by Dennis Peterson
Often, I’ve regretted not having access to a plethora of private documents–letters, journals, photos, etc.–on which to base my study of and writing about my family’s history. Unlike Joy Neal Kidney, who has uncovered scads of such documents for the basis of her three books (to date, with another in the works).
Sometimes, however, we can fail to see the forest for the trees. We can fail to see the obvious right under our nose.
This fact suddenly occurred to me several weeks ago as I was engaged in my daily Bible reading. I was using a Bible that I had given as a Christmas gift to my parents while I was a student in college. My mother had written her name at the top of the first page, but it was Daddy’s infrequent underlinings of verses and his scribbled notes in the margin that attracted my attention.
Daddy was a laboring man, a brick mason, and he had large, rough, calloused hands. His handwriting never came close to resembling the Palmer or Zaner-Bloser styles taught when he was in school. Unlike my mother’s neat, always legible handwriting. Even her hurriedly jotted grocery and to-do lists were the epitome of handwriting correctness. Daddy’s handwriting, on the other had, was seldom neat, even when he concentrated on it. It was, at best, a scrawl.
But whenever I encountered his underlining or writing in the margin of that Bible, I began to go back and reread the verse or passage or read his notations, trying to determine what he was thinking at the moment he read the verse or passage. I began asking myself questions. (Much of “doing good history” involves asking good questions.)
- What prompted that particular verse or passage to strike a chord for him at that moment?
- What was happening–or had happened–to give it special meaning for him?
- Why did he write that particular note? What–or who–was influencing his thinking at that moment?
Daddy didn’t keep a journal. He wasn’t a writer. So I have nothing by which I can reach definitive answers to such questions. But if I know certain other facts, I often can surmise answers that might help me better understand him and his thinking at the moment he underlined or wrote a cryptic note in the margin.
Consider, for example, this one instance. When he was reading Psalm 37, he underlined verses 1 and 7 out of the total of 40 verses in the psalm. Why had those specific verses captured his attention so clearly as to prompt him to underline them?
By the way, I knew that Daddy, not Mother or anyone else, had underlined those verses because he had a “style” of underlining unique to himself. He didn’t underline a whole unbroken line of text; his underlining was erratic. He would underline perhaps the first word, leave a gap, underline the next two words, then leave a gap, skip a word, underline one or two more, etc. It was unpredictable and seemingly random. Sometimes, even only part of a word would be underlined.
But I digress.
Both verses say “fret not.” Don’t worry. Don’t let yourself get all wrought up. About what?
“Because of evil doers . . . those who work unrighteousness” (v. 1).
“Because of him who prospers in his way . . . who brings evil devices to pass” (v. 7).
Now what motivated Daddy to focus on those particular verses?
On a December Sunday night, about a week before Christmas, Daddy, Mother, and Gina, my sister, were on their way to the evening church service for the Christmas cantata. My parents were in the choir. My sister possibly was playing the piano or the organ. They were all anticipating a joyous Christmas holiday together.
As they topped a hill, a car coming the opposite direction hit them head on. Mother was thrown into the windshield. She died a few days later. Daddy, on the passenger side, and Gina, who was driving, were injured. Gina returned to college (at Daddy’s insistence) after the first of the year to graduate, but Daddy remained in the hospital for several weeks and then, even after being released, was unable to return to work for months.
The driver of the other car had been drinking and had a blood alcohol count far above the legal limit. He was not seriously injured. He was never charged. Neither the sheriff nor the detectives in his office pursued an investigation. A judge refused to issue an arrest warrant for the drunk driver. Justice was never executed. Everyone involved seemed to go about their lives as normal, not in the least affected by their actions–or inaction. Except Daddy.
Naturally, Daddy was dismayed by this miscarriage of justice. He lobbied numerous public officials at many levels, begging them to do their jobs or to encourage others to do what they were pledged by oath to do in their positions, and to bring justice to bear–and to gain closure for him. But no one did anything.
Daddy had a “right” to worry and be angry, right?
He was. But one day, he read those verses in Psalm 37 and apparently made the choice to stop fretting and just to leave the matter in God’s hands.
In the end, over time, justice was served. Not in the way Daddy expected and wanted, but in God’s way and in His time.
The drunk driver, apparently unable to deal with his guilt, committed suicide. The detective who refused to investigate and the judge who refused to issue a warrant were removed from their positions. The sheriff was himself later arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for operating a “chop shop,” dealing in stolen cars. He was replaced by a new sheriff who had campaigned primarily on getting tough on drunk drivers.
All of this without any action–or fretting–by Daddy.
Perhaps these things were in Daddy’s mind when he read those verses. They taught him to “let go and let God.”
I had to do the same kind of “mind reading” when I was trying to determine why Daddy dropped out of Lincoln Memorial University before he ever recorded a grade on his transcript. Lack of money? Academic problems? The need for him, an only son, to work on his father’s dairy farm? Homesickness for the love of his life, his future bride and my future mother?
In doing your own research, especially if you don’t have written records, try to ask questions about what motivated your subjects’ actions. What were they thinking? What influences affected their actions? In effect, try to read their minds and come up with plausible back stories to round out your family history.
Dennis L. Peterson is a historian and the author of several books, including the delightful Look Unto the Hills: Stories of Growing Up in Rural East Tennessee. He is also a regular contributor to Our American Stories.
Website for Dennis Peterson. At the top of the home page are his delightful audio stories, ready to listen to.
Here’s his Amazon Author Page.