Here stares Eli Armstrong, brother to my grandfather, Paul Vox Armstrong. Everyone called my grandfather Vox. His first wife died in childbirth. The name on his first son's death certificate, and the census record of the day is spelled F-o-x. Vox Jr. is the only one of five sons born to my grandparents to have been named, probably because he lived long enough; he was the first of five males to die soon after, or during childbirth. My mother is one of the couple's ten daughters. Grandpa nicknamed her Ralph. My father called her Belle. I call her Mama, Ma, and Ma'am. Vox had eighteen children total; not all were "legitimate," but the three "others" were simply family. Uncle Raymond visited my grandmother long after Grandpa passed on. He was beautiful. A beautiful alcoholic who loved his sisters and his father's wife.
I'm particularly proud of what is known as "The Armstrong Community" in my hometown. Well, there's also one in the Peachtree Community. Armstrong Road runs through it. That community is the other half of the Armstrong. Kinfolk, all! Both communities were started by the descendants of ex-slaves, but the Peachtree folk settled among the Native Americans in the area. My Armstrong community is . . . Let's just say I believe ours was first; it's definitely the one everyone knows best. My Aunt Hazel Armstrong married Calvin Armstrong from Peachtree, so you can say we're still one and the same.
Grandpa Vox and his brothers believed in the power of landownership and education. What a message that was passed on from ex-slaves who survived and thrived. Grandpa was also an entrepreneur. Living up to his legacy takes endurance. The community school was a one room building--Moore School House, but my grandpa donated all the land for their church and the cemetery. A stranger is buried next to my father. I promised Mama I'd rent a back hoe and dig up whoever it is so she can be planted next to Daddy when her time comes. She laughs so heart the sound makes me believe I'll do it. They bury anyone and everyone who dies without a plot in the Armstrong Campground. Sandy Creek rises, and sometimes flood all around, but the bodies stay put. Grandpa's cousin was the preacher. I'm probably the only descendant who never sang in the choir. No one ever asked me to either.
Every time the church doors opened every Armstrong around was expected to be there, front and center. And they were. I broke that tradition every chance I got. The first five rows on the right side of the church were reserved for our immediate family. The first five pews to the left were for the overflow and other blood kin. I preferred to arrive late for Sunday services, hoping they'd run out of room. It never happened. People actually got up and gave us their seat!
My last visit to Armstrong Memorial CME Church was over seven years or so. Forgetting the rules, or just plain having never known the rites of funerals anyway, I sat on the left side of the church, the only person there for three blank rows of pews. Well, Uncle Calvin, a deacon sat in the middle of the second pew, but he was also a pall bearer. I was there for my aunt Pauline's funeral.
The old pastors used to baptize members in the creek that runs alongside the church. I was baptized in Killeen Texas. I came down with pneumonia the day after. It took years to live down the story that I was such a sinner the holy water almost took me out. Truth is, I learned years later, the devil was actually mold or mildew in the baptismal pool.
Sandy Creek runs the length of several counties. It simply has to! I just remembered that about the baptisms though! Aunt Pauline used to take us fishing along the banks that ran through our land, all the way down past the cemetery aka Campground. The water was crystal clear. We actually drank it! Cupping a hand and slurping away was one of coolest things I did there as a kid. We even drank water from the above-ground spring. Wow. We "toted" buckets of that cold water--water so cold it hurt your teeth--to Grandma's kitchen. My only fear was of being sucked down in the mud that surrounded that spring, because I was so skinny. Looking back I believe it was just another story meant to keep us safe. My life was filled with more don'ts than dos. Fear dominates the life of most African American children. Our parents have been taught they're somehow keeping us safe, but we're practically "don't-ed" to death. Aunt Pauline made me feel safer 'cause she promised that if I ever fell in, all she had to do to save me was cut one of the bamboo poles that grew nearby. She was strong enough to pull me to safety. She used to cut her own poles from that bamboo patch. She stored it in the old grain silo to dry before she outfitted it. My aunt promised me a pole of my own when I was old enough. It never happened. Sandy Creek was too polluted by the time I came of age.
Grandpa and his "white" kin
partners in crime had a still in the woods between their homes, and one night he got drunk, and tried to cross Sandy Creek. Grandma heard him hollering. She told Aunt Pauline--they called her Sister or Sis--"Sis, I hear your daddy hollering for help. Y'all go help him." So, Aunt Pauline and Aunt Emma got out of bed, dressed, took a pine knot torch, and headed for the creek. They dragged him out right where he'd fallen in. I heard that story every time we walked the creek, or when we sat around the old wood heater on cold nights, eating "parched" peanuts and drinking creek water from Mason jars and jelly glasses. I had the best time in the country with my kin folk down in the holler when Daddy was overseas; my siblings preferred the modern comforts of our home.
