Serendipity and Research

I’m just back from a two-week swing through Tennessee and Kentucky where I spent six days in libraries and the rest of the time hunting up sites and experiences related to my historical characters.

I’m a lover of travel stories and two weeks ago I found myself in the middle of one of those serendipitous meetings of unusual people linked to my tale.

I drove through the gloriously green rolling farmlands of middle Tennessee, passing horses grazing in the sunshine and brick houses standing square amid seas of grass. Birds flit across the pasturelands: a flash of red cardinal here, a sparkling of swooping sparrows  there.

My destination was a moderate-sized town reputed to have my heroine’s wedding dress on display in the county museum. Unfortunately, my GPS did not recognize the town hall’s address and I got lost pretty quickly.

I ended up at the library where the kind librarian suggested I check out their genealogy section and then turn left out the driveway and continue another mile down the road. I wouldn’t be able to miss it.  Look at that photo at the start of this post–imposing building on a hill, you bet!

Hidden in the dark basement, the county museum was a small affair that did not include our heroine’s wedding dress. It did, however, have the wedding portrait on the wall and in a glass case, a ring made for her while her husband languished in prison.

A ring he had held, with a stone chipped from his cell, which she wore on her finger, resting on her handkerchief. Oh, my!

But where in this town had she lived?

The county clerk called the archives and the archivist invited me down: he’d be able to help me with lots of information.

So I headed to the archives. Tom was a pleasant and helpful man and to my shock, is one of those sainted folks who transcribe public records into books. An entire wall full!  He actually couldn’t help me from his archives, but as a fellow genealogist, I saluted him and took his photo.

Disappointed he couldn’t find the address, Tom gave me a phone number for my heroine’s great-grandson. Unfortunately, WP was traveling, but my archivist had another card up his sleeve: “you need to stop in and see Jack.”


“He knows all the stories about your general.”

The directions were a little vague: “Turn right at the light, go down two blocks, turn left headed toward the cemetery, you’ll pass by the monuments. Jack’ll be across the street next to the Mexican food store.”

I’m from California, the only part of the directions that made sense was the Mexican food store. “Is this Jack’s house? What sort of monument?”

“You’ll see. Stop in to see Jack.”

I wasn’t going to do it, but when I drove down the street headed to the cemetery, I saw a yard of headstones and across the street a Mexican grocery store. Why not? I pulled in and found a glass door with Jack’s name in white lettering.

It was like walking back into my childhood–odd furniture, chairs, an elderly woman behind the desk, an 81 year-old man with cataracts sitting upright in a chair. The only difference is my father’s “office” did not include three walls of Civil War tomes.

Jack was a little suspicious at first, but then started in with the stories. His great-grandmother had led my general to safe haven during a battle. I knew that story, didn’t I?

Ur, um, I suggested he tell them all to me.

And thus began a fun hour of reminiscing for him, note taking for me, and quiet chuckling from his wife. He ended with, “let me drive you down to the cemetery and I’ll show you the graves.”

I demurred–I didn’t want to take up all his time.

He was insulted, Southern hospitality demanded it.

I gave in and we got into his Cadillac for a drive down the street.

Even as I tightened the seat belt, tight, I wondered what in the world I was doing. Should I text someone to tell them where I was and who I was with?

No time, Jack got behind the steering wheel and we took off.

He regaled me with stories of that famous battle as we drove down the very road. Private Whitlaw was the hero that day, and we paused to pay respects at his grave. We admired the Confederate headstones and then he took me to my heroine and her daughter.

Blue sky stretched overhead, dabbed with white clouds. Springs birds trilled in the trees and a slight wind rustled the grass. I’d been following my heroine’s story all week; I knew how it ended 125 years ago. Yet there before her headstone I felt a poignancy that put its arm around my shoulders for a squeeze of tears.

Jack didn’t say much as we drove back to his office. He had me on the lookout like Private Whitlaw as we inched through the rock pillared cemetery exit. His wife gave me a sweet smile as we shook hands goodbye.

The serendipity of research is what makes it rich. The fanatics who still follow the details of stories lived 150 years ago make the tales come alive with a richness you can’t always find in books. The unsung heroes for historians are the archivists like Tom, the county clerks like Jean, the librarians and the history lovers like Jack.

I just hope I can write my story well enough to satisfy them.

Leave a comment


  1. I know it will be a wonderful story you write!

  2. Karen O

     /  May 5, 2012

    I’m looking forward to reading your book!

  3. This has been such a joy, to research a book with people who remember the stories. The passion they exude, the stories they know, the way they remember people who are long dead. I remember walking through a cemetery with my great-aunt and uncle 20 years ago and at each grave stone, Uncle Ernest had a story.

    It was dusk and another thin breeze blew across the Utah grass, but I grasped hold of the realization you’re never really gone and dead as long as some one remembers you with fondness and joy.

    My mother died unexpectedly six months later and I’ve thought back of that dreamy night in the cemetery many times with a nostalgic longing for those two wonderful elderly people and my mother.

    And I tell stories about them to my children–tales of their foibles, their laughter and their fun.

    Because I want them to remember the real people who populate their family tree.

    That’s why I do such indepth research.

    And thanks for your encouragemnet!

  4. Kim

     /  May 5, 2012

    What a wondeful orb in that photo of Tom! Mike and I have gone on the “ghost tours” in Charleston and Williamsburg, and of course the tour leaders always want to see if any of your photos had an orb since they’re supposedly ghosts. Maybe that was Mattie, checking in on your progress ;-).

    • Hey, and I just tried to Photoshop it out–I sent a copy to Tom with my thank you note–warning him you may be stopping by, Kim. 🙂 (I didn’t warn Jack, however, in my note to him . . . )


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