Not long ago, I learned about the existence of private journals written more than a century ago by a relative on my father’s side, from his ancestral stomping grounds in the mountains of southwest Virginia.
Their author, Mary Margaret Persinger**, was barely literate, and she lived in a time and place far closer to the 19th century than to the 20th century. She was a widow and grandmother, living with her spinster sister and surviving as a quilter, cook and housekeeper in what today we would call dire poverty.
But to hear her tell it in these excerpts, she was richer than Midas:
“James (her oldest son) give me a new Bible for my birthday and I love it cause mine was falling to pieces and always be feeling bad taking it in the lords house. I was a little mad cause sweet Jesus knows that James needed him that money but James says that cause he don’t go often enough now it be like he is there with me every Sunday. Lord knows I loves me that boy. I give my old one to Miss Jones cause she don’t got her one. She don’t do her no reading cause she never had her no learning but says it sure feels good having the word of god in her own hands….”
“Some folks gots them kids that when they grown never wants to be round them and here me and sis gots us one (James) that wants us with him forever. Praise be to Jesus. Granddaddy Persinger always say a house aint nothing but four wood walls with a cover. A home is the family that is round them walls and if you take away those walls you still has you a home….”
“Miss Elizas girl say she don’t want her momma or her daughter moving in with her. That don’t make no good sense to me why a child treat their own momma and girl that way. Everyone I got is welcome to come live with me even if we have to sleep five to a bed. Me and sis sleep many a night in a hay barn when we were growing up. Family is family and you do for your family when they need you. To many folks done forgot what it means to be a family….”
“I think (her daughters) Mary and Sara are into it again. I never understand why they not able to get along better. They always in a fuss over some foolness. My boys get in it sometimes but they always settle it fast. Me and sis almost never have us any hard words and I wish my girls could be more like us cause one day we be gone and they only have each other…. I aint never beat my children but lord knows that if they stopped talking to each other I would beat them near to death….”
“Somedays it seem like the world moving so fast that a body never keep up. Most everyday they done invented some new thing to take the place of the old and me and sis starting to feel lost. The old days were hard but we knowed what to do and how to act. Today you hears everyday of men beating their women for nothing and their women doing nothing bout it and people being robbed in plain daylight and when we was little there never was such things cause people was stronger and knowed how to take care of themselves….”
Mary Margaret and her sister were of mixed ancestry, part white, part free black and part Cherokee. Parts of their family, including Mary Margaret’s son David, were “passing” as white and disappeared; others did not or could not pass. Here’s a story that she tells about her half-Cherokee grandfather before the Civil War:
‘They were living over there in Allegany County long fore the war. One night they heared some commotion and was ascared someone be thiefing some their domineckers (hens). Granddaddy went out and finds himself two runaways over by his springhouse. They were a man and a woman and he say they the darkest coloreds he seen in his life. They say they done runaway cause their master was going to sell them off at auction.
Grandma fixed them something to eat cause they looked half starved to death. Granddaddy didn’t know what to do with them so he took them to old man Redcross place. He was this mulatto man that knowed everybody round. He say he didn’t want to help cause he say that kind of wrongness get his family killed or sold out from under him if the whites find out. Granddaddy tells him that he gots to help them cause they are little older than a child and he knowed that if the slavers take them they would beat them to the bone.. He thinks bout it fore a spell and tells them where they can go and find some white folks that take in runaways but says it is far off.
Granddaddy says that he is going to take them through the woods cause that way no whites be eyeing them. Fore they leave he tells granddaddy that if the whites catch them then they never knowed him. Grandma say he gone purt near two weeks but she never worried her head over it cause Miss Sara always say him and his brothers was more like wild Indians and aint no white folks ever catch him once he in the woods.”
And here’s a story that she tells apparently handed down from the days of the Cherokee Removal, which ended with her own great-grandfather being sent on the Trail of Tears. It’s about one old mountain woman protecting Cherokee who had taken shelter in her home:
“One day some them troops come on the place and one them old white women that had to be near eighty go out. Them soldiers say they looking for them Indians she say she don’t care what they be after that it aint proper for no men that not her relations to be coming by when there is only women folk on the place. One them say don’t fret yourself grandma we be gone after we sees in the house. She tells them that if any them trys she be sending that man to Jesus. They never come in the house and sis say that old woman must had her some Persinger blood.
Sometimes colored folks want to be bad talking all white people and me and sis not have it round us cause we has white blood but also cause there be lots of them folks that done stood between coloreds and Indians and any troubles coming their way and was willing to fight the devil himself to save them. Some these do nothings round here needs to be looking at themselves fore they talk such foolness….
In the journals, Mary Margaret says that she writes because she feels driven to do so, and so that “when the lord calls me my family wont forget.” And while she belittles her own talent as a writer, I find it fascinating and beautifully done. I bet she’d be shocked and more than a little pleased to learn that her words were being read more than a century later.
And thankful. She’d always be thankful.
**While a relative, Mary Margaret is not a direct ancestor. That part of Virginia is thick with Persingers. Drive down the road and in places it seems like “Persinger” is on every other mailbox.