Back in time - book research
There I was, in 90-degree heat at four o’clock in the afternoon on top of a hill with no trees nearby, barely any clouds, hundreds of tombstones for acres around me, and no other humans. My tears were drying in trails of salt down my cheeks.
I stood in front of the Dudley family graves in Flemingsburg, Kentucky. It had been a long week of research, writing, some frustration and loneliness, and a little bit of fun. But I hadn’t realized how much the months of intense writing and researching the lives of the long-dead had affected me.
It takes a lot to make me cry. There have been times in my life that I feared I would not stop if I allowed myself to do it; I must have developed a high tolerance for sadness. But when it hits it is like the Great Flood.
I spoke aloud to my grandfather and grandmother, Granny Alice, and Auntie, the latter two being the only ones who were alive when I was born.
“I’ll try to make you proud and tell your stories as honestly as I can. And say Hi to Dad for me. He was a good Dad.”
Then I called my siblings and talked to them and cried some more.
My 10 days away weren’t designed to be a vacation. I purposely didn’t try to visit anyone outside the area I was working. I didn’t want distractions and really wanted to spend most of every day writing. My hope was that the location, where much of the story takes place, would be motivating and inspiring. And it was.
I stayed in the family cottage on a lake in northeastern Kentucky that I have written about before and where much of the story happens. I grew up at Park Lake, visiting there in the summer. Little has changed in the more than half of a century since since I first visited, or in the century since the book begins. The lake, and its surrounding acres, is still pristine, with freshwater jelly fish in the summer, plenty of fish for young and old to catch, crawdads to find, and turtles to spot. Wildflowers, butterflies, and woods surround it - ripe for exploring. At night it is very dark and quiet. The only thing that has changed much are the cottages that have been updated and rebuilt, with a few new owners, although many are still related to me, albeit quite distantly now. The original owners and investors included many of my relatives.
Back when the book takes place, in the first half of the 1900’s, there was no running water. Everyone had an outhouse and a freshwater spring provided plenty of clean, delicious water. Cottages didn’t have electricity and most owners brought their cooks out to prepare meals over open fires or in potbellied wood-burning stoves. They probably ate a lot of bread and cheese and vegetables from their gardens, preserved in jars that said “Mason.” There was no refrigeration.
I sat on the screened porch and wrote, with my dog Leah on sentry duty for squirrels and other creatures (she saw her first chipmunk). I watched the cardinals in the evergreens, the hummingbirds, and two screech owls that appeared in early morning and the evening when the light was dimmest. There was a whippoorwill that repeated his only words again and again in such rapid succession that he must have been dizzy. And he returned every night with more of the same.
As I had hoped, I was inspired to write about the people who originally occupied the cottages; their remnants in the form of old furniture and chipped pottery still remain. I felt more enveloped by the peace and neighborliness as I greeted people I didn’t know, and occasionally had a conversation about how our families had been connected, or that we might be kin. I also thought that maybe some of those critters I saw were ghosts of my relatives, back to check on how I was doing but unable to communicate directly.
In the evenings I walked down to the lake as the sun went down behind the hills beyond. The fireflies emerged and danced, flashing their signals and that reflected on the fog as it rolled in over the lake. One night Leah and I walked around the lake in the near-dark, with bats whizzing over our heads, just so I could watch the fireflies from all sides of the lake.
Although it passed uneventfully, I was pleased that I finally exceeded 100,000 written words. This book is happening … it feels more real every day, every paragraph.
In town, I visited the genealogy section of the public library where Mary, the librarian, was very helpful. At the Fleming County Museum Society and the Covered Bridge Museum, Brenda assisted me in locating some local history nuggets. I also had the pleasure of meeting Mayor Bobby Money who showed me my grandfather’s photograph on the wall of past mayors in the City Council chambers and he provided some Dudley history. Perhaps best of all, I was able to spend a little time with Betty, a family friend, who grew up a few doors from Dudley House and is one of few people alive today who remembers and was influenced by Dad, Auntie, and Alice.
So it is no wonder emotions were high that last afternoon. I’d been walking with ghosts, hearing stories about those whose lives I am writing about, and longing for just a glimpse back into the days when Dad’s father was Mayor, pinball machines were outlawed, and he managed to get a confiscated one, with the coin operation disabled, for Dad. It made him very popular with his friends and meant that their cook was kept busier making cookies for hungry teenagers.
I can only imagine what it was like when they had to get out of the car, going up the mountain to Park Lake, and throw sand and gravel on the unpaved road where the slate was slick in the damp weather and they feared sliding off the mountain. Or the night just after Christmas in 1925, when my grandparents decided at the last minute not to go to Lexington for a night including gambling, with Will Nelson Fant, his wife, and other friends. Will Nelson was murdered, at the hotel, by robbers -- when he refused to give them his large diamond ring. Had my grandparents accompanied them, they too could have been victims. His murder prompted their conversations about what would happen to my Dad if something happened to them; I imagine it was the first time they realized how quickly life can be taken away.
Will Nelson and the Fant family graves surround a very tall obelisk, behind the Dudley plot in the cemetery. Having read the stories of his murder and the account of it that my Dad wrote about, I cried even harder when I found Will Nelson's grave. Nearly 100 years later I grieved for my grandparents' loss of a friend and for his widow who he had married only months before.
There are so many stories and there is much to write about. I wonder if anyone will look back in 100 years and think I’ve done anything nearly as interesting as those before me.