What are your memories growing up?
Mom and Dad, dating in New York City, circa 1949
Having just turned the ripe age of 72, I arrived at the point in life when younger folks-and now it seems there are far more younger than me anymore-ask me what the bygone days used to be like? And, likewise, when I reflect back on the bygone days, I realize why I love history as I do. And, why I create stories of rural, time-lost towns with quirky, fun-loving characters. Mind you, it doesn’t seem that long ago when I sat and listened to my parents and grandparents talks about their bygone days.
My recent quest to discover my family’s ancestry opened up even more bygone days dating back into 19th-Century and even earlier on my father’s side of the family tree.
Otherwise, on my mother’s side only my great grandmother Lucinda Brightman-King came from rugged pioneer stock dating back to colonial days. My mother’s grandparents otherwise were immigrants from Ireland when the world celebrated the 20th-Century’ ‘s birth. I can only imagine their arrival in America as teenagers looking for a better life. William Michael King became a railroad engineer and followed the burgeoning rail system in the early 1900s where he found his wife in Arkansas. He brought her and her family to Manhattan. My mother’s other grandfather, James Fogarty, arrived in Philadelphia and found his estranged mother in Manhattan. He found work on the docks and rose in the ranks of the longshoreman union. Both greatgrandparents on my wother’s side raised big families and as my grandmother would often say, “Whenever you’re in New York City and need help, find a policeman and tell them you’re a Fogarty.”
On my father’s side of the family tree, I knew little about the family before World War 2. I knew my father and his brother spent a couple of years on their Uncle Kerry’s farm in Snellville during the Depression. He used to drive the family to visit years later when we lived in College Park. There I have fading memories of his grandmother, Mattie Brown. She’d be in her rocker on the front porch with her snuff can within easy reach whenever we visited. To this day the smell of snuff takes back to those visits. It wasn’t until my father passed fifteen years ago did I learn more about his family’s history, and before my mother passed earlier this year, she helped with what she knew. The rest I found digging into my ancestry. My father’s father, Poppa Brown, evidently decided farming was not for him. As a young teenager he became a tile layer and made a living during Atlanta’s boom years in the 1920s where he met my grandmother. The Depression struck them hard and they split their children up among family members-ergo my father and his brother were sent to Snellville. Just before World War II broke out my grandfather landed a job as a tile layer in Miami, built a modest house on 95th Street, and reunited the family there. By the early 1960s, my father moved us from Atlanta to Miami. He made sure his sons went onto college. In fact, my father, the eldest of four brothers and a sister, attended University of Florida right after a brief stint in the Navy at the end of 1945. He broke his neck playing football and eventually dropped out of school, but his three brothers followed him to Gainesville and became All-Americans and graduated. Don’t feel sorry for my father, he went on to be pioneer in the air cargo business and founded a successful business.
As for even older bygone days, my search into my father’s family tree revealed the Battle of Atlanta in 1864 changed the family’s trajectory. Prior to the 1860s, the Brown family were landowners, not just farmers, but like moat all the landowners in Georgia, they became subsistence farmers and sharecroppers, which is likely why my grandfather chose to trade the plow for a trowel as a tile layer. But, I am proud to learn the Brown ancestry entered Georgia from South Carolina in the early 1830s, and have connections back to Colonial Virginia-a common route of early settlers in America. Only my wife’s side of the family has deeper New England and Pennsylvania colonial roots.
I digress a moment to ponder how my “Georgia Cracker” father and very Yankee mother from New Jersey ever got together, but that’s a tale for another time. It is sufficient to say that after my brother and me were born and being raised in College Park during the 1950s, my mother caused a stir in our neighborhood. My mother and father both worked and we were raised during the day by Maddie, our maid, as she was referred to in those days. We received more love and scoldings from her in our formative adolescence. But, long before Kathryn Stockett wrote “The Help”, my mother shocked her neighbors by sharing coffee and tea with Maddie in our kitchen when she got home. My mother saw anything wrong with being sociable and treated Maddie with respect. Even when we moved to Florida, my mother’s broad-minded upbringing followed with the other maids she hired to watch our growing family. I think my mother actually liked the buzz she created among the neighbors. Again, that’s another story at a another time.
Four generations of Browns, circa 1976
Looking back, I have learned where my love for history, the bygone days, comes from. I also realize why the stories I write take the view they do. Yes, I yearn for much of the bygone days, but there are some parts of the past that can take a lesson from the present too. But then again, the present would not be able to teach those lessons without the impact the past had on us. We are a by-product of our pasts, whether we accept it or not.
Pop and Poppa snoozing with me, 1953
I recommend today’s post by Sean Dietrich, Sean of the South. It stirred my bygone reflections because in another couple of months my family is gathering in Destin for a solemn ceremony. My father’s remains have been waiting for my mother’s. They wanted their ashes taken out into the Gulf from their beloved Destin, where they spent many weeks in their later years. Of course, I think both my mother and father would have preferred the Destin of 30-40 years ago to what it has become today. Sean’s description will testify to that assumption.
Now you have a brief glimpse into why I write the books I have chosen to write.
Step back to bygone days of time-lost Shiloh while you are waiting for The Last Laird fo Sapelo!