I was 10 years old and in fifth grade when the class English assignment was to write a short story. They were to be judged by our teacher’s mother — award-winning children’s author Natalie Savage Carlson — and the winning stories read to younger children in other grades. Though in retrospect I see I took a fairy tale and retold/rewrote it, my story was selected. I still have the copy of it on which Mrs. Carlson wrote how much she’d enjoyed reading it.
That entire school year was spent in learning from our teacher, Julie Carlson, the different stylistic devices used in writing and incorporating them into our compositions. After I used personification and onomatopoeia in describing my dad’s old car named “Junior” and the many sounds it made when he started and drove it, Miss Carlson encouraged me to continue writing.
From that point on, I knew some form of writing was what I wanted to do, and I began in earnest in high school when I joined the newspaper staff. By my senior year, I was co-editor and writing a column for our local weekly newspaper. As a college freshman, I again volunteered for the school newspaper. But I quickly found I had a lot to learn — and couldn’t always write in my own “style” — when I was put in my place by my freshman composition teacher. She insisted we begin all our essays with “In the beginning, I shall attempt to prove……” Well, I wasn’t going to write like that because I was a journalist. I earned D’s on all my essays until I followed her formula. Once it was mastered, she allowed us to write in styles that suited us!
Majoring in journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill meant I also wrote for the college newspaper, and I loved it. But my classroom writing didn’t go as well, as once again, I was up against instructors who first wanted us to learn “their” way. Until I acquiesced, my rebellion only resulted in lower grades. But I finally earned decent grades in news, feature, and editorial writing — and was published during my semester-long internship at a daily newspaper — then graduated and found a reporting job on a small community newspaper. Once again, however, I had more to learn. Because our competition was a daily, the editor wanted our writing and headlines to entice the reader. When he asked me to begin a story about the discovery of a murder victim with these words — “The bloody, battered and bludgeoned body of Junior Metcalf was dragged from the bottom of the Dan River on Saturday…” — I drew the line. He wrote the lead, I wrote the story, and he put my name on it!
Every new reporting job had its challenges — both with editors and with my dad, who also had been a journalism major. Often he’d send me back my stories with red marks all over them, saying he was only trying to help me become a better writer. It didn’t matter that the stories had been published. He thought I could learn from his comments. Even in my miffed state of mind, I probably did.
Fast-forward 35 years when I had the manuscript for my first — and only — book rejected three times by the only publisher I sent it to. But the third time’s the charm, the old saying goes, and this rejection notice came with the suggestion of another publisher, who had already been contacted. Weeks later, I had a contract and a new editor. We sparred over wording and story order and what should stay and what should go. She won some of the battles; I won others. We made it through more writing and researching, lots of editing, and seemingly endless proofreading at breakneck speed — 6-months — and in July 2009, Undaunted Heart: The True Story of a Southern Belle & a Yankee General was published.
It’s amazing how suddenly I was “a writer,” though I’d made a living as a writer for my entire professional career. My dad had to remind me of that once when I wondered if I’d ever amount to anything! I was bemoaning that I’d never reached my goal of writing for The Washington Post — although I did write two obits that were published — so maybe, I told him, I hadn’t been successful. “Look what you’ve done,” he replied. “You’ve been paid to write ever since you graduated from college.”
Today, most of my writing is done on a part-time basis, for I am a full-time assistant professor of English at a local community college. And guess what? I require my students to write their introductions and essays in a certain format! And I also can finally see the forest for the trees. I feel extremely comfortable providing encouragement to current and former students that ANY writing is writing! Just do it and put it out there. It helps that there are so many places to publish — this blog, for instance — but wherever they do, others are certain to read and enjoy.
My biggest obstacle? Taking my own advice that ANY writing is writing and I need to simply do it, to take what’s in my head and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. The result is the same: I am a writer.
You can read more at http://www.jamathews.com/blog-writers-women-adversity AND you can subscribe for updates.
Although tomorrow, Jan. 15, is the first anniversary of my baby sister Pattie’s untimely death, that it was a Tuesday is what I always will remember. (Above, Pattie with her youngest, Jesse)
We had talked Monday night as I packed for my weekly trip to Raleigh, and she said she was excited about a field trip she was chaperoning the next day for Jack’s class. Crosscreek Charter, where all three boys were in school, was her sanctuary, a place where she felt needed and wanted, where she’d been volunteering since the summer of 2006 when Jack went to kindergarten. Jesse, who will turn 8 next week on Jan. 24, practically grew up there, as he was 6 months old when Jack started school; Joseph, who will be 12 on Jan. 22, went to kindergarten the following year. It was home away from home.
