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The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change

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Are we responsible for, and to, those forces that have formed us—our families, friends, and communities? Where do we leave off and others begin? In The Tribal Knot, Rebecca McClanahan looks for answers in the history of her family. Poring over letters, artifacts, and documents that span more than a century, she discovers a tribe of hardscrabble Midwest farmers, hunters, trappers, and laborers struggling to hold tight to the ties that bind them, through poverty, war, political upheavals, illness and accident, filicide and suicide, economic depressions, personal crises, and global disasters. Like the practitioners of Victorian "hair art" who wove strands of family members' hair into a single design, McClanahan braids her ancestors' stories into a single intimate narrative of her search to understand herself and her place in the family's complex past.

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25 Chapters

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Chapter 1

ePub

To read another’s diary is to enter a private chamber. When the diarist is a sixteen-year-old girl, the trespass takes on another dimension. And when that sixteen-year-old girl is a long-dead aunt, the world flips on its axis. In the life we lived together, Bessie was seventy years my senior—always, and only, it seemed to me, old. My life stretched before me; hers, I supposed, was already gone. In the diary life we now share, she is nearly young enough to be my own great-niece. Even more disturbing is the time-warp quality of our encounter. Though her words toss me one hundred and ten years into the past, she abides in the pulsing, present-tense now. Sometimes, in the middle of an entry, she disappears for a few hours to attend to ironing or churning, or to answer her younger sister’s call, returning to the page as if out of breath or flushed from the weedy garden’s heat, or rapturous from a sleigh ride with cousins and friends.

Each page of a diary fills only with now. So, Bessie’s diary of 1897 muscles along, day by calendar day, an inchworm making its blind progress with little care for what has gone before and no knowledge of what lies ahead, beyond a girl’s vague landscape of hopes and dreams. I cannot reach through the pages and take her hand, warn her of what is to come. And if I could, would it change her course of action? The global things, of course, will be out of her control: the four wars she will live through, the bread lines, foreclosures and riots, the 1920s march of the Klan through Indiana towns, the assassination of a beloved president. But there are choices closer to home that she might make, roads diverging. If she knew in advance how the lives of those she loves would play out, would she choose not to grow so close to them? Not to visit the doomed family in Wisconsin or take in the smells of her mother’s kitchen or toss the wedding rice over her cousin’s shoulders as she leaps with her groom onto the train platform? Would foreknowledge of her brother’s fate change her actions—her absence at the hard end, the regret she would carry to her death? And if she knew that one day a great-niece would sift through the diary and through stacks of letters and documents that open the closed doors of the family’s past, would she have firmly closed that door? Locked up the evidence and thrown away the key? Or would she have given it all, gladly, into my hand?

 

Chapter 2

ePub

The gift of a diary is a gift composed entirely of future: all those blank pages waiting to be filled. And with what sentiment shall he send Bessie forth? The small leather volume, The Excelsior Diary 1897, is inscribed in a careful hand, “Compliments of your teacher L. L. Kyger.” Most likely, Kyger presented the gift on the occasion of Bessie’s forthcoming graduation from the Clendenning grade school in Clinton County, Indiana. The teacher certainly hoped that Bessie would continue on to high school. But if she could not, for the facts pointed away from such hopes, she would at least have something into which to record her daily comings-and-goings, the books she was reading, her plans and schemes. She might even include lines from the poems she had recited before the other students. Bessie’s was the most pleasant voice in the schoolroom, a singer’s voice with deep, modulated tones that rose and fell, riding the waves of sound rather than thrashing against them as so many students did. Oh, how Kyger must have dreaded their weekly recitations. The brutality with which they assault Longfellow and Keats. Their reedy, nasal twangs. How had Bessie acquired such a voice? And what might she do with her gift?

 

Chapter 3

ePub

“Through the young orchard, down a steep hill, over the footbridge and across the stream” is how Bessie recalled it decades later. Or “Across the young orchard, down the hill, across the spring,” each recitation beginning and ending with the litany of the journey, as if the path itself were the main attraction. Bessie’s voice on the cassette recording is surprisingly strong and resonant for a woman of ninety-seven, the click of her loose dentures serving as percussion in the pauses between phrases. A family friend made the recording in May 1978, less than a year before Bessie’s death. I wasn’t there in my grandparents’ kitchen at the Circle S farm, where the friend had gathered Bessie, Sylvia, and Arthur as part of an oral history project. But as I listen to the tape, closing my eyes to bring the moment closer, I enter the kitchen, take a seat at the table, and lean my elbows on the oilcloth still damp from a last-minute swipe with Sylvia’s dishrag as she brushed the pie crumbs into her hand. Voices, I believe, bring the dead closer to us than photographs can.

