos first tried his hand at farming, and then opened a general store in a nearby town with a brother.
By 1910, he was living in Iowa, though by his death in 1914, he was back living near or on the family farm.
And then I delved into the life of, Amos’ oldest son Jesse.
Jesse was my dad’s grandfather, who took over the Pitman farm from Pap. I get the feeling he was a golden boy, the apple of Pap’s eye. He brought the farm into the 20th century, introducing tractors and other machinery. He died when my dad was three. Actually, he lived with my dad and his family, as at times a couple of generations would be living in the house simultaneously. That somehow makes the line feel tighter.
Jesse was 26 when Pap died. He knew him.
So all these lives intertwining and taking on the previous generation’s work (the farm) and improving upon it has always fascinated me. That said, I’ve never wanted a farm life for myself. I knew at a fairly young age that I was a city girl. I have a strong sense of curiosity. It’s my most defining characteristic. I need to be in a place big enough to house that curiosity. And so I left. I moved to Chicago and got a masters’ degree and became a journalist and then launched a marketing career. I converted to Judaism. I got married. I had two sons. Life is so different for me than my ancestors.
And yet, now that I’m knee-deep in middle age, my curiosity about them is stronger than ever. But the things I want to know now are coming from an adult’s mind, from adult experience. The women are much more fascinating to me now. The men seem less foreign and no longer larger-than-life. Don’t get me wrong, I still get the feeling that they knew something that I don’t. And that leads me to idealize them and keeps me up at night, wondering, wondering, wondering. I have a hunch that the idealization of them, however, says more about me and what I need and less about them. And I think this is a universal experience for those of us blessed to have genealogical information at our finger tips. The popularity of Ancestry.com and TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are? speaks to how many of us are fascinated with our families’ pasts.
And so that’s what my book is about. What is this middle-aged, modern, city-living, Jewish mom looking for from her pioneer/farm ancestors ? Why does one look to their ancestors for anything? What can we learn and what is the point once we’ve exhausted all the facts? I’ve spent more than a year researching my family and the times in which they lived. I’ve got the stories down. Now it’s time to lay them out in a way that entertains, puts forth some interesting questions and then answers them.
Now is when the hard part begins.