Tag: family history (Page 2 of 2)

76: When Bandits Come to Call

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My grandparents were held hostage in their own home for two days and one night in May 1933. The bandits put on clothes that didn’t belong to them. They stole Granddaddy’s guns to add to their own formidable collection. They drank the prohibited whiskey they brought with them, imbibing till the bottles ran dry.

I wonder about so much. Oh, I have the facts – the basic facts, anyway. I can tell you the robbers’ names. Thanks to Mrs. Sarah Rivers (daughter of Mr. B. D. Adams who was sheriff at the time), I can tell you what they looked like and things they said. I can tell you when and where they were sentenced. I can show you in Mr. B. D. Adams’ own handwriting when they were brought to the Fayette County jail and when they were transferred to the Men’s State Prison Farm in Milledgeville, GA. I can even tell you how much money the bandits got and why they didn’t get more. But I wonder so many other things that I’ll never find answers for in the old newspapers or log books.

I wonder, for example, how this one event shaped me into the woman I am today. Sure, my daddy was only five years old, but I still just Know in that way that defies evidentiary proof that it helped make me the Jeanne who writes before you.

And Grandmother . . . how did it change her? She had just given birth to my Uncle Gene. Did she look to Granddaddy to do something to make the bad men go away? Did she expect him to take care of the situation, and how did she feel about him through the rest of their lives that he couldn’t do anything but let it all play out? Did that make him less of a man in her eyes? Was she disappointed? Embarrassed? Did she feel let down? Did Grandmother feel she could never rely on him ever again? Did she feel that the white horse rode right out from under her chosen knight, leaving him on the ground with his shining armor scattered in bits and pieces all around him? Or did she love him more than she ever imagined possible?

And what about Granddaddy? Did he hover in fear? Did he try to reason with the bandits? Did he challenge them in any way? How did he handle being helpless? Did he pray? Did he make deals with his God? Did he fantasize about taking one of the guns and annihilating every last one of the bandits, bringing the ordeal over much, much sooner than it actually played out? Did he know hate for the first time? Did he reassure Grandmother and if so, how – what did he say, what did he do that she found reassuring? How did he reassure himself with these trespassers in his home, holding guns to his five year old’s head? What went through his mind when they eventually kidnapped him, leaving his family there under the watchful eyes of two of the bandits? Afterwards, how long did he torment himself by replaying it in his mind, grasping at ways to change the outcome?

How did this change the relationship between Grandmother and Granddaddy as the years rolled on? Did this weekend of terror and vulnerability bind them together in ways they never thought possible or was a wedge permanently embedded?

When he went back to work at the bank, did Granddaddy approach his work differently? Over the years, people who knew Granddaddy tell me the same things about him: There wasn’t a dishonest bone in his body. He helped a lot of people. He was a good man, a real good man. Many remembered how they had come to town and forgotten the checkbook. Rather than make the long trek back home and back to town again, they went to the bank to see Granddaddy who lent them money to buy groceries and the other necessities. “Sometimes he didn’t even make me shake his hand,” they tell me, “he just loaned me the money I needed saying, ‘I know you’ll pay it back next time you come to town.'”

How did Grandmother and Granddaddy trust anybody ever again?

They were victims, there’s no argument or doubt about that. My grandparents were victims. But here’s the thing: they didn’t remain victims. They stepped right back into their lives, though surely it wasn’t the same lives they’d been living on Friday, May 5, 1933 before they answered the knock at the door. How did they go on living? What’s the magic ingredient that kept them from holding onto that victim mentality the rest of their lives? Some people seem to find it so easy to spend their lives in the big, soft victim chair, never having to take responsibility for their own lives, never holding themselves (only others) accountable for what happens to them. It’s always somebody else’s fault. They just can’t watch a break. If it weren’t for bad luck, they’d have no luck at all. Grandmother and Granddaddy had an indisputable free pass to the victim’s chair, but they didn’t take it. Why? Where did they find the meddle to go on?

The more I settle in to write this book I’ve worked on my whole life, the more I see the enormity of it. And I don’t just mean in asking questions that do not come with answers in the back of the book, though that’s surely going to be A Test. This book is going to take me places I never imagined going . . . though perhaps I’ve always secretly wanted to.

Joint Custody


By the occasion of his first birthday after graduating from high school, Mother had saved enough money to buy Daddy an i.d. bracelet. After Daddy died, the bracelet wound up in my basket, and when my brother trekked off to Afghanistan, I tucked it in his backpack as a link to Home.


My brother (I call him J3) is home now, home to stay, and when I began to miss the bracelet, I proposed a joint custody agreement. Every year on Daddy’s birthday, we’ll get together, my brother and I, for supper and stories, and right about the time dessert would usually hit, we’ll swap the bracelet, having it in our possession for the next year.


Tonight, on Daddy’s birthday, I took possession. It is a good plan, if I do say so myself.

Calendar Schmalender


In the beginning, there were two grandmothers (his and mine), two mothers (also his and mine), and three Other Mothers (all mine. I think it’s a girl thing.) to honor and celebrate by way of food, flowers, gifts, cards, calls, and visits. Then one fine year, I had a baby on Mother’s Day, and I thought “Yay! Now that I’m a mother, I’ll be able to sleep in, have breakfast served to me in bed, get all kinds of goodies, and spend an entire day doing whatever I want when I want.” Wrong. There was now a daughter, two grandmothers, two mothers, and three Other Mothers to honor and celebrate.

As time rolled on, there was a daughter, one grandmother, two mothers, and three Other Mothers.

Then a daughter, two mothers, and three Other Mothers.

Then a daughter, two mothers, and one Other Mother.




And now: a daughter, one mother, and one Other Mother.

In a Velveteen Rabbit kind of way, what started out as balm for my I’m-worn-slap-out-and-who-needs-a-Mother’s-Day-for-herself-anyway soul has gradually become Real: I don’t ever want to guilt my children into obligatory public displays of affection for me on one particular day of the year, and I don’t want fancy, expensive gifts that I’ll just have to find a place for then dust. I lean towards gluttony – I want them to love me every day in a myriad of ordinary ways, and I’ll take cheap trinkets and baubles and handwritten notes that show they were thinking about me throughout the year.


When I gave birth to my daughter and 14 months later to my son, it was Mother’s Day, regardless of dates on the calendar. (And yes, I realize she is standing on the kitchen counter, unattended. I learned everything I know about child safety from my mother.)


Every time my son brought me a dandelion bouquet or my daughter brought me roses picked from her grandmother’s yard, it was Mother’s Day.


When my daughter insists I try on new makeup, it’s Mother’s Day.

When my son calls me just to check in or texts me the title of a movie he wants me to see so we can talk about it or emails me a link to an article or app he knows I’ll like, it’s Mother’s Day.

When my daughter asks if she can come up to the mountain top for a while or when my son calls to insist that I fly out for this particular arts festival he knows I’ll love: Mother’s Day.

When my children tell me it was not easy having me for a mother when they were in high school because I am creative and not at all like anybody else’s mom, it’s most definitely Mother’s Day.

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When my daughter-in-law gets on the phone to wish me a happy birthday, it’s Mother’s Day.


When my answering machine is filled with messages that my daughter and my Other Son Whit have scripted as part of the elaborate prank they orchestrated (instead of doing their homework): Mother’s Day.

When the son manages enough breath support to beg me “Stop, stop. I need a minute” then falls on the floor literally rolling in uncontrollable laughter, eventually composing himself enough to climb back in the chair to take his place beside me and says, “Okay, you can continue now” so we can finish reading Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby: Mother’s Day.

When my daughter saves a place for me down front and introduces me from the stage, when she thanks me publicly for my support, it’s Mother’s Day.

When my son asks me to help him weave a basket for a cub scout badge, and when my daughter picks out the fabric for the dress she wants me to make, and when we move to the farm and they invent elaborate games to entertain themselves – you betcha, it’s Mother’s Day.

When my children unabashedly introduce me to their friends and their friends become my friends, it’s Mother’s Day.


Both children and maybe even my daughter-in-law and Other Son will check in at some point today to bid me a Happy Mother’s Day, and I’ll be tickled to hear from them. But what I ache for, appreciate the most, and never tire of is hearing them tell me that I’m still a part of their lives wherever they may be and that they’ll always love me, regardless of who they may be sharing their lives with — hearing their laughter — hearing them use the familiar words and phrases that never fail to send us into gales of chortles — seeing their bright eyes — having them call to say “I’m coming for a visit.” — cupping their precious faces in my hands — swapping stories that all start with “Remember the time when . . . ” as we sit with a bowl full of photos in our laps — growing a strong, loving relationship with my daughter-in-law — feeling their arms around me or their hand wrap around mine — hearing them purr when I scratch their backs — listening to the delights and angsts of their lives — having them ask me questions, even though my answers become increasingly thin and worn and run the risk of showing I’m not half as brilliant as they once though I was (oh those were the days) — watching them move through this world with grace and intelligence and compassion and creativity . . . I’ll put a flower behind my ear and raise a forkful of cake to that kind of Mother’s Day any ole’ day of the year.

[ :: ]

I’m feeling prolific today, which makes this the third post du jour in a day that has all the markings of being a 4+-post day, so scroll on down if you’re a mind to . . .

A Cloth Called Only Love Survives


My son Kipp married Marnie on May 24 of this year.
Their border collie / my granddog Otto, was the ring bearer.

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It was a beautiful time . . .


a fun time . . .


a hectic time. Chaos ruled. Feelings rose to the surface, and some were bruised. The weather threatened. The best laid plans crumbled. As is often the case, the big life moment party passed quickly while the bills and tiredness lingered long. Despite all that, I wanted to create a cloth to commemorate this once-in-a-lifetime event.

So . . .

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I transferred over 400 photos to fabric


then I stitched them to fabric used as tablecloths at the anti-rehearsal dinner The Engineer and I hosted the night before the wedding. The theme for that evening? Things That Hold Stuff Together Comma Vintage.


As a special surprise for that night-before dinner (I don’t think calling it dessert is too much of a stretch), I rewrote the lyrics to One Day More from Les Mis, and had members of the two immediate families gather and rehearse for one hour before performing it – complete with blocking and choreographed movements, I’ll have you know – as a flash mob at the end of the evening.


I’m guessing it’s because they were stunned, but getting only applause at the conclusion of our number, I took the microphone and, borrowing the words of my brother-in-law Donn, informed the audience that we were going to perform that song over and over and over again till we got the Rousing Standing Ovation we so richly deserved. We got it, baby. We got it right then.


Back to the cloth ::: using the flag (because what’s One Day More without a flag) as the core, I cobbled together other blocks of left-over tablecloth fabrics (and yes, those are the lyrice – my lyrics – also transferred to cloth and stitched to the flag),


then stitched the more than 400 photos I’d transferred to cloth (photos taken by me, by The Engineer, by my brother Jerry, my sister Jan, and by the bride and groom’s photographer),


and added embellishments like buttons and ribbons from corsages and centerpieces, along with handles from goodie bags and anything else stitchable.


I used only what I had on hand, you see,

and I made it work, even when things didn’t come together neatly and easily and wind up looking like they did in the image I had in mind when I started stitching.

As with most of my hymns of cloth, I did not attach a binding, instead leaving the edges unfinished and softly frayed, perhaps unraveling just a little bit here and there.

and I decided to not add a backing fabric, preferring to make visible the back side, the often unseen side, the side that bears the knots and seams that hold things together.


As I stitched along, the cloth got bigger and bigger and bigger – more than 131″ wide and I can’t even measure the height – eventually too big to see in its entirety. Too big to see all at once.




