In 1970, our family of four—my wife Jan and I, and our children, Ingrid and Andrew—moved to an uninhabited farm deep in the mountains of Western North Carolina. We were back to the land people, refugees from the protests of the Civil Rights movement and the War in Vietnam. We lived in an A-frame house I had built at the end of Sugar Creek Road.
We had bought this tract of land, rolling fields, steep wooded slopes, springs and streams, to play out our dreams of living thoughtful, self-reliant lives. We hoped for the specific, tangible discoveries of the natural world: the drumming of ruffed grouse, the colorful communities of lichen, the faint aroma of wet stones.
I felt deep satisfaction living here, and some evenings, sitting on our porch, looking out over our rough pastures and stone walls, miles of high ridges and valleys in the distance, I wondered if I had ever lived here before, if any vestiges of my genetic and cultural history might still slumber in this soil, or ride in the wind that courses through the deep woods, traces, perhaps, of my unknown past or my personal mythology. In our third year, 1973, my mother and father came to visit from Florida, where they’d been living since 1970 when they left suburban Chicago after my father’s retirement. We had written to them about our new home several times, and had sent a few photos, but this was their first visit, and I wasn’t sure they understood the isolation of our farm and the rustic texture of our lives.
My father drove their car up our challenging road and registered mild but smiling complaints when they got out of the car in the front yard. Their white Buick gave off the smoky scent of hot oil after their steep climb.
“That’s quite the red carpet you have,” my father laughed as he put on his familiar blue cloth hat.
“Well, so this is it,” my mother said as she stood in the yard looking around, her hands on her hips. She had gained a bit of weight since I last saw her, and wore a stylish, outdoorsy dress. She saw barefoot children, the unpainted farmhouse, old rusty barb wire fences, the tobacco barn, the chickens, ducks, and a goat, and a hose hung over a tree limb in the backyard.
We showed them our large garden, the log cabin over which an old farmhouse had been built, remnants of stone walls, and pointed out the view to the north over ranges of mountains, Tennessee said to be visible on a clear day. At every turn I tried to show how hard we had worked, to explain our plans for the place, how we thought it was a worthy place to live and raise our children. I wanted her to accept and value what we had done. I could not hide the dust and strains of our lives, but I was still seeking her acceptance for the choices we had made. Maybe if I worked hard enough, I might prove that I could do something they saw as worthwhile. But she cringed slightly as she surveyed the yard, buildings and pastures, pointing at things with a stab of her finger as if to push them away them from her.
What she most wanted to find was elegance.
A few minutes later, we walked up the steps to the front porch. She was not attracted to cats and dogs and as our dog Sophie walked across the porch toward her, wagging her tail, my mother drew back, unwilling to offer a friendly gesture. Sophie retreated to her corner of the porch and lay with her head on her front paws, moving only her eyes as she watched the stranger.
Inside, my mother inspected the plywood floors, barnwood cabinets, and a bathroom whose door did not yet have a lock, a doorway she would later ask my father to guard when she entered. I watched her cautious movements, hoping for even feeble gestures of approval: a slight smile, fingers touching weathered wood, a question that reflected interest, but she remained stiff with disappointment, her words measured and brittle.
My mother’s childhood in East Tennessee stood before her, the childhood from which she had fled: the barefoot Mennonite girl, an outsider, dressed differently than other girls her age, a family of thirteen, always stretched for money, odd people stared at by their neighbors. They lived simply on their small, hilly, farm, wore plain clothes, and sought to separate themselves from worldly activities. Some in the surrounding scatter of Mennonite homes spoke German, an especially foreign tongue in that rural community. My mother’s father, William Jennings, pastor of a Mennonite Church, was not a full-time farmer and often traveled to preach and further the work of the church. Sometimes he brought home a pair of shoes that were given to whichever child they fit. My grandmother sold dressed chickens and eggs to their urban neighbors on Kingston Pike to raise a bit of cash. Mennonites seek to avoid drawing attention to themselves, but many people stared at my mother’s family, those strange people.
When adults, my mother and her ten brothers and sisters had all abandoned the State of Tennessee, happy to leave behind their austere childhoods, thick with rules and prohibitions. None of them had embraced the peculiarities and rituals of rural life in East Tennessee.
There are photos of my mother frowning as she looked around our place on Sugar Creek, trying to accommodate what she saw, pitting what she found against what she had hoped I would become: maybe a Billy Graham, or a wealthy merchant, someone, she often said, others would “look up to.” She saw the rock-strewn road, the steep, rough fields, and a bearded back-to-the-land son who had worked in the Civil Rights movement, an improbable inhabitant of this unlikely place.
My path to this place had been irregular. I was trained as a community organizer at the University of Michigan, and had moved to North Carolina to work in the Poverty Program, then had taught sociology and anthropology at UNC-Asheville, but neither of these had been a good fit for me. I didn’t know if we could sustain ourselves on this remote, mountain farm, but it was clear that I was not cut out for a life of strategic career moves, and the accumulation of wealth.
Inside, we gradually gathered around the large table where we ate and worked, constructed from an old church door I had lain across two saw horses. Ingrid chattered about the books she was reading, and Andrew laid out the carefully vetted collection of relics he had dug up under the old house: marbles, blue glass, old tins.
My mother asked if we knew our neighbors. Of course we knew our neighbors. Did we have enough to eat? Of course we did, did she think Jan and I were unable to provide enough food for our family? I resented her questions, and as I could not find any humane answers, I said nothing. The stunted conversation ended when Jan spread an abundant lunch on the table: tomatoes, corn, and beans from our garden, and a blackberry cobbler for dessert.
Here is our home. Here are the stone foundation walls I built. Here are the apple trees and the cider mill. Here is the gravity water system. Here is the woodworking shop I am building. Here are our lives, which we find to be challenging and rich; lives of discovery and affirmation. She saw a barren, shabby, place. “You know, we gave you everything we could,” she said to me quietly as we finished lunch, quiet so others would not hear. It was as though her giving required some repayment.
In her adult years, after I had graduated from Goshen College, she had slowly moved beyond the constraints of her Mennonite childhood; she and my father had joined a Presbyterian church in Florida, furnished with stained glass windows, ornate furniture, and a powerful organ easily capable of drowning out congregational singing. She eventually cut her hair, a prohibition for conservative Mennonite woman, began wearing jewelry, and slowly became enamored with fine lace tablecloths, ornate silver candelabra, the experience of holding a glass of wine in an expensive restaurant, and a multitude of other markers, she believed, of gracious living and prosperity. She had been exposed to none of these in Concord, Tennessee nor would she find any suggestion of them in our improvised lives at the end of Sugar Creek Road. She found no aesthetic pleasure in simple, clean lines and often equated decoration with beauty.
Just before they left to return to their motel in Weaverville and back to their home in Florida the next morning, my mother turned to me.
“Do you have any friends?”
I was stung by her words, by the way she could accuse with such a question. I had nothing to say, no words she could then pretend to not understand. I knew her ways. I owed her no further explanations of our lives. She could not extricate herself from the wreckage of her dreams for me.
“Do you have any friends?” she had asked. We were blessed with many friends, most of whom she would never know. Perhaps she remembered the loneliness of her own childhood.
Ninety-nine years earlier, in 1874, a paternity suit filed in Anderson County, Tennessee, charged one Elijah Jennings for being the father of an unborn child. He was a Confederate Veteran of the Civil War, owned several slaves, and at an earlier time had been an elder of the Beaver Creek Cumberland Presbyterian Church. The child, born in October, 1874, was raised by friends of Elijah Jennings, Phoebe and Leander Roop; Elijah and Leander had fought together in the Civil War. The child’s name was William Jennings, but very few people knew his mother’s name. He was my mother’s father.
At age ten he returned to his father’s home, and because he was a bastard child, was not allowed to go to school due to the expected embarrassment it would cause. At age eighteen, still living with his father and step-mother and working on their farm, he felt increasingly alone and saw little chance of a meaningful future. In late March, 1893, while working on a fence, he heard a voice telling him to leave home. William believed “the Lord was speaking.”
William Jennings, unable to read or write, put a pair of trousers and a shirt in a flour sack with a few biscuits, a little songbook, and a quarter, and started walking the muddy, early spring roads of Anderson and Knox Counties. The second day he came to Dutch Valley, the settlement of Amish and Mennonites who had migrated south from Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland in the 1870s and settled near the village of Concord, Tennessee, just west of Knoxville. He stopped at several Mennonite farms asking for work in return for food and a place to sleep. At the third farm, that of Henry and Susan Good, Conservative Mennonites who had moved to Tennessee from Elida, Ohio, he was offered a place to stay, and met the eleven Good children, one named Anna. The orderly, well-managed farm included a tan yard and a lime kiln.
