By Lynn Pacifico

My grandmother Virgie’s story might not be as complete as I would like it to be, as my mother’s backcountry folk, especially my quiet grandmother, did not pass along a lot of information. She was born in 1896 in Virginia, eventually moving to Natchez, Mississippi, where she grew up. There, when Virgie was 13 years old, my grandfather James Edgar McDonald, 26, kidnapped her from her schoolyard. Virgie’s father had James arrested and James spent a night in jail, but when released he kidnapped her again and they were married.

Marrying so young was not unusual at the beginning of the twentieth century. My grandfather was ready to settle down and he thought my pretty, bright, spirited grandmother would make a good wife. At the beginning of their marriage they lived in a tent, having at least two children (the first, when Virgie was just 14) before moving indoors. They settled in the boot heel of farmland Missouri. 

Above my ancestor altar is a picture of my mother, Dorothy Eloise McDonald, and her mother, Virginia “Virgie” Mansfield McDonald, standing next to a mule. Before going to sleep, as part of my gratitude practice, I give thanks to my ancestors for the gifts of life and love. I begin with my mother and grandmother and end with “all my grandmothers all the way back to Eve.” Photo: Courtesy of McDonald family.

In the picture it appears that Virgie’s arms were longer than average, possibly because of how she lived. She had 12 children at home, one after the other, had a house burn down to the ground, made everyone’s clothing and all meals from scratch, mostly from produce she grew and animals she raised and killed, and worked in the fields, which was often backbreaking work like chopping cotton. All without an indoor bathroom or running water. My grandfather, called Mr. Mac, was a big man in the little town of Deering where he and Virgie settled, and they hosted two pig roasts for the campaigning Harry Truman.

I remember grandma and my aunts, up before 4:00 a.m., cooking a hearty five course breakfast for the men in the family who, as the sun rose, headed into the fields on tractors. I noticed the red on the back of the men’s necks as they bowed their heads for morning grace. Their red necks were earned during the many hours looking down as they worked the land. Once, upon arriving at her stilted house, we found grandma under it, hoe in hand, chopping off the head of a water moccasin. At 76, a hog ran through her legs breaking both her hips. She passed shortly after.

During her life Virgie lost sons and daughters and took care of my grandfather, who she addressed as Mr. McDonald, until his death. Then she married Mr. Coldthorp, who she took care of until his death.

In her picture above my altar, arms hanging down, you can see that she had stopped for just a minute for someone to snap the picture; after all, she had things to do. Thank you grandmother and all my grandmothers all the way back.

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