The beginning is usually a very good place to start, right? That’s usually true, but as I began researching my family genealogy, I quickly realized you start at the end and work backward. That’s actually the only way to catch all the clues you need along the way to get to the next generation back. And so, I started with what I knew: my grandparents.When I originally started my research, I wanted to quickly work my way back on all sides of the family. I didn’t get into a lot of details because I hoped to quickly “get out of America.” I knew a lot of people with family traditions that came directly from another country because their family had only come to the U.S. two or three generations ago. My family had a lot of traditions too but nothing you could really trace back to a specific place or culture outside of the United States. So I shot off like lightning, racing to get further and further back. In my youthful naivete, I thought surely on some side of the family someone had gotten off a ship at Ellis Island only a few generations ago and no one had passed the story on. The further back I got, the more frustrated and disappointed I became. It would take me years of research to “get out of the U.S.”
Nowadays, with my grandparents gone, I reminisce on the stories they told. As I picked up the genealogy again this time, I determined to be more thorough in my research, trying to piece together the story of each life in detail. This has been very rewarding. With that in mind, I begin by sharing the story of my Granny, Wilma Mae Watkins:
My Gran was born in October 1927 in Spindale, North Carolina, the sixth child of seven to Augustus Samuel & Juda Eva-An Taylor Watkins. By the time she came along, there was Mamie Sue (age 11), Mildred Naomi (9), JD (7), Charles Samuel(4), and Lois Adele (1). Their youngest brother would be added a few years later. The siblings were always close, especially the sisters.
Granny often told me life was so different when she was growing up. She said, “We were poor, but everyone was poor so we never knew it.” She often said her family was rich in the important things in life, love and laughter. I loved to hear her tell these stories and hear her laughter as she told them. I also loved to look through all her old photographs and those of my Poppy.
One year as a teenager we sat down together to write the names on the backs of the pictures so we would not forget who was in each one. She could almost always remember even the first and last names of friends she had not seen for decades. On the back of the above picture from 1930 is written: Wilma, Lois, and Francis Seaman. An interesting finding on the 1930 McDowell County census is that the family listed above them, neighbors of some kind, is listed as the Seaman’s with a 6-year-old daughter named Francis.
Something else Granny often mentioned was different was dating. She said young folks “ran around in groups” when she was growing up rather than pairing off into serious relationships. I was told by many that Granny had lots of boyfriends and was a real heartbreaker. In fact, there is another picture of her riding a tandem bicycle with a boy, not my grandfather, on the back of which someone has written “one of the many of whom she broke their hearts.” As a child, I was surprised to hear Granny dated so many boys. I guess you think your grandparents have always been together! I was not surprised to hear she was a heartbreaker though. The photo above was on display in the room my sister and I slept in when we visited my grandparents for years, and I remember always gazing up at it convinced that she had been a movie star and wasn’t telling us!
My grandparents met through her friend and Poppy’s cousin, Mary Catherine. During World War II, Poppy was stationed in South Carolina and then out West. They wrote many letters to each other and we have loved hearing Poppy’s voice through the many Granny held onto. Shortly after the war, Granny came to Cleveland, Ohio, and they were married in January 1947. Granny worked at Victoreen, making electronic tubes as seen below. This company made products for civil defense in the event of possibile nuclear attack which so many were worried about during the early years after World War II. Granny and Poppy then moved back to North Carolina for a short time before coming back to Cleveland and eventually settling in an outlying suburb where they spent the rest of their lives. In the late 1950’s, they welcomed one long-awaited daughter who later married and had two daughters of her own. Wilma passed away in 2010, just 6 months after Harry. They were married almost 64 years.
I have had an interest in history, which sparked my interest in genealogy, ever since I was young and read “The Little House on the Prairie” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. One summer, Granny, mom, my sister, and I took a trip to Sauder Farm and Village where I found a short book called “Grandma’s Story.” I bought it and asked Granny to answer the questions in it so we would always know about her life and family. And so I leave you with a little of Granny’s life in her own words: