Reading the hundreds of letters my ancestors exchanged is a journey through space and time. No, not through. Through, as Great-grandma Hattie would have said, “does not begin to answer the task.” Rather, this is a journey into and across: into time and across space. The movement into time is a vertical excavation, each letter as focused and pointed as a diamond drill head boring into the buried layers of the past. The other movement, across space, is a horizontal journey my mind travels in one expansive sweep, peripheral elements vibrating at the edges of the central action.
Sometimes the image grows so wide that to take in the whole story I must rise above it, allowing each scenic panel its individual weight and portent. As I lift off, I try to forget how things will turn out. How lives will collide, old stars burn out, and new ones appear. It is July 1903. Everywhere at once, July 1903.
513 North 4th Street
To: Sylvia Mounts
My dear little sister:
You must write to me and tell me all about everything because I get lonesome here. I got you a little birthday present. Now if it doesn’t suit you or if it is too small which I am afraid it is, I’ll get you something else or a bracelet a little larger. There is the cutest little girl out in the hammock, her name is Helen and she says she was brought to her mama in a satchel and she says she is glad she came to her mama because if she had been taken to someone else she wouldn’t have liked them.
Hoping that your present will fit you and that you will be pleased with it, I close, Your affectionate Sister, Bessie.
I’ll send you a sniff of my new perfume.
Dear little “sis”:
Am sorry the bracelet twas too little but will trot up town in the morning and exchange it so you will get it tomorrow I suppose. I worked like “thunder” this morning and I was awfully tired this afternoon so I took a bath, washed my head, ate a piece of pie then went to bed and slept a couple of hours and I must say I feel tolerably well now. Got me a new tea jacket, lavender and white, trimming it in lace and inserting a lavender ribbon.
Haven’t seen anyone I knew since I came down from Hammond, made a “mash” on a fellow I did not know, the day of the picnic. O no. I didn’t mash him I just talked to him a little. Now don’t forsake me but write again soon. Must close now, here’s a hug and kiss for you *-*-
Your loving sister, Bessie
Here’s a scrap of ribbon to my tea jacket.
Everywhere at once, July 1903.
Here comes twenty-two-year-old Bessie, emerging from the front door of her employer’s home where she has “worked like thunder,” to “trot uptown” where she will exchange the bracelet that fits Bessie’s wrist but is too small for Sylvia, who at fourteen is already growing into womanly roundness the wiry Bessie will never know.
As Bessie disappears into the jewelry store, jangling its door-mounted bell, my mind lifts above the scene, sweeping fifteen miles southeast of Lafayette’s central square to the outskirts of Stockwell, Indiana. Outside the Cosby family horse barn, the youngest Cosby son stands beside a plow horse, one hand steadying the right front hoof, the other dislodging packed rocks and mud with a hoof pick. Youngest son, yes; young, no. On this summer afternoon in 1903, Santford Marion Cosby is thirty-five years old. According to life expectancy standards of the time, more than half of his days on earth have already passed, though if such a thought ever occurred to Sant, he would have shooed it away as if it were a horsefly—troublesome, no doubt, but finally harmless. Sant was not one to waste time worrying the details. Those things he could change, he changed. The rest, he didn’t spend one extra minute on. Better to look forward, press on, take pleasure in the tasks set before him.
And Sant did take pleasure in tasks. His body, sturdier than the bodies of the older Cosby siblings, was well suited to the rugged, demanding pursuits of barnyard and field. In my favorite Sant photo, a straw hat is pushed back on his head, his signature forelock of dark hair curling out from the brim. Deep smile wrinkles crease his cheeks, which are prominent and ruddy as though polished by the sun. If, as the youngest Cosby child, Sant was indulged by his parents and siblings, the indulgence had served only to sweeten his disposition. Though his demeanor was for the most part serious, he could break into laughter at the slightest provocation. Sant’s laugh was deep-throated, contagious, irrepressible. The more he tried to stop himself the harder he laughed, his eyes narrowing, his high cheekbones wet with tears as he leaned deep into the hilarity, taking everyone else with him until the room, as his future-mother-in-law Hattie would later remember, “fairly rocked with laughter.”
In another photo, taken about the time he met Bessie, Sant sits cross-legged, flocked by a gaggle of young Cosby nephews and nieces. Though in his mid-thirties at the time, Sant seems more aligned with the children than with his thin, dark siblings positioned stern-faced around him. All three will die decades before him: a sister from consumption, one brother from spinal meningitis, the other from injuries sustained in a fall from a ladder while he was painting a house. Things like this happen all the time, Great-uncle Sant would come to believe. No why or wherefore about them. But how it did hurt. Burying your brothers, your sister, your parents. Well, at least we weren’t orphans. At least all of us children (Sant still thought of himself and his siblings as children, even the dead ones) had our parents a long, long time. We were among the lucky ones.
. . .
*Author’s Note: The foregoing excerpt is adapted from The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change (Indiana University Press, Spring 2013), a hybrid nonfiction text that draws on nearly one thousand primary documents tracing the intersecting lives of an extended Midwest family over more than a century. Bessie was my great-aunt, who, in 1904, would marry Santford Cosby, though she had not met Sant at the time of the 1903 letters. Her younger sister, Sylvia, was my maternal grandmother, only fourteen years old in 1903; she would marry Arthur Sanders in 1912. Bessie and Sylvia’s mother was Hattie Mounts, a midwife who supplemented the family’s meager income by raising turkeys on a three-acre homestead behind Wildcat Creek outside Lafayette, Indiana.