Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Lassoes and Loopholes

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of research on the Civil War book I’m writing based on letters from my ancestors. In trying to fill in the gaps, stitch the letters together with background information, and provide historical context, I’ve searched high and wide to try and track down details about people, places, and events alluded to in the letters. Often my sleuthing takes me back to books and articles published long ago, but even when I find some clues, the whole picture is never there, at least in clear focus. Usually I have to piece things together from various sources and see where the “evidence” leads.

This can be especially frustrating when I’m dealing with secret organizations. The Underground Railroad, for instance. Or the Knights of the Golden Circle. Or the “Snake Hunters” who helped Union troops capture the Moccasin Rangers in West Virginia in 1861. Or the “Patriots” who participated in the Canadian Rebellion of 1837 and 1838.

Getting a tight fix on people and events that used subterfuge to cover their trails is a bit like lassoing moving targets in the dark–there are always going to be loopholes big enough to trip up even the surest-footed Sherlock Holmes.

Which brings me to my point for today, if there is one besides “blenting”–that is, using my blog to vent. One thing I’ve relearned on this journey is that every piece of history ever recorded, in whatever format, is incredibly limiting and freeing. We can never recapture all that happened in even a fraction of a second, but every tidbit corralled has the potential to open up whole new ways of seeing and appreciating this awesome thing we call life.

Winter Meadows

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

It’s a cold snowy day as I write this. For months my writing and work on the Civil War book project seems to have been stuck in a drift. But that’s okay. The ”force that through the green fuse drives the flower” has been flowing for me elsewhere in the past four months.” What has been flowing for me is time with family. Is there anything more important?

In August/September, Dave and I traveled to Minnesota for a Borchard family reunion. In October we took a little time out to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary in Maine. Since then I’ve been devoting most of my time and energy to helping my daughter and her family during her recovery from hernia repair. She has been prohibited from lifting anything more than eight pounds for two months from the date of her surgery. That includes five-year-old Ethan, three-year-old Delaney, and Camden, the 18-month-old, that cute “little” snug-a-lug who weighs in at a “mere” 36 pounds!

So, thanks to the “weights” I’ve been lifting and yoga, my upper body strength has increased significantly. But I haven’t had much time, energy, or inclination for writing. In fact, I had actually started skidding into a writing slump before my daughter’s surgery, after I printed out and started reading a rough draft of the historical novel I had been working on. The deep freeze seemed the perfect resting place for it.

Yet, if the past four months have brought anything home to me, it’s not only the importance of family, but the joy of being blessed with kids, grandkids, relatives, and a husband I dearly love. And that, I realize, is what the letters and stories of my ancestors are really about.

Even so, I have found it hard to plow through the frozen meadows in my writing, and so I have been hoping for a few small breaks or signs that a thawing is on the way. Three things have happened in the past week that, for me, just may indicate that the “green fuse” is rising.

The first is a funny little coincidence that most people would probably find insignificant. When Dave and I went to vote on Saturday, December 5th, the two people who had signed in just before us had the last name of “Byers.” Since that is one of the family names associated with the letters, I wondered: was something nudging me to get back to them?

On Sunday, December 6th, I completed a little project I had been asked to do by my grandson Ethan for his kindergarten class at Parr’s Ridge Elementary School in Mt. Airy, Maryland. What were the Christmas traditions in Shepherdstown, his class wanted to know. In doing a bit of research for this project, I discovered that Shepherdstown is known as a “storybook” town, so I decided to use the “storybook” approach for the project–with hopes that it would inspire the kindergarteners, now learning to read, to do their own storybooks. I had a lot of fun doing it, and it reminded me of how much I enjoyed writing and doing artistic things.

On Monday, December 7th, Dave and I were shopping in our local bookstore, Four Seasons, when the January 2010 issue of “The Writer Magazine” caught my eye. One of the stories featured on the cover was “Simple Strategies to Get Out of A Creative Rut.” I bought it.

Tuesday night, before going to sleep, I opened the magazine to that article. Was I ever surprised and delighted to find that it was an archival article by Peggy Simson Curry, Wyoming’s first poet laureate. Peggy died in 1987, but I was fortunate to be in the last creative writing course she taught at Casper College and, later, in a small writing group she started. If I had to pick one person who inspired and helped me in my writing career, it would be Peggy, not just because of her accomplishments, but because of who she was. Whomever she was with, whatever she was doing–she did with all her heart, mind, soul, and strength.

In writing about her own winter as a writer, she recalls the time she saw some men with pitchforks digging hay out of a snow-covered meadow. “Deep in those haystacks, covered with snow,” she writes, “was the green and fragrant heart of summer. No matter how cold the day, a man could dig down and find the green. He could smell again the timothy and the clover.”

