My great-great-great grandfather on my mom’s mother’s side, A.D. Wright, at the age of eighty-four, in 1947, wrote down his life, beginning in Beekman, New York and finishing in Chandler, Oklahoma.
High Points in the Life of
Son of William Halsted and Eliza Wright
Father was a wagonmaker and undertaker and had a fifty acre farm adjoining the village of Beekman, Dutchess County, New York.
Two years ago, when I was in Oklahoma and away from the red brick of Boston and seminary, I sat down with my grandad—my Dad’s dad—and asked him about our lineage. As he was talking, a phrase continually popped up, over and over: “Good people.”
He’d be talking about his grandfather, and he’d say, “Yep, they were good people.”
Each time I read the account of A.D. Wright, that phrase sticks there, somewhere in the front of my brain: A.D. Wright was good people.
He left home at seventeen to attend college in New Jersey, and his first job out of school was for a fur company at 1151 Broadway, New York City (today home to a sleazy-looking property management company). However, his father had an injury on the farm, and he was encouraged by family to return home and take it over.
We had five cows, four horses, two brood sows, fifteen sheep and about seventy-five hens. Crops were good and we got along nicely. A neighbor farmer had a ten acre field of fine clover, which we gathered for him, I getting every third load for my share. It was some task to take care of the milk from five cows. We supplied the village folk with milk, butter, eggs and chickens.
I’ve always felt a divide, a scratch of a record, splitting through me.
Everyone in my family is an Oklahoman. And more than geographically, something deeper, rootsier, folksier—as if when God made humanity out of dust, he changed his mind when he got to us and used red clay instead.
I left Oklahoma when I was eighteen and moved west for college. The lights and palm trees and endless summer of Los Angeles felt like a foreign world. The skies were smoggier, and I had a harder time tracing the sun from horizon to horizon each day—choked up with a crowded schedule and faster pace. I have grown to love this place, but it still does not feel like me.
The speed of California threatens to overtake me, and I often long for holidays spent forty-five minutes away from my family’s home of Stillwater in Chandler, Oklahoma with grandparents and uncles and aunts and the sunroom that heats up in the afternoon and warms my back as I take a nap on the carpet. Last time I was there, for July 4th, Uncle Todd—Dad’s brother—took us into the pasture to show us the cows he recently bought. I held a carrot in my hand and watched as the nearest cow enveloped the carrot and the hand in one, slobbery suction.
That night we sat outside and lit fireworks—illegal in California—while listening to the constant, comforting drone of the cicadas. The heat, still oppressive in the dark, laid heavy on my shoulders, an x-ray vest of summertime.
I always went to Sunday School and Church and was S.S. Superintendent one year. Father was superintendent during my first recollection of going to church, and continued in that capacity until his last sickness. The young people of the community organized a literary society which met each week at the homes of the members. I always attended, taking a young lady with me, of course.
As I moved through college I became split in other ways, too. As a theology major, the pressure to know four-syllable words and easy answers to questions consumed me. I came from a faith tradition that valued academic theology above most everything else.
And the interworking of the Trinity.
Knowledge of all of these things seemed so essential, so concrete for spiritual maturity.
But in the back of my mind, there was always Grandma—Mom’s mother and A.D. Wright’s granddaughter. She has lived almost her entire life in Chandler, Oklahoma and doesn’t have a college degree. Her husband, my grandfather, left when Mom was only eleven, and Grandma found work in the public school cafeteria.
The thing about Grandma is that she is incredibly, beautifully, spiritually mature. But I don’t think she would know the first thing about transubstantiation or substitutionary atonement. For her, Christianity is tied to the Word, and the Word is a physical Word. It is planted beside the rhododendrons outside her window, and it travels in her old, maroon Pontiac to First Baptist Chandler each Sunday.
She doesn’t fit the recipe for spiritual success I was handed, and neither does A.D. Wright.
His account is full of physical things: the snow outside the trains and the livestock he had on the farm. Interspersed throughout the physicality were repetitions of his faith commitments.
A few of us decided to organize a Sunday School. We could meet in the town hall, so I sent for literature and the second Sunday after the town lot auction we organized a Sunday School. I was superintendent and taught the adult Bible class. We had about twenty or thirty enrolled in the school.
My favorite author is the agrarian writer Wendell Berry. He has helped me connect my life in California with my family in Oklahoma and my theology with a faith rooted and planted in the earth.
As I recently re-read Wright’s accounts, I thought I was reading Berry. It felt odd and almost ordained; as if A.D. Wright’s blood really is pumping through veins a full century removed.
I relate with him.