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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Oldest Voice in the Parlor (Conclusion)

If there is one common thread in what I like to write or read, it is just that: a thread of commonness. It is the ordinary stuff of life that most infatuates me--those self-evident things that barely break through our senses in real time but seep somewhere deep in the mind like forgotten tea.

I touched on this a few years back in a piece about a family crisis called "The Ache of Joy":

"It was the first of several unexpected pauses in the days to come when happy recollections would suddenly seem too wonderful to bear, and rather than a smile they brought the ache of joy: a fragile awareness that life is a collection of mostly uneventful moments. They do not pass but gather; they are not spent but shared; and only rarely do we begin to grasp their value—or allow ourselves to think they will someday change—and when we do, our grip goes numb, like in a dream, just when it matters most to hold on. That’s what I mean by the ache of joy. It’s not a passing feeling but the passing ability to sense what’s always there, the simplicity of life that is lost in the complexity of living. It catches us off guard because it’s stored not in our cherished memories but in moments that have passed forgotten...."

Writing about common things is my attempt, I suppose, to help people remember the skin and sky of our existence. Most written history is from "important people" playing "important roles" in the "important events" that shaped their version of the present. We study these important things in school, but the truest narratives of our lives are less likely written but told and retold whenever families gather. These stories shape us more than those in history books, but unless they're eventually put to paper, they vanish with the voices that knew them to be true.

So here's to common things and the common people who take the time to write about them.
Take this booklet, for instance. The things I've been "writing down" for a month now are only possible because others did it before me. The biographical portions of this booklet were gleaned from written accounts of lives that did not overlap my own. They are blood-relatives of my children but not me. I knew only one child (Carter) the grandchildren of Elbert and Iva who bought the parlor organ, and those grandchildren now have grandchildren and great-grandchildren of their own. These extrapolated pages are based on a 1918 letter, an article in the 1927 Melvern Review newspaper, some records in the Osage County Museum, and a hard-bound genealogy written in 1967 by a grandson of John Wesley Neal, Jesse Neal, who had been a professor of agriculture engineering at Auburn University from 1939 to 1967 (at which time he retired and began work on a 160-page book based on collected notes his uncle, the Rev. George Neal, had begun gathering for the same purpose back in 1947).
I also had the aid of dozens of web pages in which people have written about common things like parlor organs and thereby put information and links at my fingertips that neither Jesse nor George had available forty and sixty years ago.

The Oldest Voice in the Parlor: Part IV:
From Melvern to Michigan

This last portion begins with an eye-witness account of a family reunion in Melvern, Kansas, on June 11,1925. That reunion was at Iva Cochran's house twenty-five years after she bought the parlor organ. I need to explain why she is not called Grandma McNabb.

Fifteen years before this reunion, a few years after they bought the parlor organ, Iva's husband Elbert McNabb died at the age of 53 (due to complications related to his side job of making lime plaster from Kansas native limestone). He was father to Iva's six children (some grown) aged 23, 20, 18, 13, 8, and 2. Iva was only 40,

She would eventually have 18 grandchildren but none of them were born before Elbert’s death. By the time these grandchildren were old enough to talk, Iva would be called Grandma Cochran, the name she took in her second marriage to Frank Cochran (also of Melvern, Kansas). Frank Cochran is a “grafted branch” on the family tree so to speak. He married for the first time late in life, and he and Iva had no children of their own. All of Elbert and Iva’s children kept the McNabb name.
In the decade between Elbert's death and the "Roaring Twenties," there had been a great "war to end all wars," resulting in victory and a new hit song to play on the Victrola (though such a new invention was not likely in Grandma Cochran's home).

Around 1920, two things ended the parlor organ craze [if such a word can be used for parlor organs]: first there was now recorded music and record players (like the one that played the song above)... second, a new industry was born, mass-produced pianos that were designed for home use (along with popular sheet music written specifically for piano). Jazz and Joplin's Ragtime music [great link] does not mix with soft-spoken parlor organs. The appeal of the home piano was also due in part to its lack of association with “church music.” Demand for popular music grew through the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s then skyrocketed in the fifties (and there's no end in sight). The quaint, muffled sounds of parlor organs had little place in the changing musical taste and insatiable appetite for popular music, but for about fifty years, it was those millions of parlor organs across the fruited plane that brought music into the American home.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch...
In spite of the doubts that song raised about keeping 'em down on the farm, by 1925, the descendents of John Wesley Neal still had deep roots in dozens of farms around Melvern, Kansas, but it was also true that some had moved far away: west to California and even north-east to Michigan. But when word of a Neal family reunion came months earlier by mail, everyone came from far and wide back to Melvern. Iva and her twelve siblings (in the photo to the right taken thirty-some years before) and all of their children were present.
[Double-click on photos to enlarge.]
This second group photograph was taken the day of the reunion in front of Grandma Iva Cochran's house. The Melvern Review printed a full report the next week (written by Ray Neal, grandson of John Wesley Neal). Here are some excerpts from the article about that gathering:

