A Little Matter of My Ancestral Heart

My great grandmother sat on top of the piano.   Her piercing ice-blue eyes mesmerized and hypnotized me, and no matter where I stood in my grandmother’s farmhouse parlor, those eyes in that oil painting saw me.  Sitting at the piano bench beside my grandmother as she practiced her hymns for Sunday church, I was in-tranced by the angelic face above me, Clara Olinda Osborne King, watching over us while I sang in ardor as my grandmother played “Bringing in the Sheaves.” My grandmother, who I affectionately called mam-maw, told me many times, when I was as young as six years old, that I reminded her of her own mama, that woman sitting on top of the piano.  

Clara Olinda Osborne King was born October 15, 1885, in Grayson County, Kentucky.  She was an educated woman and I have her Common Schools Diploma to prove it. The diploma confirms that she had completed the prescribed course of studies in Spelling, Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, English Grammar, English Composition, Geography, History of the United States, History of Kentucky, Physiology & Hygiene, Elements of Civil Government, and she had successfully passed the test endorsed by the Kentucky State Board of Examiners. In rural America, where farming was the common way of life, women were primed to be the support of the farmer husband and to do the manual work required on the farm. Completing an education before marriage was often not accomplished. Clara, though, after completing her studies, somehow made her way to Oldham County, Kentucky, 100 miles away from her birth home of Grayson County, where she would live and teach all ages of children in the one-room school house in the rural county countryside.

The photos I have of my dear great-grandmother, Clara, testify that she was more than slightly beautiful. She was breathtaking. Clara’s own mother, my great-great grandmother, Ruth Angeline Jacobs Osborne, was also a stunning and lovely woman; a beauty, who according to family folklore, won a county fair beauty contest, and married a man ten years younger than herself; a cougar, ahead of her time.  Dear Angeline left this earth at a mere forty years young, and soon after, in that exact same year that she died, her husband, Arthur Osborne, remarried. To this day, I cannot find the grave where my great-great grandmother Angeline was laid to rest. It is a mystery.  Clara, her daughter, was only five years old when her mother, Angeline Jacobs, died.

 I imagine that it must have been a very exhilarating time for 20-year-old Clara, venturing out to a new rural county in 1905 to become the community school teacher, marking her independence and womanhood. According to my mam-maw and my aunts, their mother, Clara, was a writer and poet.  I have a poem she wrote for my mam-maw’s class picnic in Clara’s lovely handwriting, and it is my beautiful treasure.  I imagine that Clara spent her free time writing, and singing in the church choir, and that she taught children how to read, and to love and appreciate poetry and art and humanities. I think she may have fancied pretty dresses and smelled of lavender and rose. I see her washing her hair in rain water and using a rock from the creek as a pumice for her slender feet. I see her gathering wild daisies and Queen Anne’s Lace from the fields, just as I gathered flowers when I’d run the hills of my mam-maw’s Kentucky farm. Who wouldn’t love a beautiful bouquet in the sweet summers in Kentucky?  Maybe Clara even wore flowers in her hair at the church social. 

Family folklore has it that my dear great-grandmother Clara met my great-grandfather Leander King at a church picnic on a Sunday afternoon. I wonder who caught whose fancy first. Leander King was very handsome, a striking man, thin and fit, and a farmer. He was also a widower at the time of their acquaintance. It was a coincidence that his dearly departed first wife’s name was also Clara (Clara Hannah Wilhoit) and not so uncommon, Clara Hannah Wilhoit was his cousin.

I like to imagine that the courtship of Leander King and Clara Osborne was a love story fit for the Lifetime Television. I wonder if this meeting was one of sparks at first sight, or if it was a long, lovely courtship. Leander lost his first wife in 1905, the same year that Clara received her diploma and set out for the new landscape of teaching.  I have nothing but my imagination on their puritan romance, but according to established records, Leander King, age 38, and Clara Olinda Osborne, 23 years old, were married on March 4, 1908, and their first child, my mam-maw, Josie Margaret King, was born November 18, 1908.

So begins my great grandmother’s life of motherhood and farmwife life. Upon marriage, Clara had to give up her position as teacher. It was against the law for a married woman to teach children.

In July 1910, Clara gave birth to her second child, Odella. 1913 blessed Leander and Clara with their first and only living son, James, the third child. In April 1914, along came Mary Edna King, their fourth child. One year later, June 1916, Zella Lorena King is born as their fourth daughter and fifth child.

