Publisher’s letter: Will the circle be unbroken

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‘If you want to finish raising her, you can marry her.” My great-grandmother Gertrude was 14 years old when she married my great-grandfather Tom Sexton, who was 27. The story goes that when he asked for her hand in marriage, that’s what her father said. “If you want to finish raising her, you can marry her.”

My dad loved Granny Sexton. Mainly because she was great at fishing and she dipped Garrett’s Dry Snuff. She could read and write, and she read the paper every morning out loud to Granddaddy. She always wore a bonnet. She cooked the best fried chicken and black-eyed peas. And Granny did carpentry work as easily as she canned peaches and figs. But it was her storytelling skills that made her beloved to all.

I hope I inherited a piece of that.

Granny Sexton was the first dead body I ever saw. She died when I was three or four. And in Crenshaw County, Alabama, at that time, they were still waking the body in the house—no funeral parlor visitation for this simple death. Now Granny was in a proper casket, but my mother did not want me to see a dead body. So she left me outside near a rusted swingset with my grandmother, Memaw Sexton, while Mom went in the house to pay her respects. Memaw decided I needed to see Granny—she was my kin, after all. So the next thing my mom remembers, she looked over while holding a deviled egg and talking to my father’s cousin, and little 3-year-old Ashley Sexton was being held above a dead body with my Memaw whispering in my ear “Doesn’t she look beautiful.”

I can still remember the yellow roses.

And no, she didn’t look beautiful, she looked dead.

Mom was none too pleased, and Memaw was ruffled and dismayed and said something about kin. And I can still see the swingset, and the roses and Granny’s final face when I close my eyes. These are the things that, ultimately, make for good stories. Sometimes they take years to tell.

So when my brother recently texted a group of us with a suggested archived newspaper link from ancestry.com that was titled “The Sextons of Crenshaw County” with a message “I hope we are not related to this particular Sexton clan,” I knew straightaway that we had to be. Our history is not a Kennedy family picture book. More like a walk-on part in the recent Ken Burns documentary Country Music with the gospel song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” playing in the background.

The headline of the story published in The Luverne Journal, Dec. 31, 1930, read “Manley Sexton Killed by Cousin on Christmas.” So that right there should get your attention. According to the article, Manley, son of Jim Sexton, was shot by his cousin S.E. Sexton near Mothershed’s store on Christmas night. The article stated that “the cause of the trouble has not been learned,” but of course, we all now know it was a dispute over moonshine. The whole clan ran moonshine. S.E. also took a bullet, but not a lethal one, and he was booked into Crenshaw County Jail with brothers and cousins Fred, Irby, Levon and Dempsey from Christmas night until their hearing on New Year’s Eve.

Tom Sexton, Gertrude’s husband, was there when his brother was shot and killed.

These people—the Crenshaw County Sextons—are not people who would ever have worn a graphic T-shirt that read “I Can’t Adult Today.” In fact, my great-grandmother became an adult when she married Tom right past puberty and took over his household. She had life skills. Survival skills that were inherent for rural Alabama during the Great Depression. There are some stories that can’t be told. But the ones that can give us a glimpse into a different world and a different time. Stories of bream fishing and snuff. Of death, and birth and boiled peanuts. And long past the wake that I still can remember, Gertrude’s legacy still lives on. Cue the tribute song in her honor.

“There’s a better home a-waiting / In the sky, Lord, in the sky.”

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