Off to Wales with my great-grandmother’s diary

mary davies feb 1896 sm

Mary in February 1896, at the age of 24

My mother gave me my first diary when I was 13. It had a yellow cardboard cover and a tiny lock and key. I welcomed the chance to put down my secrets, especially to spill out the doubts and longings that ached in my boy-crazy heart. Afraid some nosy person might cut the cardboard strap that connected the lock to the back cover, I hid the little book in my closet in a box of Lincoln Logs that my brother and I were too old to play with. The words were definitely for my eyes only.

Ten years later, when I lived in a New York City commune devoted to truthfulness, all of us kept journals to deal with the jealousies, guilts, and self-criticisms our intertwined lives entailed. Writing about my emotions helped keep them from clogging up and either sending me into a deep depression or exploding in anger.

My diaries, like many people’s journals nowadays, served as therapeutic tools. I get the feeling from my great-grandmother’s travel diary and her father’s Civil War diary that the medium in the 19th century had a different purpose.

There is no self-analysis in either of those precious documents, no attempt to vent grief and anger. Among the marching and camping, William Davies notes matter-of-factly that his feet are bleeding from his new, too-tight boots, that his friend John Jones died of pneumonia and was sent home in a metallic coffin, that he and his comrades spent a night burying the dead after an assault on Vicksburg, what he called “a trying time for me and the rest also.” But he goes no deeper into his emotions. In fact, when John Jones dies, he stops writing for two weeks.

Of his biggest trauma, three months as a prisoner of war in the hell of Andersonville Prison, he wrote only two sentences. Far from working through his pain, he refused to dwell on it or to inflict on his future readers anything that might be too upsetting. I think he was keeping a record, for himself and for his family, of events he knew were significant. I wonder how his wife felt about his omissions. Was she glad to be spared his suffering? Or did she long for more details, to know what had been in his heart, especially when it seemed the pain continued to haunt him after the war?

Mary Davies’ 1892 diary covers three months in Wales, her father’s birthplace. The writing is almost as restrained as William’s, although she describes places—farmhouses, ancient castles, landscape, a tin works—in extravagant detail. It reads like a travelogue she would be happy to show her mother, her brother and sister, and curious acquaintances at home. There are few conflicts and almost no descriptions of people that might offend or cause envy—although she names every person who went for a walk with her or invited her to their house. I find her reticence about her emotions intensely frustrating. Of course, I’m grateful beyond words to have both of these documents offering windows into past lives. But couldn’t Mary have spilled a few secrets of her inner world? I suppose not, if the writings were destined for other readers.

I’m about to go to Wales with a transcript of her diary in hand, seeking the places she visited 124 years ago. The book I’m writing about Mary is composed of both actual letters she kept and letters I make up to fill in the gaps—as well as letters I write to her, mulling over her life and its impact on me. Sometimes she answers my letters. I will be looking at Wales through her eyes, trying to intuit the emotions she left out of her journal. I hope she’s paying attention.

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Playing games with the ancestors

flinch boxFlinch, a game played with a custom-made deck of cards, was invented in 1901 by A.J. Patterson. He grew up on a farm in Michigan and graduated from high school at the age of sixteen. After working at jobs in Grand Rapids and Chicago, he settled in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he was a bookkeeper at a stationery store, Beecher & Kymer.

One day, while playing cards at home, Patterson came up with the idea for Flinch. He designed a special deck and devised rules. Eventually he became head of the Flinch Card Company and ran it through the stationery store, renamed Beecher, Kymer, & Patterson.

According to a Kalamazoo history website,

It was reported that game stores had special signs made for their window displays that read “No Flinch Today” for when they were sold out of the game, and “Flinch Today” for when they received a new shipment. In 1903 nearly 1 million Flinch games were sold, and by the time Patterson sold the rights to Parker Brothers in 1936, over seven and a half million had been sold.

In 1904, when my great-grandmother, Mary Wingebach, had been married for two years, she visited family in Chicago. She wrote nearly every day to her husband, August, back in the Bronx. One her letters is interrupted by these lines:

Now I must stop and play Flinch dear.

