Community Writing Program Spotlight

Thursday, August 30, 2012

What's in Grandma's Attic? Handling the family artifacts

By Kim McCully-Mobley

Holding those old, yellowed, newspaper clippings in your hands helps recall treasured memories from days gone by. From Jake's homerun at McDonald County to Grandma Carrie's obituary from the 1960s, we find our hearts in the midst of our treasures.

Old letters, bright Christmas cards, and favorite recipes are stories waiting to happen.

Aunt Flo's teardrop stains, from laughing so hard over her potato salad recipe, makes the cookbook even more cherished.

My brother's arrowhead collection, from Spring River near Verona in the 1960s, shows a glimpse of a civilization here before the white settlers came. He diligently collected and labeled them as a young Boy Scout under the supervision of Jim Thomas. They remind me of when I first got the "fever" to dig in the dirt.

Dad's target sheet, folded in with his World War II photos, tell me he was pretty accurate with a gun. I imagine that skill came from squirrel hunting in the Boston Mountains as a boy.

The face of a tiny baby peers up at me from a torn photograph. Who is she? Was she important to my father? Do I want to know? Will this box of keepsakes tell me more than I really want about my blue-eyed rogue of a father?

I look around my living room. There's a framed photograph of an autumn lane near Osage, Arkansas. I won it at a craft show on a bet. I bet the photographer I knew where the photo was taken. She said, if I guessed correctly, I could have the photo--since the $25 price tag was too steep for my budget.

The narrow lane in the photo is riddled with orange, yellow and brown leaves, glistening in autumn's afternoon sun. I had learned to trust my gut instincts by my early 30s. I knew the goosebumps on my arms meant I had been in this spot before.

The photo took me back to the days of being a barefoot girl watching the old men play checkers at Frank Stamps' General Store at Osage. My pigtails flapped in the breeze and kept time with the thump-thump of the tires on the blue-green Chevy pickup truck.

As I stood on the square with my young son in hand, I closed my eyes for a split second, going back in time--where things were simpler and people seemed to always do the right thing.

I gave my newly-won photo to my grandmother, Marie McMorris, in Green Forest, Arkansas. It hung on her wall until she died. Now, it hangs rather sedately on mine.

The photo talks to me. It sends me a message of who I am, where I've been, and where I'm headed. I have a unique sense of time, place and self when I gaze at the photo. I want to tell the barefoot girl in pigtails that everything is going to turn out okay.

Another favorite item is an 1870 law ledger from Boone County Arkansas. It was owned by my great-grandfather, Thomas Sanford Estes. He took a job as a justice of the peace in post-Civil War northwest Arkansas.

As a newlywed, he made an extra two dollars per month for setting fence disputes, presiding over weddings, and rounding up a posse once or twice to go after the likes of Cole Younger.

As the story goes, Cole Younger was "holed up" in a safe house over by Lead Hill. The young Estes took his troop of men over to Lead Hill and surrounded the house. After my great-grandfather yelled for Younger to come out with his hands up, Younger strolled outside and shot off the hat of the man sitting on a horse next to my great-grandfather.

At that point, my feisty ancestor supposedly turned to his comrades, tipped his hat and nodded his head. "Let's go home, boys. Cole Younger ain't done nothin' to me today."

The story, like most stories, changed a little with age as great-grandpa, according to my Aunt Rubye Estes Huffman, liked to act a little more brave for his listeners. His deathbed dialogue found a reporter from Little Rock arriving at his home near Alpena and interviewing him about his encounter with the infamous outlaw of the past.

Telling his young granddaughter, "You shouldn't have sassed your grandpa," he told the real story to the reporter about backing down out of fear and common sense. Whatever the case, he didn't feel like gambling with his life that day.

And, in trying to authenticate the story, the reporter found several stories of Younger shooting the hat off of somebody as a warning gesture.

I'm glad my great-grandfather did back off, I guess, as I have this old law ledger I still hold in my hands today. If something had happened to Great-Grandpa Tom, for whom my own father was named, I might not be here today. And, that is something to think about.

The ledger is worn with time and use. But it tells me a story of a man who was resourceful when families were trying to put their lives back together after the Civil War.

I watch episodes of Hoarders and cringe. Should you use these items, showcase them or put them away?

What's the best way to handle those family artifacts

in order to preserve them for future generations?

Some people put their artifacts in safes, shelves and under glass. Others might still be using grandma's best china. Whatever the case, history comes to life with the memories we revisit through the legacies of the items left behind by those we love.

Join me at the Writers' Colony on Sept. 15 , as we focus on "Memoir 101." I'll help you prioritize your family artifacts, as we move forward with the writing process. I'll show you how these items tell a story of love, memory and history -- your story. And, trust me; it's a story worth telling.

Kim (Estes) McCully-Mobley is an educator, writer, photographer, historian, grant writer and storyteller. She makes her home in Barry County, Missouri. She holds an associate's degree in journalism from Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, a bachelor's degree in English, and a master's degree in education from Drury University. She spent over 20 years as a newspaper editor and now teaches writing/literature/journalism and folklore at the high school and unversity levels. She has won regional, state, national and international awards for writing.

She has been associated with the Writers' Colony for three years and has forged a partnership through the Colony and a new Youth Empowerment Group at Aurora High School. The students are focusing their model for change, improvement and long-term success through the historical research and citizenship efforts they've viewed in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. She blogs at