In 1918, my sweet great grandmother, Clara. gave birth to twins, Robert and Louise, who were both stillborn. 1919, Minnie Myrtle King was born as their sixth living child.  In November 1920 Leander and Clara welcomed Aline, their seventh child.  March 1923, Grace, their eighth child arrived. September 1925, Martha, eighth daughter, ninth child.  Myra, born in 1926, was the tenth living child.  In May 1930, Clara gave birth to another stillborn named John Milton King. Family stories say that Myra recalls walking into a room with her oldest sister, Josie, and seeing the dead newborn. Myra was heartbroken because she wanted a baby doll. Clara had given birth to three children stillborn and ten living children, over the span of twenty-two years.  My dear Clara, the beautiful oil painting on the piano, spent most of her adult living life with a baby in her belly.

All while bearing children, Clara was a farmer’s wife.  Some speculate that having children was a strategic move to man the farm. Perhaps that is true. Today we women know the effects of giving birth on our bodies.  I imagine that Clara suffered some negative effects, but kept silent in that puritan way in the early 1900s, as she was birthing a child almost yearly. Childbirth may have taken a toll on her heart. Clara was 54 years young when she passed on in 1940.  Her husband, 15 years older, lived 82 years, and passed on in 1952.

My mam-maw, Josie Margaret, the oldest of the King children, always had such love and adoration in her voice when she spoke of her mama, Clara. I know that books were treasures, and reading was encouraged by Clara.  My mam-maw had her mama’s books at the farmhouse.  I can still smell those wonderful readers with yellowed pages, and feel the cloth covers. My aunt Rena, Zella Lorena, born in 1916, taught me how to write a poem as she said her mama Clara taught her how to write poems.  Aunt Rena said Clara practically sang her poems when she read them aloud. Aunt Rena and I would make rhymes as we did the dishes together at her house when I visited her when I was younger than ten.  It all felt so familiar to me.

I never gave birth to a child. I’ve had children in my life who found me and needed a mother to teach them things.  I’ve taught a few children how to use their voices in writing, and I fed a few of them for well over a decade. I was particularly drawn to a family of thirteen children in my community.  I made my way into their home, and the mother of the family came to call me a guardian of a few of her children.  Nothing legal was ever done.  I just became known as their blonde mom.

I love poetry and creative writing and the performing arts.  I sometimes feel as if I’m from another time, another place other than my own body.  I often have dreams of a farm I’ve never visited. I am very comfortable sitting in the dark as the sun goes down, with only candlelight to read a book or write a few words.  Flowers speak to me as do natural fragrances of herbs, fruits and spices.

I’ve lived in a big city for half my life and yet I am still connected to the farm as if it’s just around the corner from me, as if I can step into it at any time and be totally at home. I make my suburban home a farm house with flowering gardens. I feel so at home digging in the dirt, and singing songs as I dig.

Clara Olinda Osborne King and I are direct descendants of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is our ancestor. We are pilgrims and poets by nature.  This is in our DNA. We can know so much about ourselves if we study our ancestors and know their stories.

Some of us believe in reincarnation, the idea that spirits who leave before they are ready will find a way to return and re-live a life unfinished. I was my mam-maws best friend for many years as I grew up.  I taught her how to drive when she was 72 years old, and my granddad had passed on, when I was barely of driving age. I took my mam-maw to church every Sunday before I moved to New York, and then when I was home for visits.  I’d help her clasp her pearls for church. My aunts would tell me my grandmother called me her angel.  When my aunts would speak with me, they each one looked into my eyes intensely. They recognized something in me, something inquisitively familiar.

My dear great grandmother Clara died as stated on her death certificate of pulmonary tuberculosis and chronic myocardial infarction.  I have a mysterious scar on my lung, and all my life, it has puzzled and alarmed my doctors. I definitely have a fragile heart and I protect it in all I do. Her name was Clara. My name is Carla.

I Am

Written by Jude Oxios, my brilliant nephew

I am a boy

I wonder how fast I am

I hear a car

I see a computer

I want to go to Disney World

I am a boy

I pretend to be a scientist

I feel happy

I touch my blanket

I worry if I am going to be late for the bus

I cry at my house

I am a boy

I understand I must do my homework

I say I want to go on the couch

I dream about angels and rainbows

I try to do my best

I hope you like my poem.

The Inconceivability of Motherhood


Motherhood called to me from a distance. As if standing on a cliff of a canyon, the idea of becoming a mother lived on the far side, across the way. The echo of my calling for it filtered through the vast space and it never seemed to materialize into anything more than a mere concept of something on my To-Do list. Twenty-one adult years living as a single woman in New York City sheltered me from the harsh realities of my ticking clock.

