by Kyle Alfred Miller
Copyright 2016, Kyle Alfred Miller
License, Notes, Disclaimer
Aunt Pokie is a true story about untrue family legacies. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either directly related to, associated to, or used by the author and are verifiably accurate using the Internet, US Census data, and two family Bibles.
Cover: Portrait of Pocahontas by Dutch printmaker and sculptor Simon van de Passe, from a copper engraving made in 1616 with a first-print publication in 1624, is available as a public domain image on www.Wikipedia.org by courtesy of the British Museum.
It’s not about chromosomes. It’s about character. My grandmothers had an indelible influence on my character, my goals. I wouldn’t be a writer if it weren’t for them. I wouldn’t hold myself magnanimously if it weren’t for them. I was a descendant of Pocahontas. I could claim lineage to Betsy Ross. Or so I was told. Sure, I’m several generations removed from either Pocahontas or Betsy, making any genetic association insignificant, but they lent me their character. Perhaps too much character. As a consequence, I wouldn’t be writing this true tale of untrue family histories if it weren’t for my grandmothers.
Despite the smallness of my hometown, cupped by the Cimarron River’s sandy shoals, family history was the pearls and copper beads of prestige while I was growing up there, at least as far as my grandmothers were concerned. Since the day when my paternal grandparents sold the family farm to my dad and built their new home in town, both of my grandmothers lived a few blocks apart, dissected solitarily by State Highway 108. Every time the doors opened, my paternal grandmother underwent her routine pilgrimage across the highway to the First Church of God on the corner of Phillips Street. The same church my great grandfather, her father-in-law, earned reverend ordainment with and held services at. Next door to the church was my maternal grandmother, who seldom set foot in a church except for special occasions, such as Mother’s Day, when she felt more exulted and her presence was better acknowledged. After services, barring any acts of God or essential family duties, neither grandmother found reason to mingle.
I always assumed it started with my great-grandmother Vertie. Vertie’s husband died months before I was born and my reverend great grandfather a year after, leaving Vertie as the sole remaining great of my grandparents. With an eighth-grade-level education, she was considered supremely accomplished for a pioneering prairie woman. Step out the side door of my maternal grandmother’s home, turn left and proceed through her gardened backyard, cross the grassy vacant lot between the new Methodist church and an old two-story white house, hop over Dunn Street, and you’d be at her mother’s, my great-grandmother Vertie’s home. A weathered waist-high rock wall encircled her house, a matured grove of peach and cherry trees, grape vines, a strawberry patch, sprawling gardens, a root cellar, and various storage buildings. Inside, crowding shelves in front of a large living room window facing the street, water globes, cousins to the snow globe, encased different seasons and settings within spheres of clear and colored water.
When my lanky build crossed the threshold of her home, Vertie would struggled from her old leather lounge chair and shuffled into her kitchen, calling at me with a familiar, “Come on, let’s get some meat on those bones!” Donuts from scratch. Chicken livers fried with onions. Steaming popcorn fresh from her vintage hand-crank popper. Freshly picked peaches, sliced and sprinkled with sugar. During my visits, after eating and before any playtime, the basics were scrawled out with a piece of white chalk on her handheld blackboard, and then past to me to solve. Sitting at her feet on a floor covered with mismatched carpet samples, I eagerly scratched out arithmetic and orthographic answers. “You never stop learning ‘til they throw dirt on you,” Vertie enjoyed repeating. Unbeknown to my young, eager mind, Vertie was a formidable town matriarch. She was also a long-time member of the First Church of God, which frustrated the intended rule of my paternal grandmother. I consider my characteristic curiosity of all things a gift from my great grandmother, which she fed as much as my belly. However, in both my belly and my brain, some bites were more digestible than others. Among her stories of our family’s role in Ripley’s once booming past, Vertie imparted a legacy of our family being descendants of Pocahontas’ half-sister. Undeterred by any glaring contradictions, my great grandmother affectionately referred to Aunt Pokie in her later years as if she actually enjoyed a personal relationship with the woman. According to Vertie, she was one-eighth Powhatan, and using her lessons in determining fractions, I figured that I was one-sixty-fourth. While my parents were skeptical, I took pride in our connection to Pocahontas and the Powhatan tribe during my childhood days.
