I'm thinking it’s time to close the chapter on reminiscences about my dad. Compiling The Last Resort provided a tiny window into his thoughts as he hung out with Bobby and the others at their Salt River camp. By poring over the journal that he kept while working at Harvard Forest, I learned that he struggled with the same sorts of issues we all do as we launch a career. I discovered his sense of humor and his wry take on the world. The project allowed me to presumptuously call strangers and initiate conversations about their own memories of Pud. Amazingly, it prompted others to reach out to me and share their stories. What a journey it has been.
I’m not saying I won’t write about him again, but I worry that this little habit of mine has become outrageously self-indulgent. I recall the first time a reader of The Last Resort approached me and said, “I loved your book. But you know it’s really about a little girl searching for her father.” I was so embarrassed. That was not at all what I had intended. But that was, of course, exactly what I had delivered.
Occasionally, however, a chance comment from a family member or a former colleague of my father’s reveals another truth. Pud’s premature death at age 44 shattered lives.
Of course, we can start with my mother’s. I only knew her as a somewhat withdrawn, perhaps depressed, but deeply intelligent woman who evidently struggled to find her equilibrium after my father’s death. Others, however, tell stories of her being the life of the party. Photos of her as a young adult reveal a gaiety I rarely saw. Like many widows and widowers, she never fully recovered.
The family of my father’s sister, twelve years his senior and his legal guardian for a time after his own father’s death when he was 10, tell me how she grieved his death almost like she had lost her own child. My father’s older brother, with whom he was very close, rallied to my family’s aid immediately after my father’s death. Then my uncle went into a dark spiral, taking his large family on a heart-wrenching journey before his own death six short years later.
Not having any sons of his own, my dad was particularly fond of his nephews. We have evidence of that. Pud writes letters to Davy after being drafted into the Army. He takes numerous photos of Davy and Sandy as toddlers. He takes Mac and Charley under his wing. He beams with pride as Bob’s music career takes off. He invites any who will join him to Camp Last Resort.
Just recently, at Harvard Forest, we were shown a handsome “Memorial Album” of photos that his Harvard Forest colleagues compiled after his unexpected death in 1967. He was respected as a scientist and cherished as a friend.
Before stopping by Harvard Forest, I attended the memorial service for Ann Denny, the wife of one of my father’s good friends and regular collaborators, Charlie Denny. The Dennys’ three daughters were particularly fond of both my parents, having spent a summer with them in Coudersport, Penn., as the botanist and the geologist conducted their first collaborative research. Their stories of my father’s role in their lives and in their parents’ lives are precious to me.
In 2006, I visited Reds Wolman, the man who had finally snagged my father from Harvard Forest and lured him to Johns Hopkins, where Reds would become a legendary professor. Nearly 40 years after my father’s death, Reds’ face was stricken when he declared that my father’s untimely demise had robbed him of his best friend.
I am, of course, leaving out dozens of others whose lives were affected by my father’s death. His graduate students, who were depending on him to guide them to a doctorate. His childhood friends like George McWilliams, Lin Morgan Mountjoy, and Bobby Cole. His extensive clan of cousins. Our neighbors in Baltimore.
If you’re like I am, you don’t expect to leave much of a ripple behind. You don’t think you’ve done anything extraordinary. But take just a moment to consider the repercussions of this one life that began in a small town in rural Kentucky. Although it was a life cut short, take heed of the ripples emanating from that weighted hook cast endlessly into the slow-moving river.
In loving memory of Dr. William S. Bryant (November 9, 1943 - August 5, 2019).
The Last Resort never would have been published without Bill Bryant.
Shortly after his article about John C. Goodlett appeared in the Kentucky Journal of the Academy of Science in 2006, Billy—as I had always heard him called—got word to me that he would be talking about the paper at a meeting of the Anderson County Historical Society. Since I was working in Lexington at the time, I contacted Bobby Cole, my dad’s good friend and fellow architect of Camp Last Resort, and offered to take him to the meeting.
When we arrived, I saw that at least one more of my dad’s Lawrenceburg High School classmates was there: W. J. Smith. It was a remarkable evening of two generations sharing stories and reminiscences. I was astonished that, more than 40 years after his death, my dad’s contributions to the scientific community had prompted both Bill’s article and this hometown gathering.
