Crossroads, Corinth, Mississippi / Gerry Wilson

Last spring, I attended a family reunion, a gathering of distant cousins who were mostly strangers, all linked to my great-great-grandfather who settled in middle Tennessee in the early 1800s. We cousins are a diverse group–all ages, many different professions, some with strong genealogy interests and knowledge and some, like me, more or less novices. I am an only child. Until the last few years, when these cousins surfaced, I’d felt isolated and wished for a big, extended family. Now I have one. We swapped a lot of stories that day.

For the reunion, my husband and I stayed in Corinth, Mississippi, the nearest town of any size to Selmer, Tennessee, where my father’s family roots are.  We visited the Civil War Museum in Corinth, a museum that doesn’t glorify the war but portrays its heartbreak and deprivation. We also discovered the little railroad museum built beside the tracks that, as in so many little towns, run right through the heart of things.

The rails in the photograph mark where the east-west and north-south railroads crossed–a significant crossroads for both North and South, thus the battles nearby for the control of that area. Those railroads and the nearby Tennessee River were major conduits for goods and soldiers.

At the war’s end, my great-grandfather reached a crossroads of his own. His oldest son had been killed at the Battle of Corinth. (My father was named for that soldier.) A younger son was arrested for passing himself off as a Confederate soldier and commandeering a horse and a mule. My great-grandfather posted bond for him, using his land as collateral, and when his son failed to show up in court at the appointed time, my great-grandfather went on the run, too, taking his family, including the wayward son, with him.

I imagine him rushing into the house, the door banging shut behind him, telling his wife to hurry, throwing things into the wagon–a feather bed, a chicken crate, pots and pans, maybe my great-grandmother’s travel trunk she refused to part with–settling in the children, and setting off into the night. Leaving much behind: house, land, family, friends, debts, a dead son. They moved to Mississippi, and that’s where they stayed. My grandfather, the youngest child, was six years old.

Colorful stuff, this. The stuff of story.

Think about your parents’ or grandparents’ crossroads. Whose choices have shaped your life?

The Letter that Crisscrossed the World

Now and then, I go through boxes of family letters and photos out of guilt, if nothing else, because I’ve never organized them properly. So much history will disappear if I don’t do something, but the task is daunting.

Papaw’s Letter, front

The Letter

The envelope above, crisscrossed with post office cancellations, forwards, dates, and addresses, caught my eye the other day. It tells the story of a letter that followed my grandfather to France and back during the last months of World War I and after. It was not written by my grandmother.

My grandmother always told me that she and my grandfather met at an ice cream social on a Sunday afternoon. She was “engaged” to another young man at the time, but my grandfather came along that day in his doughboy uniform, and when she saw him across the room, she knew. He shipped out for France soon after. I have only empty envelopes addressed to him in my grandmother’s hand; I don’t know what happened to those letters. I do know that his ship, the Agamemnon, arrived back in New York Harbor on March 11, 1919, and they were married May 24, 1919. A two-month courtship!

Emma’s Letter, page 1

One Story, Many Versions

Back to the letter: the writer’s name was Emma Rudolph of Long Island, New York.  Apparently, it was customary for New York families to befriend soldiers caught in the limbo of shipping out or returning home. What must that have been like–a twenty-seven year old man from rural Mississippi in the big city for a few days before he went off to war! He was handsome, blue eyes, blond hair, tall. And from the tone of the letter, I believe Emma was smitten.

I had always believed my grandfather stayed with her family after he returned, but that turns out not to be true. He had met Emma Rudolph before he left for France. In her letter dated November 11, 1918–Armistice Day!–she wrote about celebration in the streets of NYC. “New York is alive,” she wrote. “Our place is closed up for the day. Hurrah for peace . . .” And then she penned these words:

“Write to me, won’t you?”

Her letter went to his APO address and on to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, where he had trained, arriving there March 22, 1919–the same month he arrived back in the States—then on to France, postmarked there [date unclear] Avril 1919. It came back to the States and was forwarded, finally, to “Springfield,” Mississippi. My grandfather’s little community was Springville, not Springfield. The date of its arrival in Springville is illegible. (You’re welcome to turn your computer upside down and try to read it!) Were he and my grandmother married by the time he got that letter? Did he ever write to Emma? Did she ever know he was safe, or that her little letter had followed him across the Atlantic and back? (The photos here are a bit larger than its actual size.)

Papaw’s Letter, back

What If?

So many what if’s–the makings of a good story. What if he had fallen in love with Emma of Long Island, New York? What if the letter had reached him and he had stopped off to see her on his way home? What happened to her? She says in her letter that she hasn’t heard anything from him since he went away, but the letter has a pleading tone: “If when you come back you are in a camp near enough to come and see me, you are welcome.”

Strange turns of fate, that bring us, and our stories, into being!

Letters–never sent or gone astray–play an important role in my WIP, Spirit Lamp, a work of historical fiction set during World War I. Thank you, Emma Rudolph, whoever you were. And thanks to my maternal grandparents, too. If you hadn’t gotten together . . .

Have family artifacts or stories informed your writing? If so, how? Tell me about it!