Random Thoughts of a Disordered Mind

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52 Ancestors – #17 Peel Cemetery in Bear Grass

Some of my ancestors are buried in small private family cemeteries out in the country; others found their final rest in crowded historic New York cemeteries. Some have elaborate headstones to mark their passing; others are in unmarked graves, while still others have stones that are no longer legible, worn down by time.  Many others are lost or rather, have not yet been found.

In August 1979, I drove around Martin County, North Carolina, with my grandmother, Susie Lanier (Keel) Myers, and her sister Mary Magdalene “Maglene” (Keel) Taylor. Our quest: the family cemetery behind the old family homestead farm, which I now know is the Peel Family Cemetery in Bear Grass. Their mother was Sarah Annis Peal and this was where “her people” were buried.

KEEL Susie and Maglene - August 1979 - Williamston NC

Aunt Maglene was deaf as a post and sat in the back seat of the big green Pontiac as we drove. Her sister, my grandmother, kept up a loud conversation with her in her thick Southern accent about points along the way. “No, Sister, that’s not where he was born, it was over yonder behind the school on the road next to the farm.”  Since I had no idea where we were or where we were going, it was hard to follow the conversation. And they argued about almost everything so I wasn’t sure what to believe anyway.

Grandmama turned down a dirt road next a farm house and headed back to a wooded area. “Should we be going this way? It looks like someone’s home,” I said. “Oh, it’s alright. We’re family,” she replied.  We pulled up and parked next to the woods and walked inside a quiet sheltered area with a few old tombstones poking through piles of leaves under the shade of tall trees. It didn’t look like a cemetery at all.

PEEL Stanley - Tombstone - NC Beargrass-1902Grandmama and Maglene got very quiet as they walked, obviously looking for something that they were not finding, and asking each other where “the stones” were. “What stones?” I asked, since I saw some standing, all for people whose names were new even if the stones were old. “Our brothers and sisters.”  These old ladies in their late 70’s were looking for the graves of their seven dead siblings who died in infancy, who they knew were buried in this place, but who couldn’t be found. They were shaken.

But clearly the graves hadn’t disappeared overnight. “When were you here last?” I asked them, which started a competitive conversation about cemetery visiting, only to reveal that the last time either of them had been to this family cemetery was over fifty years before when their grandmother Jane Elizabeth (Stalls) Peal was buried there in 1921. I remember wondering who they thought was going to care for the graves if they didn’t do it; clearly no one else had thought of it, either. This was a private family cemetery, not a publicly maintained one. If family didn’t care for it, it wouldn’t – and obviously didn’t – happen.

PEAL Mariney J - Tombstone - 1922 - NC BeargrassWe cleaned up what we could and I photographed some of the grave stones we found. I wish now I’d taken all of them, but I was young in terms of genealogy research and it simply never occurred to me. I’ve never returned but wish I could, though I’m not sure I could find it again without my guides in the big green Pontiac. I would bring rakes and tools to clean up the space and clean the stones, and photograph them to share on FindaGrave, which only has two memorials listed as of today. There are no images of the cemetery or of either grave.

I must add that this Peel Family Cemetery in Bear Grass shouldn’t be confused with the Peele Family Cemetery or the Peel-Griffin Family Cemeter, both in Farmlife, Martin County. There are plenty of Peal/Peel/Peele’s to go around and they are all related if you go back far enough. But my Peel Cemetery is still a mystery.  I want to find the graves of those great-aunts and uncles who died as babies. I know they are there; they just need to be found. I wonder who else is buried with them, lost to time.


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#52 Ancestors – #16 Storms

encased in iceMy father obsessively watches TV weather forecasts and special inset maps during bad storms, at least until the power goes out. He watches the maps of radar that show every documented lightening strike and calculates storm direction and power. Knowing what’s coming allows him to be prepared.

Our ancestors didn’t have Doppler Radar or National Weather Service alerts tracking storms and warning of flooding and torrential rains or high winds. There were no weathermen telling them to get into a windowless room in the center of their homes when tornadoes were coming.  Of course, our ancestors also didn’t have days and weeks without power because they didn’t have electricity, either.

Instead, they learned to read clues in nature, to master the meaning of the cloud formations and colors of the sky. They smelled the air and could tell when rain or snow is coming. They paid attention to muskrats and bees, migration patterns of birds and insects, the sound of crickets – and some of them used the Old Farmers’ Almanac which was first published in 1792. They had to be prepared all the time.