For better and likely the worse, Vertie’s daughter, Ripley’s only door-to-door-knocking Avon Lady, was my favored grandmother during my youth. A founding member of the town ladies’ Know-You-Better Club, my maternal grandmother was also the single biggest gossip in the entire county. Though paler in intellect and prowess than her mother, she was no less daunting in our small community. Her appearances on the farm briefly and divinely disrupted the ceaseless chores of my farm-boy adolescence. Only a family elder could unbuckle my parent’s yoking edicts. She reveled in the role like visiting royalty, like a daughter of the chieftain, like Pocahontas herself. From her bulging purse came model airplanes of balsa wood. Paddle balls and balloons tethered by rubber bands. Coloring and comic books and whatever else caught her eye while passing through the Ripley’s only grocery store. I was the last grandchild in her brood. My older brother was heir apparent to the family farm, leaving me a willing and available pupil for my grandmother. She fueled my creativity, influenced my imagination, and showed me how to hide humiliation behind a practiced smirk. When my grandmother moved from her home of fifty-plus years on Phillips Street into an assisted-living center with limited space for knickknacks, she proudly continued to display her collection of Native American princess dolls and figurines, complete with miniature villages of leather teepees and clay adobes.
My paternal grandmother, who lived for her church’s doors to open, wouldn’t even fetch her mail without one of her oversized gunmetal-grey wigs cockeyedly pinned onto her petite and sparsely haired skull. She was a fastidious woman, frigid to family, friends, and foes alike. Her and her wig wafted in spaces like a looming storm cloud. Always an excuse to keep close to home, her prized garden, fueled by manure from the farm, plateaued a foot inside its chain-link barrier. Canning was her unrivaled alchemy. Pies were her mastery. A spotless home and a tidy kitchen, however, trumped a fed family. My undiagnosed obsessive-compulsiveness is most likely a genetic gift from my paternal grandmother. My most uncouth qualities we share in abundance. She embodied a colonialistic quirkiness. Her side of the family was descendants of Betsy Ross, the same one credited for making the original American flag. As an out-and-proud Yankee, her Oklahoman-twanged clan often considered her lacking southern sagacity. She never approved of my parents’ union. She frequently proclaimed, particularly to my mother, it would never last. It wouldn’t have if it weren’t for my reverend great-grandfather Miller. Playing matchmaker for his favorite grandson, he frequently trucked my young, future mom the seven miles from town to the farm to spend the afternoon with my future dad. Nonetheless, my grandmother insisted my mother unworthy of her first born son. To her lasting dissatisfaction, she was overruled but remained undeterred in her attempts to uncouple my parents. As offspring, my brother and I were tolerated. As sons of her firstborn son, the only male heirs to the Miller name, we were an audacious conundrum in which she lacked sufficient acumen to resolve.
Explosive confrontations are scarce in small, insular communities like Ripley. Such conflicts would have the potential to spread unintentionally, wound deeply, and lingering into the ensuing generations. Problem personalities do not conveniently go away. If anything, my childhood attendance of the First Church of God taught me that I must wait until some problems go to their graves, and then pray their predecessors are improved. Until that ultimate repose, dissenting factions do best to avoid one another. Clenched smiles and sickeningly sweet politeness were standard armor to unpleasantness. Gossiping and backstabbing rumors were common weapons. Never mattered none of it was true. In close ranks, breathy barbs directed toward my mother were a regular part of Sunday dinners with the immediate Miller family after our weekly church services. Worse rumors were wafted publicly from aunts and their offspring as their weekday entertainment. While my cousins were showered with gifts of bicycles, motorcycles, cars, shotguns, and such, I received my first birthday card on my sixteenth year. It was unsettlingly out of character of my paternal grandparents. I cherished it all the same. My paternal grandfather, whose name I honor as a middle moniker, was one of the most kind-hearted, hard-working, devoted, and loving men I’ve known. He, however, lacked courage when faced with his prickly Yankee bride. If my grandmother was a perennial rain cloud, then my grandfather’s final days were of a tumultuous tornado as he released his resentment and fury before departing.
