FIGHTING FOR NELLIE is dedicated to my maternal grandfather, John Bayard Tracy, who shared with me his passion for history and story telling. I carry his stories and love with me always.
Short Story by his granddaughter, Sarah Burrows, 1990
Hobart & William Smith Colleges
“Sarah, get the leash, sweetheart. We’ll take Libby for a walk.”
My grandfather’s request sent my heart soaring. My feet tore up the slippery old carpet as I hurried from the small kitchen through the living room, passing by the antique desk where generations of Tracy’s were framed, to the Dutch Colonial’s front hall vestibule. I turned the dark knob, opening the glass-paneled door, and scooped up the coiled leash from the corner of the bluestone floor.
Back in the kitchen, Grandpa called, “Libby, come, we’re going for a walk.”
The shy, thin Golden Retriever, German Shepard mix lay in her usual spot – her cozy bed beneath the metal table which held the utensil drawer and on top, the red metal bread box, full of Archway frosted oatmeal cookies. Libby stood, then came out from beneath, ducking her head, to stand on long, skinny tan legs in a gentle, feminine way.
My grandfather held out his arm. Libby jumped up placing her front paws on him, her grasp so tight her nails extended half an inch. He bent so she could kiss his cheek then stroked her narrow head again and again, all the while their eyes set on each other.
“What a pretty girl. What a pretty girl,” Grandpa repeated.
I placed the leash over Libby’s head and with my heart thumping in my chest, took my grandfather’s soft brown hat, the one with the red feather in the side, from the standing coat rack, and handed it to him. Outside, we turned down the sidewalk of DeWitt Street. The sun beat upon us, warming our backs. I held Libby’s leash in my small right hand – Grandpa took up my left.
I looked up at him. He smiled down and I couldn’t help but beam back.
I love him!
Grandpa wore his favorite old wool jacket, specked with different shades of blue. His Oxford button down was tucked loosely into his olive-green trousers with an old leather belt, holding up his pants by the second to last buckle. Grandpa was handsome, with his thick wavy gray hair and soft eyes but more importantly, thoughtful. I felt so proud to walk beside him. In mine, his big freckled hand felt soft though I knew it wasn’t once so. When Grandpa graduated from Cornell University, the war was on and he worked nights shoveling coal into Crucible Steele furnaces across town which eventually supported his wife, Loretta, (my grandmother) and their three children – my mother, Ann, and her two younger brothers, Jim and John.
On our walk, Grandpa and I turned onto Sedgwick Drive. Dividing the opposite directions of the road was a garden park filled with low green bushes and flowers of all colors and kinds. The large homes, set back from the sidewalk but with driveways right beside each, were a mix of different styles – such as Colonials made of brick or wood, one-story ranches, and Spanish stuco.
Near the end of Sedgwick Drive, on top of a hill, Grandpa pointed to the brown three-story house he’d grown up in. “My mother, your Granny Tracy, was from Georgia,” Grandpa told me. “She married my father, a Northerner, not long after the Civil War ended. Can you imagine that?”
No, I thought the North and South had hated each other!
I knew my Granny Tracy. At 98, she was alive and well, full of energy, beauty and grace. Though deaf since a young woman, she loved to tell stories, too. And write them. Her father John Seay had been the mayor of Rome and a riverboat captain. She was a feminist and Civil Rights activist, like a long line of Tracy’s.
Grandpa went on. “My father, James Grant Tracy, was the son of Osgood Vose Tracy, my grandfather, who fought in the Civil War. Osgood’s younger brother, Will, fought too.”
Wow! Granny Tracy’s father-in-law fought in the Civil War?
I know her and she knew him. The Civil War had always seemed so long ago until now.
“So, Grandpa,” I asked, “Osgood Tracy was my great-great grandfather?”
“Yes,” Grandpa answered, smiling and seeming pleased I understood.
He went on to tell me Osgood’s war stories, of capture and imprisonment and fighting beside his comrades, “The Old Clique” as he called them, and his younger brother Will being awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor. But what interested me the most was the love story Grandpa told. He said Osgood loved Nellie Sedgwick more than anything and asked her to marry him before leaving for war.