Storms and weather disasters normal in one area are not the same in another. But you learn to live with what you have, whether that’s hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes, or earthquakes. As your “normal” changes , so do your expectations and preparations. Move from one area to another, though, and you have to learn a new normal. You learn how to prep for power outages, what nonperishable foods to have stocked in the pantry, to have enough cash and cat food and full bottles of prescriptions, and to fill the car’s gas tank before the storm hit. You have a storm cellar or know what to do when you feel a tremor.

The storm is coming. You know it, you’ve prepared, you’re hunkered down at home, sometimes with battens or wood covering windows to keep them from breaking. You have candles, battery-powered lanterns, maybe a generator. A hand-cranked radio. All electronic devices are charged up. You watch the Weather Channel until the TV flickers and goes out, then you just wait it out. You hope the howling winds don’t knock over trees, especially into your house.  And you are grateful to be warm and dry and safe as long as possible.

I like blizzards as long as I’m not out driving in one. I respect the power of hurricanes and have seen the incredible damage done by raging winds and water to homes and lands and people. Tornadoes terrify me as do earthquakes. Nature can be cruel and at best, tolerates us. We can learn something from our ancestors about living in tune with the world around them. I think I will go watch the sky.



52 Ancestors – #15 Income and Taxes

Benjamin Franklin said, “Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Paying taxes requires money and for most of us, that money comes from working or savings of some kind, perhaps an inheritance. This week’s prompt is about taxes and I’m fudging that to talk about income that was used to pay those taxes.

In 1977, I was thrilled to have my first full-time professional job with a salary of $8,000. Now that sounds ridiculous, but the cost of living was much less then as well. When my parents married in 1951, my mom earned $854/year as a secretary at Merck while my dad brought home a princely $248/month. They bought their first house for $13,000, paid for using a VA loan.

Let’s put that in perspective and look at the income of their parents from the 1940 census, just eleven years earlier.


My mom’s family lived in Newark, New Jersey, where her father was a salesman for a water meter company. He worked 40 hours a week with an annual income of $1,500. He owned an inherited paid-for house valued at $6,500. His wife was a housewife and there were six members of the household, including his mother, brother, and sister-in-law.


My father’s family lived in rural North Carolina, where both of my paternal grandparents worked 48 hours a week. Granddaddy was a “regular helper” at a tobacco company earning $1,500/year and my grandmother was a seamstress at a pressing club (now known as a dry cleaners), earning $650.  They owned their home and were paying a mortgage as well as supporting a household of seven, including both of my grandmother’s parents.

Mom’s grandparents lived in the New York City area and they had urban-type jobs. My Irish immigrant ancestor William Cooke was a shoemaker in Brooklyn; his son (and my g-grandfather) Robert sold paper. The Heginbothams were all hatters in Manhattan – hatters and milners and hat trimmers. Thomas Heginbotham‘s father William was a hatter in Cheshire, England, too, which is where he learned the trade.  William John Flanders was born in England as well, but he was a salesman – gentlemen’s clothes and gloves, going on the road as a “commercial traveler” by 1920. His father was a horse breeder and gentleman farmer from a long line of English fen-country farmers.

EstatesAdminDetailGenerations of my dad’s family were farmers on their own or rented lands. Most of them didn’t leave wills and their estates administration records are full of clues about their success. I love looking at inventories of their belongings – candlesticks and pots, spinning wheels and farm tools, feather beds, honey, and cows. And sometimes there are names of people casually listed as  property. Those are the records that stop me in my tracks.  This is part of an inventory of my 5th-g-grandfather, John Goodwin, who died in 1815. He is not the only North Carolina ancestor who owned slaves; although most did not, it’s still something I have to sort through.


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52 Ancestors – #7 How My Parents Met

If you spend 10 minutes with my father, you hear the story of how he met my mom. It’s his favorite story in the world and I’ve heard it a million times. But it’s still a good story. In his words, verbatim and for the record:


“I went to Duke University and I was poor. I didn’t have a nickel. One day when I was a junior, a fraternity brother on my hall asked me if I had a date that night. I said, ‘Sure do,” and he asked me if I’d like to make it a double date. He had a car. Oh boy, that was something! So I said, “Sure.”

“The women’s campus at Duke was 3 miles away from the men’s campus. We drove over and picked up my date first, then we went to pick up his date. When she came down the stairs, I took one look at her and said to myself, “Oh, my GOD, that’s the one I want!”

“The next morning I called her at 8:00, the earliest time you could call the women’s dorm, and I asked her out for a date that night. She said yes. And that was it. Neither one of us ever dated anyone else for the rest of our lives. She was 17 years old. My Peggy.”