Two years later William and Anna were married, William having become a Mennonite and respected member of the community. Anna taught William to read and write. My mother, Ann, was the 10th of the eleven children born to William and Anna Jennings, and raised on the sixty-acre farm in Concord. In 1895, William Jennings became a member of the Knox County Quartet, a men’s quartet, singing with his brother-in-law Daniel Good, a Mr. Ridenaur, and a Mr. Davis.
William became a minister and preached for twenty-eight years at the Concord Mennonite Church, and, for fifteen additional years continued his travels throughout the U.S., usually by train, becoming a well-known evangelist. William and Anna had been married seventy-one years when Anna died in 1965.
The Jennings children, including my mother, were adults when they learned that their father was an “illegitimate child.” My grandmother’s resolve to hide the shameful secret and her steely grip on the events surrounding William’s birth never loosened.
I remembered the great respect with which my grandfather was held. His gifts as a preacher, his peacekeeping among squabbling factions of the Mennonite Church, and his humility and kindness to all people, would have elevated him to the status of sainthood, if Mennonites had embraced such a concept.
As a little boy, growing up in Chicago, I heard my grandfather preach several times at the Union Avenue Mennonite Church, the “Home Mission.” He was tall with a shock of white hair and spoke in a quiet voice, often breaking into a favorite song while he preached. When he wasn’t preaching he wore blue shirts buttoned to the top, and the sleeves always at full length. When he put his arm around my shoulders he smelled clean and soapy.
I often watched him read. He moved his bent forefinger across the page, pausing slightly at each word, silently moving his lips as he spoke the words to himself, his face fixed in a slight smile, his eyes bright with curiosity. He often greeted people, even strangers, with his arms open, a gesture of helpfulness. He seemed incapable of malice. I trusted his gentle ways and his kindness. He lived ninety-seven years and died in 1972.
Growing up, I had heard the compelling story of William Jennings many times—his piety, his devotion to his work, and his skill as a preacher. As a young adult, I gradually became aware of my missing great-grandmother, and occasionally asked my mother who this woman might have been. My mother extended her mother’s need for secrecy saying only, “no one will ever know.” In my youthful wisdom I viewed the efforts to hide her identity as predictable Victorian concern with virtue.
The mystery of William Jennings’ mother hovered over the extended Jennings family like the silent presence of an unknown stranger, and was the subject of many whispered conversations at family reunions. What was her name? Where was she from? How did she know Elijah Jennings? What happened to her after William was born? Several people, including my father and brother, were zealous in their efforts to identify this woman.
They searched church records in Anderson County, Tennessee, looking for a woman who might have been expelled from church membership in the 1870s. There were several, but all were excluded for reasons of age or circumstance. They examined court records for Bastardy charges, musty birth and death certificates, census data for Anderson County, Civil War Pension records, and graveyards. In those pre-digital and pre-internet days, it was slow and tedious work and usually resulted in no meaningful leads. The identity of this obscure woman remained a mystery, and as older family members died, the distress and unanswered questions surrounding my grandfather’s birth slowly faded into the haze of distant family history.
When we lived at the end of Sugar Creek Road, two of our closest friends, Jerry and Willie [Wilma] Israel, often came to visit on Sunday evenings. They owned a mountain cottage about eight miles to the northeast of our farm, and frequently stopped by on their way back to Asheville where they lived. One cool, fall evening they came by to deliver a jar of honey Jerry had gathered from one of his bee hives, and to have dinner with us. We all sampled the honey, clear to the eye and delicate to the tongue. Jerry said it was an exceptional year for sourwood bloom, and that he had watched the bees streak from nearby trees to his hives. We agreed when he said there was no finer honey.
After dinner, I finished the dishes and we all settled into chairs at self-chosen distances from the wood heater, always with a scatter of ashes below the door. I enjoyed all the requirements of heating with wood, one of the pleasures of living here: cutting, splitting, and organizing the wood into tapering, self-supporting stacks, and when outdoors, identifying the wood being burned by the fragrance of the smoke: apple, cherry, walnut, and oak in particular.
Willie was a potter and showed us a pot she had recently made. She was tall and smart, and when she spoke she often threw her head to one side, smiling and laughing, her eyes pointed skyward. She held a stoneware vessel covered with carefully applied ceramic ramps. This led to a discussion of the joys of eating or not eating ramps. Willie also fashioned figures out of clay, happy women and children, often standing side-by-side. Several of our friends were potters and worked close to the ground much of the time, digging their own clay, turning their pots on a kick-wheel, and firing them in wood-fired groundhog kilns, often partially underground. I envied the temperament of their work: pushing and shaping the clay with their hands, creating new or reimagined forms, choosing surfaces, reshaping the trampled earth.