 

Chapter 4

ePub

Monday Eve. Nov. 19, 1900
1152 Summer Street
Hammond, Indiana

My dear Mother.

I’m O so tired, I am afraid this night will not be long enough for me to get rested in. I worked hard today. I made eighty five cents. That is pretty good wages for me to make is it not?

There is no one home at the present. Jim has gone out somewhere, Chas. takes his third degree in the Knights of Pythias tonight, Ben has gone to the city to work at steam-fitting and just as I got home this evening word came that Aunt’s sister is dead. Died at half-past five and we didn’t even so much as know she was sick. She took sick some time last night, vomiting blood. Uncle Clint and Aunt have gone down there.

I had the toothache one whole week and made about fifty trips to the dentist but I have it filled now, but my, what a cavity there was after it had been drilled out.

(Wednesday evening.)

Will scratch a little more. Got home to supper at half past eight tonight with my feet almost killing me, made ninety three cents today. I’m going to make four dollars this week or “bust.” I’ve made $2.24 already.

 

Chapter 5

ePub

The Old Mead House, as Aunt Bessie called her great-grandfather’s homestead, was an impressive place. That was how she remembered it. Not that she remembered much about the white farmhouse situated near the banks of the Ohio River. She’d been inside it only a few times, when she was very young. Bessie was just seven or eight when her family left Switzerland County, she and Dale and their parents; by the time they returned for a visit, Great-grandfather Mead was already dead. But Phebe was still there, taking care of things.

“I have a picture of the house somewhere,” Bessie told me during one of my visits to Briarwood, “but I can’t put my hands on it. Phebe lived there a long time. That’s Aunt Phebe. She helped take care of my mother—that would be your great-grandmother Hattie—after mother’s mother died. Mother’s mother was Lucippa—that would be your great-great-grandmother . . .” Aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, great-greats. Good grief, I’d think. Enough, already. I’d nod and pretend to listen as Bessie rummaged in one bureau drawer after another. Ancient history, to me. Dry as salt. Who cares about some old house in Switzerland County? Let’s get going, now, to the creek or the woods. The morning is getting away from us.

 

Chapter 6

ePub

Reading the hundreds of letters my ancestors exchanged is a journey through space and time. No, not through. Through, as Great-grandma Hattie would have said, “does not begin to answer the task.” Rather, this is a journey into and across: into time and across space. The movement into time is a vertical excavation, each letter as focused and pointed as a diamond drill head boring into the buried layers of the past. The other movement, across space, is a horizontal journey my mind travels in one expansive sweep, peripheral elements vibrating at the edges of the central action. Sometimes the image grows so wide that to take in the whole picture I must rise above it, allowing each scenic panel its individual weight and portent. As I lift off, I try to forget how things will turn out. How lives will collide, old stars burn out and new ones appear. It is July 1903. Everywhere at once, 1903.

Sylvia Mounts

RR#5

Dayton, Indiana

 

Chapter 7

ePub

Feb. 8, 1906

Mrs. Sant Cosby

Cosby Ranch, Clarks Hill, Indiana

Hello! Sis.

Dale says please bring your guitar over with you when you come. This is Sun. Eve. We kids are all sitting around the fire.

Yours Lovingly Sis.

P.S. Saw Wiley, is very proud to be Uncle, he asked me if my sister had any babes and I said no he says then its not Aunt Sylvia is it? Ha. Ha.

Dec. 24, 1907
Red Cedar Dam,
Menomonie, Wis
.

Mrs. S. M. Cosby, Clarks Hill

Hello Sis!

We are going over to Charlie and Mary’s for Xmas this year. You and Sant can have a little Xmas tree all by yourselves.