That night, she told me how the young men and women – the sixth graders – had to dress up for the event. Even Jack had agreed to wear a tie. With her excitement, I looked forward to hearing about it the next day. But that didn’t happen, for at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Joseph called to tell me Mommy had been taken to the hospital, and soon Warren, my friend Gail’s husband, was driving me to Louisburg. John was home in Harmony, but immediately found someone to take care of Cady the dog and was on his way.
It didn’t matter.
An embolism has a funny way of taking someone immediately. No time to say what needs to be said. No time to say goodbye. No time to hear about a field trip. Time simply stops as a life comes to an end.
Tuesdays -- the day I drive 2-1/5 hours to Raleigh to teach -- are my times to remember. I do my morning stretches and think about how a Tuesday was her last day on this earth. I head down the road and miss the morning chats we had while I was driving. If Crosscreek was tracked out and the boys were home, they could be heard in the background – often arguing, as boys tend to do -- but we’d keep on talking, discussing their plans for the day, her dreams for them, our next time together, anything and everything.
Because she was 5 when I went to college, we got to know one another and become friends as adults. It was a friendship I cherished.
. . .
The other morning I awoke about 5 o’clock from a dream: Jesse and I were walking back into the house from somewhere we had been, and as I glanced down the hallway, I saw a large brown, lumpy mound. Before I had a chance to investigate, the mound jumped up.
From under it emerged Jack, Joseph, and Pattie.
“Surprise,” yelled Pattie, a huge smile on her face.
It was my sign. I am so sad that she is gone, yet I know she is safe and happy and with us, always.
When David L. Swain arrived for the first time in Chapel Hill at the start of the University of North Carolina’s 1822 spring term, he was a young man with focus and determination. He knew he wanted to study the law. Older at twenty-one than the typical freshman, he enrolled at the university to pursue that dream.
What he found, he wrote to his father George Swain back in his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, were classmates who were not serious about their studies.
Disenchanted and eager to achieve his goal, David Swain left school and moved to Raleigh to study under Judge John Louis Taylor, a state Supreme Court justice. If he attended lectures and completed the prescribed readings, he explained to his father, Taylor “has no doubt but that he can … prepare me” for a career in the law.
George Swain was initially unhappy with his son’s decision, reminding him of all he could learn from the formal education the university offered. But by mid-July, “after having time to read your letter leisurely, and weigh your arguments,” the elder Swain agreed to David’s plan.
“I don’t however blame you for changing your mind.”
David Swain’s decision proved to be the right one. A year later, in 1823, he passed the bar exam and returned home to Buncombe County to practice law. In 1824, he was elected to the N.C. House of Commons. So exemplary was his service that he was re-elected four times, and in 1832, he became North Carolina’s twenty-sixth and at age thirty-one, its youngest governor, a position he held until late 1835, when he was named to the helm of the university following the death of its first president, Joseph Caldwell.
For the next thirty-three years, Swain led the university, even succeeding in keeping it open during the four long years of the Civil War, when fewer than twenty students were enrolled by its end in April 1865.
But it is the actions of his youngest daughter, Ella, for which Swain often has been remembered. At twenty-two, Ella fell in love with and wed the Union general whose soldiers occupied Chapel Hill that spring. Though the marriage was scandalous to family friends and neighbors, a victorious U.S. Gen. William T. Sherman gave Swain a horse and buggy as a congratulatory gift upon learning that one of his men was to marry the UNC president's daughter.
A few years later, ironically, it was in that very buggy pulled by that very horse that Swain was riding on August 11, 1868, when he was critically injured in an accident. Carried across the university’s campus on a stretcher to his home, he appeared to improve over the next two weeks. Yet on August 27, while visiting with Professor Charles Phillips, he suddenly became weak and asked to be helped back to bed. He died twenty minutes later.
As was the custom, following the August 29 funeral at his home, former Governor and University of North Carolina President David L. Swain was buried in the family’s backyard in Chapel Hill. His remains later were removed to Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh under a marble obelisk erected by Eleanor Swain, his wife of nearly forty years.
(Editor's Note: David L. Swain was my 3rd-great-grandfather.)
By Suzy Barile
Ella Swain is best known as the defiant young Chapel Hill woman who married a Union general at the close of the Civil War, shocking close family and friends. The daughter of University of North Carolina President David L. Swain (1835-68), , Ella was 22 when she met and married Smith D. Atkins whose troops occupied the famed university town in April 1965.
That August, as Ella Swain and General Atkins exchanged wedding vows at the UNC president's house, outraged students rang the college’s bells and hung her new husband and her father in effigy from the bell tower. Local residents are reported to have spit on the wedding invitations and closed their doors and shutters when the wedding party passed by.
Yet a recently discovered scrapbook Ella began shortly after her marriage and kept until the mid-1870s tells far more about Ella than her scandalous action ever could. Inside its 87-pages are handwritten correspondence, poetry, and illustrations from magazines and newspaper clippings, even a piece of the wallpaper from the Swain family’s Franklin Street home.
Every page reveals much about the controversial young wife and mother: her fondness for Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and John Quincy Adams’s “The Wants of Man.” She also included a sketch of Queen Victoria, of a woman helping a child read, and of New York City and its harbor, a place Ella and her husband visited on occasion.
A handwritten note to Mrs. Swain contains several lines of Poe’s poem “Lenore,” beside which Ella wrote her mother’s name, Eleanor, then explained how her father thought of his wife as his Lenore: “It was the thoughts of … you my Mammy … that filled with tears his tender eyes & cursed his quivering lips when he gave them to me, some years ago.”
The pages also underscore the sadness that seemed to cast a shadow over Ella: obituaries for her brother Richard Caswell Swain, family friends Thomas Ruffin Sr. and Judge William H. Battle, and a cousin, Daniel M. Barringer. Recorded in the margin of the first page of the scrapbook is the phrase “Died D.S. Atkins Freeport, Ill.,” a reminder of the June 1868 death of her fourteen-month-old son David.
The discovery of the scrapbook is as intriguing as its contents.
Anna Laughlin of Orange City, Florida, was helping a friend move in 1996 when she stumbled upon the scrapbook lying atop a pile of trash in the dumpster of an assisted living complex. Clearly it was old--the edges of the pages brittle and the spine missing its cover--but she wondered why anyone would throw away what to her seemed a treasure.
An amateur historian, Laughlin took the scrapbook home and wrapped it for safekeeping. Occasionally she would thumb through it, wondering about the people and towns whose names it contained: Ella H. Swain, D.S. Atkins, Anne Swain, Thomas Ruffin, Dr. Deems, and Edward Wadsworth, and Freeport, Ill., Greensborough, N.C., and Chapel Hill.
She believed the names held the clue to the scrapbook’s ownership.
Almost fifteen years after she rescued it, Laughlin was determined it was time to solve the mystery. On the Internet, she typed in the names of the people and places, and when she typed in Ella H. Swain, Laughlin found the answer. I'd written a book, Undaunted Heart: The True Story of a Southern Belle and a Yankee General, published that year (2010) about my great-great-grandmother, Ella Swain Atkins.
“I think I have something that belongs to you,” was a message I received on Facebook one day, soon after the book came out. “Today was the day. As I sit here at my computer … I have discovered thru the miracle of the internet--Ella's great, great granddaugther!”
We swapped books. I sent her a copy of Undaunted Heart and she sent me the scrapbook.
Ella's story only deepened as I carefully scanned the pages. One of its most revealing stories is that of Ella’s older sister, Anne, who suffered from headaches so debilitating that she self-medicated with opium she harvested from the seedpods of poppies grown in the Swain family’s Chapel Hill backyard garden.
Occasionally Anne was institutionalized for the headaches, which were considered a form of mental illness. The affliction was so great that her mother once wrote to a friend that only in the “close of this life” did she see relief for her daughter. Mrs. Swain hoped “her suffering will end in glorious immortality.”
Glued to one of the scrapbook’s pages is a swatch of faded wallpaper, identified in Ella’s handwriting as being “From the wall of Anne’s bedroom Chapel Hill 1868.” Next to the artifact, Ella wrote words she attributed to Anne: “Insanity instead of being regarded as a misfortune is too often treated as a crime.”
How the personal scrapbook of one of Chapel Hill’s most famous residents found its way to a dumpster of an assisted living facility in Orange City, Florida, is a mystery that may never be solved.
The best imaginable scenario is that it was kept after Ella’s death in 1881 by her daughter, Dot Atkins Cobb, then passed on to Dot’s daughter, Eleanor Hope Cobb Newell, who died in 1970 in Orlando. When some of Newell’s furniture was sold, the scrapbook may have been left unknowingly in a drawer. Its new owner, not having Laughlin’s curiosity, tossed it out.
“As sappy as it sounds,’ Laughlin wrote, “I must admit that I am a little weepy at this point knowing that soon--you will be touching your own grandmother’s handwriting.”
