Sunday, August 26, 2012

Willis Reunion - Sharing my Great-Grandmother's Journal

I found a journal written in 1864 by my great-grandmother, Bessie Hiter Willis when she was 13 years old.  I dressed in costume and presented excerpts from the journal at the Willis Family Reunion on August  12, 2012.  (There were about 140 people present.)
Cousin Talia Moser with her "Great-Grandmother Bessie Hiter Willis"
How can I begin to write about one of the most positive, intense experiences of my life?  

First, I was too busy living "in the moment" to take photos and so were cousins Bill and Corty Freeman.  Keep in mind, it wasn't my costume or me that captivated the audience.
Corty Freeman and MaryMay Angelil

I practiced with my brother, Philip, the week before and he gave me some good coaching on pacing and expression.  I was careful to speak directly into the mike so everyone could hear. 

Before I began, I reminded my family that "this is REAL," then "transformed" myself into Bessie Hiter Willis, age 13.

You know how, in most any audience setting, there's always a little movement, shuffling, and a bit of coughing?  That did NOT happen during my 23 minute presentation!  People seemed spellbound by our great-grandmother's words.
Explaining that the journal was the size of half a notebook paper.  The 1864 portion was loose papers but were, thankfully, numbered.  The 1873 portion was pinned into a booklet with straight pins.
I was so nervous but was determined to convey her thoughts.  I was embarrassed that I got emotional a few places but got feedback later that the tears made it all the more poignant. 
The excerpts I chose from the l864 portion of the journal were about how the Civil War affected Bessie's everyday life and about her older brother who went off to war at 17 but was dead of typhoid in just two months. 

Bessie's final statement in this first portion of the journal was quite perceptive for a 13-year-old girl.

"April 29, 1865    
General Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865 to the Yankees.  Lincoln was murdered in the theater in Washington on April 15th.  Andy Johnson is now President of the United States. 
The Yankees, so far, have been lenient to the people of VA.   How I do hope somebody would ruin the Yankees.  They acknowledge that they did not whip us, they overpowered us.  All this for nothing."

From the 1873 part of the journal, I chose some of the ROMANCE entries!  

"January 5, 1874  
Have refused E.H.W. twice.  For good.  ...But why should it trouble me? ...I should think if I was in love with him, I'd know it."   (E.H.W was Eugene Harrison Willis, who became our great-grandfather.) 

"July 26, 1874 
He says his feelings have not changed and that he loves me more than ever before....but wants to know if there is any hope for him.  I knew not what to say." 
The journal ended in 1874 with Bessie being offered two teaching positions.  This was a real cliff-hanger!!!

However, things moved along because two years later they had their first son....and after that 8 more children!
Philip helped me write the closing, which I thought was rather good:
"Speaking to you as Mary May great-grandmother's journal gave me unique insight into who I am and from whom I came.    When someone dies, we usually only know them through pictures and things written ABOUT them.
Today we have had a real and special glimpse into our great-grandmother’s life through her very own words. She was born in 1850 and died in 1923. This was Bessie Hiter Willis."
 Just think, all this from a little old shoebox!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Willis Reunion 2012 - Unique Setting

I showed you in my last post an outside view of the barn where The Willis Family Reunion was held. 

(Thanks to Cousin John Moser for the photos in this post.)

The inside was a very unique setting for a meeting and lunch.  

This is a real "live horse" barn!

Betty Long inherited Locust Hill Farm, which has been in the Willis family for 148 years. 

Here Michael and Betty Long welcome the family to their home.
This barn, if I understand it correctly, was built fairly recently and is a state-of-the-art equestrian facility, Locust Hill Equestrian Center.
Somewhere I saw a write-up about this style of rafters and the type wood used, but can't locate that piece.
During the program, the horses were just quietly listening with a snort now and then.

They were friendly to young and old.

Cousins Werter Willis and Kat Stoneman were co-presidents this year.  There is a lot of planning and organizing that goes on behind the scenes for this reunion, which is held every 2 years.
After the program came the potluck picnic luncheon, featuring brown sugar pie like my mother used to make and other great Southern dishes. (Mmmm)!

Until the next post:

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Willis Reunion 2012 - Exhausted and Exhilarated

The Willis Family Reunion near Culpeper, VA was a most enjoyable event this weekend.  It was a pleasure to see many, many cousins --- some new and some I remember from my childhood days.
Portraying my Great-Grandmother Bessie Hiter Willis and sharing portions of her journal (written in 1864 during the Civil War) was an honor. All went extremely well and I look forward to sharing more very soon.
First, I must total exhaustion is unexpected but my exhilaration at the impact on the audience was overwhelming.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Willis Reunion 2012 - Ramping Up for the Reunion

I haven't posted for a while because I've been quite busy preparing for the Willis Family Reunion in Culpeper, Virginia this weekend.  

Last summer, when going through things from Mother's estate, I found a journal that Great-Grandmother Betty Hiter Willis kept when she was 13 years old.  It was during the Civil War in 1864!  (Click this link to see the post from last summer:  Shoebox Surprises

I will be sharing excerpts from the journal as part of the program on Sunday and will be going in costume.  (Let's I don't swoon from the heat!)

I almost threw the little batch of loose papers away because I thought they were illegible, when suddenly the date "May 15, 1864" jumped out at me.  Luckily, the 49 pages were numbered.
Sometimes I have to pinch myself because THIS IS REAL and it's as if my great-grandmother is speaking to me.
Here's a sample entry....mind you, I couldn't make out every word because with the yellowed paper and pale writing, deciphering it was extremely challenging.

"Sunday, May 15, 1864 Rock Spring
It is raining quite hard. Pa and Grandfather have just got here from the Court House. Went up to carry half their meat for the army. I can't help thinking of the poor soldiers, the wounded and dead.  I'm so sorry poor John Biggers was killed and his orphan sisters left alone in the world.

A big fight came off Thursday the 12th. The Yankees took some of our breastworks and all of Johnston’s Division but 600 men and ?__? Battalion of Artillery.  Cousin Willie Hart escaped, Willie Hiter was taken. We recaptured all the guns but four. It was in retaking the breastworks that John Biggers was killed. I feel like I wanted to be nearer the fighting than I am.

Finished my new calico dress yesterday, it cost $50. Hugh returned from Spotsylvania last night. Did not go to see the battleground, they won't allow citizens to go."
If I start getting butterflies, I plan to remind myself that I'm not MaryMay, I'm merely a vessel for Great-Grandmother Betty Young Hiter (Willis). I am getting psyched, pumped up, and ramped for this reunion!