They’re all gone now—Bobby, W. J., George Jr., Lin Morgan, Rinky, John Allen, Jody—and now Bill Bryant is gone, too.
Before the article was published, I had had no idea that Bill was working on it, no idea that he had been talking to my dad’s old colleagues (Reds Wolman, Alan Strahler, and Sherry Olson, for example). I now understand that Bill had discovered the very correspondence between my father and his Harvard Forest mentor, Hugh Raup, that I reviewed in detail just last month.
In short, I had no idea that there was still any interest in my father or his work. But what I learned was that Bill knew more about my father than I did.
Twice he led me out to my dad’s old camp on Salt River. I had never been there before. It had evidently never occurred to anyone else in those 40 years that I might like to see the place that was so special—almost sacred—to my father.
A few years later, as I worked on the book, Bill patiently reviewed various sections for accuracy. He encouraged me. He believed what I was doing had value.
He also nudged me to include more about my mother in the book. I remember Bill visiting our home in the 1970s, talking with my mother, going over materials related to my dad’s work. I didn’t fully understand then what his interest was. But he was obviously taken with my mother’s intelligence, her courage, and her struggles to raise two daughters alone.
In the end, though, I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate more of her story into The Last Resort. I promised Bill I had another project dedicated to her. It pains me that he’ll never get to read the novel I wrote about her father. Bill loved reading fiction and he loved history. I think he would have been interested in my telling of this Kentucky tale.
I feel, in a way, that I’ve lost another family member—yet one more of the few remaining connections to my father. Just as I wrote recently that I wish I could have walked the woods with Pud and gleaned a thing or two from all that he knew about its inhabitants, so I wish I could have walked the woods one more time with Bill.
Tim Cooper, of Oakdale, Minn., reminds us of the human truths we can uncover from personal letters. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
A couple of years into my pursuit of an undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, I was threatened with summary expulsion. No, it wasn’t my grades; I had finagled my way into the honors program and maintained high marks. And no, it wasn’t my youthful predilection to juvenile delinquency—I was too busy studying to sustain that lifestyle. Rather, as the registrar’s office curtly informed me, I had failed to declare a major prior to the onset of my junior year.
Two days before the deadline, I met with a professor who would become a mentor and friend until the end of his life. Professor Paul L. Murphy—constitutional historian; social-justice advocate; Pulitzer Prize finalist; and gentleman—took an early interest in me. Professor Murphy and his wife would often invite me to dinner at their home where I was accepted as a “sibling” to his two daughters. What he saw in me, I don’t know. But his guidance in any number of issues always gave me clarity.
What did he say?
“Timothy,” he intoned, “what academic major other than history will allow you to read, analyze, and discuss other people’s letters and diaries?” It wasn’t advice, it was an observation. And I was sold. The next afternoon, 30 minutes before being asked to pack my bags, I entered “history” as my major.
I haven’t looked back.
Nor did I think much about this incident until the passing of my grandmother some years later. When my father and I cleaned out her home after her death, we found stacks of notebooks comprising my grandmother’s diary, which she had maintained from the age of 8. Her entries were initially written in Gaelic, the tongue of her native Ireland, and then suddenly transformed into proper English after she settled in the U.S. as a young immigrant. Finally, barely 10 days before cancer’s ultimate victory, she just as suddenly returned to her native language. Indeed, this recapitulation to Gaelic happened mid-sentence. Her final entries were all in Gaelic.
When I read those diaries, I recalled Professor Murphy’s observation.
Recently, I again remembered my mentor’s words when Sallie Showalter forwarded to me a file of her father’s correspondence from the Harvard Forest’s archival collections. I cannot describe the excitement I had scanning through Pud’s letters. Let me try to explain.
In them we see the arc of his relationships with family and friends, as well as his professional interactions and scientific observations. But more importantly we see the development of a “voice,” of an academic rueful and wry one minute, proper and scholarly the next. I read them and felt as if this absent and unknown man, a man I have known of since I was 15 years old but never met, was speaking to me. And I like him, enormously. I understand his world-vision, his striving, and his occasional self-doubt. But it is his humor—and his horrible handwriting—that sing to me.
Letters and diaries do that to you.