Now wasn’t that a good story?


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52 Ancestors #14 – Maiden Aunt Edith Karr

I may be the only person alive who still remembers Edith Karr. Those who have children and grandchildren have someone to remember them, to put flowers on a grave, to share pictures and stories and keep them from slipping into oblivion. But if you are a maiden aunt or bachelor uncle without children to remember you, you tend to disappear off the family tree until your name and your SELF is forgotten. I write about her now so that she is remembered.

This is the only picture I have of her, and it’s terrible:

Daisy Flanders, Edith Karr, and Mary McDonald - Manasquan, c1964

Edith Karr, Mary MacDonald, Daisy Flanders. Manasquan, NJ – c1964

When I was a child, Edie was already in her late 70’s and just seemed old and quiet and awkward with children. I wasn’t quite sure how we were related, actually, but she was my great-grandmother’s cousin, my first cousin three times removed. Because of her age, “Aunt” was appropriate, though she always referred to herself as “Cousin Edie.” She wore dresses, stockings and sensible shoes with a short pearl necklace, her dark hair rolled back in a kind of 40’s hairstyle. She had thick dark eyebrows which looked a little like caterpillers on her forehead (okay, I was a kid and it wasn’t a kind thought).  Edie didn’t have a car or know how to drive so she took busses to work and to go shopping from her small apartment, where she lived alone for almost 30 years.  But before that, she and her mother spent almost 30 years living two blocks from the home where my grandfather grew up.

Edith A. Karr was born on 15 November 1886 in Manhattan, New York, the second child of Daniel Karr and Martha (Mattie) V. Heginbotham. Her only sibling, older brother Harry, was born in December 1884 just nine months after their parents were married. Daniel was a hatter as was Martha’s father, Thomas Heginbotham. In fact, all of the Heginbothams worked in the New York City hat trade, so it is probable that Martha and Daniel met through her father Thomas.

The Karr (or Carr) family lived in New York and was recorded in the 1890 New York Police Census. By 1895 Martha and her children were living without Daniel in Belleville, New Jersey, with a house full of Martha’s Heginbotham relatives. Since Martha is listed as widowed in the 1900 census, it seems likely that Daniel’s death was the reason she and the children moved across the river to New Jersey to live with family.

It was a crowded household with thirteen people. Martha Karr herself (incorrectly listed as Matilda, probably because she was known as Mattie) was there with children Harry and Edie, as were Martha’s sister Sarah White and her husband Thomas with their three children. Unmarried sisters Ann and Mary Heginbotham were also there, with bachelor brother Thomas Heginbotham, and Louis and Jennie Huxtable. The family was still largely together in Belleville in 1900 but had split into two households: Thomas, Ann, and Mary Heginbotham lived with their sister Martha, Harry and Edie, who were both attending school. Next door were Martha’s sister Sarah White with her husband Thomas and 5 children.

Nineteen year old Edie struck out on her own by 1906, when she worked as a stenographer in Newark and was a boarder living apart from her family. That didn’t last long; in 1910 she was back living with her mother, brother, aunts and uncles, though she was still working as a stenographer for a chemical company.  She lived with her mother on Highland Avenue in Newark until Martha’s death in 1951, doing stenography and office work until she retired. That home on Highland Avenue was two blocks away from Martha’s sister Alice and her daughter Charlotte Flanders, my great-grandmother and Edie’s cousin.

Newark MapI didn’t know that about her until this week when I used GoogleMaps to check the location. I don’t know what she liked to do in her free time, whether she had goals she wanted to accomplish, whether she cried herself to sleep out of loneliness or was content with her long unmarried life. Since I am also an unmarried aunt, I take this as a reminder to stay connected to the family I have. To make phone calls, send letters, be involved in their lives as much as I can from a distance.

Edith Karr worked full time at a time when most women were home raising children, listing their occupation as “keeping house” on census records. She lived with and supported her mother until she was 64, and lived with assorted aunts and uncles for many years. But she lived a very long life dedicated to her family and friends, even if I didn’t know them. My grandfather lived close by and was more Edie’s nephew than cousin. He took her to doctor’s appointments in her later years and brought her to my beloved Manasquan for short vacation breaks. And when she died at age 93 in 1980, he paid for her cremation and burial in the Christ Church Cemetery in Belleville next to her mother, aunts, cousins, and grandfather. She was no longer alone.