Having still more fabric left over – even after all the photos and flag and the small 9-patch pieces surrounding the flag – I created banners, each bearing what I consider to be a necessary component of a good, healthy, lasting marriage. (Love, Laughs, Mercy, Refuge, Fun, Awe, Space, Gumption, and Pluck) Banners that became pillars of support when I realized one morning in the dark thirty hours of stitching that I wasn’t just stitching a cloth to commemorate the wedding, I was stitching a marriage.


And what of all the pings and chaos and disappointments?
They slowly, quietly fall away in the days since last May, so that Only Love Survives.


Only. Love. Survives.

featuring phone pranks that don’t involve prince albert in a can

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at the backdoor in grandmother’s kitchen, L to R: Grandmother Ballard, me (Jeanne Hewell-Chambers) holding my daughter Alison Chambers, Kipp Chambers (my son) being held by my mother/his grandmother Ada B Hewell

she was known for many things, but humor was not one of them. to my knowledge, nobody ever used the word “funny” and my grandmother’s name in the same sentence. she did not abide nicknames, was not a prankster, and never told a joke, but there was something about new year’s day that turned my grandmother downright hilarious . . .


with breakfast out of the way, she settled her short, wiry frame onto the yellow pine telephone chair that was positioned under the wall-mounted telephone, pulled out the baby blue notebook from the cubby, unzipped it, and turned the pages in her handwritten telephone directory until she found the list she was looking for. she cleared her throat then dialed the black rotary phone, the clear plate making its familiar soft clicking sound as it registered the numbers in the order she dialed.

“hello?” answered the (often sleepy) (grandmother was an early riser) (and it was new year’s day, after all. think about that.) voice at the other end of the line.

grandmother sat up straighter. this was serious business, this call.

“is this 2-0-1-4?” she asked, not a hint of a smile in her voice.


“oh yes it is,” she said, barely hanging up the phone before erupting in laughter.

(and to think, she’s the one who delivered an emphatic and flat-out NO when i told her i wanted to be an actress. huh.)

[ ::: ]

where cousins wore necklaces, jeanne hewell-chambers wore a brownie camera. her grandmother spent summers preserving food to feed the family, and in her own way, jeanne carries on the tradition by preserving stories to feed and nourish the souls of generations now and later. if you’re ready to do the most important job of preserving stories from your life and your family, stay tuned ’cause jeanne is cooking up a little something special that just might help . . . and she hopes it will be ready by 2/14.

featuring a selfie, a memory (or 5), and a wish

being a stone turner of long standing,
i enjoy studying the back sides of art cloths
as much as i enjoy gazing at the front, more public, side . . .


i flip The Rinse Cycle 2 (a new series) over, and i see
i see every shade of blue
the sky has every worn.


i see knots.
some of friendships – unions – marriages – new beginnings
celebrations that bring us together in festival and gladness.
i see knots of hanging on – depression – despair.
i see knots as fists, landing blows in the shape of words
and i see the knots i feel in my stomach
in the wake of the blows,
even after so much time has passed.


i see trails taken
and trails not taken.

i see curves in the roads
mandatory re-routings.
who could have known?
there were no maps.
there couldn’t be.


i see an undisturbed spot of aching
left empty
by those who predeceased me.
gone ahead, some would say,
passed on
left us
they died and are dead.
i do not gloss over death
with prettier words
because it does not change anything
or lessen the longing.

i see those who might have died
but didn’t
and i rejoice.
oh my goodness gracious how i do rejoice.


i see giant steps
and teensy tentative baby steps.
i see skips
and hops
and gallops
and waltzes.

i see crooked lines
paths that go every which-a-way,
often against the grain.


i spy
rolling hills
garden spots
vast and small


i see hope
and life on the verge.
nay, i see life in leaps and bounds
as i stand in the present
remembering the past
and wondering with keen anticipation
and a quickening, actually
about the future.

happy new year to us all.
may we rock it
stitch it
traipse it
paint it
dance it
sing it
color it
hug it
live it
and mark it
as only we can.

just call me elf


whether you’re a card-carrying member of the fabled 1% or not, you don’t have to spend a lot of money for presents this holiday season. you know that, right? we can’t keep spending money we don’t have. what you may not know or may not have thought about: when you give from your deepest creative self, you not only save money, you gift your self and the lucky recipient. it’s just one of those magical inexplicables – like writing every day doesn’t deplete your word pantry, in fact, just the opposite: the more you write, the more you have to write.

allow me to introduce the personal shopper member of the committee that is me. she loves to conjure fun, one-of-a-kind, inexpensive gifts . . .