So let me end in a plea. In the next few days, I ask you to recover paper and pencil or pen, envelope, and stamp. Think of a loved one, a family member, a friend, or an acquaintance. Write that person a heart-felt letter in your own hand and post it by “snail-mail.” The subject doesn’t matter. It can be humorous or serious, gossipy or informative, apologetic or explanatory.
An unexpected letter may mean more to the recipient than you can anticipate. And you never know what historian will relish your words in some unimagined future.
Ed.--On June 23, 1955, Pud and his colleague John T. Hack were chased off a mountain near Bridgewater, Va., while doing work for the U.S. Geological Survey. They encountered eight other bears while conducting their research, but only one—a mother with two cubs—"attacked." The incident was enshrined in a local newspaper, in family lore, and--as in the following examples--in Pud's own self-deprecating humor.
In the following excerpt from a letter dated June 20, 1956, Pud tries to reassure Dr. Hugh Raup, the director of Harvard Forest who was out of the country for the summer, that all is well at the Forest during his absence.
When I first saw the sign, I snickered.
I’ve been traveling a lot this summer—long days in a car, routines upended, meals eaten out—and I’m definitely more “thickly settled” than I’ve been in a while. That’s common for someone my age, I suppose. But the unexpected sign seemed a mocking public rebuke.
Of course, the sign was warning us of the population density outside Athol, Massachusetts. Here in Kentucky—a rural state by all accounts—we’re more accustomed to seeing “Congested Area” signs when a curve in the road reveals a cluster of homes or other indications of human activity.
Perhaps New Englanders adopted their expression back in the mid-1700s, when most of these towns were established. A few moments later, as we approached the iconic New England village of Petersham, there stood another “Thickly Settled” sign. I could count three or four houses dotting the rim of the beautiful town common, a gathering place for all 1,200 people who live there. The expanding roll around my middle, I thought, is denser.
By all appearances, Petersham hasn’t changed since the 1950s, when my family lived there. The Unitarian church is still at the center of the green, with the handsome stone library just a couple of doors down. Across the common, the general store still serves the residents, although the current proprietor is more interested in selling you healthy snacks than the cigarettes I remember buying there for my mother when we visited some years after moving away. The town hall is next door. And in the middle of the common is the obligatory bandstand, where we enjoyed a concert by the Petersham Band on Sunday evening.
The closest gas station? Fifteen minutes north or south of town.
Harvard Forest, the 4,000-acre research forest where my dad worked, is just down the road. We were in Petersham to meet with the director of the Forest, David Foster, who had invited us to review the voluminous materials relating to my father’s work currently housed in their archives. Julie Hall, Harvard Forest archives assistant, had covered a long cherry conference table with sleeves of photos, scrapbooks, published materials, bulging pocket folders of research notes and presentations, and correspondence between my dad and other staff scientists. I couldn’t hold back a few tears as I surveyed the treasures on the table and considered the painstaking care of the archivists who had stored these materials for nearly 70 years. I settled in at the table and consumed as much as I could in the few hours I had.
Then we headed back outside to walk through the surrounding woods, the target of much of the research ongoing at the Forest. I discovered that Prospect Hill Road—a path my father frequently mentions in the journal he kept while at the Forest—is not a road at all, at least in our lifetimes, but a 2.5-mile loop trail through the forest, passing tagged trees and research equipment. We walked amid beeches, oaks, pines, and maples; dense ferns nearly disguising stone walls built by early settlers; twisted trees that survived the 1938 hurricane; hemlocks severely threatened by the woolly adelgid; 300- and 400-year-old black gums in a swamp area. It is a gorgeously diverse woodland.
Back at the parking lot in front of Shaler Hall—the red brick office and classroom building named for Kentucky’s own Nathaniel Southgate Shaler—I looked around one more time at the buildings and the land so familiar to my parents so many years ago. As a young couple hoping to start a family and build a career far from their Kentucky home, my parents faced many challenges while in Petersham. But the area evokes a sort of nostalgia for me. My dad still has a presence there. The people welcome us as if we naturally belong. The woods beckon. In town and at the Forest it’s as if time has stood still, even if my graying hair and growing girth attest otherwise.