Still and all, A is for Armstrong. Recently I found a small stack of letters sent in response to my inquiries and/or requests for records from courthouses, genealogy societies, possible kin, the military, and even relatives of Eli's, and others I'd never met. I've kept each envelope that held reunion dues when I was in charge of bringing us together from around the globe. I enjoyed it. I'd spent decades away from the family, and knew so few of our extended family. Our family tree grew to be a forest decades ago! Those old envelopes often track people's moves, act as maps that trace their deep roots to home. I even found one of the last love letters my almost husband wrote to me. I actually feel differently about him now. As it turned out, he and I are related. Most of the families in the Armstrong Community and surrounding communities are related by blood and marriage.
I made this a few years back, with the idea of giving it to someone whose name begins with the letter A. It turned up recently. A once-over revealed why it might have hung around. The French bit has a role in my family's history too. I believed the Eli in the photo is the same Eli who brought home a French wife named Etoile. A simple letter cleared up many mistakes about the oft-married Romeo. There should be plaid in this story too. Like the A says, "It's all relative."
Each family has secrets and good stories worth telling. Some of ours show up in the light only DNA reveals. Most stories of ancestry have degrees of truth. Grandmother has an old trunk we're not allowed to open although she died long ago. It sets in her old bedroom, next to her cast iron bed, just the way she left it before she was taken to live with her second youngest and her husband in another county. I can only imagine the secrets, photographs, and history rotting away in darkness. Grandma Annie was a McDaniel, and all those McDaniels who claim me as kin aren't blood relatives. No one told me that. Blood's thicker 'n mud except when it comes to family after all. I had to discover those truths on my own. Grandmother's mother, Caroline died trying to become a mother. Grandma Annie's sister, Aunt Sister for short became a mid-wife, and birthed half the community. Wives died in childbirth at alarming rates back then; second wives became Mama to the whole tribe.
So. When you write . . . When you write your letters, leave parts of you all over the pages. Reveal your true honest to goodness self. Include pictures, newspaper clippings, family stories, obituaries, birth announcements. You never know who you'll end up talking to in the future. The only known photo of my grandpa Vox doesn't reveal his face. He's in shadow, but there's a lovely story to go with that includes a mysterious death set up to look like a suicide by baking soda and water melon! In the background is a stick fence, a short palmetto, and a black cast iron wash pot. Grandpa has on a striped shirt, what looks like dress pants, and his Prince Albert is in a can in his left shirt pocket. His hat hides his face especially well, but it is a nice hat. A fedora. Truth is, he looks more like my Grandpa Anderson; Mama and Grandma Annie say it's Vox. But then again, Mrs. Pickle declared the man in the big picture is Vox too, and they look nothing alike. So, please, write names on the backs of your photos before you slip them inside that envelope. There's no charge for it. There's no law against it either.
I was gonna go to Scotland someday, but there are way too many Armstrongs and McDonalds between me and the truth. Now that I'm an old soul sister I wonder if it's worth it. Then DNA blew my mind. It's taken me all the way back to the beginning. Slavery and immigration produced me. My family tree outgrew me, but the first leaves of my tree came in a letter. My "seeds"are harder to find, but those first leaves came by way of a business envelope and a letter written on a yellow legal pad. Billie Sue, the penner, told such a wonderful story of introduction to all the ancestors I'll never know. Imagine lifetimes in a letter. Then write on. Write for all you're worth.
P.S. Memories rush up to meet me now that I'm in the telling groove. I just remembered how we used to clean the church on a Saturday. My aunts, my sister, and I armed ourselves with brooms, dust rags, old newspapers, buckets, and vinegar, and we were off to clean the house of the Lord. And the pastor. And the congregation. It was much easier than cleaning our house the way Mama made us!
My aunts got to play the piano while dust settled. Aunt Annie still sings in her church choir. I only ever sang in our school choir. It was mandatory. I sang so low no one ever heard me. My favorite part of being a church maid was hanging out in the pastor's office. He had some of the best reading stuff for children. Maybe that was the second best part. I probably loved the way that church smelled even more. There was something pure and refreshing in every room. Right now I have to believe it was the smell of un-used air. Today there's carpet, warm wood everywhere, with lovely pews . . . and the same old piano those ex-slaves probably bought. One of the old pews sets on Grandma's porch to this day. The church gave her one out of respect, and to honor Grandpa Vox. News of freedom reached Texan in 1865.
Did I mention the old letter written to Grandma Annie, denying her Grandpa Vox's pension? There's a story about that too.