Unconventional Wisdom

The following appeared on the Genealogy Blog, owned by Leland Meitzler

(http://www.genealogyblog.com/) .   I do genealogy from time to time and got to know Leland as a friend.   I also have met the wonderful author Wendell Berry and read just about anything he writes.  Recently I saw a poem of Wendell’s that fit a genealogy page really well, so I wrote about it for the Genealogy Blog but have permission to use it here.

One of the dot com book companies sent me a small book of poems by my favorite author, Wendell Berry.* In one short poem Wendell described a Thomas Fiske method of doing genealogy that I thought was particularly useful. He wrote about his gratitude for his children and grandchildren and then said:

At our dinners together, the dead
Enter and pass among us
In living love and in memory.


And so the young are taught.


I showed the poem to my wife Evie, and tears came to her eyes as she thought of her pretty daughter Julie, who was killed by a drunk driver on the eve of her wedding some twenty years ago. We have often talked about Julie with the grandchildren around the dinner table.

In the author’s artful description, not only is ancestry passed on but also it is used to teach the young. I cannot write how many times my family meals were conducted this way, in which “the dead enter(ed) and pass(ed) among us” as someone told a story about a person from the past.

It is a good thing the dead don’t eat much, because many of these meals were conducted during the Great Depression or during WWII when food was scarce. But no matter how hungry I was, I always remembered the stories my parents or grandparents told. Now that my children are getting older they remind me that I told them stories as well.

I am forced to wonder how much damage I did by telling the “racier” stories about my two older brothers and me rather than the stories in which we helped someone or showed some kindness.

But that is water under the bridge. Having a long memory, I became the family genealogist and put my parents’ stories to good use. I hope my grandchildren will save those tales for their kids. All things considered, I managed to make the stories into learning experiences in which I passed on part of the American culture. Maybe the dead paused long enough to approve.

Of course they heard stories “in living love” because they were family and when I tell stories, family members always wear white hats – maybe hats with footprints on them or with holes through the crowns because we had our share of screwballs. But always they had white hats because they were the good guys.

I kind of forgot the other kind of stories.

*Berry, Wendell, Leavings. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2011, p.41

Easy for Some . . .

One of the interesting writers I have read recently, writes about murders in history with a keen insight and great sense of humor. Immediately, I was jealous of Keven McQueen (www.kevenmcqueen.com), who teaches English at a Kentucky university. His students are just plain lucky.

It was my brother who told me one of Keven’s books included a tale about our great-grandfather, the man who helped Confederate General John Hunt Morgan escape from Yankees in 1863. I did not know the story Keven told. It was news to me. But I never claimed to know all there was to know about my great-grandfather Pryor.

Keven was hard to find on the Internet, but once I had turned up enough rocks around his university, I stumbled across an email address for him– no doubt just for his students. So I wrote to Keven and asked if he had written about any of the murders I had written about. He soon responded. The answer was in the negative, so I had no reason to be jealous of him were not for the fact that Keven was a better writer than I.

I took out my irritable feelings toward Keven by saying that he was very hard to locate and that he needed a web site. I even offered to get more information so he could set up a site. He responded by saying that he had a friend who would put one together for him. And, by golly, he did!

So Keven has a nice web site and it has more personality than mine. Another strike against him.

The angst of writing not only includes the agony of punching keys on a computer while deciding whether you are using the correct verbal form of, say, preach. In the past tense is it “prought”? Maybe not. The angst of writing also involves reading other writers who say the same things you do, but they do it better.

Some writers such as Keven write easily, while others pound out each word with great difficulty. I used to say, and may have said it here, that the author Wendell Berry’s words are like feathers on a page while mine are like nails driven into an oak board—and bent over. On a scale that extends between Heaven and Hell, Keven is closer to Wendell than to me as a wordsmith. But I enjoy the warmer temperatures.