For an up-close view of the work going on at Harvard Forest and how scientists there are striving to measure the toll of climate change, I highly recommend Witness Tree by Seattle environmental reporter Lynda V. Mapes. You can watch the daily changes in the 100-year-old red oak she observed for more than a year by accessing the Harvard Forest webcams here. Scroll to the bottom of the page for a view of Mapes’ witness tree.
It’s like a geode I’ve successfully cracked open but haven’t yet had the chance to examine. It’s waiting there expectantly, with all its sparkling treasure, this ancient trunk with its broken clasps and brittle leather straps.
It arrived yesterday, a mysterious portmanteau that holds within its confines the length and breadth of my great-grandfather’s restless mind and peripatetic wanderings: the sermons outlined, the teachers certified, the schools visited, the marriages performed, the eulogies delivered, the newspaper articles written, the farm business documented. His journal from 1876. Notebooks from his Georgetown College days that include Greek and Latin translations, advanced math, and notes about his roommates’ romances. The camera he took to Europe and the Holy Land in 1911. The pebbles collected from around the world. The 1920 registration card for “Old Danger,” the Ford he never drove. Sheet music and a piano method book. Virtuoso panegyrics to exotic lands.
All of Bro. W. D. Moore’s extraordinary life seems compressed in this chest. Photos, letters, postcards, itineraries, sermons, ledgers.
I’m itching to dig through it, to read every one of the letters and finger each artifact, trying to imagine his life. It may take my lifetime to look through it all. But it’s beckoning me to set aside my plans, ignore my commitments and kneel before this sarcophagus that holds another man’s secrets. What could possibly be more interesting? Or more important?
But, alas, it has to wait. I’m off on another adventure of my own, seeking to learn more about Dudley’s grandson, Martha’s youngest boy, my father. When I return from that journey, I’ll carve out the time to dive into this treasure chest and immerse myself in the minutiae of an uncommon life, a life that spanned nearly 80 years more than 100 years ago.
The trunk arrived after a curiously circuitous journey, after having been lost to the family for a number of years. I had no idea it even existed until a few months ago. It evidently has landed in my home now because others believe I have room to keep it—or, rather, that I will keep it safe. Or perhaps they know I’m a sucker for historical family documents. Whatever it’s tortuous path, it’s here now, for a stay of uncertain duration. Anyone interested is welcome to come visit and pan for gold.
As I’m able, I’ll share items from its contents that I think might interest you. Let me tease you with one of my favorites: a rare informal photo of the respected and beloved itinerant preacher.
“I can’t believe those two boys built that cabin all by themselves.”
And with those words I discovered one more among us who still remembers Camp Last Resort along Salt River.
On Saturday I had the privilege of chatting at length with another of my dad’s first cousins: Jane Moore McKinney, the older sister of John Allen Moore to whom I dedicated the book. At age 96, her smile lights up the room and she demonstrates the same knack for storytelling as her two brothers. Her memories are clear and precise and she is a delightful conversationalist, even though challenged by encroaching deafness. Her grammar is impeccable, reflecting the education she received as a young girl at an Atlanta academy associated with Emory University (her father worked for the railroad at the time). For example, my editor’s ear perked up when I heard her say, “He was seven years older than I…”
She talked of our Aunt Sallie hauling heavy containers of milk from Grandpa Moore’s milking barn to the road to be picked up by a truck from the cheese factory in Lawrenceburg. She described how her future husband, stationed at a Navy facility outside Atlanta during World War II, leaned out of a passing streetcar madly calling her name as she stood along Peachtree Street. (She had met him once before. Click here to listen to her relay that scene.) She described life in 1940s boarding houses and sharing a bathroom with four other couples. I learned that before her marriage she had dated my mother’s cousin—and my father’s friend and classmate—George McWilliams, whom she spoke of repeatedly and fondly.
When I talked to her on the phone about a month earlier, using a TTY device, she assured me drolly, “I inherited the deafness: It wasn’t something stupid I did.” She wanted to be sure we knew she had been driving and attending her weekly supper parties just a couple of years ago. Spending time with her this weekend, I have no doubt she charmed everyone at those gatherings. Now, frustrated by having to rely on a wheelchair, she seems bewildered that her body has begun to bow to age.