  • write love letters. give the recipient a tour of the real estate they own in your heart. don’t hold back – this is the gift that will keep on giving. every time they read it – and they’ll read it often cause they’ll keep it forever – will be a gift.
  • my grandmother canned food in green glass ball jars. she sweated in a hot kitchen all summer so we could eat well all winter. find an old jar and fill it with pieces of paper containing words that come to mind when you think of this person. trust me: they’ll feast year-round.
  • get a t-shirt, pajamas, scarf or any other wearable and grab some fabric markers then decorate the clothing with story kindling and punch lines of favorite memories.
  • know their shoe size? buy them a pair of plain white sneakers and decorate them with colorful words and phrases of love to lighten their step.
  • fill a blank journal with favorite quotes – yours and theirs.
  • do you owe someone an apology? write it out, attach it to a blackboard eraser, and deliver it.
  • cut a snowflake from folded paper and turn it into a gift by writing “like a snowflake, you’re one of a kind” or something similar that would melt a real frosty.
  • cut out words from magazines and instead of creating a ransom letter, create a you-are-special letter.
  • create a calendar of compliments by noting compliments in a calendar.
  • get your camera out and find things containing letters of the alphabet needed to spell out words that describe the recipient. (for example, the end of a swingset resembles a capital A – that kind of thing.) (have fun with this – remember: you can rotate and crop.)

  • use your computer or camera to record your favorite stories about the recipient. ask others to participate by sharing their favorite story, then compile them into one album of love.
  • scan photos of the recipient and drop the digitized version into a document containing the story about the photo. OR keep the digitized copy for yourself and glue the original into an empty journal, penning the photo particulars (who, left to right; where; what they were/are doing; and any other details you can remember) to create a special album of memories.
  • do a little research on your computer and create a year-in-review book of things that are of interest to the giftee.
  • for loved ones, commit family legends to paper (digital or otherwise). add photos and maybe even genealogical information to create a family tree album.
  • fill a jar with questions written on slip of paper – things like “tell me about your childhood pets” and “tell me about your first job” and “what stories do you remember about your parents” and “of all the things you’ve done, what are you most proud of” and “tell me about your hobbies.” around the lid to the jar, tie ribbons on which is written several dates throughout the year when you’ll get together and listen to their answers to the questions you’ll draw from the jar. (oh, and you’ll probably want to take a tape recorder on those listening dates, too.)

  • have something you plan to leave them in your will? go ahead and give it to them. they’ll get to enjoy it longer, and you won’t have to dust it. oh, and be sure to include the provenance, telling where you obtained the item, how and when you used it, maybe even how much you paid for it – things that will tell the story about the item.
  • personally, i hate to cook, but i have it on good authority that not every is like that, so gather recipes and create a cookbook. have a section of perennial favorites and a section of new recipes for those who love adventure in the kitchen.
  • keep ’em warm and stylish: embellish an inexpensive scarf or wrap with words of love and mirth using needle and thread.
  • give them a bib, a fork and a calendar with particular dates circled and tell ’em not to make plans on those nights cause those are date nights when you’re cooking for them.
  • amused by the muse