He’d hooked me.
I want to know everything!
Grandpa and I turned onto James Street, still holding hands. He pointed to an empty plot of land.
“That’s where Nellie Sedgwick was raised. Her father was an abolitionist and New York State Congressman. He represented an escaped enslaved man named Jerry Henry who had been imprisoned and rescued by a group of white men…”
I’ve learned about the Jerry Rescue in school!
When we arrived back to Grandpa’s house, I got Libby a bowl of water and set it on the kitchen floor. She quickly lapped it up while Grandpa led the way into the dining room, where, atop the cherry Stickley table, he set a notebook, kept together by brown twine, filled with letters. There were newspaper articles too. One about imprisonment. Another escape. Still yet, something about drownings.
Grandpa then carefully picked up a piece of thin onionskin paper and held it up for me to see. “Announcement about the assassination of President Lincoln.”
I looked closer at the signature at the bottom.
Colonel Osgood Vose Tracy.
Oh my goodness!
Picking up another piece of crinkly, yellowed paper, Grandpa added, “This is an execution order.”
I shivered. Nearby, long rifles rested against the wall, one with a pointy bayonet. The idea this weapon had killed someone, by an ancestor of mine no less, shocked and made an impression on me.
My brows furrowed. I looked at Grandpa. “Why’d we fight them?”
“So everyone could be free,” Grandpa answered and smiled again at me, looking pleased I’d asked.
He then lay out several battlefield maps. “Look here,” Grandpa said, tracing directions with the tip of his index finger, showing me locations of marches, battles, etc.
I looked and followed, but again, what interested me the most was the idea of setting people free, and the love story.
“Tell me more about all that, Grandpa,” I pleaded.
Grandpa chuckled and nodded. We sat down side by side.
“Well, Sarah, Osgood loved Nellie very much, more than anything or anyone,” Grandpa began. “He went to war hoping to come home and praying that she’d wait for him.”
That day, like many more after, Grandpa sent me home with a few letters and a trinket, this time dried flowers from Gettysburg fields which Osgood had mailed to Nellie. Back at my home on Farmer Street, around the corner from DeWitt Street, I sat on my bedroom carpet, in front of a painted pink bookcase filled with my favorite books – Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, Black Beauty and the entire Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys series. But all the while, Osgood and Nellie’s story played in my mind over and over, day after day, night after night. I read and reread Osgood’s letters, pulling different colored Crayola crayons out of their box to color book jacket covers for the letters, dreaming of the day I would share this story.
The days following our long walks together, lunching at Ponderosa, feeding Libby leftovers back at the car, letting her run home beside us, sitting in his kitchen booth eating popcorn and he drank Whiskey Sours with his golf buddies, and attending my band concerts through high school, I noticed Grandpa didn’t seem so well. It was a Thanksgiving Day. Grandpa and I had sat next to each other, chatting quietly with each other like we always did at the table (where he told me how great cranberries tasted with turkey). The bird had been sliced and eaten, along with everything else. Aunts, uncles, and cousins were on their way home.
Heading to our front door, Grandpa asked “Sarah, will you get my hat for me?”
Worried about him walking alone, I answered, “Why don’t I drive you home, Grandpa? Then I can see Libby.”
He smiled that wide beautiful grin and I knew he’d read my mind.
“No, I need the walk,” he answered, patting his stomach, though his belt now looped the very last hole.
Overhearing from the kitchen, my mother swung through the pantry door, her white apron tied around her small waist, as she moved through the dining room to the hall.
“Dad, let Sarah take you home.”
“No, Ann, I’d like the walk.”
I started to say something but my mother glanced at me.
Leave him be. It’s okay.
So we gave him a kiss and sent him on his way. Outside on the small covered front porch, he groped the white pillar on the side for balance, swinging round down the step until he got his footing onto the cement walk below.
Parting, he said, “Tell your father to fix that damn thing,” seeming more frustrated with himself than my father.
I watched Grandpa go down Farmer Street. His stride was small, his hands tucked into his dress coat, his hat pulled over his large ears. As he turned the corner onto Sedgwick Drive out of sight, my heart ached. He was going home to an empty house. And I missed him already.
