I have been spending the past several days scanning old pictures and documents that I brought back from my parents’ house after my siblings and I emptied it a couple years ago. I have only scratched the surface.
If you have already experienced this rite of passage then you understand the Herculean task it can be as well as the depth of emotion that comes with it. And if you haven’t, well, I wish you strength, patience, and whatever else you may need when your time comes.
When we emptied my parents’ home, there were large piles and tubs of photos and historical family documents. You see, they had gone through this same rite of passage with their own parents. My siblings and I did the best we could to sift through everything but in the end I can remember on the final day scooping up several old photo albums, putting them in a large Rubber Maid tub, and telling myself I would sort through them ‘one winter day’. I’m not sure why I didn’t see this as a summer project; every year that passed I would tell myself that I would deal with the collection of memories in the winter, preferably after being snowed in for a week. It hasn’t snowed here yet this winter, but Jenni encouraged me to get started.
The first step of organization was dividing things into categories—the four main branches of my lineage. So I made a pile of anything McAda-related which included more documents than photographs. There just aren’t many photographs of those ancestors. I always saw them as being dirt-poor, without the resources for cameras or studio portraits. I think I’ve only seen two or three photographs of my father before the age of sixteen. Once he was in his late teens and raising award-winning steers in the local Future Farmers of America taking pictures of him and his livestock seemed to hit a spurt.
But included in this pile was a plethora of documents. Many people had set out to draw the McAda family tree over the years, myself included, and there were the diagrams and charts to support those attempts. There were envelopes full of correspondence dating back to the 1970s between distant cousins trying to fill in gaps in their collective memories. One of the treasures I had already gone through and transcribed was a box of my father’s war letters written to his mother during his WWII service in the Pacific. But one of the most treasured items for me to still peruse was the accounting ledger of my Great-Grandfather Hampton David McAda. I had seen it before, stored under my father’s bed and later in a bedroom cabinet, but I had never taken the time to analyze it.
This ledger was written in a strikingly handsome handwriting which really made me question when our family genes lost that ability. The first entries were from 1893 and showed that he was teaching himself Spanish for common farming and ranching phrases. Then he began to record every penny that passed through his household. Whether he was selling a bale of cotton or a cow, or buying baking powder or a ‘bucket of syrup’, there was a line item and dollar amount neatly written in the ledger. Sometimes columns of neat numbers seemed to have tic marks indicating they were double checked. Perhaps accounting was in my blood after all. Tucked away in the pages was a Kenedy Mercantile Co. receipt for a bale of cotton weighing 535 lbs that brought him $49.80 on August 17, 1906.
Recording those proceeds was one of the last entries recorded by my Great-Grandfather. Family legend says that he died from Typhoid Fever after being ill forty days. In a time when doctors would “starve a fever and feed a cold”, he basically starved to death. He died September 20, 1906, so perhaps family lore should be amended to thirty days of fever. Family legend also recounts that his widow, Virginia Butler McAda, was forced to sell 300 acres of land and several boxcars of cattle to pay the medical bills. In addition to the medical bills, she had farmhands and six children under the age of eleven to feed. My grandfather, Creg Deal McAda, was nine and the oldest boy.
(This photo is the Hamp McAda public school, Kenedy, TX, 1905 from the Kenedy Public Library Collection. Great-Grandparents Hampton David and Virginia Butler McAda are the adults on the right side, back row. My grandfather, Creg Deal McAda, is the little boy with white collar in second row, fifth from right. All five of his siblings are in this photo, including the baby, making this the only photo known to include the entire Hamp McAda family.)
And that ledger?
On October 10, 1906 the handwriting and clear organization changed to that of a grieving widow trying to wrap her hands around her finances and the survival of her family. Her first entry appears as the disposition of sixteen head of cattle for $190.07, most of which seems to have gone to the bank. There would be more entries later for horses and more cattle being sold, as well as nurse and doctor bills being paid. But her pages were more chaotic, almost desperate. One page is titled “Paid in full Nurses” and a dollar amount written as “$10.22.75 cts” but then written in word form as “one hundred & twenty to.” While there are some pages missing from the ledger, she appears to have stopped recording entries later in 1907. In less than four years the children would lose their mother in a tragic accident involving her dress catching fire while cooking and then dying from pneumonia.
It hurts my heart to think of the tragedies which hit this family between the pages of that ledger.