Our conversation that evening wandered into shared memories of our childhoods and families. Jan, with Andrew standing behind her and holding the finials of her rocking chair, talked about being born in Ohio but growing up in Sarasota, Florida. Jan’s father and his brother moved their Mennonite families to Florida in the 1940s, and both became celery farmers. Willie talked about her family’s history in Minnesota. Jerry’s family had lived Western North Carolina for eight generations; he had grown up near Weaverville, about ten miles from where we were sitting.
I talked about my childhood in Chicago, my father having found a job there during the Depression. I told the story of my grandfather, William Jennings, his life in east Tennessee and the mystery of my unknown maternal great-grandmother. I explained that several oral traditions suggested that William’s mother might have been a woman named Nancy Black, or that her last name may have been Longbottom or Lucas. One story had been offered by my aunt Clara, one of my mother’s older sisters, after William and Anna has passed away. This account told of an Israel girl, age sixteen, who worked for the Elijah Jennings family. The young mother, the story went, moved to Pennsylvania to live with friends, and William was cared for by Phoebe Roop.
I could see my aunt Clara at some unknown time, sitting in a chair, bent forward to hear the dramatic story of her grandmother. She must have felt as though one of the world’s great mysteries was being revealed to her. I remember her as gentle and deeply religious, devout in her beliefs. Perhaps her devotion qualified her to be the heir of this heavily burdened narrative.
Jerry asked if I knew anything else about this Israel family. I answered that my father and brother had worked on this for several years and never found any records in Anderson County, Tennessee, that would support any of the stories about William’s mother, including the Israel version.
Jerry cleared his throat and said softly, “I need to tell you about my family.” He, small in stature and quiet of bearing, carried in his heart an ocean of regional history and tradition, and he often sifted through these waves of detail to define for himself what he had just seen or heard. He always seemed to know exactly where he was, geographically, chronologically, and culturally. We never talked about it, but Jerry and I clearly shared the same instincts to track down any sources of local history: graveyards, maps, place names, old deeds, or bits of language that might broaden and confirm our understanding of our own presence here, currently, or in the inaudible and faded past.
He now sat with his hands folded on the table in front of him. He said a man named Andrew H. Israel, who lived in Avery’s Creek just south of Asheville, signed up with the Confederate Army in Marshall in Madison County. He later deserted the Confederate Army and eventually showed up in Anderson County, Tennessee.
“I am not a direct descendant of Andrew Israel,” he continued, “but we have a common ancestor, Michael Israel. He came to this country from Germany in the 18th century, and after living in Philadelphia, Albemarle County, Virginia, and Wilkesboro, North Carolina, moved, in 1791, to Avery’s Creek where he died a wealthy man in 1822. He was Jewish.”
I stared at Jerry. “So there’s a chance you are I are related, very distant cousins,” I said, “if Andrew Israel had a daughter who worked for Elijah Jennings.”
“That’s right,” Jerry said smiling, leaning back in his chair, his feet propped on the back of another. “We might be related.” We all laughed, not sure what to make of this revelation. I put a piece of wood in the stove. I was surprised that some of my ancestors may have lived in this region, twenty-five miles from where now lived. Maybe this was not such a foreign place for me after all.
I had grown up in the Chicago area, had lived in the Midwest and the Northeast, and then, with Jan, had journeyed south to North Carolina. We had bought this mountain farm where we now sat, near where a Civil War soldier, possibly one of my great-great-great grandfathers had lived. Are these more than coincidences, I wondered?
Despite the newness of much of our lives and work, the comfort I felt living here, the rightness of it, seemed like a vein of certainty flowing through me. The hilly pastures, the undulating ridges, acres of trillium blooming in the early spring, clear water flowing out under a face of stones; these signals and a thousand more, fit my senses. The linkage of this place to a distant ancestor, held in common with Jerry, were slender, but it was an intriguing prospect. Maybe some part of me knew this was familiar ground.