My childhood reality was like one of Vertie’s water globes. I saw my hometown from its outside. Character-building farm labor notwithstanding, I was free from my family’s small-town legacy and dramas. Contrary to the grandmothers’ tactics, my mother didn’t believed in distributing dubious information. “Go look it up,” she predictably replied when lacking an honest explanation. When I wasn’t working, I was reading and researching. The location and the time where my childhood took place, however, made it difficult to know which questions to ask and which information to trust. Oklahomans have a tendency to pass along romanticized versions of history to their children. Today there are as many miles distancing me from my childhood home as there are words expended from the beginning of my tale to this point. It took those miles, forty years, a genome test, and multiple genealogical digs to scratch my curiosities’ itch.
There is another legacy in my family that was often spoken of in hushed, scandalous tones. Perhaps it was part of what riled my self-righteous granny the most. I knew the Pattersons migrated from Ripley County, Missouri, but little beyond that. There were no records. The courthouse burned was all the family was told. While living in Ripley County, one Vertie Mae Patterson married one George Washington Patterson. “I’m a double-Patterson,” my great grandmother loved exulting. Despite repeated assurances given, my immediate family was quietly incredulous that there wasn’t some incestuous coupling instead. Until recently, none knew Union Army soldiers razed the courthouse with the rest of the county seat of Doniphan in 1864, allegedly in retaliation for pro-Confederate guerrilla activities. Those soldiers left a smoldering courthouse in that Ozark Mountains town and a gaping hole in my family’s history that only the Information Age could hope to fill. In Payne County, Oklahoma, where I’m probably related to about one-third of the population, and in the town of Ripley where the population has never exceeded five hundred, my family’s background of a potentially incestuous relationship was common knowledge and the first unpleasant insult spat during verbal altercations.
Perhaps fabricating a connection to Pocahontas was thought necessary to deflect and protect the family’s reputation. There were just a few problems. Historians place Pocahontas’ birth near Jamestown, Virginia, around 1595. My great grandmother Vertie was born circa 1881, in Ripley County. Before the Internet, or even that fictionalized animated Disney flick, few people might have noticed one hundred years and nearly one thousand miles stood between Vertie and the truth. Also, Pocahontas was only a nickname, which meant “The Naughty One” in the Algonquian Powhatan language. The girl romanticized as Pocahontas was born Matoaka, and later was called Amonute before taking her married name of Rebecca Rolfe. There’s a poem about her by William Watson Waldron called Pocahontas, American Princess: and Other Poems in which Pocahontas is “the beloved and only surviving daughter of the king.” If the poet favored nonfiction in his prose, Pocahontas had no sisters, meaning I have no tribal aunties.
As I expanded the explorations of my family roots, an unexpected familial connection appeared. Buried deep among my greats, the name Opechanacanough Powhatan. Born 1554 in Virginia, Opechanacanough (pronounced: oh-pech-uh n-kah-noh) was a tribal chief of the Powhatan Confederacy of what is now known as Virginia. His name meant, “He whose Soul is White.” As a much-feared warrior, he headed a tribe situated along the Pamunkey River near the present-day town of West Point. Strongly opposed to European encroachment, he infamously captured John Smith of Jamestown and brought him before Chief Powhatan, where Pocahontas allegedly intervened in Smith’s death. At this point, John Smith and great-grandma Vertie had one thing in common: neither could resist spinning a good tale. Accord to Smith’s original account of events, his life was never threatened when captured by Opechanacanough. Instead Smith mentioned a large feast and long hours talking with Chief Powhatan. Pocahontas wasn’t mentioned in his journal entries until months later. Why Smith changed his tale about the events provokes only theories with a muddled history clouding any hope of our knowing the truth.