I had met Jane briefly at a couple of family funerals. I knew she was fond of my dad. But, inexplicably, I had never made the short trip to Owensboro to get to know her or her children.
So the traveling trio of Goodletts—my cousins Sandy and Bob and I—arranged a brief visit with Jane, her daughter Jane Allen, and her son Jim. This is the legacy of publishing The Last Resort. By delving a bit into my father’s story, I have been inspired to spend time with family I hardly knew. I am getting to know John Allen’s family and Jane’s family, and I have visited their brother Joe and his wife, Jean, who rescued me when I was a lost high school student in Atlanta years ago. I have spent hours talking to two of my first cousins as we traveled across the South—two cousins who had launched their careers by the time I was a child settling back in Kentucky after my father’s death. I look for reasons to get in touch with my McWilliams cousins, my Hanks cousins, and my Birdwhistell cousins. And I am delighted by all my interactions with them.
Unexpectedly, I am finding family and family connections endlessly fascinating. I wish I had had the impetus long ago to reach out to them. As one of the youngest of my generation, I think I was mildly intimidated by all my interesting older cousins. But I’m glad I rounded up the courage to push myself into their lives in some small way. And I am deeply grateful for the opportunities to get to know them.
Jane's daughter, Jane Allen McKinney, is a nationally recognized artist. Her immense sculpture, towering over the Tennessee State University Olympic Plaza, is constructed of metals representing the actual percentage of gold, silver, and bronze medals the university's athletes have been awarded.
Some people use a metal detector to find hidden treasure from the past. In fact, Rick and I talked to one such fellow the other day as we were loading our bikes in the car after a short ride through the Bluegrass countryside. Rick, never shy about approaching a stranger, asked the young man, Rob Mattingly, if he had found anything of interest there on the grounds of Great Crossing Park in Scott County.
That launched a far-reaching conversation that revealed, among other things, Mattingly’s startling grasp of regional and family history as well as his specific knowledge of glass bottles from 1870 to 1910. He had even done some searches on property in the Gilberts Creek area of Anderson and Mercer Counties. After hearing a brief summary of how his early family settled in Marion, Washington, and Nelson counties, we decided if he wasn’t related to the Goodletts he may well be related to the McClures—Charleen Goodlett’s family.
A couple of weeks before that excursion, Rick and I had joined cousins Sandy Goodlett and Ben Birdwhistell as we examined the amazing collection of a native Lawrenceburg resident, Brent Hawkins. Brent’s treasure trove of historical photos, maps, documents, whiskey bottles, and furniture—all related to Lawrenceburg and Anderson County—nearly knocked us off our feet. Most of his artifacts had been collected the old-fashioned way: by talking to area residents, expressing an interest in their family histories, and attending estate sales. Once we were able to focus our over-stimulated senses, we concentrated on the old steamer trunk full of memorabilia that once belonged to our great-grandfather, Bro. W. D. Moore. Watch for more about those findings in an upcoming blog.
Nearly a year ago, Murky Press’ resident archaeologist, David Hoefer, using one of the tools of all contemporary scientists and historians—the online search—stumbled across another family relic: my father’s paper titled “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey.” Written in 1948, that term paper—identified as a “book”—is now preserved at the Harvard Botany Libraries. We know not why or how it found its home there. It’s more of a history of bourbon distilling in the U.S. than it is an examination of the plants used in the distilling process. But, in light of the purpose of the university’s Economic Botany Library, it does make sense: “The Economic Botany Library…specializes in materials related to economic botany or the commercial exploitation of plants. Subject areas cover ethnobotany, medicinal plants, hallucinogens and narcotics, crop plants, edible and poisonous plants, herbals and other rare pre-Linnean works….”
Since all of the materials in the botany libraries are non-circulating, we were struggling to get our hands on a copy. That’s when Brad Wilson, Bobby Cole’s son-in-law, stepped in to complete the excavation. A modern intrepid explorer, Brad, who happened to be in Boston for a family matter, crossed the Charles River to visit the Harvard campus in Cambridge and found his way to the proper library. There, with the kind assistance of the library staff, he dug out the infamous paper written by the war-weary, homesick graduate student.
