Recently a cousin of mine related a story he heard from his Dad about one of our ancestors. That ancestor was Pennell Pittman, and my cousin’s story was very different than the one I heard from my Dad.
I first heard about Pennell Pittman when I was in my early teens when I asked where my middle name came from. My name given at birth was Sterling Pittman Newberry. “Where did Pittman come from”, I asked. My Dad told me that he was a relative who fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War.
I was shocked to say the least; I couldn’t imagine being named for someone who fought to keep slavery intact, but due to the times I didn’t say anything. Years later I asked my Dad where our Cherokee ancestry came from. He said there was this ancestor, Pennell Pittman, who fought for the Confederacy and after the Civil War settled down and went back to farming. To bolster the family income he also started selling implements and home goods to farmers up in the hills. He would get in his buckboard and ride for several days selling things and then return home only to repeat the trip a couple of months later.
Pennell had a wife and children and was worried that the work on the farm would be too much for her, so they hired a young Cherokee woman to help watch the children. After one trip Pennell came home to discover that his wife had died while he was gone. Distraught and with a family to still care for, he asked the young Cherokee woman to stay on. She said it wouldn’t look right because they weren’t married, so he asked her to marry him. She agreed, and my Grandfather Sterling Price was one of the children their grandchildren. His second wife’s name was Esther Pittman, and in that instant I knew who I had been named after.
Now my cousin’s story has a moral to it as does my father’s. The only facts they have in common are Pennell being in the Confederate army, his marrying Esther and being an itinerant salesman in addition to a farmer. What I think both do have in common is a sense of personal integrity, the importance of family, and a bit of disregard for tradition.
My Dad is obviously not the only one in his family who used stories like this to pass along values that mattered to him, and in other posts I will try to tell couple more that had meaning for me growing up.
After hearing and watching you read poems from your book “Signs” on The Poetry Box webcast in March — and as a fellow Poetry Box author — I ordered a copy of your book, and I have just finished reading it. I want to commend you on how effectively you presented your poems on the Zoom gathering, and quickly add that reading them now leaves me grateful for your expressive artistry. I marked many lines and poems as I made my way through the book. “Broken,” “Mirror,” “Time Travel,” and “Fetch” were especially powerful and evocative for me. Thank you for sharing your poems with the world.
Author: “Our Aching Bones, Our Breaking Hearts: Poems on Aging” (The Poetry Box, 2023).