Motherhood was always a choice for me some time down the road. I was busy. I was a performing artist, and when I grew weary from that gypsy life, I immersed myself in an advertising career. I became an advertising executive. It was a wonderful life, wall-to-wall, knee-deep in client service in the infancy of the dot-com era. My clients were my babies. Twenty-something-year-old venture capitalists launching brands, and I had to stay young to keep up. Eternal youth was an asset in the brand-building, advertising experience. At thirty-nine, I made Partner and the New York Times reported that I was thirty-four years old. When I pointed out the error to my boss, the agency’s founder and chief creative director, he informed me that he himself had told the reporter that I was thirty-four. He said that it would be great for business if I were younger, that no one would doubt it, and he hoped I wasn’t offended. Nothing offended me in those days, as one can hardly be offended and work in advertising, so I owned it. Right there, I gave myself five more years that I really didn’t have. Call me crazy, but I began to believe it.

Some days I would jump on the Second Avenue bus to get to my groovy hip downtown ad agency office. One day on the bus, I met an adorably cute little Chinese girl named Lily. Very talkative, Lily informed me she was three, and strangely, Lily was mesmerized with me. Her eyes were a continuous smile and she told me an expressive story about her stuffed dog. I suppose I was attentive. The next day I took the bus hoping to see Lily again and there she was, again elated to see me. I began to ride the bus almost every day. Her mom, an American woman, told me she had adopted Lily as a single parent. A light bulb went off! I was going to adopt a child! I called my attorney and asked him to look into it.

Soon after that time, though, I met the man who would become my husband. We married three and half years later when I was forty-four and we moved to Long Island. I felt in my heart that it was now too late to have a child and I gave up. My husband has two beautiful daughters from his first marriage and these little darlings appeased my yearning for a time. It was always clear however, that I could and would be nothing more than a friend to the girls because they have a mother. My youngest stepdaughter, in her six year old innocence, was enchanted and excited with the idea of her daddy and me adopting a Chinese baby when I’d shared stories about my bus rides with Lily, but unfortunately my husband was not so thrilled with our plan to add a Lily to our new family, so that dream never came to fruition.

My dad passed away unexpectedly, and devastated, I stopped working for a while. To combat my grief I went to volunteer at my local Boys & Girls Club. I was told I could come to “Power Hour” and help children with their homework. They said I could come one day a week or five days a week.   I went every day for an entire school year, and I brought snacks for all the children at the club when I noticed that they were all so very tired when they arrived off the buses after school. The children called me “Miss Carla” and they sat in my lap, brushed my hair, hugged and kissed me, competed for my attention. Most of the children were in elementary school but there were a few Middle School and High School kids. A ninth grade boy would come around and ask if I needed his help with the children. He said his name was Yadiyah (pronounced Yuh-DIE-uh) and he didn’t like sweet snacks, but he liked salty food. I brought him yellow goldfish crackers and Yadiyah was pleased.

One afternoon Yadiyah told me he would like to go to basketball camp. I’d been told that Yadiyah was one of thirteen children in his family. I told him I’d look into it for him after he told me he’d like to go to either St. Dominic’s or St. John’s. In my naiveté, I enrolled Yadiyah in St. John University’s basketball camp with Coach Steve Lavin. He was talking about St. John’s of Lattingtown, a church in our community that was conducting basketball camps. Yadiyah could not believe in his wildest dreams he was really going to a college campus for basketball camp and he was ecstatic. When I asked if he had enjoyed it, with a dancing light in his eyes he said, “It makes me want to get there!” From that summer on, I was his “Blonde Mom,” speaking with his teachers, helping with homework, buying sports gear and whatever he needed for school, signing him up for AAU teams, taking him to games, cheering him on as his “mom,” and nourishing him with good food. My house was Yadiyah’s second home and his mother was thrilled that I had become his “guardian” as she called me. She signed the necessary paper at his school for me to talk to his teachers and for a time Glen Cove High School was perplexed because Yadiyah was a student who had anger issues. Somehow he had calmed down.

One Sunday afternoon, my husband and I pulled up in front of Yadiyah’s house to take him to a Summer tournament game. Yadiyah came bouncing out of his house with a friend following him. Yadiyah was happy and smiling. They both crawled into the backseat of my husband’s Lexus and Yadiyah introduced his friend, Kewan (pronounced KEY-wan) from Virginia. Kewan was polite and quiet and he told us he was a good basketball player. As Frank and I asked questions, Kewan looked at Yadiyah and said, “Didn’t you tell them I’m getting a scholarship?” When we got to the gym, I asked the coach if Kewan could play in this game and the coach said, “Sure, why not?”

