Red Dirt Roads

gatesAiken, South Carolina in the eighties was nothing like the busy little town it is today. Aside from the three square block of historic downtown, there was little more than scrubby fields and acres of horse farms. Whiskey Road traveled from the dying north side of town to the somewhat more bustling south side. Along this avenue one saw the southern belle the town once was, with staggered brick walls enclosing manors and draping live oaks.

gbcsouth b

Drive just a few miles, though, and there was a feeling of land untouched by the 20th century. One could imagine a Cherokee brave running along a footpath or a pioneer family maneuvering their wagon down rutted, red clay roads.

roadWe stayed with Jim’s family in New Ellenton, a smudge on the map that boasted nothing more than being home to the Savannah River site — a nuclear facility that employed many of the scattered families in the area. shackTo the best of my recollection, many of the families were poor and the entire town was strange to my citified eyes. I pledged that once we left, I would never return to this state that seemed so hopeless.

Mama always did say to never say never.

Next: The Wedding


On the Road to A New Life

Off we went on an adventure that would prove to be of epic proportions. That sounds a bit dramatic, but, to this day, I stand by that choice of words. How many families just up and took off in a cross country trek in a school bus in the eighties?  That aside, I can say, it was no ordinary road trip.

Feeling a little sentimental about leaving the state, we decided to make a side trip first. San Antonio isn’t exactly on any route I know of to get to Colorado from Houston, but off we went. There were friends to say goodbye to and Boerne Lake was a fitting setting. (They were from Boerne, and it made accommodations for the bus easier.)

l boerne

We had a lovely day to picnic at the lake, and while it was hard to say goodbye, our friends were eager to hear about our journey. A stop at the Alamo was on the agenda, and as I brushed my fingers across the worn limestone walls, the ghosts of the past were with me, whispering of courage and loss.


My thirteen year old brothers were especially sad to leave San Antone, since they had met a couple of cute girls at the campground. I don’t know for sure, but I think at least one of them got their first kiss there, under the live oaks and wild bald cypress trees.

Romance must have been in the air. My sister and her beau, Jimmy, announced that they wanted to go ahead and get married. However, the wedding would not be in Texas, but in his hometown of Aiken, South Carolina. Mary was about to meet her future family.

So instead of going north, we found ourselves traveling into the morning sun.

Next: The Rural South

Like a Hippie

peaceThe 70’s. What pictures does that revolutionary decade bring to mind for you?

The world had suddenly gotten smaller.  Commercial air travel became a standard for the Average Joe. Some guy in a Palo Alto garage decided Apple would be a cool name for the software he developed. Gasoline was rationed (remember the odd plate number -odd days of the week, even plate- even days thing?), while inflation climbed and the economy struggled to fall into something like this “black hole” that Mr. Hawking had theorized. The Space program floundered and our only voyages into the Final Frontier had us facing the Empire and practicing our Wookie.

This guy basically introduced Iran to the general public.

This guy basically introduced Iran to the general public. He was a bad, bad dude.

Everything was Vietnam. Don’t get me started.

The sexual revolution went through growing pains.  Bras were flung to the wind (can ya picture THAT?). The term “gay” no longer meant just happy.

Closet doors flew open.

Closet doors flew open.

The IN thing was the Walkman, and teens walked around with it stuck to their heads much as they do cell phones today.  Popular rock stars Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, all died at the age of 27, and in 1977, icons Bing Crosby and Elvis both passed.

I had a total thing for this guy. (I was young.)

David Cassidy as Keith Partridge - yum.

David Cassidy as Keith Partridge – I think I Love You.

His family rode around in a converted school bus, going to concerts and having adventures.  To me, it was far out to the max!

But not so much in 1982.  I came home from a long day at work, sending out medical bills to insurance companies and found this:busOK, so, it didn’t quite look like this.  It was a pale powdery blue, but… it was a freaking school bus! In my driveway!

Long story not so short, I painted a big white unicorn on the side and wreathed it with hippie flowers and well, I think ours was prettier than the Partridges’.

Inside were bunk beds, a couch, fridge and camper stove.  Across the back under a twin sized bed was a full bathtub.  It was…kinda cool.

Somewhere, my sister has a picture of it tucked away; I’ll have to find it and see what y’all think.

With sadness, I bid my old life adieu, but beneath the melancholy a hidden gypsy spirit stirred in my heart.

Next: To Colorado! …by way of… South Carolina?


UPDATE:  Today, thanks to my Dad’s photo (the same as I posted on my Missing Sister blog a month ago), which I posted on, I received a message from my niece, the daughter of Cathy. Tonight I finally connected with and spoke for a long time with my missing sister! I can’t believe it’s true after all these years! It was so wonderful to talk to them and know, they had been searching for us too.  Thanks, Ancestry for reuniting my family.

Dreadful News

momma 2

JoAnn (McCammon Merrell) Nichols 1930-1984

My father died in 1980 when I was 19.  He was a young man, only 46 and it left my mother heartbroken.  She was a strong woman, though, and in front of her four children, she carried on, bearing the burden of her loss as well as a deadly secret.

Fast-forward to 1982.  I was about to celebrate my twenty-first birthday.  Life was good.  I worked for a prominent physician with my mother, making decent money. I spent weekends onstage acting the part of Magenta as Rocky Horror Picture Show played on the big screen.  I was experiencing being popular for the first time in my life.  Twice a week my best friend Amy and I hit up the Rocksy, a hip dance club.  Back then, drinking was legal at eighteen and tequila sunrises were my fuel for the dance floor.

A week before my birthday, my Mom called a family meeting with myself, my sister, Mary (two years younger) and my twin brothers, Michael and Patrick, who had just turned thirteen.  That something important was afoot was evident in her voice.  She had struggled with her health since Daddy died in 1980, but, being wrapped up in myself and my first taste of adulthood, I thought all was fine.