Is it just coincidence that that article by that particular person landed in my hands at this time? I tend to think not, but regardless of the significance of such a “coincidence,” for me it has a clear meaning. As Peggy writes, “winter meadows [are] an inevitable part of every life, but in such meadows there [are] always the humps of snow-drifted green, the gathered and fragrant harvest of living.”

Thanks, Peggy.

Celebrating Bobby: Stories from His Life, #6

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

My brother Bobby liked to travel light, free from entanglements. But there was one entanglement that he carried with him wherever he went. You could say it was the mother of all entanglements. Mother as in MOTHER–our mother.

In a crack-crazed frenzy one night Bobby shoved Mother to the floor and stomped on her, breaking her hip. She eventually recovered and seemed to have forgiven him. Maybe she also felt contrite. For years we had all been emotionally ravaged at various times from her explosive, abusive temper. Had she said some things that night that provoked Bobby, who was already beyond rationality or restraint in a drug-induced fury?

My sister and I had seen Bobby’s glassy-eyed, animalistic behavior ourselves when he was under the influence of crack-cocaine, and I can still remember how we barricaded ourselves in the bedroom when we feared for our own safety.

But Bobby and Mother made up, and life went on. For awhile, at least.

A few years later Mother was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. It was during those long months when she lay dying that Bobby gave her and us all a great gift. He was the one of her four children who stayed with her and looked after her on a daily basis.

My brother Billy and his wife Linda, a registered nurse, lived nearby and also kept a check on her. My sister Betsy and I were a thousand miles away with full-time jobs and family responsibilities. The last time she and I saw Mother was when she came to the memorial service for my sister’s husband John, killed in a C130 airplane crash on October 5th, 1992. Bobby drove her up to Virginia from Florida, oxygen tank and tubes included.

One month later Betsy and I were on a plane to Florida for a memorial service for Mother. Our two brothers were there to greet us.

They are both gone now. Little did I know that the next time we would see Bobby would be at the memorial service for Billy. Nor did I realize at the time how Bobby, whose freedom was his driving passion, had freed me not once, but twice.

I like to travel light, he said, freeing me from my misplaced sense of responsibility for his personal choices. I was glad I could be there, he said, of the time he spent with Mother during her final days. So was I.

Celebrating Bobby: Stories from His Life, #5

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Something happened the other day to remind me that I hadn’t finished what I wanted to say about my brother Bobby. It seems that a distant family member, someone who had been “written off” as being unworthy of any further claims to family affection or affiliation, was actually the one person who came through at a time and place when other highly esteemed family members checked out.

No, it wasn’t Bobby. But it could have been.

That was actually the first great gift that Bobby gave me. But there was another gift that happened a few years later that enabled me to see the first one through a more generous lens.

Bobby was sitting at our kitchen table trying to read the newspaper when he asked me if I had a magnifying glass. I brought him two–a small one for slipping in a pocket and a larger one with a handle. “Here,” I said, “take either or both.”

“If you’re sure you don’t mind,” he said, “I’ll take the small one. I like to travel light.”

That was when I asked him if he had any regrets about the lifestyle he had chosen, living on the streets on a hand-to-mouth basis.

“No,” he said. “I don’t like to be tied down, and I don’t need much. But I have lots of friends and lots of freedom, and that’s what I love.”

I had no doubts about his sincerity. There was no defiance or insistence in his answer–just a simple statement of who he was, relaxed, at ease, and happy with the choices he had made.

A heavy burden lifted off my shoulders then. For years I had been wondering if there was something (God knows what) that I should have been doing to “save” Bobby. Now I knew. We were both free to follow our own paths.

Celebrating Bobby: Stories from His Life, #4

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

It was my daughter Lora who picked Bob up at the airport when he finally arrived on a much later flight than originally scheduled. When I saw him, I knew that he had gone to some trouble to look as nice as he could. His hair was trimmed, he was clean, and he had on clean, sharply pressed clothes.

“From the Salvation Army,” he later told me. Yet the ten years of his rough and tumble style of living had taken its toll, and I doubt that I would have recognized him if I had passed him on the street. But he was still my brother. 

I’ll always wonder if his concern about looking nice was more about his feelings of inadequacy or his sensitivity to the feelings of embarrassment I might have at being seen with him. I have to confess that such feelings had crossed my mind.

As it turned out, I was just glad and thankful to be with him. We had a wonderful visit, and I was sad to see him leave, especially since I had a sense that I would probably never see him again.

Not until sometime after his visit did the heart of what Bobby had said about wanting to look as nice as he could really hit home. Although he may have dressed his words in images of appearance, what he was really doing, I believe, was baring his soul–expressing his naked desire to be re-united with his family.

It was while were we sitting around talking one evening that he said something that turned out to be the greatest gift he could ever have given me.