Strokes and hospital stays soon followed. Then nursing homes. But Grandpa didn’t lose his stubbornness. In the hallways of one, with a hand wrapped around my arm for balance, he raised his fist and gritting his teeth turned to me.
“I deserve to go home.”
Grandpa won that battle. He went, to a hospital bed in the dining room and 24-hour care. My cousin, Dawn, was one of his best caregivers. I spent as much time as I could with him, walking over after school and stopping by as Meals on Wheels got delivered so he wouldn’t have to eat alone.
When Grandpa approached near the end of his life, he asked me to read aloud to him, the works of his favorite poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson. Grandpa knew his demise was difficult on me and since much of Tennyson’s poetry Grandpa asked me to read concerns dying, I believe this was his way of preparing us. His favorite was “When I put Out to Sea.”
Abroad in England in the fall of my junior year of college, while studying at the University of Sheffield, I learned of Grandpa’s passing. I had been traveling in Cambridge for a long weekend with friends and received the news upon my return to school. Messages to call home were plastered on my dorm door. On the other end of the phone, my mother told me in a strong voice, knowing the news would be difficult for me.
I didn’t want it to be so.
Then, in her own anguish, unable to help herself, with the sound of tears flowing, Mom said, “Before you know it, you turn around and your whole family is gone.”
Poor Mom… Be strong for her.
I stood holding the phone in shock as a line of students waited behind me. When I’d left home, I’d had a feeling it might be the last time I saw Grandpa. I had told him I would be going abroad and when we said goodbye, with me standing beside his bed, he nodded then gently beat his heart with his fist.
Then smiled and mouthed, “I love you.”
I smiled back and bent to kiss his cheek.
“I love you, too, Grandpa,” I whispered close I could.
And that makes everything okay.
That day in England when I spoke with my mother, Grandpa had already been buried in the Tracy family plot atop the steep hill in Oakwood cemetery. My older brothers had come and gone. For days and weeks in England as I walked the familiar streets of Sheffield, sadness and guilt gnawed at me. I felt ‘lost.’ Grandpa was gone. I hadn’t been there for him or my mother to say goodbye. But when I look on it now knowing that very weekend, the exact time of Grandpa’s funeral, in fact, that I was at Cambridge, the studying place of Tennyson, visiting the poet’s grave, looking up at his statue flooded with wonderful feelings and memories of my grandfather, I felt closer to him than ever. After all, he had traveled to that same spot, years and years before. Grandpa and I had come full circle.
Knowing he’d loved me and knowing he knew I loved him made accepting his death, for me, easier.
So, though I wish I could have been at my grandfather’s funeral to read aloud the Tennyson poems which were, I believe Grandpa would have wanted me right where I stood and is one of the reasons I was.
And I will carry and share his stories and love with me always.
Professor: A lovely and moving portrait to your grandfather, Sarah. You picture your relationship to him and the connection he gave you with great affection. The place Tennyson plays is nicely done. I could feel the presence of your grandfather in your evocative words. Reflecting back on your final or second paper, your grandfather truly participated in your spiritual birth and is present now as you make your leaps into professional life.
My Life is Full of Weary Days
by Alfred Lord Tennyson
My life is full of weary days,
But good things have not kept aloof,
Nor wander’d into other ways;
I have not lack’d thy mild reproof,
Nor golden largess of they praise.
And now shake hands across the brink
Of that deep grave to which I go,
Shake hands once more. I cannot sink
So far-far down, but I shall know
Thy voice, and answer from below.
When in the darkness over me
The four-handed mole shall scrape,
Plant thou no dusky cypress-tree,
Nor wreath thy cap with doleful crape,
But pledge me in the flowing grape.
And when the Sappy field and wood
Grow green beneath the showery gray,
And rugged barks begin to bud,
And thro’ damp holts new flush’d with may,
Ring sudden scritches of the jay,
Then let wise Nature work he will,
And on my clay her darnel grow;
Come only, when the days are still,
And at my headstone whisper low,
And tell me if the woodbines blow.