Election Day romance

votingBefore the commercialization of Christmas took hold, before the Easter bunny was born, and before Thanksgiving became a pig-out, Election Day was America’s big, festive holiday. Amid the Election Day celebration of 1899, my great-grandparents’ courtship began.

The history of the holiday dates back to the Puritans, who didn’t believe in having fun on Christmas or Easter. These sacred seasons were meant to be devoted to prayer, not partying. Therefore, Election Day became the party day.

George Washington’s campaign budget was entirely devoted to buying alcohol for his supporters (and potential supporters). When voters came from the Connecticut countryside to Hartford to participate in the elections, candidates’ wives baked hearty (often rum-soaked) “election cakes” to sustain the out-of-towners. This tradition is being revived in 2016 by two North Carolina bakers under the rubric “Make America Cake Again,” as reported on BonAppétit.com.

In the 1890s, when my great-grandmother, Mary Davies, was working as a secretary at the Manhattan publisher Dodd, Mead & Company, New Yorkers celebrated Election Night with bonfires, fireworks, and torchlight parades.

In the process of transcribing love letters between Mary and her husband, August Wingebach, written two years after their marriage, I discovered that they met on Election Day. I assume a party was involved.

August wrote to Mary, in October 1904:

The time is approaching that in spite of any care we will keep sacred, –the time when we were brought together. Dolly will you sometimes take me, or when I’ve taken you tell me of our ‘Election’ outing, that night, the next week, you can recall all those images, will you do so for me, Dear? Just sometimes the little Sabbaths of the soul that care ought not blight, since they are holy heritages.

On another occasion, when he’s missing her and combing nostalgically through old writings:

On page 27 of one of my Diaries I read “Miss Davies gave me the following Pome of Robert Browning to read”–(on the train that Great ‘Election Day.’ ) O my beloved Mary, hour after Hour passes yet let me but add one more excerpt from my Diary (Nov 9th, 3 days after Election).
You will recall sweet Heart that I was in Love with you before you were with me…

August had been the Sunday School teacher of Mary’s nephew. I picture an afternoon picnic, organized by the local Methodist church. After everyone has voted, they take a train ride from the Bronx up to a park in Westchester County. Maybe August catches Mary’s attention by playing his violin to entertain the group. On the way home, he sits down next to her on the train and asks what she’s reading. She shows him the Browning poem–and the rest is history.

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The Halfway Café

halfway-cafe-150x150Here is a podcast of my short story, “The Halfway Café,” narrated by a dead woman and examining such questions as: Do our ancestors watch us? Why would they care if we mourn? An outtake from my mystery novel, Stone’s House, it is based on beliefs of indigenous people about the persistence of consciousness after death. The story opens:

“The Halfway Café was almost empty. You might have thought it was a Monday night, but after you die, there are no Mondays, and no night.”

To listen to the story–part of the podcast series “The Strange Recital”–and a short, free-wheeling interview, click here:


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What’s a pandy? Who’s the tucker?

pandy-signWed. May 25th [1892]   ….After tea we took a walk to the coal pit from which place we could see the Pandy & Alltiago farm. We got a glass of fresh milk at the Alltiago farm….Continuing our walk we went to see Mrs. Johns (Nancy Willsaer) who used to work for my grandparents.

When I read, in my great-grandmother Mary Davies’ diary, that she saw “the Pandy,” I assumed she was referring to a river. At the age of 20, the girl who had grown up in Topeka, Kansas, was visiting her father’s relatives in Wales, in the town of Pontardulais. I went there this summer to see what she had seen 124 years ago.

I was also researching the family of her father, William Davies, who had emigrated from Pontardulais to Ohio with his family. I had the name of his father, Morgan, from a cemetery record, and the names of four siblings—Mary, Sarah (nicknamed Sally), Daniel, Jane–from letters, and not much else to go on, except hints in the diary, which proved to be vital.

At the West Glamorgan archives in Swansea, I found Llandeilo Talybont Parish baptism records for four children of Morgan and Mary Davies—William, Sarah, Daniel, and Jane. Morgan’s address was given as “Pandy,” his occupation as “Tucker.” The Internet revealed that a tucker is someone who processes wool, cleansing the fabric of oils and pounding it so the fibers interlock for strength and waterproofing. But I couldn’t find a town (or a river) called Pandy. And Davies is such a common surname, I couldn’t be sure I had the right family.

goppa-1-chapelMary’s diary led me to Goppa Road, on the outskirts of Pontardulais, where she attended services one Sunday at the Calvinistic Methodist chapel. It was two miles from where she was staying, but by then, two months into her visit, she didn’t blink at walking that far.

At half past nine we started for Goppa Chapel for the morning service. After the service we went to Nancy Willsaer’s for dinner. She had “cawl” [broth] for dinner. After dinner she got the key & we went in the Goppa-fach. She showed us just where Aunt Sally & she used to sit, & told us how the boys would sit behind them & tease them.

“Aunt Sally” had to be William’s sister, so his family had attended Goppa Chapel—which is still in operation, although it’s now Presbyterian. I went to the Sunday service, given in Welsh. My friend Kristin and I were greeted by a chapel elder, Eifion Davies (not my relative, as far as we know), who offered to help me with my genealogical research. Several women of the congregation heard my story and told me about the pandy, which was not a town, district, or river but a wool-processing mill—and it was located less than a mile away. Surely this Morgan Davies and his family attended Goppa Chapel!

After the service, Eifion showed us the pandy, situated on the River Dulais, which furnished power for the mill. The building is now a residence, and the woman who has lived there for the past 40 years brought out a scrapbook of historical documents. The first pandy on the site was built in 1448. It was replaced twice, the last time being in about 1750. The mill wheel drove hammers that pounded the wool. People wove their own cloth and then brought their woolen goods to the mill for processing. Surely such a business would require an employee or two–such as Nancy Willsaer.

pandy-2-outside2Two known names and an appropriate date–as represented by the 1830 baptism record of William, son of Morgan Davies—are not sufficient to establish a family relationship. But adding up the further coincidences—the names of three known siblings and the proximity to a chapel where at least one family member was reported to attend—I’m now pretty sure Morgan Davies the tucker was my great-great-great-grandfather.

I am grateful to Mary for the diary and to the people of Goppa Chapel for preserving the knowledge that led me to Morgan and his pandy.

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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 etsy.com 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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