Something happened when Kewan walked onto the floor. It was immediately apparent that he was serious about his game. Kewan had this wonderful jump shot, he hit NBA-like three pointers and he played well that night. The team won. We took the boys to dinner and we learned at that meal that Kewan is very funny. We enjoyed that evening with Kewan and Yadiyah very much.

I didn’t know that night that this boy in the backseat of our car, Kewan Beebe, would become my son. I would learn that Kewan’s mother died when he was thirteen, and his biological father who had never lived with his mother, was serving seven years of hard time for drug and gun possession. I also learned that this beautiful boy had been shot by a stray bullet when he was fourteen and had been left to die in a Bronx hospital by his custodial parent, because she moved to Virginia and left Kewan there alone fighting for his life.

I didn’t know that I would take Kewan, just two months away from turning 18 years old, to Glen Cove High School and register him as a Junior with nothing more than a torn photocopy of his social security card that only had his mother’s maiden name on it. I did not know that Kewan would take five New York State Regent’s tests in one school year and pass them all. I did not know that my guest room would become Kewan’s bedroom. I didn’t know that his room would be filled with trophies and that Kewan would be named Most Valuable Player and lead his team to the Conference Championship, and that he would make All County and All Long Island, both highly regarded honors. I didn’t know Kewan would receive several college scholarships.

I didn’t know that being a mother to Kewan, and to Yadiyah, two boys who’ve never called me anything other than “Mom,” could bring me such joy and happiness. I loved every minute of driving them to school on cold winter mornings, cheering for them at basketball games, caring for them when they were sick, taking them to doctors; going on basketball road trips, helping with homework, picking them up from practice, feeding them good food and watching them grow and develop into strong athletes, buying them clothes and celebrating their good grades and successes. I loved helping them learn coping skills, and guiding them in making wise choices. It was a privilege for me to help them get into colleges where they would become scholar athletes. Kewan graduated from SUNY Purchase College and Yadiyah from Johnson & Wells in Rhode Island.

Sometimes it is sheer will that will get us what we want in life. Kewan missed his mother so much and he wanted and needed a mother. Kewan is a self-proclaimed “mama’s boy” and he found me. Yadiyah had big dreams and needed love and attention and I was his blonde mom and our entire community knew it.

No matter how inconceivable the concept might be, how vast that canyon of impossibility, we have the ability to create our lives. I created my life of motherhood; I was blessed with two sons. The beauty of motherhood is, once it’s created, motherhood is forever. Motherhood never dies.

A Word About Denny


by Carla Hall D’Ambra

I remember him well. I was very young but I have vivid memories of my mom taking my little brother and me to the drugstore where we’d see him behind the counter at the fountain service and he’d make us ice cream cones. We’d sit on the orange leather, shiny silver, spinning counter stools and lick our cones with fervor before the ice cream had time to melt. He’d give us those white rough paper napkins so we could wipe the sticky drips from our faces and hands. Sometimes Mom would leave us there on the stools under his watch while she walked to the back of the store to pick up a prescription. Other times she’d sit a few feet away at a glass table and chat with the ladies who used the drugstore for midday social gatherings. Back then the women would smoke cigarettes and sip Coca-Cola from green-tinted classic fountain glasses. One of the women who’d socialize there was the counter boy’s mother, and she was my great-aunt.   Her name was Jean and she was married to my granddad’s brother on my father’s side. Her husband, my great-uncle Norman, was the youngest child in his family so my aunt Jean was just a few years older than my mom. She was so beautiful, thin and primped like Audrey Hepburn, with red painted nails and lips to match, in her sleek sleeveless sheaths and classic black stiletto heels. The boy behind the counter that I so admired was my cousin. His name was Denny and though I was so young, I remember his warm and handsome presence. He was tall, and he stood on a platform behind the fountain service counter, and that made him even more impressive in my child opinion. Denny had the kindest eyes. I don’t remember the color so much as the shape of them. He was always smiling, and seeing Denny at the drugstore was part of the treat of the drugstore visit. My mom would say “Come on, kids, we’re going to see Denny.”  I would happy dance because I had a “little girl crush” on Denny, and because I loved ice cream.