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Remembering My Grandparents

I was not quite six years old when my maternal grandmother died of colon cancer in 1960. Mimi had five grandchildren but I was the only granddaughter. They lived an hour away from us, but I don’t have many memories of her because I was so little. I do remember having tea parties with her at her house in Newark using a little metal tea set that was set aside for me.  Her silver sugar bowl filled with silk flowers sits on my bookshelf, and I think of her when I see it.

MYERS Susie and Bill - c1985 - Emerald Bay

Susie Keel Myers with her first great-grandchild, Bill Myers – 1985

Susie Keel Myers, my paternal grandmother, died in 1987 and I have many memories of time with her because I had her longer.  Grandmama flew out to see us carrying bags of frozen creamed corn so she could make Dad his favorite meal of fried chicken with proper sides. Guess she knew Mom wouldn’t have creamed corn sitting around in the pantry (which she didn’t).  When I lived in Virginia, I got a research grant that gave me four weeks of paid time off a year to abstract Martin County land deeds, and I spent those weeks with her.  After dinner I’d sit at the out-of-tune piano in the living room and play old Baptist hymns I’d never heard before, mostly about blood, while she warbled the words in the kitchen. We sat on the front porch drinking sweet tea and reviewing every branch of the family genealogy, forwards and backwards. Every trip I would bring a big paper bag of used Harlequin RO-mances, trading out old ones for new ones. She adored her “stories” and would fall asleep on the couch with one in her hands. Her pincushion is an embroidered heart that hangs every year on my Christmas tree.

Granddaddy, my paternal grandfather, died just before my 10th birthday, and I don’t really remember him at all. We only saw them about once a year at that point, since we lived in New Jersey and the grandparents were in North Carolina. He was a quiet man who kept to himself. Mostly I remember that he was quiet. That’s not much to remember and is kind of sad.

Flanders Bill 1965 retirementPop, or the Original Pop as he’s known in our family (since my father is Pop to a different generation) was my mother’s father. We saw him often while growing up since he was just an hour away. He came for holidays and we spent summers at his house in Manasquan, where most of my memories live. Pop loved to grill steaks and would trim them within an inch of their lives, getting them “just so.” He peeled and fried tomatoes for breakfast, and gave me money to walk down the boardwalk to buy him a morning paper and some crumb buns from the bakery.  When I lived in Virginia, I drove up to spent time with him in his retirement village. We’d watch reruns of Lawrence Welk and look at old picture albums, trying to remember/figure out who everyone was. He was lonely at the end of his life living far from his daughters and having outlived most of his friends and family; he died in 1983 at age 82 when I was 29. In my memory, his face was round and smiling. Whenever I have sparkling wine, I can hear his voice say, “Every bubble is a grape.”

I miss them. And I’m glad I can remember them – not for things they gave me, but for who they were as people and were in my life.  Genealogical research has told me more about them than I knew when they were alive, and I was too young to ask questions.  But they are alive in my memory.


52 Ancestors #13 – Homestead of the Heart

Manasquan is the homestead of my heart.  Sea water is in my veins from years spent at a summer home on the Jersey Shore, a place cherished by my family for two generations.  It is a house but more, it is sand and salt and sea and freedom. It is memory and friends who are closer than some blood relatives. It is a place that stands strong in my memory, though it has been 50 years since I spent a summer there and more than 20 years since I’ve seen it in person.

Manasquan - 417 Beachfront - August 1934

417 Beachfront, Manasquan, 1934, with Jane Anne and Peg Flanders

My maternal grandparents bought the house and the one behind it as a unit in 1934 during the height of the Depression (and who knows why anyone thought that was a good idea).  They were on a relatively quiet beach close to the Manasquan Inlet.  The other houses in the neighborhood were owned or rented by families with children so there were always kids to hang out with, for my mom’s generation and for mine.

Myers and Nau Kids, Manasquan 1961

Typical beach picture – our house is second from the left. Houses were background, not the focus.

We spent long days going from towel to surf and back to towel, talking and listening to music and entertaining ourselves with those our own age, whether that age was 5, 15, 32, or 60. We were in and out of each others homes and lives, summer after summer. We became family.

BeachBall.jpgWe marked the summer by dates:  Opening Day when beach badges were required. Memorial Day, when we took down the window battens and swept away the winter sand, opening the houses for summer. July 4th meant fireworks seen from the sandy beach, grilled burgers and corn and fresh juicy Jersey tomatoes. Summer ended with Labor Day, which always brought rough surf, families gathered from multiple houses to share cookouts, and the packing away of the houses. I still go there in my mind and heart and keep it close with a small glass ball on my desk, filled with sand and shells and seaglass from Manasquan beach.