Celebrating Bobby: Stories from His Life, #2

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

I was sitting at my desk when I got the call.

A sobbing voice on the other end cracked and asked me if it were true.

It was my brother Bob. He had just found out about the death of our brother Billy from reading the obituary notice in the newspaper.

At that time, Billy’s widow and son were, in fact, on their way up to Virginia, where we were having a memorial service for Billy.

“Do you think it would be appropriate,” Bobby said when his sobbing eased, “would it be okay for me to come to the service?”

I had not expected such a question, and it took me a minute to answer.

“Of course,” I said. “But Bob, that’s not the question. The question is do you WANT to come to the service.”

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I do.”

My sister Betsy and I made plans for Bobby to fly up here and stay with us.

“Just two things, Bob,” I said, as I was going over the arrangements with him. Knowing that he had no car, I asked him if he could find transportation to the Orlando airport, about an hour or so away from Merritt Island.

“Yes,” he said.

“Okay, second question–do you have a valid ID. You can’t get on a plane these days without one.” It was September of 2002 and airport security had tightened dramatically in the past year.

“Yes,” he said, “I have a Florida state ID card.”

It sounded like we were all set. At the appointed time, Betsy drove the 90 minutes to BWI and went to the gate to meet him. No Bobby.

That was the beginning of a weekend I’ll never forget.

Celebrating Bobby: Stories from His Life

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

Bob was the youngest of four children in our family, born when I was almost 11 years old. From the first, he was a happy, generous, and an easy-going kid with a big smile and the glint of humor radiating from his dark brown eyes under a thatch of straw-colored hair.

He was also very bright and quite athletic. In little league baseball he earned the moniker of Poncho for his southpaw pitching. In golf he often threw people off with his ambidextrous swing from either hand. Flexible wherever he landed, he seemed to adapt naturally to whatever life presented. Or so we thought. But that came later.

As a child he would be the first to share a candy bar, the least upset when the last soda pop was plucked from right under his nose, the last to complain if there was nothing for dinner but tuna croquettes and a can of Campbell’s baked beans. Like Mother and myself, however, he did have a penchant for lots of Heinz ketchup on fried foods and would groan when the ketchup bottle squeaked on empty.

Unlike Betsy and Billy, the two middle siblings in our family, he was not afraid of vegetables. There was one Thanksgiving, though, when he was scared to death of the turkey and refused to eat it–perhaps foreshadowing a later encounter with birds.

 As a kid he loved to roam the woods and meadows that flanked Mud Lick Creek, near our house in Roanoke, Virginia. He would take his B-B gun with him, hoping to refine his aim on a bird in flight. Most of the time he missed. But he was clearly looking forward to the day when he was good enough to stop a bird on the wing dead cold.

Then one day he came home and put his B-B gun away–for good. “What are you doing that for,” I asked.

“I don’t want to kill anything ever again,” he said. The little bird that had caught the pellets from his gun that day was heavy on his heart. As far as I know, he never went in for any kind of “sport” that harmed any living thing ever again.

Instead, he put his energies into school, where his grades soared and teachers showered him with one accolade after another, including selecting him as a school-crossing guard. He was also helpful at home and quick to forgive his brother and sisters in the scraps that inevitably arose from sibling rivalry.

What we didn’t know was how much Bobby was hurting inside.




Celebrating Bobby

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

Robert Franklin Donohoe, 1955–2009. Robert was born on November 2, 1955 and passed away on Tuesday, April 7, 2009. Robert was last known to be living in Merritt Island, Florida. 

I found that information online. Except for his ashes, stored at my sister’s house for the time being, that is almost all we have that remains of our brother Bobby. We know he had two daughters, but we’ve been unable to locate them. We do have lots of memories, though, and some stories we want to share. This blog is as good a place as any to begin.

Unlike our ancestors who wrote hundreds of letters in the 1800s, Bobby did not write much, if at all. Not that he couldn’t–just that he chose a different path, one that took him to the edges of society where he could be free and, for all practical purposes, invisible.

On occasion, however, he would surface, sliding into your driveway on his beatup old bicycle–his only mode of transportation. Then he would volunteer to cut your grass for a few bucks. He may even hang around for a few beers and some dinner. But soon he would be off again to his home on the move–wherever he could find a place to sleep. Under a bridge, in a tent by the river, on a friend’s porch, or at a cheezy motel when he had some steady work–it didn’t matter as long as he was not tied down.

“I like to travel light,” he told me the last time I saw him. That was at the memorial service for our brother Bill, in the fall of 2002. During the next seven years, he called once or twice. 

Thanks to Bobby’s friends in the Merritt Island area, I was able to talk with him three times during his last months. He sounded sick, but, for the most part, he sloughed it off. That was Bobby–a generous, funny guy who was dearly loved by many people.

