Tag: personal history (Page 2 of 2)

diary of a birthday: waking thoughts


how many times did my daddy tell me the story about how it was snowing in atlanta the day i was born. how he made the long distance phone call to his daddy in fayetteville, how it was hard to understand each other because of the static on the line. he told that story not with the defiance and antagonism and one-upmanship that dressed later stories starring daddy and his dad. the story of my birth was told with the same excitement i heard in my son’s voice when he delivered a fistful of dandelions picked ‘specially for me. daddy made it sound like he was delivering a gift to his daddy, a gift more precious than the new fedora or the 35 mm camera he gave granddaddy in christmases yet to come. and perhaps he did feel like he, the sole surviving son of five children, was delivering a gift to his parents. another important thing? he never even hinted that he or grandaddy was even a smidgeon less excited because i was a girl and not a boy. in face, my gender never came up . . . except in the spelling of my name.

i wish i could ask granddaddy about it, too, but he died on the day of the christmas party when i was in fifth grade, when stories were something endured after the initial telling.


when i look to mother for a genesis tale, i get a recapitulation of daddy’s story . . . probably because daddy was the source of her information, too, given the effects of general anesthesia and all. then last weekend, quite by accident, i discovered a little something new and sparkly. i was talking to mother about her work during world war 2. she worked at atlanta general depot, doing a host of various jobs as she progressed through the field and up the ladder, eventually landing a supervisory position over 3-4 other women. i came upon a form granting her request for maternity leave beginning on 25 september – months before my birthday. i thought i was onto something. did she have toxemia like i did with my firstborn, also a daughter? or were pregnant women required to take leave, in effect being banned until after? or, given her beauty and keen sense of style, was she reluctant (read: embarrassed) to show her ever-protruding body for months on end?

i was on a feminist-fed roll.

“mother, here’s your leave form,” i said. “why did you start your leave on september 25? you were granted six months’ leave, most of it spent before my birth.”

“oh,” she said as she speared another piece of fried egg, always proud of the lacy effect she was able to create in the cooking, always apologetic when the lace did not materialize as she’d hoped. “some officer whose name i can’t remember asked if i wanted to work for him. when i told him no, he said well, he’d just put in an order and there was nothing i could do about it. i really did not want to work for him, so i just took my maternity leave and there was nothing he could do.”

and with that little story kernel, i see my mother – a lifelong secretary – in a new light. i completely forget to be disappointed that i wasn’t the center of her answer, i don’t even consider till now, turning over the stone of feminism, the possible prejudice i showed attached to her being a secretary . . . there wasn’t room for any of that on account of the pride i felt at her spunk and resolve to be in charge of her own life by whatever means necessary.

and it was certainly more than thrilling to discover that even at this age, there’s something new to learn about her, about me, about us.

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

P GenerationsOfBallards11 1979

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.

questions and answers of the most important kind: a timed test


they (her children) say she went through a spell when she cried a lot. day in, day out, she cried, my grandmother ballard did. one of her children posits that she cried over the possibility that granddaddy had a girlfriend on the side, to which another reminds us that granddaddy was the town’s sheriff and it was his responsibility to make frequent trips to the . . . i don’t remember what they called it, this bawdy, rowdy house out on hwy 54. another child imagines the tears were brought on by the never-to-be-fulfilled life dreams. (grandmother had what we now call a full-ride scholarship to The Piano Conservatory, but after the first year, her daddy snatched her out of school saying girls didn’t need an education – especially one in music – they only needed a husband.) the third living child doesn’t remember her crying and has no earthly idea why she would.

this morning as i interrupt application of my daily facial moisturizer to allow my retired husband access to the bathroom for the fourth time since i started this activity (usually) of short duration, i imagine grandmother crying because she had no alone time and no personal space. no quiet time to just sit and ponder. i wonder if that’s why she made so many quilts – did the constant whirr of the old singer treadle machine provide walls of sound that served to keep everybody out and her in?

it’s what we do, you know: answer the unanswerable questions through our own filters of knowledge acquired through books and life experiences. sometimes it’s as though we gain permission to be ourselves, other times it gives us insights that explain us to ourselves. now would be a mighty good time to ask those questions as you gather round the tree to celebrate the holiday with your family. and hey, don’t forget to take a tape recorder. you can thank me later.