10 p.m. or later

Deary I can’t write more now, as we played later than I had expected.

A couple weeks later, she writes:

Mamma and I are taking it very quietly this week, just little walks. Then we play Flinch in the evening.

According to Wikipedia, original versions of Flinch are available online for about $40. I found a deck from the 1950s on for $12–I figured that’s old enough to get a flavor of the past. When it arrives, I will play Flinch with my game-loving friend Janet. I’ll pretend Mary and her mother are at the table with us.

Mary was pretty thrifty. Even though I didn’t spring for the 1904 version, I think she’ll be touched.

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Pilgrim versus tourist

old welsh costume pontardulais

Old Welsh costume, a card kept by my great-grandmother

In his book Spiritual Journeys of an Anarchist (Ardent Press, 2014), Peter Lamborn Wilson described “intentional travel” as a sufi tradition in which the traveler, to fix his itinerary, “waited for ‘signs’ to appear, coincidences, intuitions….” I read these lines sitting on the subway on the way to a Women’s Welsh Club in a church on New York’s Upper West Side.

I have been studying Welsh in honor of my great-great-grandfather, born in southern Wales, and his daughter, Mary, who traveled from Topeka to his hometown of Pontardulais in 1892, to visit relatives. Mary, 20 years old, had kept a diary, and I was thinking to go to Wales and find the towns she wrote about, the roads she strolled with her Welsh beau.

“You know, they speak English in Wales,” my husband observed.

“I know, but they’ll be impressed if I can speak some Welsh,” I answered. I don’t want to be seen as a tourist. I want people to understand that I’m a pilgrim, an intentional traveler, seeking a spiritual connection to my ancestors. But I keep procrastinating planning my trip. It’s a big undertaking, and I need a push. Meanwhile, I thought a visit to the Women’s Welsh Club might be a chance to practice my nascent speaking skills.

When I walked in late, there was a staged reading going on—a narrator and two actors reading from Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. My theatrical friend Gavin, now passed away, once gave me a copy of Happy Days and said I ought to play Winnie some day (even though I would have to be buried up to my waist in sand). My daughter had recently urged me to read an Elena Ferrante novel in which it happens that a plot twist is evoked by a copy of Happy Days. Impressed by the coincidence, I settled down to listen.

When Winnie took out of her bag a music box that played “The Merry Widow Waltz,” I was even more impressed. When I was a child, I loved to open my mother’s jewelry box, which played the same tune.

Not until I was eating dinner that night with my friend Kristin, who had a Welsh grandfather and is planning to go to Wales with me, did those coincidences take on a meaning. These are surely the signs encouraging me to get cracking on my trip to Wales.

Okay, okay, I can take a hint. Pontardulais, here I come.

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Talisman of gratitude

talisman of leavesAccording to Mayan shaman Martín Prechtel, all inspiration comes from the Other World. When we create something, we are supposed to give back to our ancestors in the Other World, using the form of “eloquent sound,” or by offering something we’ve made with our hands. The spiritual poverty of modern civilization is related to our failure to acknowledge our debt.

Remembering this principle, and grateful that work on my ancestor book, stuck for several weeks, has began to flow again, I decided to make something with my hands. The urge was an impulse of the moment as I stood on a rock behind my house, reciting a morning prayer. Looking around, I thought I might make a very simple talisman.

I used to think of talismans as articles of superstition. A talisman is defined as an object believed to contain magical properties, providing good luck for the possessor or offering protection from harm. But I now see a talisman not as a physical object but as a symbol of consciousness with a practical purpose. A talisman is chosen or created from items that represent some emotion or quality–gratitude, healing, creativity—and expresses this quality in tangible form.

At my feet on the mountainside were last fall’s dried-up leaves. I picked up a pine twig and poked holes in a rust-speckled beech leaf, a gracefully curled maple leaf, a stiff shiny oak leaf, and I threaded them on the twig. The leaves, still beautiful, could represent death and the persistence of consciousness after death. The twig is the connection among people and generations. The act of creation was effortless, without fear of making mistakes or being judged by an audience.

