An except from Bascomb Falls: A Family Album by my uncle, John Lee Swanay:


We had two kitchens,
    one in the big log house
    a regular brick kitchen,
    and the long lean-to
    in the new house we built for the hired hand.
It wasn’t too new.
Great Grandpa built it
    before the Civil War.
Both blur into one room.
As we moved from one house
    to the other,
    according to the seasons,
    the kitchen remained a constant.

White velvet floors
    were etched by a century of
    lye water scrubbings,
    course brushes,
    and feminine fury at eternal dirt.

Scrolls of fly paper hung high.
Indian roses and sparrow grass fern
    in a mason jar at the window,
    flour sack curtains,
    smells of stale biscuits,
    fried pork, beans, hominy, kerosene.

No man was allowed in the kitchen
    except for shaving water.
Children were discouraged from entrance.
It was the women’s realm.

Biscuits, pone, bread, johnny cake,
    roasts, roastin’ ears, ‘taters,
    all came hot and succulent from
    a nest of ashes
    in the fireplace.

The new wood stove,
    Frank’s wedding gift to Mama in 1870,
    was used for boiling things.
Grandma, Mama, and Aunt Polly
    all knew no rabbit stew
    from the stove
    could compare to one
    simmered on the crane
    in the fireplace.
Same went for squirrel.

From five in the morning
    through nine at night
    the kitchen was a center of industry.

Bascomb Falls: A Family Portrait is a quasi-autobiographical story of my paternal ancestors’ lives in Tennessee. Even though my uncle is a character in the story, my grandparents moved to California before he was born, so the story is actually written as if he had lived in Tennessee as a child.

What is Bascomb Falls? I assume that it’s a fictional representation of Fall Branch, Tennessee (or somewhere thereabouts), which is in Greene County. Or perhaps it is a play on words that I don’t quite understand. But Fall Branch is where the family lived at the time, and there are several references in an early part of the story that lead me to believe that Fall Branch is the real Bascomb Falls.

I love the vivid, descriptive images in this section about the family kitchen. I can almost visualize my ancestors standing around the “new” wood stove, boiling some kind of stew (hopefully not squirrel)… discussing, arguing, doing what women did back in the day.

*   *   *

Composer, author, and gourmet chef, Dr. John Lee Swanay, PhD was a professor of music at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. He grew up in California, attended UCLA, and was a well-educated world traveler. He served in the U.S. Army, and was stationed in Germany. He was also eclectic, eccentric, and a bit odd. At least, I thought so.

I hardly knew my uncle; he lived in Missouri, rarely visited, and died tragically while I was still in college. He was married once, but had no children.

Much of Bascomb Falls is unflattering to my ancestors and their memory, but I can only assume that John wrote what he did for dramatic effect. Or perhaps he wasn’t overly fond of his family. I doubt that I’ll ever know.

Oddly, my previous post of an excerpt of Bascomb Falls has been rather popular. I frequently receive emails from people who were former students of my uncle and remember him fondly (shout-out to Kevin, to whom I still owe a response!). I thank you all for your kind words and for helping me get to know another side of my uncle.

*   *   *

Swanay, John Lee. Bascomb Falls: A Family Album (Kansas City, Missouri: Swartz Printing Co., Inc, 1974), pp. 21-22.

Photo above from Old Picture of the Day.

This post was written for the Third Annual Great Genealogy Poetry Challenge, hosted by Bill West of West in New England.

Copyright © by Elizabeth O’Neal

Elizabeth is a professional genealogist and California native living in the Santa Barbara area. She has been researching her own family for almost three decades, and providing research services to others for about 8 years.

Translate »
%d bloggers like this: