My name is Cindy, my mom’s name is Sandy, her mother is Fran, her mama is Girtha, her ma is Fannie, who is the daughter of Katherine Allen. I don’t know the name of Katherine’s mother.
Katherine left us a poem. She tells the story of her life and shares important milestones. Her worry about her soldier son is palpable. She is still irritated at his captain not allowing him leave to come home. I feel her deep affection and longing for her childhood home in Kentucky and her thirst for water from the old spring.
“How well I remember our old cool spring to which no bottom was ever found;
To me than the gurgling of its crystal waters there is no sweeter sound…
I’ve flung myself to taste it; and never has anything slacked my thirst
Like the water that burst fresh from this old spring.”
The poem was framed and on the guest bedroom wall at my great-grandmothers home. I would read it and imagine myself to be that girl flinging myself to taste the cool spring water. Reading her words filled me with awe and respect. Katherine gave me pride in being descended from a poetic and passionate woman.
I felt sad that Katherine was so lonely and missing her children. Her empty table cries for reunion with her far flung family. Her daughter Fannie left home when she married and made her way all the way to Portland, Oregon. There is no evidence that Fannie ever returned to Missouri or saw her mother again.
“MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME”
My name is Katherine Kiper; In Ky. I was born and bred,
And in 1841 by James Kiper I was won and wed.
To us nine sweet children were given breath,
But of those, one was taken, by the Angel of Death.
In 1863 they beat the drum, they played the fife
And then my oldest son volunteered his life.
With knapsack and gun to the war he went
And there one and a half dreary years he spent;
On Mulders-hill which is in Kentucky state,
This brave soldier boy awaited his fate.
His father and I went to see our hero son,
Who was, of all others, to us, the dearest one.
When we met, the joy and happiness I can’t express,
For it was great, as all mothers would confess
The next morning we walked out into the fresh air
The sky was clear and all was calm and fair;
The soldiers took us in, the cannon for to see,
But in this horrid place was no happiness for me
For I knew my boy would face the cannon-ball
And perhaps before the cruel enemy would fall.
He wanted to go home but his captain would not comply;
And this pleasure he was compelled to deny.
We talked to him and told him his officers to obey
For none were interested in him more than they
We told him all snares and temptations to shun;
To be honest, upright, and by no evil be won.
We bade him good-bye the deep pangs of sorrow, No one but mother can know;
To separate from loved ones, God knows, is to her a cruel blow.
Our hopes and our prayers were that he be protected from harm.
And when the cruel war was ended, return safe to our arms.
God was good to us and my boy’s life was spared.
How thankful we were that our joys might be shared.
When I was young my mind was free from care and pain;
Not one sad thought had I, my life to stain.
In 1869 we left our “Our Old Kentucky.” home and to Missouri came
All my children have married and gone
And left me alone with my afflicted son;
He went to the Dr. and left us sad and lone,
And then it was, I thought of “Old Kentucky Home.”
How well I remember our old cool spring to which no bottom was ever found;
To me than the gurgling of its crystal waters there is no sweeter sound.
Under the tall trees that let no sunlight through,
With a trickling drip o’er the rocks cool lip, the waters came down like the dew;
And not even the fabled nectar, the classic poets sing,
Did I dream could be as sweet to me as the waters of this old spring.
Down ‘mongst the grasses glad of the shady place,
From the hay at morn to the noon hot corn, full on my eager face
I’ve flung myself to taste it; and never has anything
Slacked my thirst like the water that burst fresh from this old spring.
I have often thought of my father, mother, brothers’ sisters’ face
How we have enjoyed those winter evenings about the old fire place
They are all laid in their silent graves hope have gone to a better land;
By the grace of God I hope to meet them Over on the Pearly strand.
I am 72 years old my husband is seventy-eight;
Together hand in hand, we are nearing the Golden Gate.
When I sit down to my lonely meals I often recall
The old family table, around which I have gathered my children all,
Then when I think of the long distance between us
It is almost more than a mother can bear.
But if I never meet them on earth I hope to in Heaven.
There’ll be no parting there.
When death comes to claim me as its own
Don’t bury me here on this lonely hill by rude winds blown,
But in the silent graveyard, there lay me down
To await my Savior’s coming to bear me safely home.
The poem also works as a song. According to the 1880 census, neither Katherine, nor her husband James, could write. James could not read. But she created a poem anyway. I sing it sometimes and image Katherine sharing her heart song to a scattered family. Singing makes beauty from sorrow.
I haven’t been able to verify the name of Katherine’s mother. I’ve been looking to gather her mama in for over 20 years. I hear her calling me through umbilical magic. I have an idea she was a Mattingly. My DNA verifies a connection to the Mattingly family. I’ve looked at countless census and tax records for the Mattingly family, but she still eludes me.
When I follow Katherine through the census, I see a woman who lived on rented farms. Their possessions are only worth a few hundred dollars. Katherine and James are poor folks. Their children have moved on looking for a better life. Yet from her poverty she creates art.
I carry her spark within me, choosing poetic beauty, even in the face of ugly reality. My voice is also her voice as I “sing my way home at the close of the day.”