I placed the talisman on my ancestor shrine and thanked my forebears for their inspiration. Whether they can hear me or not doesn’t matter. I enjoyed the pleasure of creation, which enhanced my sense of gratitude, opening my heart, and I had an interaction with nature, all too rare in my computer-dominated routine.

In a few days, I will remove the talisman from the shrine and scatter the leaves and twig back to the earth. I will do it consciously, giving myself another opportunity to thank the ancestors and appreciate the natural world.

If you make a talisman, use your own impulses to select appropriate objects. If you plan to scatter it later, make sure to use only items from nature that will break down when returned to the earth. And let me know how it goes–

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A Cuban grandfather hands down his stories and poems

john grandfather

John Casquarelli’s grandfather, Luis

A guest blog by John Casquarelli

Storytelling is as natural to humans as eating. We create our myths and epics as a way of expressing our perceived knowledge, sharing what we believe we know about an event or a person. My understanding of my grandfather, Luis, comes from a collection of stories narrated by my mother. Even now, as I read and translate Luis’s poetry and rewrite it as a bilingual dialogue, my responses to his stanzas are certainly influenced by the stories my mother told me of an old man forced to sit in a small room with a typewriter, sharing his visions of Havana, its people, its streets, its paladares, its rhythms, and Cuba Libre.

My mother, Rose, was six years old when she left Havana with her two older siblings and relocated to the Bronx. Their father remained in Havana, sending letters and poems to his children. Luis would mail one or two pages at a time to his kids in New York. Because of his political commentary, Luis spent time in prison, where he typed many of the poems that became the premise for the book I am currently writing. Luis was a poet, musician, businessman, and a descendent of Perucho Figueredo, composer of the Cuban National Anthem.

My mother tells how a family maid escorted her to see her father at work. Luis owned a brown sugar factory. Much to the dismay of the maid, five-year-old Rosita used her fingers to lick the brown sugar, getting her white dress dirty in the process. Luis, unlike the maid, found his daughter’s antics amusing. My mother tells this story with a kind of childlike pride, where the memory resonates sweeter than the sugar granules on the tips of her fingers.

Through Luis’s words, I piece together a lineage woven in cultural history, and I recognize my desire to be a part of a larger family. As I’m reading my grandfather’s poems, I let the words reveal to me his Havana, the Cuba that is as distant from me as Odysseus was from his beloved Ithaca. I long to reconnect to a home from an earlier age, but my longing is blocked by obstacles. The Calypso and Circe of my stories are state policies and an embargo. My grandfather’s poems provide insight into a man I’ve never met and a Cuba that I have yet to set foot on.

from Havana Dialogue

    De ingratitud está hecho el corazón humano
    De afrentas y desengaños a manos llenas
    A todo ello le llamamos amor de hermano
    No lugar de egoismo y envidia plenas

Birds eat seeds and we forget to fly
To the last oak in the last wood.
Petals from Venus around our fingers
Reaching the space in-between.

    Intrigas y perfidias a diario encontramos
    Como premio a la bondad en nuestra vida
    No existe sinceridad ni alma hallamos
    Que amiga consuele la nuestra afligida

I settle beneath your voice
Not necessarily lost but always
Seeking folly nonexistence and I ask
Do you still have room for me

    Y así vamos por el largo sendero
    Tropezando acá y cayendo acallá
    Suspirando por el momento venidero
    Que nuestros ojos cierre hasta el mas allá

From somewhere our self-destruction
Red lips smile and quiver
Let me in when I fear your invitation
We’ll walk on luminous trails


John Casquarelli is the author of two full-length poetry collections, On Equilibrium of Song (Overpass Books, 2011) and Lavender (Authorspress, 2014). He received his MFA in Creative Writing at Long Island University—Brooklyn, and is a member of the literary and art community, the Unbearables (

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Charms–a shout-out from forty years ago (at least!)

charmsThe Facebook headline said, “Any idea who these charms belong to?”–above a photo of two flat metal cutouts engraved with the names “Kathryn” and “Bradley.” If I had seen the post, I would have immediately known, by the names and the birthdates below them, who these people were. In fact, I am surprised that although more than 3000 people shared the post, Facebook did not find anyone who could identify my brother, Bradley. And the metal detectrist who found the charms lives a few miles from the members of my brother’s family, near Poughkeepsie, and most of them are on Facebook.