"The father and mother, god bless them, once again were among the group that they had reared to be noble, pure and honorable men and women.

"The reunion, thought appreciated by all meant more to the aged father and mother than to any of the other members. My dear grandfather and grandmother can truly pronounce their duties on earth well done. The family has always cooperated--no feuds have entered to add sorrow to the large circle. They are God-fearing people, ardent believers in God and His teachings. Three of the boys are ministers.

"Their attachment to one another could be easily discerned. Throughout the day this attachment was expressed in tears and laughter. At noon, 67 relatives and 14 visitors gathered around a table laden with delicious food and enjoyed, probably for the last time in each other's presence, a bounteous dinner.

"At 1:00 o'clock,... [a program began with the singing of "America" after which] Mrs. Frank Cochran rendered [this] 'The Address of Welcome':

'Father, Mother, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, I am certainly glad to welcome you all here today for the purpose of celebrating our family reunion. I wonder if you all realize what a great opportunity this is in coming here for this event. There are but a few fathers and mothers who have traveled through the journey of life, who have realized this opportunity. God's merciful kindness in bestowing his blessing upon our parents, who have lived to a ripe old age and raised up a large family of boys and girls to manhood and womanhood in this vicinity, without the loss of one, some of whom have become grandfathers and grandmothers also. Brothers and sisters, I feel we have a father and mother to be proud of. They have always stood for the principles of honor, truth, and justice. When we are called away by death, may the parting be temporary and the meeting eternal.'

[Many others also spoke, a double quartet of eight brothers sang, and at the close of the program, all 81 of them sang the old hymn, "God Be with You 'Til We Meet Again."]

That was the account in the local paper. But I look at the picture that was taken that day, and I see all those kids in the front row, and I know that there had to be a lot of playing and running about the farm yard and standing in line at the outhouse behind the house in the picture. It goes without saying to farm folks, but if chicken was served at that picnic, it was caught and axed and plucked and fried all in a few-hours time by the ladies in the big farm kitchen. In Melvern, Kansas, 1927, most of the local folks arrived by older cars, but some may have come by horse and wagon since some of the family still farmed with teams of horses.

After the event, when everything was put back in place and those who lived within a few miles were waved good-bye from that long front porch, I like to think that some folks stayed the night there at Grandma Cochran's house. If it's anything like the reunions I've traveled home for, those from furthest away stay on a few days, sleeping in rooms that used to be theirs or wherever else they find a place to bed down. So I'm thinking Iva had some of her grown kids still there well into the night.

I like to think her parents, John and Nancy, may have stayed the night (or were the last to leave with whoever brought them). Maybe the sat for a while on the front porch and when the house cooled down a bit, those not yet willing to call it a day were drawn to her parlor to visit with a breeze joining them through the open windows.
Farm folks typically practiced the old adage: "Early to bed; early to rise; makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." This was in part true because after sundown, there was only the light of kerosene lamps or possibly a 6-volt systems charged by their windmill with "stored power" in complex wet-cell battery systems. [Only 10% of American farms had electricity before the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.]

But I don't think this house went to bed at dark that night. It had been special day, they'd seen some nieces and nephews and grandkids for the first time. There was much to talk about, and the oldest voices in the parlor smiled contentedly, sometimes with a tear in their eyes. They didn't say it aloud, but perhaps they knew in their heart that the next time there would be such a gathering one of them would not be sitting beside the other. You get to an age where you're comfortable with the thought of dying but sad at the thought of leaving the one beside you alone.

