"Roundheads and Ramblings"
Time to vent, just a little, as we move deeper into December and the holiday hoopla. A time to stop, take stock, and remember what’s important in this life, and what is not.
A case in point:
I have some old friends, some folks with whom I connected many years ago when we were all working as mere “go-furs” behind the scenes of a large philanthropic organization. It’s been the kind of friendship that goes for months or years without contact but renews easily and joyfully when events bring us back together for a day or two. They are the kind of friends with whom you go for a drink, or a quick sandwich, exchange views of family pictures, mention future plans, and then spin off on your separate trajectories.
In the last few years, one of these friends has hit the fast track to international prominence, by now serving in a jaw-dropping executive position that has him and his wife jet-setting around the world, hob-knobbing with others whose names I have only encountered in the newspapers. I miss our quick reunions but have rejoiced in his successes.
And now . . .
Would I be pleased to find a Christmas card from him and his wife among the others that have started to arrive? Of course I would. One of the blessings of the holiday season is that we take time to remember the people who have played an important part in our lives..
Would I understand if his multiple responsibilities made it physically impossible for them to send out personal greeting cards this year? Of course I would. It really never occurred to me to expect a greeting from them.
But there it was in my mailbox . . .
. . . Christmas-stamped, sealed, and hand-signed . .
. . . and addressed only to my husband . .
. . . who, as most of you know, died almost two years ago.
So what are you doing this holiday season? Whatever it is, I hope it will be personal, heartfelt, and meaningful. It’s time to move beyond doing what’s expected, going through the motions, knee-jerking your way through the tasks at hand. Better to send one sincere message to someone who changed your life than to send out 500 identical — and meaningless — cards.
About this time last year, I was writing about the beginning of the
twentieth century in my first rough draft of the third volume of the Grenville Trilogy.
One notable event of the period was the assassination of President William
McKinley in 1901. Naturally I had to stop and do some historical research.
McKinley was in his second term of office. On September 6th, he attended
a public reception at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY. A young
anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, shot him at close range. Czolgosz was an American
citizen, a steel worker, and the son of Polish immigrants. The shot was not
immediately fatal, but the president died of gangrene eight days later, and was
succeeded by his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt.
This year, as I read through the final page proofs of Yankee Daughters, I‘ve again been thinking about various current
events, and also wondering what my characters, who had also lived through the
assassination of Abraham Lincoln, would have thought about another act of
violence. But first, I needed to deal with creature comforts. It’s a cold, cloudy, damp morning, and although I know it's November, I'm not ready to
turn on the furnace and admit that winter is here. So I decided to switch on
the gas fireplace for an hour or two to take the chill off.
I walked into the
living room, as I've done thousands of times in the past twelve years. I
glanced at the mirror above the fireplace out of long habit. (Who doesn't sneak
a look when they pass a mirror once in a while—not my mother’s daughter,
Then it hit me. The mirror I was looking at once also reflected the image of
William McKinley. How did that happen? The story, once again, goes back to
those eight McCaskey sisters.
The McKinley family was from Canton, Ohio, which
you may only know as the location of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But for the
McCaskey girls, Canton was a tempting destination. It sits not far across the
state border from North Sewickley. It was a booming metropolis founded by a
bunch of wealthy steel magnates, while North Sewickley had remained a backwoods
settlement. It was where one went in search of fame and fortune,
apparently. One by one, most of the McCaskey girls found a way to move
Now we fast-forward to the nineteen forties. My mother had managed to marry the
boss, and for the first time in her entire life, she had money to spend. She
had left many of her friends behind, but there were always family members near
by. She was particularly close to her sister Florence's second daughter, Helen,
and the two of them enjoyed shopping sprees together.
had married a man who was related by another marriage to the McKinley family. (Helen’s
daughter Sharyn, my own cousin once removed, provided me with the hand-written family
documents that detailed the relationship.) Helen’s husband was a second-cousin-twice-removed
of ida McKinley, wife of President William McKinley. Since the McKinleys had only two daughters,
neither of whom survived past childhood, Ida's cousins were her only living
relatives. And that’s how Helen and my mother managed to wrangle tickets to the
auction where the McKinley mansion and its contents were being sold off.
Now my mother was one of the original "material
girls." Because she had grown up in great poverty, she valued THINGS. And
at that auction, she fell in love with an antique mirror. It's about four feet
square and surrounded by a frame of gilded (naturally! this was the Gilded Age)
plaster of Paris roses. So she bought it. I have no idea how much she paid for
it, or even how she managed to get the thing home. (Knowing my mother, I’d bet
she just batted her eyelashes at the nearest fellow with a truck.)
