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As far as we can tell, Nancy and I aren’t kin, not even a smidgen. However, my cousin’s grandmother (that would be Uncle Ed Hudson’s wife who was a Davis) is her great-aunt. Thus, in the exacting way of computers, her Google quest for roots led her to my Hudson Family tree posted on the Internet.
In the e-mail conversations that followed over the next few months, I learned that California had pulled her maternal grandparents away from their native Owen County in the 1930s. The Depression era was a turbulent period in America’s history, and many people, like Nancy’s family, found their way to California where sunshine and possibilities beckoned.
She, herself, has lived all her life in the golden state and knew little to nothing about her mother’s people. Now that retirement has given her time for research – and armed with a few wispy hand-me-down stories – she’s set out to learn, as we say in Kentucky, where she’s from.
In Nancy’s case, I was able to tell her that she’s from southeastern Owen County where her Davis, True, and Holbrook ancestors settled in the late 18th century. Given their involvement with the Mountain Island and Mussel Shoals Churches, some of them likely arrived in the wilderness on foot by way of the Cumberland Gap with the Rev. Elijah Craig and his independent band of Baptists called “The Traveling Church.” This was a group of five to six hundred free-minded people who set off from Spotsylvania County, Virginia, in early 1781 – before the end of the Revolutionary War – seeking to escape the tyranny of England’s Anglican Church.
When Nancy’s grandparents headed further west in the 1930s, they left behind 140 plus years of family history in Kentucky, enough time, I assured her, for us to claim her as one of our own. To her surprise, she has a slew of distant relatives still living in the area as many folks around here trace their ancestry back to the same families as she does.
Last week, Ernie and I and my Hudson cousins, Emily and Ed (who are kin to Nancy on the other side of their family tree), had the pleasure of meeting her and her son and daughter-in-law in Owenton. It was their first visit to Kentucky, and seeing our springtime lushness and the beauty of our land through their new eyes, I was prouder than ever to say this is where I’m from.
They wanted to scour cemeteries (an obsession with genealogists) for old tombstones and missing information, and we were pleased to guide them. Our first stop was on Rt. 1739 near Lusby’s Mill and Eagle Creek at the Mussel Shoals Baptist Church which is surrounded by an ancient graveyard. It’s a quaint, tranquil place straight out of a pastoral painting or a movie set, but it’s also a sacred spot significant in the religious history and culture of the region.
Mussel Shoals – still open for God’s business – was founded in 1817 by members who had been dismissed for that purpose and with blessings from the Mountain Island Baptist Church upstream on Eagle Creek. The older church on Mountain Island (est. July 13, 1801 – disbanded in the 1930s) had in turn been established by members from Elijah Craig’s Great Crossings Church. Most historians include Mountain Island among the original Traveling Church congregations because it was founded by elders who traveled into the Kentucky territory with the Craigs.
And so we walked the old Mussel Shoals Cemetery surrounded by this history. The look on Nancy’s face, part joy, part amazement, when she found the graves of her g-g-grandparents was a poem as moving as any I’ve ever read in a book.
Then we were off to New Columbus and another church and cemetery. Her great-uncle, James A. Davis, was the first minister of the New Columbus Baptist Church, founded in 1890. So we snapped her photo by its front door before pushing on to the New Columbus Cemetery to search for more headstones. On our return to Owenton, we waved at farmland that the 1883 Atlas says her grandfather lived on as a boy.
As we parted with promises to keep in touch, I was left to wonder what motivates people to travel 2,000 miles to stare at toppled-over tombstones surrounded by hayfields? What is it that drives us to define where we’re from?
I’m not sure. But I do know that where we’re from is a complicated place, more than geography, though that’s part of the answer. It’s more than names on a chart, too, though we may count the generations backward to infinity.
In her iconic poem, “Where I’m From,” Kentucky writer George Ella Lyon arrives at her own unique (and I would add beautiful) response to that familiar question. Teachers all across America, in China and Ecuador, have used her words in myriad ways to help others arrive at their own answer. Ms. Lyon has graciously given me permission to reprint her poem here. And so, Gentle Readers, I ask – where are you from?
Where I’m From
George Ella Lyon
I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.
I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.
I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.
Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments –
snapped before I budded –
leaf-fall from the family tree.
“Where I’m From” is reprinted by permission of the author.