One day I asked Jerry what I should collect, what of the material culture of the region needed to be preserved. He suggested old, local, handmade chairs with comfortable, bentwood backs, usually made with hand tools, (drawknives, foot lathes, chisels and drills) and held together by variable shrinkage of the wood (no glue or nails). The seats of these chairs were often woven of oak splints or hickory bark, but occasionally were improvised of baling twine, leather, strips of rubber inner tubes, metal banding, or nylon hosiery.
I was building a woodworking shop and liked the idea of collecting the chairs of the region, a modest connection to the earlier woodworkers of the area. Jerry knew many of the old chair makers.
Many Saturdays in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jerry and I would head off together in his pickup truck, searching for these unassuming survivors of preindustrial, agrarian life. We stopped at antique shops, garage sales, and occasionally an auction. Jerry called it “assing around.” We bought every handmade chair we could find that cost less than five dollars, and often came home with a pile of chairs rattling in the back of his truck. Occasionally, we hauled them all out of our old farmhouse where we stored them, hundreds of them, and lined them up in rows in the front yard, sorting by style and maker. Jerry said all we needed was some people and an offering plate.
One of our excursions, in 1981, took us to Concord, Tennessee. We wanted to explore the old Jennings homestead where my mother was raised and look around the Concord Mennonite Church where my grandfather had preached for so many years.
We found the small church crowded between motels and car dealerships at the Lovell Road exit just off Interstate 40. Some of the crowded six-lane interstate had been built on land that had once been the fields of the Mennonite farms of Dutch Valley. The minister of the small congregation was working at the church that Saturday afternoon and after introducing myself as one of William Jennings’ forty-four grandchildren, he showed us around the church. On the basement floor, among the clods of orange clay and cobwebs, lay several old, unpainted pine benches, and the large pine pulpit behind which William Jennings had stood while he preached and prayed. The minister, noting that the pulpit had not been used for many years, asked if I wanted it. I thanked him for his kind gesture as Jerry and I maneuvered it into the back of Jerry’s pickup truck.
We stored the pulpit in the old farmhouse on Sugar Creek where it still rests, near the chairs which continue to lack a crowd of people and an offering plate. Occasionally, I glance at the pulpit and think of my grandfather, but more often, in the thirty-five years since Jerry and I carried it into the old house, it seems to be no more than a bulky piece of furniture with peeling varnish, made by carpenters of only modest skills, and now of no apparent use, as I have no sermons to deliver.
In 2000, my cousin Merrill Raber and his wife, Boots, published a biography of William Jennings. They had gathered extensive information recounting his unusual life, and in their book, they included several stories about the identity of William’s mother.
At the time of this writing in 2014, I reread their account of Merrill’s taped conversations with his mother, my aunt Clara, in which she recounts the Israel family connection to William Jennings’ birth. “It has been said that William’s brother Jim told W.E. Jennings [one of my mother’s brothers] that the birth mother’s name was Israel. An additional possibility is the name Isabel which could have been a variation of the name Israel….” Maybe people had always assumed that Isabel was a misspelled or misspoken version of Israel.
I asked Jerry, an excellent genealogist, if he could find an Isabel Israel in any Tennessee census records for 1870. He found a listing in the July 8th census for Knox County, Tennessee, 6th Civil District, Heiskell Station Post Office. Andrew Israel, age fifty-two, was listed in handwritten script, and seven children, one named Isabella, age eleven. Four years later when William Jennings was born on October 27, 1894, she would have been fifteen, or if her birthday was before October 27, she would have been sixteen years old. On an old map, I found the Heiskell Station Post Office about five miles straight up the valley from Elijah Jennings’ farm on Bull Run, near Clinton, Tennessee.
Jerry and I had joked about being related for thirty-five years, but now it seemed to be true.
My cousin’s biography of William Jennings includes a photograph of Elijah Jennings on his wedding day in 1872 when he married Emaline, his third wife. Elijah, seated, wore a black coat and vest, his white shirt partially hidden by his stringy, square beard. Emaline is standing, holding a white kerchief, the other hand resting awkwardly on Elijah’s shoulder as though so instructed by the photographer. Neither are smiling. I see brooding duplicity in his face and broad-spectrum distress in hers, but this assessment may reflect that I know what the next three years held for them.
About a year and a half later, if the census records and the oral history offered by my aunt Clara are correct, William was conceived, Elijah and Isabella the parents. Bastardy charges were filed in August of 1874, Emaline also pregnant by Elijah at the time. William was born in October, and Emaline’s first child, James Franklin was born four and a half months later.
