GENDUSA COLUMN: Thankful for the path forged

Published 11:30 am Wednesday, November 9, 2022

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Visiting the town where I was born in Tennessee is always a treat, but the older I become, the more I savor each moment. It may be because I now understand the value of heritage and legacy. I appreciate the family who paved the way for our future and traveled the arduous journey to today. When we take the time to research our ancestors, they live again and are brimming with stories and triumphs. 

My husband and I decided to tour the Museum of Appalachia on our way through the Tennessee hills. I had never visited the acres where one returns to a pioneer village consisting of log cabins, a grist mill, a school, a church and a farm where peacocks roam and chickens chatter. 

When we entered the main museum, I immediately recognized the Appalachian family photograph taken in the mid-1800s. It was a picture of my family.  A. J. Walker, his wife Henrietta Clementine, and their 14 grown children posed stoically for the camera. 

On the second floor, I located a large display telling the narrative of Aunt Hennie, one of A.J.’s and Henrietta’s girls. Hennie became famous among early settlers because she rode her horse side-saddle to anyone who needed care. She was said to have delivered more than 1,000 babies in her lifetime and administered aid to countless others. How would I have met Hennie if I had not traveled back to find her? The advances in medicine since Aunt Hennie raced through the mountains are humbling and astonishing. 

When we search for our ancestors, we learn much about ourselves. In the one-room log cabin school with its wooden pews, no heating and air, and a lectern, I realized how, in those days, few had the luxury to attend and learn. We can only appreciate the opportunity of education until we understand what a privilege it was for our ancestors to earn one.

Once we left the museum, we traveled west toward the small Presbyterian church, established in 1782, that rests on a hill in a rural part of Tennessee. Behind the church are the graves of those I never knew until I began researching my family. The revolutionary soldier, John, who died in 1837 at the age of 90, and his descendants rest below the lush green grasses. 

John was one of six brothers who fought for our independence and ensured we would have the freedom to worship in churches like his that remain open for all to attend. I love my country, but when I am reminded of the battle to obtain our liberty to pray, I am more thankful for being an American. 

In Monterey, where I was born, the old train depot is now a museum. Artifacts and facts whirl with tales about pioneers and later days when the train whistle could be heard for miles. Old quilts, tools, art and memorabilia are brought to life by Dale Welch, who is the town historian and can spin a knowledgeable yarn about anyone’s roots because he understands how important our history is. 

Each of us has a story about how we arrived to now, but we often need to take the time to travel back to where we began. Turning toward the past would safeguard our future because we would appreciate and value the present. Thankfulness calms our rage, mends our fences, and humbles our souls. Educating ourselves about our ancestors informs us why we are as we are and how we can change our path to honor them. 

My home is full of old hand-me-downs. My worn spinning wheel, a kerosine lamp, and a family Bible are just a few valuables passed to me, yet they are of little monetary worth. Today when one’s status is applauded, money is praised, and harshness is accepted, my treasures remind me of yesterday. A time when folks worked together not for power or fame but for each other, using kindness and bravery every step of the way. 

Knowing our family’s history is paramount in keeping us on the road they forged. They lived in one-room houses, rode horses, grew crops to feed their broods, and survived countless wars to ensure their children had an unrestrained future. 

Their brilliance was found in their priorities. God first, family second, and when they arranged their lives around that rule, they became wise and successful. If we can learn one thing from those before us, it is that nothing works well unless we do the same.

My great-grandmother earned a 2nd-grade education in a one-room cabin on top of a Tennessee mountain. She once said, “I reckon I found my education right there in the Good Book that tells us how to live.” 

How honored I am that she forged the path for me.