It’s not Facebook’s fault. Bradley started calling himself “Jay,” his middle initial, back in high school. When Gary E. Killmer, Jr., the detectrist, struck out with Facebook and detecting forums, he went to the library in Poughkeepsie to search school yearbooks, with no success. The Internet came through in the end, when he found a website that searches by first name and birthdate, and there was Bradley—who turned out to be Killmer’s insurance agent.

Kathryn, our cousin, died in 1996. The two charms were found near the Wappinger Creek, where we swam every summer as kids. When our grandmother was visiting, she used to come along for a dip in the creek, and she must have lost the charms from her bracelet on one of those expeditions. My parents put in a swimming pool in 1974 and stopped going to the creek, so the charms must have been lost over four decades ago.

Killmer lives in the neighborhood where I grew up, not far from the creek and around the block from the house where my mother still lives. I went by to thank him for returning the charms to us and to find out more about his hobby. He showed me three portable glass-topped display cases arrayed with the coins, forks, spoons, locks, scissors, and other items he has turned up over the years, each object carrying with it some morsel of history. “I find a lot of buckles,” Killmer said. “The world used to be held together with leather straps.”

The oldest artifact he has found is the head of an adze—a cutting tool resembling an axe. An archeologist at Vassar College dated the object to somewhere between 3500 and 5000 years old. Killmer’s most valuable discovery was a 1793 Liberty Cap Cent, which he sold for $6000. “I couldn’t justify keeping that one,” he said.

Once he located my family, he was excited to return the charms to us. The find was meaningful to me. I had been wondering if it was really worthwhile to keep plugging away at the book I’ve been writing about my ancestors for the last five years. I asked for a sign from the beyond to let me know. Obviously, Grandma thinks I should keep writing.

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Interview with my father

My father, 1960

My father, 1960

My father died five years ago. Our relationship continues to evolve.

Last summer, while brainstorming an exercise for a group at an artists’ and writers’ retreat organized by my friend Bethany Ides, I invented the ancestor interview. It turned out to be a simple but potent process, enabling the living to address the dead. Each person described an ancestor to the group and then conversed with someone who took the role of the ancestor.

When it was my turn, I picked my father. I spoke for five minutes, explaining that he was conservative, remote emotionally, yet financially generous. People asked questions, and I described his alienation from his birth family and his dedication to his work. Twenty-five-year-old Stephen offered to impersonate him. When I began to speak to Stephen-as-my-father, I was surprised at how angry I felt.

“I was hurt,” I told him. “You hardly ever talked to me. You didn’t pay attention to me unless I came after you.”

“I was busy earning a living,” he replied. “I didn’t know how to relate to kids anyway. That was your mother’s job.”

“I know, but don’t you understand how lonely I was? I was a really shy kid. It would have meant so much to have more of you in my life. You could have made more of an effort.”

“I did my best.”

“Well, that was the problem, you couldn’t do any better because you were so cut off from your emotions. You just squashed down all your feelings about your mother and left me with the mess of what you didn’t deal with. Your children and grandchildren have all suffered from it!”

The measured response came eerily close to the voice of my father. “That’s how you see it. But my family was crazy, and I had to protect myself and your mother. It’s not fair for you to blame your problems on me. We all have problems. We can feel sorry for ourselves, or we can move on.”

The conversation left me shaken and close to tears, but it was a relief to express my anger, and I felt a deepened compassion for my father. I also realized there was power in this method. Although I have studied with Glenn Leisching, an elder initiated into a West African tribe, I have found it difficult to organize ancestor rituals, the tradition indigenous people use to make contact with their forebears. For modern Westerners, ancestor interviews are more practical.

