–at least to me: a plate. It is an old plate. I’m going to call it a cake plate.
It belonged to someone in my family. I never knew her. She lived a long time ago.
Her name, oddly, was Brown. Even odder, her last name was Coats. So her name was Brown Coats. If you want her actual name, of course, it was more normal: Mary Susan Dudley. But she was known as Brown. She was my mother’s father’s grandmother – my great great grandmother.
Families usually have one person who is the historical navigator, the genius of genealogy,the generational scribe. The one who plots out all the branches of the tree, scrupulously investigating the nooks and crannies of the past that everyone else is too busy to look into. In my family, that person is not me, but most likely my brother.
I’ve always been interested in a more global narrative, in female fur traders or heroic housewives or hot jet pilots of earlier eras. Not necessarily individuals I’m related to, but all of us. I’ve always told myself that investigating the stories of these people not in my actual family is essential.
I’ve loved the stories and the artifacts that have come down from people I knew in my family. On my mother’s side, my great aunt, Mary House, who sewed a fantastic quilt I’m lucky enough to have in my possession.
A home economics teacher, Auntie kept a neat home in a converted potato barn in small-town Greenfield, Tennessee. We used to go there and visit – I remember eating buttery corn on the cob at her kitchen counter, picking green beans out front, playing with a new litter of kittens that lived under the wooden porch boards. She helpfully stitched a label for the quilt on its back.
Auntie had a sweet face and she was a sweet woman, but strong, too.
She knew everything in the world about needle crafts, being an expert in sewing and tatting, and she taught my clumsy fingers a little bit about crochet.
She was my grandmother Virginia’s sister, my mother’s mother’s sister.
On the other side of my mother’s family, her father’s relatives, matters have always seemed a little murkier. I know about Brown’s cake plate because I have it on a shelf. I know about a series of pictures in a burned-wood frame because this prized artifact was the product of my grandfather’s mother’s hands. The images were from a trip out west by train to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.
Her name was Lockie. My great grandmother treasured her magnificent little son – my grandfather – and poured herself into raising him until she died in 1920, at the age of 43, probably of pernicious anemia.
A teacher and a religious woman, Lockie claimed in her diary to have read the entire bible to Jean, my grandfather, when he was 13 years old. She had artistic skills, evidenced by an oil painting of a child, a drawing of horses and embroidery or “fancy work” depicting a rose that have survived the years, along with my framed western tryptich. She was an active member of the Women’s Temperance movement and probably — thinks my mother—a suffragist.
I recently came across a photo and a newspaper clipping that describes the people in it.
The article talks about Lockie and her “pretty little baby” and her husband Andrew Coats, about Brown and her husband John Hawkins Coats, and their Dudley and Hillis parents. It seems all four generations lived on the same street in little Greenfield, “enjoying the blessings of life.” Main Street. Long afterwards, I spent time there, visiting my grandparents in the tall, rambling Victorian house my mother grew up in. Swinging on the porch swing, so novel for a modern suburban kid like myself.
I’ve tried to read the faces of these people in my family. Especially the women. I am forever interested in women’s stories. I would love to learn more about the lives of Lockie and Brown, of Virginia and Mary, to not take them for granted. To treat the members of my own family as a worthy historical subject. I know so little. Brown Coats—more than a funny name or a faded sepia photo.
The last words of my great grandmother Lockie’s diary before she succumbed: “May we each and every one be prepared to meet that day.”
Real history. Personal history.