(The following was read at the Friday. Jan. 18 Memorial Service at White Level Baptist Church, Louisburg, NC.)
Good evening….I’m Suzy Barile, Pattie’s oldest sibling, though to Jack, Joseph and Jesse, I am simply “Aunt Suzy.” There aren’t many more sweeter words, unless you were Pattie Brooks, and then to her 9 nieces and nephews, and their many friends, she was “Pat-Pat,” and to the children at CrossCreek Charter School, where Jack, Joseph and Jesse go, she is quite simply “Miss Pattie.”
How she loved participating in activities at the school. From working in the library, to collecting boxtops and soda tabs and organizing a Million Dollar Campaign as fundraisers, going on the boys’ field trips, reading in the classrooms, and eating lunch with the children so a teacher could go out for his or her birthday, the school is where she spent much of her time.
That side of Pattie – as an adult with responsibilities – is not how I ever thought of her, for she is simply my baby sister. As the youngest of seven – three girls, including me and Ellie, and four boys – Donnie, Billy, Tommy and Bobby – you can imagine what our household was like when she was brought home from the hospital. Our Mom gave each of us a special song, and Pattie’s began with the words, “Pattie Marie, Pattie Marie, sweetest thing the world can see.”
Because I was 15 years old when she was born, we had little time at home together. I left for college when she was 3 – she promptly moved into my bedroom, leaving the room she shared with our twin brothers, who are just two-and-a-half- years older. I was, however, allowed to sleep in “her” room when I’d come home to visit!
Not until Pattie and I were adults did we really get to know one another and become friends. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have some great “remember when” stories to share, so let me tell you a bit about her early years.
Pattie was born at the end of a long, hot summer, shortly before our Dad was to head out for sea duty with his Navy ship. Mom wasn’t looking forward to him being gone, but his captain had laid down the law: If the baby isn’t born when it’s time to go, you’re on that ship. A wise doctor suggested Mom drink a concoction of tomato juice and castor oil, and not too many hours later, our precious, pretty Pattie entered the world. We dressed her in pink and doted on this little girl.
But the twins had something else in mind for her, teaching her how to climb out of the playpen long before Mom was ready, and how to roughhouse and stand up for herself. In fact, whatever the boys did, she did, as well, including playing soccer on a boys team!
Life took a dramatic turn for her and our family when our Mom died when Pattie was 22. Gone was the person she was a Daisy scout leader with, the one with whom she had learned and practiced clowning – together they created balloon animals at Pizza Inn on Saturdays and surprised children at birthday parties. Pattie even played the Easter Bunny at the Cary mall!
Gone, also, was the person with whom she was to celebrate her 23rd birthday. Whenever anyone had asked Mom her age, she always replied, “23.” So she and Pattie had big plans. That year, however – 1991, and just three months after Mom died – Pattie chose not to observe her birthday at all. Suddenly she had to face the world as an adult, and face it, she did.
After earning her cosmetology license, she polished thousands of fingernails and toenails, and pierced many a little girls ears for the first time. Those little girls often accompanied their mothers to a nail appointment, for they knew “Miss Pattie” would polish theirs, as well.
During this new time of her life, she also doted on her nieces and nephews. She took my daughter Jen to her first rock concert; she had sleepovers with nephew Joey and niece Sydney; and when the twins, Annie and Bryson, were born, she and Jeff kept them so often that Annie once told friends she was at boarding school!
Pattie delighted in these children, and life became even more full and fun when brothers and sisters-in-law Chad and Amy and Tommy Angie welcomed Adam, William, Ben and Alex –before and during the years that Jack, Joseph and Jesse were born. I’m sure you can imagine the noise those little boys made when they were together!
Jeff said just this week that Pattie was as much a kid as the kids – and I can assure you that had she been here for last night’s snow, she’d have been on a sled as quick as her boys!
Pattie loved doing for and being with her family, even helping get two brides and attendants ready, and baking two wedding cakes this past Thanksgiving, when our brothers Donnie and Bobby married Misty and Sarah’Lee in a double wedding ceremony. When any one of us needed something, she did her best to lend a hand.
I noted earlier that Pattie and I didn’t really get to know one another until we were adults. We became even closer after Mom died, and after she and Jeff wed (remember how you all got on your honeymoon and realized you’d left all your money at home and we had to wire it to you?!), and of course, after Jack, Joseph and Jesse were born.