I told Glenn, who is now living in California, that I had discovered a Western alternative to African ancestor rituals. He compared the interviews to a system called Constellation Work, developed by a German psychotherapist who had spent time with the Zulu people in South Africa. “He based his work on what he learned from the Zulu about the ancestors,” said Glenn. “So you’re really using an African system after all.”

I will be leading an Ancestor Interview workshop at the Historical Society of Woodstock on Sunday, June 28, 2015, at 3 p.m. This event is a benefit for the museum, with a suggested donation of $10. Come and see what gifts your ancestors have for you.

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Pitman transcription reveals my great-grandmother’s secrets

Mary in 1896,  at the age of 24

Mary in February 1896, at the age of 24

Many thanks to my friend Josie Oppenheim, who responded to the previous blog post by locating a Pitman transcriber online. Tracey Jennings, a shorthand expert in the U.K., came up with translations of the four bits of shorthand text scattered through my great-grandmother’s diary of trip to her father’s birthplace, the village of Pontardulais, Wales, in 1892, when she was 20.

Mary Davies had taught herself Pitman shorthand, the prevalent system of the 19th century, and many stenographers have their own invented symbols for frequently used words and expressions. Therefore, the transcription is sketchy. What’s clear is that, rather than sex or even moonlight kisses, the racy details Mary wished to hide were proposals of marriage and declarations of love.

The first shorthand passage comes after a visit to a street carnival in the company of her cousin Maggie, the two Misses Williams, their brother Simeon, and several other boys.

We found a “Merry-go-around”, swings & a game of chance, which consisted of cocoanuts on sticks & the one who could knock the cocoanut off the stick was entitled to one. Simeon & another gentleman succeeded in getting five which they divided up amongst us. Finally with some reluctance we withdrew from the crowd, & eventually reached home but finding there company to entertain we did not retire until 12 o’clock.

The following shorthand passage translates to: “Simeon said when that time comes you will be my wife!”

Three weeks later, Mary and Will Bevan, who’s been hanging around a lot, go out on one of their frequent long walks with Maggie and Mr. Matthias. They stroll down a winding road Mary calls “a true lover’s lane,” and then comes shorthand text that states:

He told me tonight that he could very well be in love with me and please may he see me at our usual coffee tavern. Was … in love every day.

The afternoon before the Sheepdog Match, Maggie is so tired from washing her dress that she declines to go for a walk, so Mary and Mr. Bevan set out alone.

We stopped at a little house where an old woman named Nance Richards lives, a little woman, so tiny & ugly who supports herself by selling sweets. Mr. Bevan bought candy & nuts. Leaving there we walked up the track through the tunnel & then ascended the mountain, presently striking a beautiful lane. We sat down for a while & then went on & stopped at a farmhouse where the lady gave me some lovely roses. We then came home but were caught in the rain.

The coded words that follow are transcribed:

… along the lovely levels when he told me he loved me, asked me to be his wife but I said no. Would not take no for an answer. Ordered me then to give him an answer or I could go home which I promised to do on Saturday.

The final passage comes after Mr. Bevan and Mr. Benson, Maggie’s new beau, spend an evening in the house where the girls are staying with their cousins. The boys send out for sweets and oranges, and the two couples have a pleasant time eating and playing dominoes. But the shorthand text is too garbled to make sense of.

I hope Mary doesn’t mind that I have given out her secrets, now that everyone involved is long gone from the earth. I don’t think any of her descendants will be scandalized by her news. I only wish she had given us more details about her feelings for her admirers. Was she sad to leave poor Mr. Bevan behind? Or was she tired of his protestations? Probably I will never know.

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Anyone out there know Pitman shorthand?

Mary Davies in 1891, aged 19

Mary Davies in 1891, aged 19

When my great-grandmother, Mary Davies, was 20 years old, she took a trip to Wales with her cousin to visit relatives. It was 1892, she was petite and pretty, and the Welsh boys flocked to pay court to two exotic American girls.

Mary kept a diary of her adventures, which consisted mainly of sleeping till 11 a.m. and then writing letters for hours (“We were writing a good part of the day & went in the evening to post the letters.”); visits to neighbors (“One peculiarity we have noticed is, no one has asked us to take off our wraps, & all places we go to we sit with them on.”); and long walks along the country roads with other young people (“Altogether we walked about three miles & a half & felt very proud, even tho’ we were tired, but a good night’s rest fixed us up all right.”)