That night, I received news that left me shaking.  Mama had leukemia.  She had known for a while, but didn’t want to worry us.  A decision had been made, but she wanted us all to approve.  Mama wanted to go to Colorado to die.  She didn’t want to go through the pain and disruption of life that traditional treatment of the early 1980’s offered.  She didn’t want heroic measures to be taken if… I still have trouble thinking of it.

Mary was engaged to Jim at the time.  We would go to his hometown in South Carolina before heading west.  Mom had been talking to a man about buying forty acres in the San Luis Valley and she decided to make a down payment once we agreed.

How could I say no? This was her request, the woman who bore me, encouraged me, helped me excel academically and baked me cookies.  She was the one who held me when my knees were scraped, my heart was broken, my spirits plunged.  She gave me my love of books and cooking.  She taught me how to be the best Mom I possibly could by her own excellent example.  She had lost the love of her life less than two years ago.  She wanted to go back to Colorado and spend her remaining time in the mountains she loved with the people who meant everything to her.

I would celebrate my twenty-first with old and dear friends, and I ached saying goodbye.  Life had flipped upside down on me and I didn’t know anything anymore.

Next: The Bus

A Few Footprints

One day after a brief but heavy rain shower, I was in a sandy area of my yard with my six year old grandson.  He was examining puddles and, as I had allowed him to be barefoot as I was, splashing in said puddles. I had to check that the quilt I had on the line had suffered no muddy splotches from the storm.

I looked behind to see that Aiden was stepping carefully in the footprints I was leaving in the wet sand.  “Look, Mamaw! My feet are almost as big as yours!”  I smiled because, as a tall woman of Viking stock, his tiny foot covered barely half of those marks.

“One day, yours will be even bigger than mine,” I assured him.  With a father well over 6 feet, he would probably reach that milestone in fewer years than I imagined.

It got me thinking about footprints though.

In researching my past, I have experienced those breathtaking moments of connection that actually made me gasp out loud.  Everyone in the house suffered with my squeals and long winded narratives of how I finally linked us to some great figure in history.

“Eleanor of Aquitane, you say, wow, that’s cool Mom,” followed in an aside to his brother, “look out, there’s a zombie on your tail”.

They aren’t always so disinterested.  Because they like the movie Braveheart, they were fascinated about our Berkely/Mortimer lineage and the roles these ancestors played in the execution of King Edward II.

My middle son asked me with genuine confusion, “Why do you do this?”

Because I love history.  Because I love a good mystery, a puzzle that, once complete, shows a picture of the past – of MY past.  Because it allows me to step into those footprints.

I want to leave those same kind of footprints just in case, because someday Aiden, or maybe even one of my older and wiser children or perhaps it will be a 7th great grandchild – hopefully one of them will want to walk in my footsteps and trace the path that led to them.

I’m no Eleanor, but I have had some interesting and unique times in my life.  There is one story I have always wanted to tell.  My sister has been onto me about it for over 30 years.  I guess it’s time now.

It’s the story of a 21 year old city girl from Houston, Texas and her family and how they became pioneers in a rough wilderness in the Rocky Mountains.  It all started in 1982.

Stay tuned!

My missing sister

As I mentioned in my first blog, the thing that got me into investigating my family history were a trio of old black and white photos.  One showed a pretty doe-eyed girl of 5 in a checkered dress.  One showed the same girl with a handsome dark-haired young man kneeling beside her.  The third there were two other nice looking young men with her.  I asked my mom about the cute girl. Cathy, her name is.  She is an intermission in the romantic comedy of my parents’ relationship.  One I want very, very much to know.  One I want to tell that she has family who has missed her being in their lives.

My mother, JoAnn, was a rising singing star on the stages in New York.  By the age of 16, she had recorded several songs.  She moved to the Big Apple after college and had a promising career just over the horizon.  There, she met a charming, handsome man in black leather.  You know, the kind of bad boy that we women find hardest to resist.  He told her that he would ask her three times to marry him.  The first two times, she turned him down.  She had worked so hard to get where she was. Robert Nichols disappeared after that.  During the time he was gone, JoAnn realized how much she missed him and how important he had become to her. Then one day, there he was!  I am not sure of all the details, because, well… I was 12.  But the story goes that while he was away, Robert had married and they had a daughter who he named after his mother, Catherine.  The marriage hadn’t worked out. At dinner on night, JoAnn reminded Robert that he had been going to ask her three times to marry him.  He leaned over to look deep into her eyes and said “I’m done with asking.  Now I’m telling you, we are gonna live happily ever after.” And they did, until Robert died young, at just 46, and JoAnn followed him within a few years, never the same without her love. I finally connected with the son of one of those handsome men in the photos.  They were my dad’s half-brothers, William, Jimmy and Charles.  I’m glad to have found cousins, but they don’t remember anything about Cathy. So sis, if you’re out there, I’ve been searching for you for over 40 years.  I don’t know why our father didn’t keep in touch with you, but he kept those pictures of you with his most precious possessions all his life. I wish I could have known you and if you ever see this, please say Hi. **Note: Cathy was probably born in NY, but the photos were taken in Florida. (The photos have since been lost in a natural disaster) She would have been born in the late 50s.  Her mother was Puerto Rican.  There are some names in my dad’s old little black book, but I’ve come up with nothing from them.

UPDATE:  Today, thanks to my Dad’s photo (above), which I posted on, I received a message from my niece, the daughter of Cathy. Tonight I finally connected with and spoke for a long time with my missing sister! I can’t believe it’s true after all these years! It was so wonderful to talk to them and know, they had been searching for us too.  Thanks, Ancestry for reuniting my family.