When my husband and I moved to Iredell County two years ago, and with all three boys in school, we didn’t see them every week anymore, so had to settle for weekend visits every two months. At our house, Pattie claimed what I dubbed the Carolina room for its obvious decorations, and last year for her birthday, I gave her a large, fluffy Ralph Lauren towel to use on their visits.
John and I delighted in her near-daily calls to share the details of their lives, whether it was for Jesse to serenade us with “Deck the Halls,” or to hear Joseph tell about a school field trip, or for Jack to describe how he’d gotten the Wii properly hooked up, or for Pattie to celebrate their achievements – even each deer that Jeff shot while hunting.
As I know all of you will, I already miss her voice on the other end of the line, the one that said “hey, Sue” when I answered, and then we were off and running.
She will, of course, be ever-present, for I pledge to you Jeff, and to you, Jack, Joseph, and Jesse, that we will be there for you every day, in every way.
And to all of you, thank you from my family for being here tonight to share our love and the life of our sister, daughter, wife, mother, aunt, friend, and most especially, “Miss Pattie” and “Pat-Pat.”
Had my daughter been at UNC-Chapel Hill when Friday was assistant dean of students, or when he was assistant to the President of the Consolidated University, or when he was its secretary, or when he served 30 years as system president, her attention to his death would be understandable.
But she also benefited from Bill Friday's work.
A Southern Woman
The kindest, gentlest Southern woman I ever met died Tuesday. Pansy Womble taught me to how to cut up and fry a chicken, how to shell beans and make sweet iced tea, and how to dig for potatoes for mashing. She could bake a mean Pound Cake and to-die-for pecan and pumpkin pies, and she did it all while raising three children, working fulltime, and giving her best to her church, New Hill (NC) Baptist. Though she’d been ill for some time, the news of her death surprised me, and now the note I started to her this week about my summer gardening experience and how she inspired me will go unfinished, a tribute in its stead.
Pansy and her husband Wallace came into my life during my sophomore year in college when I began dating their youngest son. It was a tumultuous time in their lives: Carolina Power and Light had bought up thousands of acres to build a lake and adjacent park that would anchor its new nuclear power plant, and the Wombles’ land off NC 751 was in the project’s path.
When we met, they were preparing to move their house in the country outside of New Hill to within its unincorporated limits. But first they had to fix-up an old farm house to live in while their home was lifted from its foundation and trucked to the new site. And because Grandma Womble, who lived with them, was moving to her daughter Charlotte’s home in Raleigh, her small efficiency apartment at the rear of the house was to become a new master bedroom suite.
Despite this enormous lifestyle change, the Wombles opened their arms, inviting me, a “Navy brat, a city girl,” into their country world for many an enjoyable weekend. Sunday mornings when I visited were devoted to the 11 o’clock church service, followed by a dinner that Pansy had prepared before she left for Sunday School and featuring dishes I’d never tasted but grew to love -- turnip greens doused with vinegar, fried okra, and slow-cooked pinto beans.
Sunday afternoons were devoted to reading the newspaper and napping. But it was also a time when I learned what makes a country home truly that -- the garden. The afternoon Pansy told me to “dig me some potatoes for supper,” I looked at her like she was speaking a foreign language. She laughed heartily while handing me a spoon and told her son to take me out in the garden where the potato plants were starting to bloom and show me how to carefully turn over the soil to uncover the “new” potatoes she favored. I like to think that on those Saturday and Sunday afternoons, I was a help, that I did snap beans and shell peas and shuck corn before being instructed in how to blanch and freeze, though I truly don’t recall whether I did!
When my husband John and I moved in mid-November 2010 from Cary, a suburb of Raleigh, to three miles outside of the small town of Harmony, the first mission John undertook was to plant a winter garden. I wanted to get curtains hung and he was out putting in greens! The next summer, our garden was so large that we later admitted it was too much food for the two of us. We’d planted three rows of two kinds of green beans and one of butter beans, two rows of different peppers and one of okra, three rows of tomatoes, as well as rows of cucumber, zucchini, yellow squash, and eggplant, plus enough basil to supply every restaurant in town! We froze and canned and gave away until no one wanted the bounty we had to share – I even took a basket of peppers to my students because they didn’t believe we really had a garden that size!
Through all the hard work -- heading outside first thing in the morning before the sun’s heat became unbearable, weeding by hand because we didn’t have a tiller, picking and freezing and canning and cooking – what was in the back of my mind was all I’d learned during two summers nearly 40 years ago under the loving guidance of Pansy Womble.
And that’s what was in the note I was composing to the kindest, gentlest Southern woman I ever met.