At thirteen, when I first read the diary, I couldn’t figure out why Mary and her friends were constantly taking walks. I’m now realizing that rural lanes were the ideal setting for flirtation, romance, and perhaps the occasional kiss.

Having promised Mr. Bevan to go walking with him we all started out at seven o’clock up Swansea road & across the marsh to the old Church. It was a beautiful evening & walking along beside the river we would throw sticks & stones in for Mr. Bevan’s dog Nero to swim after. Mr. Matthias caught up with us…The moon came out bright & full & we had a delightful stroll home, with a package of sweets to munch on.

Mary was a proper Victorian girl, so if kissing was involved, she didn’t mention it. However, there are places in the diary where a possible kiss is implied.

In the evening Mr. Matthias & Mr. Bevan came, & we all started for a walk….It turned out to be a beautiful evening & the road selected was a lovely, a true lovers lane, with many little curves & turns. We did not get home until eleven o’clock, & although we had walked at least five miles it did not seem that long.

Following this passage are two tantalizing sentences in shorthand.

mary shorthand scrap3Mary had worked as a stenographer at George W. Crane Publishing in Topeka, Kansas, for several years. In those days, the prevalent system of stenography had been invented by an Englishman, Sir Isaac Pitman. By the mid-20th century, Pitman shorthand was largely replaced in the U.S. by the Gregg system. Thus I have not succeeded in finding anyone who can translate the five brief shorthand passages scattered through Mary’s diary.

I doubt that their contents are especially racy. But if anyone out there knows Pitman shorthand and would like to take a crack at translation, I’m dying to know what Mary wrote. Email me at

Read more about Mary in this older blog post.

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The insane asylum next door

State mental hospital in Columbus, Ohio

State mental hospital on Marion St. in Columbus, Ohio

In a letter to my great-grandmother in about 1941, her sister, Emma Davies Sharp Smith, sketched her memories of their childhood home in Columbus, Ohio, where they lived on Marion Street:

It was a dead end st. at both ends – our side dead end was the State Asylum for Insane – burned down when I was about 3 yrs old – Dad had on his blue Army overcoat that next morn when he took me down to see the ruins. In the years that followed we youngsters use to slip thru the fence & play down in the cellars.

Dad was William Morgan Davies, who had served in the Union army. If Emma was three, the year was 1868. The Asylum Projects website confirms:

On the evening of November 18, 1868, the asylum caught fire and was almost completely destroyed. There were three hundred and fourteen patients in the asylum, and six were suffocated by the smoke before they could be rescued.

The “Lunatic Asylum of Ohio” had been in operation for 30 years. It was replaced by the new Columbus State Hospital in a different part of town. The massive building that opened in 1877 accommodated 852 patients, more than double the capacity of the old asylum. The website description concludes:

The hospital remained in service until the late 1980s, despite falling into severe disrepair. It was demolished in 1997….Four patient cemeteries of the Columbus State Hospital still exist.

I’m fascinated by the way a short paragraph in an old letter can evoke a vivid moment that took place over a century ago and can lead me into a strange little history lesson. I wonder how the Davies family felt about living down the street from an institution for the mentally ill. One might think the houses there would be cheap, but Emma writes:

Washington Ave. cut Marion St. in half. We lived in the East side…The two East & West never mingled. The East side was a bit more classy – Ha-Hem.

She remembers the neighbors as a banker, a contractor, a high school superintendent, a wealthy Irish family.

Then the Shedds – large family w/ boys – father worked in bank – cashier – was sent to prison – stole.

Ironically, when William later beat his wife with a horsewhip, he was judged by the family to be suffering from stress due to his war experience, which included three months in the infamous Confederate prison at Andersonville. But those mental health issues were years in the future when he stood in his army coat, holding the hand of his three-year-old in the November chill, gazing at the wreckage of the mental hospital down the street.

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