This drama, a bitter, glacial obstruction to my Jennings grandmother, and obscure mystery to many people over the last 100 years, is reduced in the end to a minor, secretive infidelity with only local implications, enacted by a philandering, fifty-year old uninspired farmer and his sixteen year-old hired girl who lived five miles up the road. At the time, East Tennessee had the sounds and privations of small, marginal farms, dusty roads, the jangle and clop of horse drawn buggies and wagons, and the lingering fatigue and bitterness of the Civil War that had ended only nine years earlier. Some of me is undoubtedly fixed in that time and place: my affinity for rural landscapes, and my instinctive reach for hand tools, axes, hammers, and shovels when there is work to be done.
I had never suspected that I was a descendant of two Confederate soldiers, Elijah Jennings, and Andrew H. Israel, father of Isabella, born and enlisted in North Carolina, then deserted to Anderson County, Tennessee. I wasn’t sure of what, if anything, I should make of this information, but it was a distinct sign that my roots were deeper into the soil of this region than I had ever considered.
The longer I reflect on this tangle of events, the smaller it becomes. All of this familial history, including Williams abrupt journey to the Jennings farm when he was eighteen years old, occurred within a ten-mile radius. I am also one of the very few people who even care about the identity of my maternal great-grandmother. Those who were most concerned are all dead. Jerry, my brother Stan, and possibly a few of my living cousins, are the only other people for whom this new bit of information might carry any heft, and it carries with it very little that might bear on our understanding of ourselves and our personal histories.
I inherited my family’s need to know this person. Her name was Isabella Israel, Jerry and I are indeed very distant cousins, and I did have ancestors who lived near our place on Sugar Creek Road in Western North Carolina. Though Jerry and I had apparently untangled the long unknown details of my grandfather’s birth, I felt no surge of emotion to match the anguish and drama this calamity created for my Jennings ancestors. The last twitch of life in the mystery of my great-grandmother’s identity may be these few words on this page.
I was more intrigued by envisioning my great-grandmother who now, at least, had a name. I undoubtedly carry within me traces of Isabella Israel’s genetic material. Do I favor her in any way? Was she tall? Was she prone to streaks of independent, occasionally rebellious, attitudes and behaviors? Did she hum or sing a lot? Did those faint genetic inheritances contribute to my comfort with living on a mountain farm? I wondered if she would have pronounced the price of a large bunch of sassafras roots as my mother had when she imitated the vernacular dialect of her childhood, “tin cints.”
My speculation about Isabella Israel is clouded with questions about her relationship with Elijah Jennings. I wondered if there was mutual affection and a consensual arrangement between the two of them, or if Isabella was the victim of uninvited coercion. Was she raped? Perhaps even more than William, she was forced, by circumstances not of her choosing, to survive shattered relationships, indignity, and anonymity.
I wonder how it would be, if I could meet her. I imagine the two of us walking together on some country road in East Tennessee, both perhaps adjusting our steps to create a matching gait, enjoying the sight of orchards and weathered barns, the aroma of roadside honeysuckle and the rustle of corn. We might laugh over our disparate use of language, the words and phrases we offered each other to gain some connection. Would she, in her gestures and manner, express the antecedents of my grandfather’s kind and gentle ways, or would we both be frozen by the incongruity of our lives, alien to each other in our words and bearing?
In June of 2007, the descendants of William and Anna Jennings held a two-day reunion at the Concord Mennonite Church. Jerry and I decided to attend and drove over from Asheville early Saturday morning. Uncle John, age ninety-six and living in Goshen, Indiana, was the only one of the eleven children still living. About fifty people showed up, a fraction of the hundreds of descendants of William and Anna Jennings, widely scattered throughout the United States and several countries. Of the forty-four grandchildren, I lived the closest to Concord, Tennessee. There had not been a reunion for many years. Sunday was to include a worship service, a song service and a potluck dinner.
The tiny church still sat very close to I-40, just west of Knoxville at the Lovell Road exit. The only evidence of the well-kept Mennonite farms of the late 19th century was the name of an intersecting road that ran north from the church, Dutchtown Road. I saw only chain motels and restaurants, a boat dealership, a Harley Davidson store, and gas stations, and heard only the rumble and drone of trucks and cars on the interstate.
The plain white church with its stone foundation, four side windows, and a tiny steeple had changed little since Jerry and I had been there twenty-five years earlier. The very existence of the tiny congregation had always been, and was still, a struggle, but the unassuming building was solid, positioned beside the iron-fenced cemetery where many of the early Mennonite and Amish settlers rested in the Tennessee soil. The side entrance to the basement through which Jerry and I had carried the old pulpit had been expanded to include a small entryway and roof.