One day we went to the drugstore and Denny wasn’t there. A tall lady with a deep voice gave us our cones and walked away, leaving my brother and me alone on the stools without even a napkin.   My mom told us Denny had gone away for a while but he’d be back soon. Going to the drugstore was no longer fun. I missed my tall blond dreamboat nineteen-year-old cousin who gave us cones with a smile.   As time passed, other young people worked behind the counter, but no one and nothing compared to the service we got from our cousin Denny. My aunt Jean would still sit at the glass table in the drugstore with other ladies but she wasn’t as lively.   Sometimes she and my mom would whisper when they chatted. Even at seven years old I found it strange and ominous because my mom and Aunt Jean were always so free with their laughter and conversation when they were together. Both women had very sunny personalities and now they each seemed partly cloudy when they spoke. I knew something was surely different.

And then, during a very grey and rainy, dismal autumn season in 1969, one afternoon I got off the bus, and ran into our house, hoping my mom had baked a cake or cookies, or had some special treat as she often had for us, but on this day the surprise was that I found her on our sofa couch, crying. She didn’t tell me why she was crying, and I knew better than to ask. She told me to go to my room. When my dad came home promptly at 4:15pm as he did every day, I listened to them talking, and I heard something about getting the body back, and then I heard my dad say, “Ah, heck.”

Then there was the silence.   My parents didn’t say anything to my brother and me, and hardly anything to each other for the next couple of days. My dad went to work, came home, and watched the evening news. The black and white images of the Vietnam War flashed nightly from our TV screen and Walter Cronkite told us “that’s the way it was.” My mom prepared supper, cleaned the kitchen and stood at the sink with tears rolling down her face. Then one morning, instead of getting ready for work, my dad dressed in a black suit, and my mom put on a black dress. I specifically remember that rainy, dark morning with my parents dressed in those ominous clothes, and the thick heavy air in our house.  Dad stood in silence waiting for my mom, leaning against our front door, looking out the narrow window that hit his eye level, and I bet he was crying but he would never let me see his tears.   My brother and I got on the school bus that early morning, not knowing that mommy and daddy were going to someone’s funeral.

That afternoon when we got home from school, and my parents returned, we learned the God-awful truth. My beautiful dreamboat, just turned twenty-one, cousin named Denny who gave us smiles and ice cream and knew my favorite flavor was chocolate, had been killed in the scary, black and white TV place called South Vietnam. He had been there for his time and was planning on coming home soon when he was riding in a vehicle that hit a land mine. I remember my mom trying to tell me that he didn’t feel it, and it didn’t hurt him, and now Denny was with Jesus. I wanted Denny to be back in the drugstore scooping out ice cream from the big vats in the flip top freezer behind the counter. I wanted him to tell me I had chocolate on my nose, or call me cutie or just be there taking care of all the other customers. Forget this being with Jesus thing. What in the world, I asked, is the war? Why is there war and why did my beautiful cousin Denny have to go to this terrible place called war? My eight year- old mind could not comprehend then, and my now fifty-plus year old brain can still not understand. Denny was killed in South Vietnam by a land mine most likely planted by The Viet Cong. This should have been considered safe territory. This territory was the land my cousin was protecting.

Aunt Jean and Uncle Norman never recovered from the loss. Denny was their only child. My uncle passed away a couple of years ago and my aunt lives alone. The walls of Aunt Jean’s house are still covered with pictures of Denny. Those photos record a twenty-one year life.   Denny would be 63 years old now. He had a fiancée then and after all these years, the fiancée is still in touch with my aunt even though that young woman had to find a new life for herself after losing her dreamboat love, my cousin, Denny. It’s more than sad about what could’ve been had it not been for the fucking land mine buried deep in the ground of the land that he, Dennis Gayle Hall, my beautiful cousin, was there to protect and save from communist takeover in the name of the United States of America.

Something really strange happened this past autumn. I came home from a long day of work, and my husband was having a business dinner out so I was alone in our home. For no apparent reason, I sat down at my laptop, and I don’t know why, but I went to Google, and I started typing “Casualties of the Vietnam War.”   No particular reason, no prior thought that day of war, or of my cousin Denny. I hadn’t thought of him in a long while, and I haven’t seen my aunt in several years. I now thought about Denny as I searched, and I typed in his name. I would have been devastated if his name had not been listed, but there it was. I found him in the group under Kentucky casualties. I saw his name and a tremendous wave of emotion came over me. I scrolled down his information page and I saw that his details were all listed. His name, his social security number, date of birth 7/31/48, hometown, his rank, how he died and date of death were all listed there in front of me. The date of death was recorded as 10/20/69.   I looked at the date on my computer. It read 10/20/10.