[ ::: ]

While others wore necklaces, Jeanne Hewell-Chambers had a Brownie camera hanging around her neck. Always a personal historian, she’s considering dusting off her old workshops on such things and converting them to online classes. Stay tuned.


“where were you and what were you doing when you heard about world war 2?” i ask my mother. i’d never thought to ask her that before, and i can’t tell you why not, but at least i ask her now.

she tells me that she was at school, so she didn’t hear about it till the day after. says she was 13 years old, so most of her reaction came from watching her parents. she can still remember the look on her daddy’s face, she says, then she goes on to tell me about how her mother preserved food – a lot of food, even canning biscuits and water. “if she’d thought about it and we had a place, i’m sure she would’ve built a bomb shelter,” mother says, and though she was remembering down one road, i remembered how i set about building a bomb shelter in 4th grade, complete with food and pillows and books and board games and safety/preparedness drills.

i knew my grandmother canned food – her pantry was always filled from her larger than large summer garden – but i never knew till that day last week that grandmother and i had preservation and planning for the future – our future and our loved ones’ futures – in common.

[insert face-size smile]

don’t you love stories that connect you with your ancestors? that help explain quirky characteristics about yourself? what questions would you ask one of your ancestors? you can do it without sitting next to them in the car, you know. just get our your pen and paper, write the question, then be quiet and see what appears.

one of the best questions i asked my now-deceased daddy is “what would the 40-year old you like like the 40 year old me to know about being 50?” (hint: you don’t have to ask living people face-to-face, and you don’t have to ask only deceased people these questions that your inquiring mind wants to know.)

:: – ::

p.s. my mother also told me that because of world war 2, there weren’t many school teachers to be found, so they had to take the fella who got lost walking the 3 blocks from boardinghouse to school. she also told me about one c harkness, a young woman who daddy asked out once. but, mother hastened to add, they never actually went out. i’m thinking there’s more to this story. stay tuned . . .

:: – ::

i spent this afternoon cooking and filling the freezer of my son who lives in denver (note: far too far away, if you ask me) with vegetable soup, lasagne, and spaghetti sauce. (that’s when i remembered the story my mother told me about grandmother preserving food in anticipation of possible ripple effects of world war 2.) today’s altar is about nourishment . . . from stories and food and love.


More about 365 Altars

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.
  • Forgetting is Not an Option


    We did what we could.

    We did what we could.

    We did what we could.

    I heard that over and over again from the lips of each of the four Pearl Harbor survivors at Sunday’s memorial service. Now in their nineties, these men may not be able to tell you their children’s names or where they parked the car, but they can still tell you with absolute certainty, with absolute clarity where they were, what they did, and what they were thinking the morning of December 7, 1941 – 70 years ago today – when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.


    “My buddy and me were trying to decide what to do about breakfast,” remembers one. “Did we want to go to the mess hall or did we want to go to the church around the corner where the pretty ladies would feed us free doughnuts and coffee? We never did decide – we never got breakfast anywhere that morning. I was a 20 year old Clerk, and when I heard that first bomb hit, I thought ‘One day somebody’s gonna’ ask me who was here and how many survived,’ so I ran down to the office, squatted down, and got the muster from the bottom file cabinet drawer. About that time my second lieutenant came in. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked me, and when I told him, he said ‘That’s a good idea.’ It was the last thing he ever said cause right then, a strayer came in through the screened window and killed him. I would’ve been killed, too if I’d’ve been standing up. I just thought to get the muster. We all did whatever we could think of to do.”