    “The muse is the muse in our life. It’s the very creative spirit that we ourselves are. As if our soul came here for a purpose, in order to manifest something on this earth. The muse is that thing wanting to be manifest. The muse is that creative spirit, that voice that’s eager to be spoken through us. The sound that’s eager to be heard through our creations. That’s the muse. Often what we get as a gift from the muse is the little seed to the bigger thing. The muse will not present us with the whole piece. The muse gives us the beginning – a phrase, a line, a title, a chord. So to be open to the gifts of the muse is to be open to the creative voice that’s trying to speak itself through us. Once we open ourselves to that creative voice, we open ourselves to vast amounts of light. To vast and profound reflections, to amazing healing because that’s us making contact with our own soul. With universal mind. With the oneness we’re all part of.” ~ Jan Phillips

    cloth is my muse.
    softly raveled
    unfinished edges.
    i love them each.
    i love them all.

    maybe it’s inherited, my love for cloth.



    my great grandmother took in sewing to put food on her table. and when she wasn’t sewing for money, she sewed for love, making me a dress for my baby doll.




    my grandmother made quilts, piecing together any scraps of fabric she could save, swap, or barter for.


    my mother sewed, too. her patterns are some of my most treasured possessions. i remember her wooden thread box filled with colorful tangles. i remember her sitting at the sewing machine on october 30, frantically finishing up our halloween costumes. i remember the green wrap-around dress with big pockets, big buttons, and white trim.






    i’ve sewn and quilted and smocked for my daughter and yes, for my son, too. i’ve embroidered and embellished, done needlepoint and cross stitch and a host of other things involving needle and thread. i’ve marked special occasions with cloth, turned milestones with cloth, committed special events to memory with cloth.

    when i stitch, i entertain a host of visitors: thoughts, ideas, conjurings i wish would become permanent residents. several years ago, i hatched this idea for a book as i stitched, then like the cloth i was working on at the time, i set the idea aside, thinking i’d get back to it one day.

    well, one day has arrived.


    i’ve started a new blog. it’s called Writing Cloth and there, with the help of my cloth, i’m writing that story. i see these images – sometimes they just appear in a whoosh, a flash – then i stitch them into being. and as i stitch (or sometimes after they’re completed) they tell me about the story, about the people who live in the story, about where to go next with the story.



    the cloth tells the story.

    and sometimes when i get stuck, i ask for help, turning parts of the journey into collaborative creativity for those interested in participating. prefer to just watch and read along? that’s fine – no pressure, just an invitation you’re free to accept or decline.

    because i do so adore tales of women’s creative process – it’s magic, isn’t it. no other word will do – i’m including a backstage pass to my creative process. i’m profiling the cloth pieces, their progress and their revelations. i’m documenting the difficulties encountered, the roadblocks and stumbling blocks as well as the moments of glory when the words flow like warm syrup. when i know it, i’ll tell you where the inspiration comes from, the meaning and symbolism behind certain names, the layers of metaphor (most of which just appear, becoming obvious only as i look over my shoulder.) i’m telling – oh yes, i’m telling all about how the story is coming to life. i am blogumenting my creative journey, i guess you could say, sharing with you the product and the process behind the product. if, like me, you’re the kind of person who likes watching the machines pour sugar onto hot krispy kreme doughnuts that you’ll soon devour or standing close enough to feel the heat as the glassblower twirls melted goo into a glass piece that will eventually grace your walls or watching the potters spin the wheel and shape the clay into a bowl you will eventually eat cereal from, you might wanna’ snag yourself a seat. consider it an ongoing studio tour where the light is always on. or maybe you’d just like to stop by nightly for a bedtime story.

    i hope you’ll join me over at my new playground. because it makes me feel safer, i’ve made it a membership site with various bundles of membership goodies to suit your mood. maybe you want to become an affiliate and generate funds to support your own creative habit. and if you want to help some lovely, talented, deserving women in their creative pursuits, join via one of my existing affiliates: my writing partner and friend, julie daley or my friend and lunchmate, angela kelsey.

    scoot on over and poke around. and if you have any questions, you know where to find me.



    i am surrounded,
    almost to the point of suffocation, really,
    with boxes of family history and herstory.
    photos out the wazoo.
    birth certificates
    death certificates
    marriage certificates.
    family documents,
    legal documents
    all carefully organized
    and stored in archival quality boxes,
    these papers
    that prove somebody existed,
    but not that they lived.

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