Sylvia

As the eldest child, Bessie had always been the big sister to Dale and Sylvia, but once the other siblings began arriving, Bessie was now closer in age to her mother than to her younger brothers. Ivan was twenty years younger than Bessie; Babe, born a few weeks after Bessie’s wedding, twenty-four years younger. The boys, Bessie called them in her letters. Send over the boys. And Hattie would ship Ivan or Babe off to Bessie and Sant’s farm, or in later years to their house in the small town of Stockwell, Indiana. The fact that Sant was twelve years older than Bessie, nearly as old as Hattie, added to the atmosphere of aunt-ness and uncle-ness permeating the Cosby household. In a Washington’s Birthday postcard to Bessie, a teenaged Sylvia writes Can you remember when Washington was there? Ha! Ha! I expect Sant can anyway if you cannot. And describing a Christmas visit to the Cosbys, Sylvia writes to her soon-to-be husband, We kids broiled rabbit steaks over coals and baked apples on a string here in front of the fireplace, It’s grand. . . .

 

Chapter 8

ePub

When my great-grandfather G. E. Sanders applied for membership in the Improved Order of Red Men, Washakee Tribe No. 408, Oxford, Indiana, he had no trouble confirming the eligibility statement included on the application, nor in filling in the first few blanks:

I am a white citizen of the United States; have been a resident of this reservation for the last six months; I speak the English language; I believe in a Supreme Being; am sound in mind and body.

Full Name: General Esau Sanders

Occupation: Storekeeper and Carpenter

Place of Birth: Greasy Ridge, Ohio

But when he reached the line “Condition of my wife’s health is . . . ,” I imagine that G. E. paused, lifted his pencil from the page, and considered: Golda Sanders was dead. Gone but not forgotten. Left two children. Bereft.

Pick up pencil. Start again.

Condition of my wife’s health is? Deceased.

Fast-forward a few years. The children are gone—Vena married, Arthur heading to teachers’ college. Time for G. E. to update his records for the IORR Insurance Fund. Did G. E. puzzle once more over the wife question, wondering if he should count Ada? No divorce yet, though divorce was definitely on the horizon.

 

Chapter 9

ePub

January 20, 1912
Briarwood Cottage
Dayton, Indiana

Mr. and Mrs. Sanders

Oxford, Indiana

Hellow there was a funny piece in the paper about you read as follows. I suppose you put on your old gray bonnet with the green ribbon on it and road up to dover for your golden wedding day. Thought you was in clover.

Ivan Mounts.

Even at age twelve, Ivan could make a joke out of anything, and his big sister’s wedding announcement in the local paper was too ripe an opportunity to pass up.

Sanders-Mount

Miss Myrtle Mount, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Mount, of Stockwell, and Andrew Sanders, of Oxford, were married yesterday at noon at the home of the bride’s sister, Mrs. Stanton Cosby. Mr. and Mrs. Sanders are well known young people and have the best wishes of many friends. They will reside near Oxford.

Four lines of copy containing so many errors that any reader familiar with the Mountses would have scratched his head and wondered if indeed the couple’s nuptials had been solemnized. Who is this Myrtle? Isn’t the younger Mounts daughter named Sylvia? And I might be mistaken but isn’t her fellow’s name Arthur? And Bessie Cosby’s husband is Santford, right? When did Robert and Hattie move to Stockwell? Have they always spelled their name that way?

 

Chapter 10

ePub

Tis a pity one has to be cooped up, Bessie writes to her sister. But such is life, our lives anyway, and if we were not such weak creatures we wouldn’t be mere victims of circumstance. In the decade of the glorious mother, the three cooped-up Mounts women receive dozens of postcards and letters from friends, relatives, and neighbors, some of whom have pulled up stakes entirely. The Titsworths have moved to Albuquerque, boasting to Sant that Norman is tanned now and looks like his own self again. Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Carte write from Canada, where they now own 160 acres of nice land, and a friend residing in Black Hills, South Dakota, reports he now has 100 akers of wheet, not a tree on this farm. Arthur’s aunt writes from Colorado and his friend Lansing from Bolivia, where he has found a job surveying, and though Lansing writes from this forsaken country, his descriptions of the mountains, plains, and brilliant sunsets would tempt even the most committed homebody. Vacationing friends post photo cards from the White House, from “Peaceful Valley” in Oklahoma, and from Long Beach, California, where Bessie’s neighbor Mrs. Nantz is now surf bathing, now dashing off a note from “A California Bungalow” in Los Angeles, too near the Atascadero dreamscape to make her postcards welcome to the envious, exhausted Bessie.