The mirror hung in the living room during my entire childhood. When my mother
died, I inherited it, and I entrusted it to a whole succession of Air
Force movers who shuffled us and our belongings back and forth across the
country. The plaster of Paris framework is cracked at all its weakest points,
but the cracks are clean and almost invisible unless you happen to grasp the
mirror at the wrong point -- in which case a rose will come off in your fingers
until you tuck it back in. The silvering on the back has held up remarkably
well. And here it still hangs, over a century old, providing a link between me
and a historical event I knew almost nothing about until last year.
My mother's niece's husband's second cousin (twice removed)’s husband.
. . Six degrees of separation, indeed.
On this Veteran's Day, I am headed off to a weekend meeting of a Lions organization, where my Vietnam veteran husband will be inducted into a Hall of Honor for those who have served the blind and sight-impaired in this four state area. For the past 75 years, the Mid-South Lions Sight and Hearing Service has been providing free vision and hearing treatments for those who cannot afford the help they need. Only nineteen other individuals have been so honored.
Mid-South was Floyd's second home. He served as a Vice President for Tennessee for four years and then as president of the organization. When his term was over, he went back to being a faithful and busy committee member and chairperson. He attended every meeting, worked on every fund-raiser, and donated as much as he could from his own pocket. When he was working out his own end-of-life arrangements, he asked that no one send flowers. He wanted such money to go to pay for surgeries to restore someone's sight.
So, yes, today is bittersweet. I wish he could have been here to receive this honor, although I suspect he might have asked that it go to someone else. That it happens on Veteran's Day Weekend is something of a coincidence, but maybe there are no such coincidences. The same need to serve others that took him into the Air Force also took him to Vietnam and then to a series of leadership roles among Tennessee Lions.
But let the occasion speak to you. Don't wait. Find that veteran who risked all and sacrificed more than you can know, and salute him for his service. Say thank you while you still can.
Today, November 7th, is an important date in the history of the Civil War, although many history books overlook its significance. On this date, the Great South Carolina Expeditionary Force achieved a quick victory at Port Royal Sound and made it possible for the Union Navy to enforce a blockade over the entire Atlantic coast of the Confederacy. The following excerpt from my "A Scratch with the Rebels" explains why the Battle of Port Royal was so vital.
Shortly after Fort Sumter fell, Lincoln had officially
declared a blockade of all states that had seceded and dispatched the Niagara to hold Charleston Harbor. Her arrival, to be
sure, had caused some initial consternation; on 9 May 1861, Miss Emma Holmes, a
Charleston resident, worried: "Old Abe has at last fulfilled his threats
of blockading us by sending the Niagara here.
...The Niagara is a splendid steam propeller, so
contrived that she can withdraw the wheel from the water & thus use either
steam or her sails at pleasure, and is probably the fastest ship in the U. S.
navy. It carries 12 guns, is manned by 600 men, and fully supplied with
provisions, implements & munitions of war. She has already warned off two
or three vessels . . ."
Concern soon gave way to nonchalance, however; within days
the Niagara was gone. The same resident wrote in
her diary for 18 May, "Since last Tuesday, the Niagara
has not been seen anywheres [sic] along our coast . . . So, the much talked of
blockade is at an end, not having done us any harm, but plenty to Old Abe . .
Blockading the South Carolina coast was no easy task. If the
North planned to maintain an effective blockade against the Confederate States,
their overriding need was for a safe southern harbor from which to operate. The
international understanding was that other countries would respect a blockade
only so long as it operated effectively. The English, in particular, had
questioned the validity of the Northern blockade, and understandably so, since
they were in large part dependent on southern cotton to keep their textile
mills in operation. English lawyers probed the clauses of the Union's Blockade
Act, pointing out that an absolute blockade had to be effective before it could
be legal. If some ships could penetrate the blockade, no foreign government was
bound to observe it. The withdrawal of blockading vessels for repairs or
supplies would be interpreted as abandonment of the effort; it was therefore
essential that Union ships have quick and easy access to a supply depot.
In late October, Harper's Weekly
speculated that there were only three southern harbors deep enough to let large
ships enter. Beaufort, South Carolina; Brunswick, Georgia; and Pensacola,
Florida were all possible destinations for the Expedition. Naval intelligence
had already focused on Port Royal, South Carolina, as one of the more important
southern harbors. From Port Royal, blockading vessels would be less than a
day's sail from such important Confederate ports as Charleston and Savannah. It
was further hoped that from a naval base at Port Royal, it would be possible to
take and hold these vital harbors. As Lieutenant Daniel Ammen, commander of the
Seneca, explained in his memoirs, a blockade from
within a harbor could be effective with only one ship. If the blockade had to
be maintained outside the range of coastal guns, it could take up to thirty
ships to achieve the same degree of effectiveness.
I've always had a soft spot in my heart for this anniversary. Several times I contrived to be in Hilton Head of this date so that I could look out over the water and imagine the Union fleet. But this year, the event takes on a special significance for me because my next book will involve the blockade and the attempts of Confederate blockade runners to break the Union control of the coast. Stay tuned!