Next Sunday at this time our family will gather in Charlottesville, Virginia, to remember and celebrate Bobby. Over the next week I hope to share some of the special things I remember about my youngest brother. Here’s to you, Bob.


In Will’s Footsteps

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Last week Dave and I trekked through the hills of West Virginia looking for the places my great-great grandfather, Will Tomlinson, might have been during the late summer and fall of 1861, when he served as Quarter Master Sergeant for the 5th Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry. I have several letters to and from him when he was quartered at Camp Hope near Buckhannon, Virginia–which would be WEST Virginia now. 

As we traveled up and down and around one hill after another, I couldn’t help remembering some of Will’s descriptions of the area and his herculean task of getting food, water, and supplies to the troops in such a challenging terrain:

“Going down a Virginia Hill,” he writes in a letter dated August 9th, 1861, “I stept on a little stone with my left foot–it turned–twisted the ankle, and I was lame. Nevertheless, to keep up appearances I limped as little as possible, walked all that day, and till ten at night, when we stopped at a big manure pile, without food, fire, water, or inhabitants. I slept in a wagon. Early in the morning, with a rather stiff ankle, I started ahead to find water. I found some, but not enough for the regiment–took a wash and a drink–vomited freely–found lots of blackberries–eat fruit, and at the end of 3 1/2 miles we halted to cook breakfast. I assure you the coffee tasted good.”

He goes on to describe their camp as “a pretty place at a distance, but surrounded by a mud hole or slough, like a snake around the neck of a maiden.”

I saw many places that fit that description–places where creeks and rivers came together in wet, muddy bottomlands. But, unlike Will, Dave and I were traveling in an air-conditioned Honda Accord with cushioned seats designed to support our backs and built-in pockets for our water bottles. As good as Will’s coffee tasted to him, I doubt it came with frothed milk on top, a chocolate chip cookie on the side, and newspaper to read at the Daily Grind in downtown Buckhannon. Our lunch in Philippi was quite a bit more substantial than blackberries, and our king-sized bed that night was worlds apart from a hard wagon bed.

Yet our experience, 148 years later, was hardly the stuff that left us with the indelible impression that Will’s did–except, of course, by way of contrast. And, as we celebrated Memorial Day that weekend, I couldn’t help but be grateful for all the sacrifices that Will and so many others made for our common welfare today.



In Honor of Women’s History Month

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

This post was published in the Shepherdstown Chronicle on January 23rd, 2009, and read as a reflection at both Sunday worship services at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, on January 25th, 2009. 

I, too, Have a Dream—

First of all, let me say that I voted for Barack Obama and that I am overjoyed that he is our 44th President. As we celebrate the inauguration of our first African American President, on the heels of Martin Luther King Day, I hope that, amid all the celebrations of this historic occasion, we will not forget that we have many dreams still to be realized. For instance—

I have a dream that one day we will not only talk about the Moses or Joshua generations, but will lift up the Miriams and Rahabs to designate generations that have seen and claimed the promise for all.

I have a dream that some day we will not need to lift up the examples of any one religious or philosophical tradition over another in order to make a point.

I have a dream that soon, very soon, a woman will not have to choose between having an outstanding career or being a good mother because support systems will be in place for enabling her to be both.

I have a dream that we are on the eve of a universal health care system that enables all women and all men to choose the kind of work they really love because they are not handcuffed to the health care benefits of a particular job.

I have a dream that sooner rather than later it will not be unusual for women to occupy most seats in the U. S. Senate and House of Representatives or to sit in majority on the U.S. Supreme Court—or on any ruling body anywhere in the world.

I have a dream that it will one day be in the natural course of events to celebrate a woman who is being sworn in as President of the United States

I have a dream that our daughters and granddaughters will no longer need to ask why the leaders of the world’s religions and spiritual traditions are almost always male (Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna, Confucius, the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, the Pope).

I have a dream that our language—and all the languages of the world—will honor the feminine as much as the masculine and will one day transcend the use of gender-specific norms.

I have a dream that the God we worship, in whatever form or shape, will never again be the province of any one gender or creed.

And, last but not least, I have a dream that our hopes and dreams will transform the world into a more compassionate and caring place for all and we will truly walk together on sacred ground.

Pat Donohoe, a Shepherdstown, WV, writer and artist, was among the first women to attend North Carolina State University. When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, she was teaching at William G. Enloe High School, the first high school in Raleigh, North Carolina, to be integrated. In September of 2000 she was ordained and installed as the first female Minister of Word and Sacrament at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, where she served as Associate Minister until December of 2003. Before moving to Shepherdstown, she worked at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, MD, where, as the director of public relations and publications, she was responsible for making sure that the college’s public communications reflected its diverse student body and the inclusive mission of community colleges.