My paternal grandmother was more tempered in her appreciation of her ancestor, but she was foiled by another’s struggle for his forebear’s fame. There is a wealth of information when researching the American colonial period; however, Betsy Ross and her association to the first American flag lacks any archival evidence to substantiate the patriotic contributions. A century later, it was her grandson who wrote her into history, perhaps never realizing how far his story might go. It took someone in my family to finally read a US history book to discover Elizabeth “Betsy” Griscom had no children with husband John Ross, my potential cousin, before he died during the American Revolutionary War. The real surprise surfaced when I entered my family data into a genealogical application. Opechanacanough is the ancestor of my paternal Yankee grandmother, whose branch of the family lacked any knowledge of Native American heritage.
I miss my grandmothers to this day. When I was twelve, Vertie died peacefully in her nursing home after enjoying ninety-one years on earth. Her daughter, the gossiping Avon Lady, continued to frustrate those who loved her until her ninety-third year. The now-Aunt Pokie-related paternal grandmother mellowed significantly before finally meeting her Maker after ninety years, but not before she imparted her best family secrets to me during our last cherished conversation. If they were all alive today I would revel in sharing these discoveries. I envision an accidental slip during a holiday dinner with my whole family in attendance. One grandmother splinters the wooden tabletop with her perfectly lacquered claws as the other grandmother shifts her wig and dully asks, “What are you on about, you little stinker?”
My genealogical research provided unexpected relief. My double-Patterson great grandparents were in no way related to each other. Vertie was born in Ripley County, her future husband George arrived as a young and nongenetically related stud.
Ironically, I can still lay claim to having an Aunt Pokie. Opechanacanough was Chief Powhatan’s younger brother or half-brother, making him Pocahontas’ uncle or cousin. Among his vast litter, a great grandson, Samuel King Burks II, who happened to also have a Powhatan great grandmother, marks a diluting five greats across one hundred fifty years, before finding Silas “still-not-related-to-Betsy” Ross, my paternal grandmother’s most scorned maternal grandfather. Among her parting collection of secrets, grandma shared that she knew her Grandpa Ross as a cowardly man who frequently had sexual relations with his slaves. She seemed relieved when I reassured her that what was acceptable for Thomas Jefferson and our other Founding Fathers is forgivable act for an ancestor of mine.
From a young age, I recognized what my meddling grandmothers were. They shared a wanting for more, for themselves, and to a lesser degree, for the family. With predominately good intentions, and occasionally not, they manipulated family and friends equally. Despite any flaws in their foibles, I loved them dearly. They were true characters, no less magnanimous than any others captured by history books. And no better than their predecessors, they spun false histories of their own. Once bygone, my grandmothers’ enviable departures brought about an estrangement among surviving family members, who stood like weathered flags forsaken outside on their poles. It was from my grandmothers’ flawed fabrications I found the needed threads to regather my family, with a factualness of which perhaps even my Aunt Pokie might approve. With the windy tales tamed, our ancestors’ true history wove us back together.
About the Author
Kyle Alfred Miller is savoring the third incarnation of his current life as a professional author. Being born and reared in the world on a small family farm in Oklahoma was his first; the second incarnation involved writing technical mumbo-jumbo for organizations big and small. A loving spouse, a wacky border collie, and four feisty felines share his current incarnation as a novelist and short-story writer while dwelling in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.
Aunt Pokie is a true story about untrue family legacies. If my grandmothers were to be believed, my blood harbored the greatness of Pocahontas and Betsy Ross. After a decade of genealogical research, and a DNA test, I discovered my grandmothers weren't the only ones who could spin a good yarn.