I want to thank Brad for his role in unearthing this piece of family history. And, since I’m writing on D-Day, I want to recognize Bobby Cole and John Allen Moore and Rinky Routt and George McWilliams and Lin Morgan Mountjoy and John D. Goodlette and Vincent Goodlett and Billy Goodlett and John Campbell “Pud” Goodlett and all the other boys of The Last Resort who helped deliver Europe and the Pacific region from tyranny.
With a nod to my father’s four rules for field work*, history is where you find it. It’s personal. It’s regional. And it has implications for the entire world—for all of us. If we don’t honor it, recognize it, study it, and willingly take a few lessons from it, we will not endure.
On this day we honor the remaining veterans of World War II. We honor those who gave their lives on the shores of Normandy and all across the globe during that conflict. And we hope that our country’s leaders will once again consider the lessons that history can teach us.
Perhaps they can learn a thing or two from Rob Mattingly and Brent Hawkins, two average citizens in a red state who have invested hours and hours of their lives getting familiar with the past.
*Abbreviated version of Professor John C. Goodlett’s Four Rules of Field Work:
1. Water, generally, runs downhill.
2. Plants occur where you find them.
3. Never get separated from your lunch.
4. Never go back the same way you came.
For more about the Bond & Lillard Distillery, read Family Spirits.
For more about the discovery of my father's paper on bourbon, and his affection for the spirit, read Bonded to Kentucky.
In memory of Brad Wilson’s mother, Dixie (1937-2019), who raised one heckuva son.
I have completed a novel. Six months ago I wasn’t sure that I could do it. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to. I had lost confidence. It was requiring too much sacrifice. I had pushed away friends and family. I skipped events and family gatherings so I could work. My aging body was balking at the sedentary lifestyle writing required. I just wasn’t sure I had it in me.
And, now, what is surprising me the most is that I am satisfied with the result. After all that time poring over those characters and those settings and those words, I am not tired of it. I am not eager to leave it behind. I find the book compelling. I enjoy reading it. It doesn’t make me cringe. It makes me happy.
Oh, sure, I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I feel that I have accomplished what I set out to do. I have written a story about my grandfather’s life, as best I could imagine it. I think I have told a good yarn that the reader will want to see through to the end. I have enjoyed crafting sentences that I hope will appeal to those who love words. And I believe I have created two characters who might just stick with you. I expect I’ve made Lyons a little more sympathetic than he actually was, but I had to give the reader a reason to care about him, even if he remains an enigma.
The other surprise turned out to be Effie Mae, Lyons’ fourth wife and the other major character in the book. Everyone who has read any portion of the novel seems to love her. In the beginning, I had no intention of assuming her voice and writing from her point of view. She just came to me one beautiful day while I was sitting on my back patio reading a book about writing. But she is now the glue that holds it all together. Getting to know Effie Mae is a reason to read the book.
Now, after a few days of breathing deeply, I begin the next phase. I have submitted the book to one independent publisher. I have met with one agent and have another meeting scheduled at the end of May. If none of those options pans out, I will begin the hard work of researching agents and trying to persuade one that my book will appeal to readers.
Of course, I have an ace in the hole. I happen to run a little outfit called Murky Press that I know will be interested in publishing this novel. In fact, the sages at Murky Press seemed to portend the challenges, and the joys, of writing it:
“We at Murky Press believe peering into our past may help untangle the present. Trouble is, the past can be mysterious. It can be, well, murky. It takes some effort and some patience to interpret what the past is trying to tell us. And we may still get it all wrong.”
Perhaps it’s my good fortune that with fiction there is no right or wrong. It’s all make-believe—even when it relays the truth. So if I am able to transport the reader to a different place and time, and to inspire some empathy for people whose lives may be unlike ours, then I’m going to kick back and celebrate a job well done.
Last week Joe Ford in his piece Big Fierce Animals mentioned how publishing The Last Resort and maintaining this blog have helped me reconnect with my extended family and with the families of the boys who visited the Salt River camp. The project also allowed me to reach out to my father’s former colleagues and students and their families. I have written numerous times about these happy consequences. (Branching Out is one example.)
This theme may be wearing thin for some of you, but I want to revisit it one more time. As an acknowledged introvert and occasional misanthrope, I can’t overstate the joy I have derived from the communications, the conversations, and the interactions that have occurred only because David Hoefer and I were able to put this peculiar little book into the hands of an unusual amalgamation of people.
So if you’ll indulge me, I want to share one more story about a truly serendipitous outcome of this project. A little over a year ago, someone I had known in my youth posted a comment on the blog entry For the Love of Books. That precipitated a robust friendship that has evolved into a mentoring relationship as I worked closely with him to finish the novel about my maternal grandfather. I have made several trips to his home in Minnesota to pore over the writing I was doing. During those trips, I also developed a close relationship with his mother, who is in a nursing home suffering from Parkinson’s related dementia, and with his cousins who assist with her care.
Tim and his extended family have become precious to me. Like so many of the other family members and friends I have connected with recently—in some way because of the publication of The Last Resort—they have enriched my life.
Last week I was in Minnesota working with Tim to finalize the novel. (OK, perhaps I was also there to attend the NCAA Final Four men’s basketball tournament.) In the midst of an incipient celebration of the book’s completion (since we were unable to celebrate the University of Kentucky’s appearance in the Final Four), we learned that Tim’s uncle—one of Tim’s mother’s most devoted visitors—had suffered a serious medical incident. We rushed to the hospital in a town about 45 minutes away and spent the next three days trying to help his immediate family through an emotionally wrenching crisis.
Tim’s uncle died without gaining consciousness. Throughout those three days, the most I could do was take care of two large dogs (so much like my Lucy) while the family members were preoccupied with the emergency. Nonetheless, the family folded me into its midst, allowing me to offer whatever sympathy and assistance I could. I was grateful to help in any small way. But I was overwhelmed by the love they were able to extend to me in the midst of their suffering.
My new extended family—my Minnesota family—has already given me more than I can put into words. I cherish their friendship. I wish them peace as they navigate the difficult days ahead. And I am reminded, again, of the unexpected benefits I have reaped from sharing my dad’s journal with readers near and far.
One of the unexpected joys (or terrors, depending on when you ask me) of having published The Last Resort has been the opportunity to talk about the book to various civic or environmental groups. On Tuesday, I spoke to nearly a hundred farmers and civic leaders in Paris, Ky., at the Bourbon County Conservation District’s 60th Annual Dinner Meeting. The food, prepared by a men’s group at the Church of the Annunciation, was outstanding and the crowd was friendly and welcoming. I was honored to donate a generous honorarium for my presentation to the Woods & Waters Land Trust, an organization dedicated to protecting forests and streams in the Lower Kentucky River watershed.
The theme for the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources’ annual essay and art contests, sponsored by the local conservation districts, was “Diggin’ It”: soil as the foundation of life. I had little trouble connecting that theme to my father’s love of the rural central Kentucky land and his collaborative research with soil scientists and geologists later in his career. A quote from one of his contemporaries, which was included in the event brochure, summed up the focus of the evening:
“Essentially, all life depends upon the soil…There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.” –Charles E. Kellogg, third Chief of the USDA’s Bureau of Chemistry and Soils, 1938
A presentation last October before the Anderson County Historical Society led to another unexpected invitation: putting together an exhibit about my family history at the newly refurbished Anderson County History Museum. I spent a good deal of time this spring talking with family members and collecting photographs and other memorabilia for the display. It has been exciting to work on a project that connected my father’s side of the family—featured in The Last Resort—with my mother’s side of the family—featured in the novel (tentatively titled Next Train Out) that I’m about to wrap up.
In the photos below, the portraits on the wall are of George Dennis McWilliams Sr. (1893-1982) and Mary Marrs McWilliams (1894-1977), my great uncle and aunt.
The exhibit will be on display from April 2 through at least the end of the month. If you can find an excuse to travel to downtown Lawrenceburg, I hope you’ll stop by and take a look. We’ve left a notebook there for you to record your comments, insights, or any family stories of your own you’d like to share.
Anderson County History Museum
108 East Woodford Street
Lawrenceburg, KY 40324
The museum is inside the Tourism Office, just around the corner from Main St., in the old Carnegie library building (where my grandmother Nell Marrs Board worked for many years). It’s generally open weekdays during regular business hours, but you may want to call before you go. Kendall Clinton, the executive director of the Lawrenceburg/Anderson County tourism commission, may also be able to arrange a weekend visit, upon request.