Jenkins: A book, and the unbroken circle

jjenkins@newsobserver.comJanuary 2, 2013 

Will the circle be unbroken, as the old song goes? Apparently so.

He agreed to have the story told only if his identity were protected. Thus for this day in this space, he shall be called only “Cousin,” which he happens to be.

The protection is sought more out of modesty than anything else. There’s nothing in the story that is sinister, nor is it a tale of foreign intrigue. But it’s quite a story.

Cousin, who’s a professional man here in Raleigh, and I grew up together, and when I was 14, I took my first extended trip to our ancestral home in Scotland County, Riverton, with him and his family. There were summer cottages by the banks of the Lumber River (called the Lumbee in the region), and the primary recreational activity was (and is) swimming, tennis and socializing.

Members of the family held hundreds of acres once owned by the original settlers, teachers and missionaries. One of the descendants was John Charles McNeill, poet laureate of North Carolina in the early 1900s, whose home place is preserved nearby.

McNeill was blessed with many gifts: storyteller, lawyer, legislator and mentor to, among others, my grandmother, who was a teenager when the poet died in 1907. He even, family lore has it, helped lay out a tennis court in Riverton. The gift of years he did not have, dying at 33.

My grandmother was his niece, and he liked her well enough to leave her his books and a couple of other personal items from his modest belongings.

McNeill had two books of his poetry published, the first in 1906, “Songs Merry and Sad,” and the second after his death, “Lyrics from Cotton Land.”

And so now let us return to Christmas morning 2012, at Cousin’s house, where at breakfast we usually exchange a little token. Cousin’s father and wife and grown children and brother-in-law were there when Cousin stood up, holding a slender, brightly wrapped package.

“I want to say,” he reckoned, “that I have today the greatest Christmas present I have ever bought for anyone, any time. It may be the greatest Christmas present of all time. And it’s for Jim.” He handed it to me.

With no surviving immediate family, and at 60, I’m not much for diving under a tree in anticipation of a wealth of packages. So I was a little mystified.

I unwrapped the package, and there was a slender and well-worn volume of “Songs Merry and Sad” by John Charles McNeill.

“This is terrific, Cousin,” I said, and it was nice indeed to have another first edition.

“That’s not just it,” he said. “Look inside.”

On the left inside of the jacket was a stanza from one of the poems inside, written with a dip pen in the hand of John Charles McNeill.

“Incredible,” I said. “This is indeed the greatest Christmas present ever.”

“That’s not all,” he said. “Look on the right side.”

On the other page, this: “With best wishes and prayers for both of you.” It was signed by the Rev. J.L. Jenkins, my grandfather, who had lived in Boiling Springs in the foothills of North Carolina. Below this inscription, my father had written his name and address on Lake Drive in Raleigh, where my parents lived beginning in 1958. As best we could figure, my grandmother, McNeill’s niece, had owned it and some time after her death more than 60 years ago, my grandfather had given it to my parents and later it passed to other owners.

The book is not of great financial value, and its sentimental value is exclusive to family members. McNeill was famous in his time, but his time was short. All family members who would have known him are long passed.

Cousin had come across the volume quite by happenstance in a used bookstore in Raleigh. He was shopping for Christmas presents and asked the proprietor whether he had any books by McNeill. There were three. When he saw the writing inside this one, he offered the bookstore owner more than the asking price. The guy asked him why he would do that.

“Because,” Cousin said, “tomorrow I’m going to give this book to this man’s grandson.”

Somehow, over more than 100 years, this little book had made its way from John Charles McNeill himself to my grandmother to my parents to one or more interim owners who-knows-where to a bookstore in Raleigh to Cousin to me.

“Believe me,” Cousin said, “I got as much of a thrill out of giving it to you as you did in getting it.”

When you think about it, that’s pretty much the ultimate in any gift. Will the circle be unbroken? By and by. By and by.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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