It was a sunny late October day many years ago. After a Sunday dinner at Grandma's, we decided to drive about 25 miles into the countryside to visit a great aunt and uncle who lived on an old farm along a ravine. It was a lovely drive on a balmy afternoon. The leaves were crimson, gold and bronze; the smell of wood smoke was in the air.
We arrived at the farm about 2 p.m. Aunt Florence and Uncle John was happy to see us. Uncle John took my little brothers on a tour of the farm while Aunt Florence entertained my mother, grandmother and me with old scrapbooks of family photos and old letters and postcards.
We were all very interested in these old photographs. Like the farm itself, the photos dated back to the Civil War era. Many were taken about the time our ancestors moved to Wisconsin from New York State. That was the 1850s.
For the first time, I saw a photo of my great-great-grandfather, a union soldier who died in 1862. But it was a packet of letters signed "Cousin Nellie," and dated around 1910 that captured my imagination. "Did we really have a Cousin Nellie?" I asked Aunt Florence. Neither my mother nor grandmother had ever mentioned her.
Nellie, as it turns out, was the illegitimate daughter of one of my great-grandmother's half sisters. She was raised by Franny, my great-great-grandmother (widow of the Civil War soldier and Nellie's grandmother).
"We all loved her dearly, but she died so young," Florence told us. "She was only 20 at the time."
No one talked about her much, apparently. She died young and was not remembered. I felt this deeply, being 17 myself and a bit of a drama queen.
Florence and John fed us an early supper and then went out to the driveway to make our departure. Being a new driver, I had been promised I could drive home. I climbed behind the wheel immediately, anxious to get moving while the adults made their prolonged goodbyes and my little brothers ran around like crazy.
Sitting behind the wheel I saw a whirligig of smoke roll across the hood of the car like tumbleweed. I was not frightened, just stunned. No one was smoking; there was no fog. In fact, the sun was still out, just setting.
I've never understood this, and have even wondered if I could have imagined it. I forgot about it, and went on with my life.
Many years later, I began working on a family history, sorting through old pictures and dates and letters. A portrait of Nellie began to emerge: Hard-working with a sunny outlook and a sense of humor, Nellie was adored by all her family and friends. What might have happened to her life had she not died of consumption at age 20?
Although I live in a home Nellie has never visited, I felt her presence when I was working on my genealogy. "Ok, Nellie," I said one day. "If you are really here, help me get this house cleaned."
When I went upstairs later that day, my bedroom's hardwood floor had been swept with a pile of dust puppies sitting in the middle of the room. Coincidence? Maybe. But I like to think it was Nellie, always helpful.
And that whirligig of gray? I am convinced that was Nellie's sprit, pleased that so many years after her death she had been discovered by a teen-age girl.