    Pete remembers trying to get his bearings, trying to decide what he should do when another soldier appeared, his left arm dangling from the shot he took to the elbow. “What should I do?” the wounded soldier asked Pete. “Get in that truck over there,” Pete told him, pointing to an abandoned truck. “By the time I got to the truck, it was full of fellas needing medical attention. It was chaos. A nurse came out and started directing traffic. I’d never driven anything but a ’37 Chevrolet, but I drove that truck that day. I was grinding those gears – never did get it in second gear. Drove all the way to the hospital in first. I just did what I could.”


    “Chester was a radio operator,” his wife tells me. “There was a drill scheduled for that morning, but it was canceled, so Chester left his post to stretch his legs and that’s when the first bomb hit. He went back to his station and radioed ‘Pearl Harbor under attack. This is not a drill. Repeat: this is NOT a drill.’ It was the only thing he could think of to do.”


    The two-star General who served as emcee for the ceremony told me about going back to Pearl Harbor for some training once he made General. While there, he happened upon an old friend, an Admiral in the Navy. Knowing his friend was the son of a man who served as Commander of one of the ships stationed at Pearl Harbor on that fateful day, the new General asked “Where’s your father now?” “Down there,” said the Admiral, pointing to the water where the ships and so many other bodies are interred.



    “He didn’t really want to talk about World War II,” Mark told me, “so I asked him to tell me about his scariest memory, and he told me how he was flying a mission to snap some reconnaissance photos. He looked down to turn his camera on, and when he sat back up, he was surprised to find this big silver plane flying wing-tip-to-wing-tip with his plane. ‘Where’s that guy come from?’ the American pilot was thinking. ‘Why didn’t he shoot me? Did he shoot my gunner? How in the Hell does that plane fly without any propellers?’ Questions like these whizzing through his brain, the fella looked back over at the strange plane (it was a German jet – the Germans had them, but the Americans had never heard of them), saw the German pilot salute him and then zoom off in that strange-looking plane.” Mark was so captivated by the story, he painted a picture of the two planes and presented it to the pilot. It’s now back in the museum at the Dixie Wing, the local branch of the Commemorative Air Force.

    (Note: That’s Mark in the photo above, standing in front of the painting. Hard to see on account of the glare, I know. Guess you’ll just need to visit.)




    My daughter travels around the country portraying Betty Grable at events like this. “You should’ve seen those Pearl Harbor survivors when you walked by,” someone told her as she took her seat before the service began. “They were all hunched over looking at the floor, but then Betty Grable walked by, and those shoulders straightened, those heads snapped up, and those eyes never left you for a moment.”

    As she greeted the survivors, she asked what she always does just before thanking them for their service: Would it be all right if I plant a Betty Grable kiss on your cheek? She’s never been turned down.

    Not once.


    “Do you have as much trouble keeping your seams straight on those stockings as we always did?” one of the wives asks my daughter.



    We went outside where the flag was raised then lowered to half staff followed by the ringing of the Navy bell. As the survivors stood before the flag, one instinctively raised his arm to salute, but his arm wouldn’t cooperate . . . until, that is, his wife quietly slipped her hand under his elbow and offered her support for his salute.


    The stories from the two governments are not nearly so clear. There’s much finger pointing and enough questions to last eons. Theories abound. Heads are scratched.

    Zenji Abe, a Japanese Raider, was surprised to find out on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor that the United States considered it to be a sneak attack. It was then he discovered that the Declaration of War had not been delivered to the U.S. authorities in a timely manner. No wonder it was considered a surprise attack.

    Information is withheld, stories are constructed – and I mean on both sides. When do we cross the line into propaganda, I wonder.

    But most importantly, I see once again the power of stories – and I don’t just mean the telling but the bearing witness, too. When we tell our stories, and when we bear witness to the stories of others, gaps are closed. Healing occurs. And, if we’re lucky, history doesn’t repeat itself.


    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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