We parked behind the church in a parking lot shared with an adjacent motel, then walked around the church and through the front double-door entrance to the building. At the registration area, a card table in the small lobby, we introduced ourselves to one of my cousins from California, one of several I had never met. When asked about our connection to William and Anna Jennings, she wrote on my name card “grandson,” then turned to Jerry. He looked at me and said, smiling, “distant relative.” Most of the meetings were held in the basement now bright with green flooring, gray paneling, and long fluorescent lights.
The day began with a visit to the Jennings home place, owned by a friendly woman who said she had heard so much about the Jennings family. The farm had been sold in the 1940s and subdivided into residential lots. The two-story farmhouse, a nineteenth century structure originally built over a log cabin, stood out as a tall relic among the one story ranch houses. The other dwellings in the aging subdivision, also looked outdated and worn: peeling paint, unwashed windows, scruffy landscaping.
I had visited the farm once as a boy, and remembered the rolling pastures, two big barns, the smoke house, and a shed full of tools Grandpa called the shop. Only the house, in some disrepair, remained. Fifty people now spread around the yard in small, irregular groups, some pointing with questions, some pointing at memories, a few had never been here before.
Soon after we arrived at the reunion, I was asked if I would sing with three of my cousins in a male quartet, a common form of special music in Mennonite churches. We were to sing during the worship service the next morning. Almost all Mennonites, after years of four-part congregational singing, could carry their part, not dependent upon piano or organ accompaniment.
We gathered that evening at the front of the small sanctuary to rehearse; three of us lived in the United States, and one in India. We were all grandsons of William and Anna, but I could find no physical resemblance among the four of us. We barely knew each other and had never sung together before. We shook hands and by way of introduction commented on whom, of the eleven children of William and Anna, was our parent. “I’m Bob Brunk, youngest son of Ann, the tenth of the eleven,” I said when it was my turn. The mood was one of friendly cooperation to do an assigned task.
We were handed hymnals, and told the number of the song we were to sing, one of William Jennings’ favorite hymns. We stood in a small arc, facing the back of the church and after one note was blown on a pitch pipe, we began singing, I the bass line. It was not a difficult hymn and after one time through the first verse our voices blended in acceptable balance, and we relaxed in the comfort of familiar harmonies. The sound of unaccompanied voices landing accurately on their pitches has always been satisfying to me, a moment of alignment not unlike a blurry photographic image shifting into sharp focus. Several family members walking through the back of the church paused to listen. After three or four times through, we were ready for the service the next morning. I was once again thankful for the music in my life, the Mennonite tradition of a cappella congregational singing, pianos and organs often viewed as too secular for use in churches.
The next morning, the little church was nearly full, the small congregation augmented by the Jennings visitors. The two rows of oak benches were angled forward from a central aisle paved in green carpet. A wooden sign with permanent headings and removable numbers hung to one side at the front: “Attendance Last Sunday 49,” “Offering Last Sunday 113,” “Missionary Offering 33.” The next three lines held the numbers for the hymns in this day’s service.
As I glanced around the small sanctuary I imagined my mother in this place ninety years earlier, sitting on one of the old pine benches in this sparsely furnished room. She would have been four years old, and I picture her sitting in a tight row with many of her older brothers and sisters, perhaps holding the hand of an older brother. How unhappy she might have been in that line of plainly dressed, obedient children, stranded in this tiny outpost of Mennonite conviction and habit.
Just before another of my cousins preached the morning sermon, “The Four Anchors,” our quartet, seated on the first row, rose to sing. I blew an A-flat on the pitch pipe. We gathered up our musical skills and held them in common for five verses of “Have Thine Own Way.” Something old and seldom used was suddenly present and valued, if only for a few minutes, for we were never a quartet again. I have forgotten the four anchors, but having heard many versions of this sermon I could probably suggest four good mooring candidates if needed.
I had also been asked to help lead the congregational singing which followed the worship service that morning. The favorite songs of William Jennings were listed in two columns on green sheets of paper passed out to the congregation. I expected traditional Mennonite hymns, but was surprised to see listed several songs our shaped note group had sung for the past twenty-five years, many of which Jerry had taught us. Then I remembered that William Jennings, for the first eighteen years of his life, attended Baptist and Presbyterian churches and possibly heard shaped note singing. When he left home he took with him, in his flour sack, a small songbook, certainly not of Mennonite origin.
