A high school friend posted a series of photographs taken on a recent trip to Arkansas with her sister. They spent their time in Hot Springs, Eureka Springs and the surrounding area. Fall was lovely and colorful there. Best of all were her magnificent pictures of the birds that she discovered in the places she visited. I found myself thinking of my Grandma Minnie Bell and my grandfather, John William Seth Smith, who both once lived there as I gazed at the lovely scenes.
Grandma especially loved the birds that shared the fields and the trees near her home. She knew them by their colors and their songs. She understood the ways that they communicated with one another and often joined in the conversations by making warbling and singing noises. They came to her as though they understood that they had nothing to fear from her. She talked to them and stood silently observing them, noting their habits. Watching her engage with them was magical.
Grandma loved the northwestern part of Arkansas. It’s where her mother, father and grandmother spent their last years on this earth. All of them are buried either in churchyard cemeteries or out in what is now a national forest. I imagine that my grandfather particularly found solace in the slow and easy tempo of the place after fighting in some terrible battles during the Civil War.
My grandmother told me how terribly affected her father was by the war between states. He suffered from many ailments associated with the privations and horrific environments of war. They left him wanting to live a quiet life away from the conflicts that humans seem to create. He earned a special pension from the government given to veterans of the war who were left with chronic injuries and diseases. I have the documentation that my great grandmother saved among the family papers and then passed down to my Grandma Minnie Bell.
Grandma was unable to read the official declarations but she knew that they were as important as her father’s mustering certificates. She presented them to me when I was still a young girl. She asked my mother to care for them until I was old enough to appreciate their importance. I’m not certain why she chose me for such an honor given that she had dozens of grandchildren, but I have tried to be worthy of her trust. My mother impressed their significance on me and urged me to treat them with great care, and so I have for all of my life.
Grandma also gave me a tall water pitcher that had belonged to her mother, my great grandmother, Christina. It is made of crockery and festooned with paintings of roses. I imagine that it was once a prized possession. It is very old now and I constantly worry that it will crack or break. I have cared for it for over fifty years, cherishing it a bit more with the passing of time. My mother kept it in fine shape before me until she believed that I was old enough to appreciate its significance.
I like traveling to the area of Arkansas where my ancestors once lived. I feel their spirit in those places, especially once I have left the main highways and wander along pathways that lead me away from the noise of civilization. I enjoy walks under the canopy of trees where the only sound is the wind rustling the leaves. I listen for the birds calling to one another and tiny creatures scurrying through the underbrush. That is when I sense that my long ago family is nearby. I feel their caress in the breezes across my face.
I have yet to find the actual place where my great grandfather and great great grandmother are buried, but I am certain that I have been close. I felt in the woods where their tombstones are suppose to be. I was alone with only nature as my companion because I had left my husband behind as I scurried into the forest the way I had so eagerly done when I accompanied my grandmother on long hikes in the hills behind her farm. I have seen few places so lovely in all of my travels, mostly because Grandma showed me how to find beauty in the commonplace.
My friend who shared the photos of her trip seems to have the same kind of abilities that my grandmother possessed. She captures the essence of northwestern Arkansas, the colors, the magnificence, the beauty. Her pictures tell a story just like Grandma’s words once did for me.
I was planning a trip to Mt. Nebo last spring that I had to cancel when my father-in-law and his wife became so ill. He is doing so much better now that I feel confident that I may be able to travel there in the coming year. I plan to return to places where my ancestors walked. I like feeling so close to them and understanding how much they are part of who I am. Arkansas is somehow in my DNA. My friends photo’s reminded me that it’s time to go back again.