Seeking Belle Davenport
This article originally ran in the November / December 2014 edition of PS Magazine: Family & Staying Connected on p.14.
I come from a long line of head-strong women. On my mother’s side, these iron-willed souls settled corners of the Central Texas Hill Country, where, to this day, I can still bump into cousins I’ve never had the pleasure to meet. It was no surprise, then, when this same determination spurred my 28-year old niece to unravel some enduring family mysteries.
Rian hadn’t signed up to be the family genealogist. She was called. Gathered around the kitchen table in 2006, she and two of my sisters were chatting about the family tree. A child of the Google age, Rian found herself itching to fill the gaps in the stories she had just heard. With a spiral notebook in hand, she took the leap the next day, full of questions for my then 81-year old mother. So began Rian’s fascination with the Davenport women – Belle, Allie, and Gloria – three generations of bold, courageous beings that offered her an unexpected glimpse into herself.
“Every day, I find a piece of them in me. When I was little, I always loved yellow roses, and I didn’t know why,” Rian shares, “Twenty years later, I find out that my great grandmother, Allie, was famous for her yellow roses. And when I read divorce testimony from Belle’s husband about my great, great grandmother’s fiery nature, I see so much of me there and my hot-headed moments.”
It is Belle’s story, or its lack of detail, that has been especially compelling for Rian. In an era when women had few rights of their own, Belle made choices that stood out as radical and unsuitable for a woman of her time. Understanding the story beneath the story – what drove Belle to live as she did – has long been a topic of family speculation. Rian’s desire to learn more led her to rally fellow Davenports to revive their defunct annual family reunion in Central Texas.
“I had so many questions, they finally decided to round people up in one place to get me some answers,” she says. Six years later the Davenport family reunion is still going strong each October. What began as a quest for Belle Davenport has evolved into discovering the power of family ties. Rian’s sleuthing revealed she had lots of extended family living only a stone’s throw away.
“The time I’ve spent listening to the elders of the family has changed my life,” she notes. “I’m jaw-dropped all of the time by their stories, their strength, their courage – they have literally lived the history that I learned in my school books. These details are like found treasure to me. Finding my family, both the living and long-gone, has sort of ‘cemented’ me and given me purpose.”
Over time, Rian’s deepening relationships with the older Davenports revealed another valuable legacy – something The Eden Alternative affirms that every elder has to share, no matter how old they are or what challenges they live with.
“My generation tends to move so fast and is so quick to respond. If I were to tell someone my age why it’s valuable to sit with someone older than myself, I’d tell them it’s about learning to just absorb what’s said, learn to be, and let things unfold. There is something that connects us all… and these elders know what it is, they’ve seen it… and they know better than we do how to access it.” This sense of connectedness is one of seven vital experiences that The Eden Alternative says is crucial to our well-being. These seven Domains of Well-Being, as they’re called, continue to be relevant to our experience of everyday life, no matter what phase of life we are in. Over the last eight years, Rian has found that the sense of connectedness she’s developed with her newfound family members is as much about a sense of place, as it is about relationships.
“Ten years ago, I was more restless, anxious to move on to another place or city. But now, I feel so at peace. Getting to know my heritage has helped me find me,” notes Rian, who was born in San Francisco, and due only to a twist of fate, ended up living near the family again in Texas at a young age. Fate reared its head again, when she discovered that for nearly all her life, she’d been living only 10 minutes away from the old Davenport family cemetery. Situated off a highway she’d driven down a thousand times before, she discovered a stretch of land with an old weathered farm house amidst a modern day, cookie cutter sub-division. Closer inspection revealed a lonely, wrought-iron gateway with the name “Davenport” arched across the top, and beyond it, the resting place of her long-lost relations.
“The stories of my ancestors just seem to find me and give me the sense that I am right where I am supposed to be,” reflects Rian. “If you told me 8 years ago, that I was going to spend years talking to a lot of older people to get a few answers, I would have said ‘Heck no, I don’t have time for this.’ But making time for this… it’s what has made me whole.”