The Knife You Save

So, this is the story of how my Uncle Hugh Ballard stuck a knife up his nose and died.  Or perhaps that’s not really the story at all.  Like all my stories of late, this is perhaps yet another story of a story.

For many years, this was all we knew —  that my grandmother’s dad’s brother died by sticking a knife up his nose. My grandmother was fond of repeating this story in what now seems like an obsessive loop as she was prone to do.  It was a strange story she liked to tell the grandchildren when we’d be staying at her house.  And then she’d pull out the family bible and show us the entry where he died in 1890.  It was mildly scary and kind of annoying to me at the time.

From the family bible…note that most entries were written at the same time, which is usually casts doubt on their validity.  Memory is often unreliable.  

I remember asking if there were pictures.  She said there weren’t pictures back then.   I was never satisfied by the story.  Even at my young age, there just didn’t seem to be enough context to make the story credible.

A little on the family background:  the Ballard family came to the area in the late 1700’s.  My ancestor, Alexander Ballard, was granted land by the federal government near Morristown, Tennessee, for his service in the American Revolution.   Of course, when he arrived, he quickly realized the land was not the government’s to give, so in order to preserve his claim, he married the daughter of a local Cherokee leader.  The Ballard farm is still there, though significantly smaller, and it’s still owned by some distant cousins of mine who use it as kind of  a family retreat.

Many years down the line, my grandmother’s dad was born to a family who eventually went on to have “officially” (and more on this later) 11 children.  The span from beginning to end was 1877 to 1906.  That would make 29 years between the first child and the last child. My great-grandfather was toward the end of the brood and was born in 1897 or so.  All of this is to say that my grandmother had an array of first cousins — many who were old enough to be her parent and many who were closer to the life of Hugh Ballard to have more insight than she did.  My grandmother was born in 1924.  I knew in order to find something closer to the truth, I’d need to seek out one of the older cousins.  All the aunts and uncles were dead.

The oldest cousin I had access to was my grandmother’s cousin Kathleen.  My grandmother and everyone in my dad’s family called her “Kath-uh-leen.”   My grandmother had a habit of referring to people old or young as “that old _________.”   I always thought it seemed about-half disparaging, but it was also endearing, too. Kathleen was very nice, but my grandmother always scoffed a little because “that old Kath-un-leen always acts high and mighty.  And she won’t eat no ham or nothing.”   Kathleen was among the family who had become devout Seventh-Day Adventists, and when they’d come for Sunday dinner, my aunt Shirley would alert my grandmother when they were pulling into the driveway so my grandmother could yank the ham-hock she used for seasoning out of the green beans.  Kathleen et al always RAVED about my grandmother’s green beans.

Kathleen’s mother was the third of the 12 children, and Kathleen was born in 1906, which incidentally made her the same age as the youngest of the 12. There was one older child, Blanche, who belonged to Uncle Charlie, but she was more known for her drinking and partying than for her family knowledge — at least by the time I came along.  Later she was in a nursing home with “hardening of the arteries” as they called it then.   I finally had occasion to ask Kathleen about it at Blanche’s funeral.

She did not seem at all surprised at my question.  And she was able to flesh out the details.

“It was on his 5th birthday,” she said.   “They were having a cake, and he was running around in the kitchen.    He slipped and fell and the knife went right through the roof of his mouth.  And he died right there on the kitchen floor.   In front of everybody.”

Fascinated, I went home that evening and wrote that account down on some papers.  I found it before writing this.  But I was not done with the story.  My Aunt Shirley and I love stories, and she is a master storyteller with a curiosity about her that keeps her asking more questions.  Like me, she knows that the answers you receive don’t always get you closer to the truth, but it does get you closer to more stories and more viewpoints upon the agreed-upon versions of things.

A few years ago, she visited my grandmother’s oldest living cousin, Sarah Ellen Hamilton.  Sarah Ellen was born around the time of my grandmother to one of the older sisters, Aunt Mollie.  In our Appalachian dialect, she was known as “Surrey-Ellen”. Shirley and I both agreed she might know something else, something different or just something that we didn’t know already.  She offered a few surprises in her telling.

Her first response was, “Hell, Shirley, that’s the past.  It don’t even matter now.”  My Aunt Shirley has a Barbara Walters-like skill at getting information out of a person, so she gently cajoled her into more.  Sarah Ellen’s take on it was that grandma was cutting tomatoes.  And Hugh Ballard was running around in the kitchen and he fell on the knife and it killed him.  There was nothing about it being his birthday and nothing about it going through his nose or the roof of his mouth.  She did offer the following admonishment, however:  “Keep your knives put up and leave the past alone.”

Over the years, I’ve thought about Hugh Ballard and what it must have been like for him, his parents and the brothers and sisters to have this happen on their watch.  No one knows much of anything about Hugh Ballard, and the only reminder that’s left is his death date in the family bible of January 22, 1890.  Strangely, he’s not listed with a birth date in the family records.  My notion is that he would not have lived long enough to show up in any census records.  And the Tennessee census of 1890 was destroyed by fire anyway.

And there is the issue of the accuracy of the bible.  Any time you see evidence of records written all at once in the same handwriting in a family bible, you can pretty much rest assured that someone was doing it from memory.  Memory serves well in a smaller family, but records such as these written long after the fact may not be entirely factual.  It is said that cousin Blanche wrote these older entries.  It was also suggested much later by members of a neighboring family that the final two children of the original brood were not in fact children but grandchildren. The story goes that Alice Mae and Howard were the offspring of the oldest daughter Gilley by her husband, Jake Purkey, who was allegedly murdered in California.  Jake Purkey was allegedly shot by a man with whose wife he was sleeping.  No one will ever know, and after a point the facts don’t really matter all that much. After a certain point, the past becomes a series of stories that we choose to believe or not.

You can see his name as the first entry–someone went over it with a ball-point pen at some point.  

I’ve personally used the Hugh Ballard story over the years in places I’ve worked.  As I became the director of an office on the campus where I work, I inherited a set of outmoded policies based upon events or situations that either no longer existed or were mis-interpreted by people who were not there when such events allegedly occurred.

I guess Ol’Surrey Ellen had a point about the past.  Perhaps we all find a certain comfort in letting the past rest and settling on a specific version of it for our comfort and convenience.

In the meantime, just keep your knives put up, I guess.  And, as Sarah Ellen also said, “let the dead rest in peace.”

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