So as the conversation lulled, I can't help but think that maybe Iva's father said, "Play us a piece," as my own grandmother always says when she is in the room with an instrument. Maybe Iva or her daughter Lorena lifted the lid of that parlor organ and turned to that closing hymn they'd all sung earlier in the day. I can imagine her squinting toward the page in the dim lamplight, pumping the carpeted treadles with her feet, and playing a verse a little slowly at first but then when she knew she had the fingering right, she began singing those words again as others hummed or joined in from where they sat:

1. God be with you till we meet again; by his counsels guide, uphold you, with his sheep securely fold you; God be with you till we meet again. Refrain: Till we meet, till we meet, till we meet at Jesus' feet; till we meet, till we meet, God be with you till we meet again. 2. God be with you till we meet again; neath his wings securely hide you, daily manna still provide you; God be with you till we meet again. (Refrain) 3. God be with you till we meet again; when life's perils thick confound you, put his arms unfailing round you; God be with you till we meet again. (Refrain) 4. God be with you till we meet again; keep love's banner floating o'er you, smite death's threatening wave before you; God be with you till we meet again.Refrain: Till we meet, till we meet, till we meet at Jesus' feet; till we meet, till we meet, God be with you till we meet again.

Exactly one year to the day after the night of that reunion, John Wesley Neal died at the age of 78. His wife Nancy survived him nearly seven years. They are both buried in the Melvern Cemetery. The oldest voice in the parlor was now Iva herself.

The remainder of this booklet is a bit concise, addressing quickly the "passing" of many people. I mean no disrespect, but my point is briefly explaining how this organ got from Iva Cochran's parlor in Melvern, Kansas, to our own home here in Michigan some sixty-two years later.

The Great Depression had come and gone. Some of the grandchildren in the front row of that reunion picture had gone off to fight in World War II and safely returned the year before. It was 1946 when Iva Cochran, then age 76, lost her second husband Frank, and in that following year as a widow her own health began to fail. She moved into her son Carter Tennessee McNabb's house, four miles east of Melvern.

C.T. McNabb was my wife's grandfather. [I had the privilege of spending time with him during our courtship (even gave him a few haircuts). In 1981, he died at the age of 90.] But when his mother moved in with his family, he was 54-years old. Julie's dad and his little brother were 14 and 12 and still living at home. There was no spare room, but they put Grandma's bed in the front parlor, a room with a big bay window facing the front road.

In that day, for various reasons, there were no “nursing homes” or “assisted living centers” or “hospice”—leastwise not in Melvern, Kansas. Family members took care of their own as best they could from birth to death, and both occasions were likely to happen right at home. Her home was sold [the one in the reunion picture] and she was able to parcel out her things according to her wishes before she died in 1947. By then her own daughter Lorena lived in California so Grandma Cochran gave the parlor organ to Carter’s second daughter who was her namesake, Iva Kathryn McNabb, who by then was married to Charles Meneley, Iva Kathryn is my wife's Aunt Kathryn (she always went by her middle name).
Kathryn played piano [and has since taught and served as church accompanist for sixty years], so it made sense to give the organ to her. But at the time she and her husband lived in a three-room house with no place for the organ. Kathryn's oldest brother Dean offered to keep it for at his home in Houston, Texas, until she had a place for it. But Time is a quiet river and the ever-passing current sometimes sweeps us gently by our best intentions. And so it was with the parlor organ, which remained in Texas for nearly 50 years.

At the time of his passing in 1997, the organ was returned to Kansas and was enjoyed by Aunt Kathryn for many years. Whenever her fingers rested lightly on the keys, the touch brought hymns to mind. She could sit and play her favorites from memory without a hymnal. The organ stayed put for over a decade, then in the summer of 2009, Aunt Kathryn and Uncle Charlie began preparing for a move from their large house on a farm to a smaller house in Waverly (near Melvern). It was then that Kathryn gave the organ to her niece Julie who as a child had been one of her piano students for many years. She also knew Julie and I enjoyed antiques and the stories behind them. The only trick was the fact that her niece now lives 700 miles away in Michigan.

At first, Julie was not sure we had a place for it, but we went to Aunt Kathrin's house, and once she saw it and heard her favorite aunt playing it, she knew right where it would go... in the room I have been calling our "parlor" for years. It is a quiet room free from modernity, a place for visiting and listening to Julie or my daughter playing the piano.
That's the piano there at the opposite end of the room from the organ. That Acrosonic piano, by the way, is also made by Baldwin, same company that made the organ. Ironically, according to the serial number, it was made in 1946, the year Grandma Cochran first gave the organ to Aunt Kathryn. It is the same piano Julie played as a child. Once our girls were old enough to begin lessons, Julie's father brought it to our home in a pick-up truck back in 1988, They've each spent hours practicing there through the years. Natalie enjoys it more than her sisters did.
It was in this room that Julie knew the old organ would feel at home.

And so it was that in July of 2009, a small Monarch reed organ, now well over 100 years old, was carefully loaded into the back of a 2004 Dodge Durango and carried safely from Kansas to our Michigan home where it is at the time of this writing. As you can tell from this long booklet, the organ has fascinated me since it arrived. It has brought me in touch with the people who first found comfort in its wheezing gentle notes which even now seem from another time, making any song sound ghostly in a pleasant way. From its billows behind the peddles on the floor comes the faint scent from a century before when it first sat in the parlor of a big farm house in Melvern, Kansas.

Aunt Kathryn, of course, remembers the organ in Grandma Cochran’s parlor; she remembers playing it there as a young girl. But Julie never knew her great grandmother, never stepped inside that large old farm house (which no longer exists). So to Julie, the image that will forever come to mind when she sits on that small spindled stool is of her dear aunt. Before we took the organ from their house, Aunt Kathryn played a few hymns, then looked at Julie and smiled.

Kathryn has a caring voice, meek spirit, and eyes that shine with both the joy and sorrow of stained glass.

Though the piano that has graced this room is over sixty years old, it is Grandma Cochran's organ that is now the oldest voice in the parlor.
Note: Return this weekend for next installment of "Unsettled." We're painting the house and doing some camping before school starts for our staff next week.


Blogger martha said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



25/8/09 8:21 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Welcome to Patterns of Ink. Make yourself at home. I see you are interested in music. Not all of my posts are centered on an instrument like this one was, but there is plenty of similar stories in the archives. Hope you find the time to read some of them.
Thanks for leaving a comment. It's the only sure way I know I'm writing something people find time to read. =)

25/8/09 12:58 PM  
Blogger Nancy said...

You are such a remarkable man...I wish I could write like this, "seep somewhere deep in the mind like forgotten tea". You know you have a gift here and God is blessing the readers as you share your gift. And just think how this history and booklet will impact the new grandchild in years to come. I know Julie is so proud of you for putting pen to paper or should I say fingers to keys? I finally had time to stop by and catch up a little. I'm spending way too much time on FB but your blog is one that I will always come back too. I treasure the friendship that we've developed through bloggerville over the last several years and I admire your love and devotion to God, family and this blog. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to the next chapter of unsettled.

I also wanted to comment on the relative that had 18 children. Can you imagine? My mom had 11 children and I got to see a lot of that first hand but 18...remarkable! We had 16 for our family beach trip this summer...everyone made it but mom. We had two houses this year. It was hectic and cooking for that crowd was an awesome accomplishment but we made so many precious memories and I came away with so much unconditional love which is a blessing indeed!

Keep 'em comin' Tom...your blog is a keeper!

28/8/09 3:51 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Hi, Nancy,
When we hadn't seen much of you in the blogosphere, I assumed it was due to FB. Julie has gotten on it and can barely keep up. I have not yet joined FB. I don't mean to be antisocial--I've had lots of requests, but I can barely keep up with my writing as it is. I do think I'll get on FB once all the hubbub dies down. I'd really like to connect with old friends and former students, but as you said, there is a kind of network among bloggers that is also very encouraging. Thanks for the kind words.

28/8/09 7:15 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

Tom I held off reading this in its entirety until today. For some reason a lot of what you write comes across to me best on an early Sunday morning, when the house and mind are fairly quiet.

It is an interesting thing to see that some families in their past are not so different from others. My grandmother came from a Canadian farm family of 13. I remember vaguely my great grandmother and grandfather and that farm. Ggrandma Casey lived to 106 so there must have been at least one visit while she lived. I remember those clunky black shoes that all farm women wore back then. The leather shoes with two or three inch sober steady heels on them sitting by the front door.

memory is best when documented though and you've done a fine job of it even though you really didn't name the oldest voice in the parlor, I don't think God ever remained in anonymity in either yours or wife's antecedents families.

Nice write up Tom, I am certain Julie's family will add it to the story for the future generations and their scribes to add to.

30/8/09 6:21 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Good to hear from you. Congrats on your new book! You are right about the true oldest voice in the parlor and correct that there was much evidence of that in Julie's ancestors. I didn't know that much about her people until I began this research.

30/8/09 6:06 PM  

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