I had never led singing before, anywhere, but I didn’t hesitate. I stood on the same low stage where my grandfather had stood preaching and singing for many years, leading the same songs he had led, grabbing starting pitches from an uncatalogued storehouse of hymn-singing memories. For me, the joy of singing these songs derived from in my long affection for four part unaccompanied vocal music and the many times I had sung these hymns and gospel songs as a child and young adult. It had little to do with the theology expressed. I wondered if William Jennings would have minded that I had strayed far afield from traditional Mennonite belief and practice. Had he been there, he surely would have been smiling and singing with us in his strong baritone voice. Maybe he was there, that Sunday afternoon in June, kind and accepting of my unconventional path.
The old hymns surged through the small, plain church as they had not for many years, people smiling, nodding their heads, mouthing familiar words. I was carried away by the place, the music, and how I was, in some ways, standing in for my grandfather. The air was dense with kindness and what I took to be forgiveness; people letting go of whatever grievances or sadness had encumbered them when they entered the unassuming, country church that morning. We sang “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand,” “Oh They Tell Me of An Unclouded Day,” “I Am Bound for the Promised Land.” For these I didn’t need a songbook: I knew all the verses from our years of shaped note singing. My mother had died three years earlier, but I wondered what she might have thought if she, on this day, had been back in this church of her childhood. As she watched me lead the singing, would she have felt any satisfaction in my spontaneous embrace of this music, my grandfather’s legacy, and the other remnants of my Mennonite origins? She had forsaken the Mennonite culture of her childhood, much of which I was celebrating on this day.
After the congregational singing, a potluck dinner was served to all attending. Only those familiar with Mennonite pot-luck dinners could have anticipated the tables heaped with mounds of delicious, home-prepared food: baked ham, fried chicken, roast beef, fresh tomatoes, potato salad, peach and pecan pies: surely enough food for several hundred people. The folding tables, covered with worn but ironed tablecloths, bowed at the centers from the weight of the great platters of food. I remembered many similar dinners from my childhood: Mennonite women who took “a dish” to these gatherings, and carried in three kinds of meat, two salads, deviled eggs, a corn casserole, scalloped potatoes, and cherry, apple, and shoo-fly pies.
As the group included many people not well known to each other, we were asked to stand before dinner and introduce ourselves, indicating where we were from, and our connection to the Jennings family. I had watched two strangers who had sat through the worship service and the singing service. I could tell by their manner that they were in an unfamiliar setting. They knew none of the songs and watched others during the service to see when to stand, sit, or bow their heads. Their presence seemed inappropriate to me. This time was for people with special ties to this family and this place. It had been a memorable day for me, and I wanted the air, crowded with the echoes and imagined landscapes of my personal history, to be protected from intrusion, and not diluted by the scent of strangers with other agendas.
The man, with long oily hair, a weathered shirt and cowboy boots, rose when it was his turn. “I’m Gerald Hudson,” he began, placing both his hands on back of the chair in front of him. Then, pointing to the woman seated beside him, said, “This is my friend Debbie. We’re both from Texas. We don’t know any of the Jennings family but we are sure glad to hear about them. You all seem like very nice people.” He said they were down on their luck and just traveling through. “We were standing out on the interstate and thought we might join you all for lunch.” His words were clear, direct, and carried no apology.
I looked at his friend Debbie. She looked frightened, her clothes faded, her face sunburned and strained, perhaps trying to match her boyfriend’s confidence. I wondered what fears she had swallowed to walk through the entrance to this church and be stared at by a room full of strangers. For all she knew, she might have found stone-faced, hostile people, their arms folded across their chests, their mouths tight with suspicion.
The remnants of the scattered Jennings family, gathered for perhaps the last time, smiled and nodded their heads, many saying the two guests were welcome to join the family for lunch. One said, “You are welcome to anything we have.”
Many members of the Jennings family scarcely knew each other, but in this moment the loose, unspoken ties that connected them to each other found a juncture, a binding they could honor. In that instinctive moment of compassion, the two guests from Texas became members of the widely dispersed Jennings family, no more distant or foreign than others in the room. Perhaps we are all related to strangers.
I thought of William Jennings, 114 years earlier, stopping by a Mennonite farm about one mile from where we were now assembled, asking strangers for food and a place to sleep. He was also hungry, weary of travel and in need of kindness.