 

Chapter 11

ePub

Briarwood Cottage
January 11, 1918

Mrs. A. H. Sanders

Oxford, Indiana

. . . Yes Sylvia the war certainly is straitning some of the boys out, those that they keep sending back in their boxes any way, only those that get broke and scattered to bad. I tell you they are getting thinned out around here with boys gone and hands all gone. Charley Mc. hand is gone, Funks & Joe Yundts. Nobody in where Redman lived . . . Ivan thinks they are to be moved right away but don’t know where so don’t know when I will hear from him . . .

Hattie rarely scolded her darling Sylvia, but it is hard to miss her chiding response when Sylvia suggested that the war might be just the thing for straightening out boys like Ivan. A Civil War baby, Hattie had grown up hearing stories of her soldier uncles, learning early on what war can do to families. Her daughters had never felt war’s consequences firsthand. What they knew was what they had heard—that “our boys” were fighting the Kaiser to keep the American way of life possible and the women at home could help out. While they waited for word from their soldier brother, Sylvia and Bessie and other Red Cross Ladies rolled gauze bandages, stitched Service flags, and exchanged newspaper clippings like “B-r-r-r-r. Knit a sweater to keep Sammy warm.” A task which they promptly accomplished. They also knitted piles of wool socks, hoping to hear from their own “Sammy” soon so that they could send him some, wherever he was.

 

Chapter 12

ePub

Shumate Hotel
Williamson, W. Virginia
March 6, 1921

Mr. Dale Mounts

Route “E”

Lafayette, Indiana

Dear Brother:

. . . Hows everything along the Wildcat Creek? They sure do raise Hell along this river. The Tug River. Its supposed to be about the worst place in West Virginia. They always say the Tug never tells any lies. They mean by that, that theres so many people killed along here and I guess they throw them in the river but it never gives them up. Ha. A pretty cheerful place to be isn’t it.

They’re having this trial here now and have 19 men indicted for killing 10 men up at Matwan. Don’t know how they’re going to come out.

Most of the mines are out on a strike now and a fellow isn’t safe hardly any place especilly an officer of the law. I had a battle the other day with some moonshiners Ha. Thought I was a goner for about half an hour. I sure burnt up some powder. I guess I got one of them didn’t stay to see.

 

Chapter 13

ePub

The Women of the Ku Klux Klan was officially chartered in 1923 in Little Rock, Arkansas, following the lead of right-wing and nativist women’s organizations in the South, Midwest, Northwest, and Ozark regions, organizations such as Queens of the Golden Mask and Hooded Ladies of the Mystic Den. By this time, the Klan had been active throughout the United States for several years, and though the KKK would remain linked in many ways to the newly chartered women’s organization, the WKKK was founded as a separate entity, asserting itself as “by women, for women, and of women.” Many of its founders, though they espoused the tenets of the KKK, protested their exclusion from its ranks, pointing to social and political inequities between the sexes. Yes, both organizations agreed that “our glorious mothers” were powerful forces in society, the prime shapers of the values of home and family that were the foundation of a strong America. But to at least some of the WKKK leaders, those beliefs did not equate with the belief that motherhood was the ideal fulfillment of a woman’s destiny. Running a household and taking care of children was, plainly and simply, work. Work that should be respected and rewarded. An eight-hour day for mothers? So suggested one of the major Kleagles in her Mother’s Day address to approximately eight thousand people.

 

Chapter 14

ePub

The story of any event in a family’s life—the birth of a daughter on Armistice Day, for instance—is also the story of those who were not present. On the day Juanita was born, many members of the Mounts-Sanders tribe were missing from the scene. Arthur’s sister Vena and her husband, still shell-shocked from their son’s death, had moved to Detroit, leaving Kenneth’s pony for Barbara and her brothers to ride. Up in Wisconsin, it was hunting season, and Sylvia’s uncles and cousins were cleaning their rifles or tromping through the dense woods or stretching deer and wolf hides over the poles in Lafe’s yard.

Everyone, that is, except Sylvia’s cousin Stanley, who was busy tending to his own new one. Stanley’s wife had just given birth to a little girl, and how Grandpa Charlie would crow the news to his sister Hattie the next time he saw her. “Your boys better get busy,” her brother would say whenever he came to Briarwood for a visit. Hattie would laugh and give it right back to Charlie, reminding him about Dale’s little daughter but keeping her feelings to herself. It was nobody’s business what her sons did with their lives. Nobody’s business but their own.

