Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Behind The "Ann" in Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy

Long before I put any of my stories down on paper my imagination transported me to places I’d never been and back in time.  I always imagine the small house in south St. Joseph, Missouri where my grandmother was born at home, as most children were in the 1890’s.  As I grew older and matured, learned a lot more about the world and how it works, I thought more about my great-grandmother, a woman named Annie Hayward.  And yes, the ‘Ann’ portion of my name pays homage to her.  Annie’s life was anything but easy but she hung in and survived.  Half of the children she gave birth to died as infants or young children, again the common statistic for the period.  Even after three generations, we remember her, especially a group of her female descendants, all cousins of one degree or another.  On a Facebook group devoted to remembering St. Joseph, my hometown, the other eight thousand or so members tend to call us “the Hayward girls”.   Some of us were born with the surname, others not but we all connect back to our great-grandmother with loving pride – even though none of us knew her in life.

            I had the privilege and joy of knowing two of my other great-grandmothers for a brief time and although I loved both, Annie stands out.  Maybe it’s because her daughter born on a hot July day kept her memory alive and sketched her to me with words until I felt I knew her.  But all of the Hayward girls didn’t get my Granny’s stories so it’s possible she was just such a strong, dynamic personality her legend lives onward.  In my case, it may be my grandmother’s skill with words.

            I’ve written about the event before, even had an essay about it in one of the popular Chicken Soup For the Soul books but it’s a pivotal moment for me as a granddaughter, as a woman and as a writer.  On a hot summer’s day when I was in my mid-teens, my grandmother opened her cedar chest.  The chest then rested at the foot of the bed in my father and uncle’s old bedroom and although I viewed it as a treasure trove of artifacts, we didn’t open it often.  Some of the items within included the long braid cut and saved when Granny cut her knee-length hair in the 1920’s and a handmade baby shawl used to wrap her as an infant.  That day, however, I learned about something else – a manuscript.  Written in now faded black ink with a fancy penmanship absent today, the yellowed sheaf of papers was my grandmother’s “Class Prophecy”.  It was fashionable in 1912 to write such a missive and Granny was chosen to write it.  I read it – and still do on occasion – with wonder because it was very well written.

            I asked my grandmother why she didn’t pursue a writing career.  With any luck at all she might’ve been a contemporary of Edna Ferber, Marjorie Rawlings, maybe even Zelda Fitzgerald.  She shook her head with a smile. “I couldn’t,” she said and the simple words spoke volumes.  They encompassed two world wars, two husbands dead and buried, a daughter who died at birth, the Great Depression, hard times, bad luck, and a spirit which, like her mother’s, would never accept defeat or anything but happiness.  Then she added the words which provided me with the determination to press onward. “But you should.”

            I never forgot her words so I have.

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