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A grandmother’s — and a family’s — life

They are the enduring treasures of any family.

The photos of those who have gone before.

And — even better — the words of those who have gone before, in their own hand.

The Legal Genealogist‘s family is fortunate indeed to have some of both — a photo here, a letter or thought or memory recorded there.

And I’m even more fortunate to have a cousin who thought to put the two together.

Every year, at the holidays, I make the rounds of my Virginia-based siblings. The holidays don’t really begin until my sisters will join me for a candlelight Christmas Eve buffet on a mountaintop in Nelson County. And they don’t end until at least one brother — and usually two — will join me for an extended family dinner with my mother’s youngest sister, my Aunt Trisha, and her daughters, my cousins.

There are gift exchanges in those get-togethers, and I admit to being mighty greedy about some of them that have, over the years, become traditions. The day I don’t get a box of DeMet’s Original Turtles from my nephews will be a black day in my personal history.

But one of those gift traditions, this year, has me sitting here smiling through my tears, here at the start of this new year.

My cousin Paula, also a genealogist, began the tradition some years ago of creating a calendar with a family photograph for each month: our grandparents, our aunts and uncles, an assortment of great aunts and uncles and great grandparents. And listing the birthdays of said grandparents and aunts and uncles.

It’s gotten more poignant through the years as one after another of the aunts and uncles has left us — from the 10 children my grandparents raised to adulthood, only three are left.

But this year takes the cake.

Because it was Paula who thought to put words and pictures together.

The pictures, of course, are of our family members. And the words are those of our grandmother.

Opal E. (Robertson) Cottrell, was born in Eagle Lake, Texas, on the 21st of August 1898, and died in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the 15th of March 1995.1 Her words are not exactly diary entries for all that they were often entered in a diary. As Paula notes, you’ll often find that there would be a 1992 entry in a 1970 book, or 1951 entry in a 1950 book, and a lot of quotes and poems she read.

And the combination of images and words is dynamite.

Let me share with you just three of the 12 months of this calendar. Click on the image to open it in a larger window.



1970 Lovely Spring morning. Sent my Brother Ray birthday card — The swallows came back this morning. Lovely April! It is the years most exciting month. Each time it comes, with its promise of resurrection — it becomes more precious — I am like Thoreau who said “Green grass excites me as much as if I were a cow” — It excites ME to read that a man more than 100 years ago had these same feelings and expressed them with such simplicity — I could go further Than Thoreau though. An green onion excites me as much as if I were a rabbit.


April 20 — My dear Clays Birthday. 72 years – young.



As I pass my 76 birthday2 I find myself wanting our grandchildren to know something of the era in which their Grandfather, Clay, and I grew up. In retrospect we often remember the pleasant — but it was not always lovely & pleasant!


Thank goodness they won’t be dosed with calomel and castor oil. They won’t have to wear long underwear from Oct. to May — or wear long black stockings and high button shoes read by oil lamps. (Maybe!?) walk two miles to school — pick up corn-cobs for kindling — or wear a flannel cloth soaked with coal oil and lard on their chest until it blisters.


I am sorry however, That they will never know the excitement of hog-killing time — and the magic words “The thresher is coming” — Taste delectable cold clabber, with sugar sprinkled on top. Feel the cleanliness of home-made lye soap, and they probably will never have the pleasure of opening a school lunch-bucket and finding a slice of country ham fried in an iron skillet buried between two soft buttermilk biscuits — or two pickled eggs, pickled in beet juice. — Or eat a big piece of hot home-made bread, spread with freshly churned butter. Too, they’ll never know the sweetness of home-made black berry jam spooned from a crock jar — or the excitement of finding a new hens nest in the hay in the barn loft. They will miss the snugness of sleeping in a cold upstairs room with a nightcap on their head — and a hot wrapped brick at their feet.


But I can hear them say — “Poor Grandma and Grandpa, if only they could have traveled — at least to the Moon!”



We celebrated Christmas 40 and 50 years ago much differently than we do today — Before the days of Television, Electric Lights & automobiles. — We listened to Battery Radios — Lighted our house with Kerosene lamps. Rode in horse and buggy or wagons to town or to go visiting. Hogs were killed when the weather got cold — and home made Sausage for a cold Xmas morning breakfast!! The family went out and cut a cedar tree and brought it home and decorated it with paper ornaments, popcorn and cranberries. There were no string of lights but small red & green candles were lighted at the last moment Christmas morning we found a few toys under the tree — a doll — some marbles a top — Large naval oranges, nuts & candy — a slate and a slate pencil a box of wax crayons — to last the rest of the school Term — Some heavy stockings — a sweater, rubber over-shoes.

So… do you have photos and words of members of your family through the years?

Think about a calendar for 2018. Trust me when I say it’s the one thing you can do for your family, the one gift you can give them, that will have them smiling through their tears.


  1. Virginia Department of Health, Certificate of Death, state file no. 95-011808, Opal Robertson Cottrell (1995); Division of Vital Records, Richmond.
  2. She turned 76 in 1974.
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