 

Chapter 15

ePub

When the unfamiliar car stopped on the lane beside Wildcat Creek and a stranger began walking toward the log house, I imagine that my great-grandfather looked up from his newspaper. It was June, Robert’s favorite month, and he rarely missed a chance to sit near the arched trellis where yellow roses climbed, sending their fragrance in all directions. Maybe his pet crow was perched on his shoulder, as it so often was. Maybe he called to Hattie, working the raised garden beds wearing one of her everpresent sunbonnets. As the stranger approached, Robert could see an envelope in his hand. Did Robert sense what the envelope held? Telegrams rarely bring good luck, at least not those delivered to Briarwood. That much, Robert Mounts knew.

Menomonie, Wis. 10:20 am, 6/27/26

Mary passed away Saturday four pm. Come if possible tell the others funeral not before Tuesday answer if coming.

Charlie

The news had not been entirely unexpected, as Mary’s asthma had been worsening for some time. But for Robert, this was a hard blow—his first sibling to die, and his closest sister. How does a person ready himself for such news? Beautiful Mary. He still thought of her as beautiful, though of course, as with the rest of them, age had had its way with her.

 

Chapter 16

ePub

The first and only time I saw Aunt Bessie cry was the night I played Lottie Moon. The production was Her Lengthened Shadow, a sentimental playlet about a missionary who had died half a century before. I was fifteen, the same age as Lottie Moon when the play opens; in the hour it took to perform the play, I would age fifty-seven years. Bessie rarely attended church with our family, but she came that night in Santa Ana, California, to see what all the fuss was about. My mother had sewn my costumes. Someone else’s mother had applied the pancake makeup and, during scene changes, penciled in lines between my eyes and on the sides of my mouth. I remember lifting my eyebrows to create forehead furrows, and smiling crazily, unnaturally, to form craters around my mouth so that she could guide the eyebrow pencil into the depressions. In the last scene, when a special lightbulb cast a shadow across the stage, signifying my death at the impossibly old age of seventy-two, I heard gasps in the audience and knew I had played my part well.

 

Chapter 17

ePub

Dr. M. L. Harshman
Colfax, Indiana

Dear Mrs. Cosby,

Thanks for the check. I could say more about the drug bill if I could see the total hospital bill. Remember Sant received many drugs & food by venous route and took almost nothing by mouth. If you’re over this way stop in and I’ll be glad to look it over for you.

Sincerely yours, Martin Harshman

Dr. Harshman was a trusted family friend, so Bessie paid his bill promptly. The bill from the hospital was another matter altogether. Bessie was not accustomed to dealing with hospitals; neither she nor Sant had ever set foot in one until it became clear that there was no choice. Sant, the hearty, strapping Swede who at age seventy-two still worked his fields with plow horses, who had exceeded the life expectancy tables of the time, who had outlived his three siblings, and who, if his mother’s longevity was any indication (Sarah Cosby had died the year before, at age ninety-two) should have lasted at least long enough to travel with Bessie to California and draw out plans for their orchard, could hide his illness no longer. The prostate cancer that Sant had silently soldiered through for months, perhaps years, had spread to his bones, and the resulting pain was—and I choose the word carefully—excruciating. Excruciating: as in crux, cross, torment beyond imagining. Decades later, his niece Barbara will recall her January 1941 visits to Home Hospital in Lafayette, remembering how difficult it was to witness the “dire pain Uncle was in.”

 

Chapter 18

ePub

Early photographs of my mother confirm my father’s frequent remark: “She was a living doll.” Sometimes I correct him, joking that if he’s looking to make points, he shouldn’t use the past tense. But usually I don’t make a federal case about it, partly because the remark doesn’t seem to bother my mother, but mostly because his affection for her is so obvious and steadfast. Let’s say she’s getting up from her chair, where she’s been piecing a quilt or arranging photographs in an album or writing a note to one of their fifteen grandchildren. As she moves across the room, my father’s gaze will follow her with the admiration of a newlywed, for, if we are to believe his eyes, she is all news to him. Sometimes, out of the blue, he will say to me, “You have an amazing mother, do you know that?” This is a rare gift: for a daughter of any age, let alone a daughter as old as I am, to witness a father’s love for her mother. And I mark it here, so I will not forget. If beauty resides in the beholder’s eyes, my mother is still beautiful.

 

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