Zelophehad’s Daughters

Christmas 1995

By Fred Brown

Grandmother Mary Lamont, whom everyone called Maudie, grew up solid on her family’s land. The land in the sand country of South Georgia with its spindly pines, long summers and lush nights, had been in the Lamont family since the Revolutionary War. Old Col. Jeremiah Lamont, who had fought with the Americans against the British during the Revolutionary War, had earned the land for his service. He chose more than 500 hundred acres along the mushy banks of Coosa River.

Here, winters were tame, but summers were deep and breathless and hot enough to par boil the land, turning everything to dust.

His friends said it was particularly strange he would use his grant for that land, but the old colonel was a little smarter than he let on. Somehow he knew that the land was fertile for some things that couldn’t be grown anywhere else in the young nation. He had visited that part of the country long before the war, had walked in cleared fields and smelled the earth in his fingers. It was pungent and smelled of life.

Pecans. The land was ripe for pecan trees. He had learned about the trees from his friend, Thomas Jefferson, a great farmer, and decided that if he lived through the war, he was going to purchase as much land as he could in that distant country and plant pecan trees. And that is what he did, with help from Jefferson, who had developed a strain of pecans that he promised would grow greater fruit than wild pecan trees. Jefferson called them Stuart pecans, naming them after the great Scottish family that had once ruled Scotland. The Stuart pecan,

Jefferson said, would stand over time and reign over other varieties.

Jefferson’s pecans were almost twice the size of their cousins.The meat was sweeter and Jeremiah could see that a growing nation’s cooks could make good use of pecans. So, he put his war grant into five hundred acres in South Georgia. He fully intended to grow pecans and sell them.

He married Sarah Ferguson and began raising children and pecan trees. As the children sprouted, so did the trees. The one thing that Jeremiah had not reasoned was the length of time it takes a pecan tree to bear fruit. From the time it is planted, a decade of summers and winters must pass before the trees begin to bear fruit. Twenty years, and the trees are in full maturity and will fairly burst with fruit.

Jeremiah, who had been tall and a commanding figure as an officer in the Continental Army, was a very old man by the time fat, brown pecans in their soft shells began to drop from his orchards that filled field after field. The trees in rows looked like a city of trunks and limbs, or a field full of soldiers.

By the time the fields had ripened and the trees were old enough, brown bullets began to fall to the ground by the thousands. Pecans were everywhere. His sons, Jacob, John, Charles and Stuart went to work, gathering them. In his last year, Jeremiah saw his dream come true. His sons and grandsons were selling pecans and making much money from them.

And in his last days, Jeremiah had grown very close to three of his great-granddaughters,Elizabeth, the oldest, Fancy, the middle daughter, and the lively Mary, the youngest. They were the daughters of Jeremiah’s grandson, Joe, like his father, had never left the Lamont land through the years, trying to nourish a living and feed his family from the sand soil.

It had not been easy. Over time, the Lamonts had to sell much of the colonel’s land in order to survive. But they never sold the three hundred acres planted in Stuart pecans. The old colonel would never allow that. He told stories of the Jefferson pecan trees, and acted as if they were sacred or magical.

He also spoke of Zelophehad’s Daughters the same way he spoke of his friend Jefferson and pecans.

Jeremiah’s children had heard the story so often, it had become a joke with them over the years. They knew it was a passage from the Bible, because the old soldier had read it to them on many nights while sitting around the hearth and a family fire.

“Zelophehad’s Daughters,” Jeremiah would begin, “understood about life and the meaning of land to a family. He understood tradition and honor.”

Then he would launch into the story from the Old Testament when God told Moses to instruct the people about being faithful to the land and that daughters were not to let the land go, just because they married.

The old colonel spoke of family and traditions and how the land and family were one and the same. Blood and land, he said, were the things that held families together.

“God told Moses that he was to instruct the daughters of the clan that they could not marry outside of the clan. God knew something that we didn’t,” the old colonel would say each time he told the story.

“Land is family. God told the Zelophehad’s daughters that it was right and fine to marry, but they should stay within the clan so that land they inherited would remain within the clan. God was talking about family. He was saying that it was right for daughters to get married, to leave the home, but they were never to leave the family.

“What was started had to be kept alive, or the family would disappear. It was up to the daughters to see to it. Like the land, they were the ones who would bear fruit, and it was their charge to make sure the fruit was good, strong and learned in the ways of tradition and the family. That was God’s message to Zelophehad’s Daughters.”

Jeremiah told that story over and over again to every generation of his sons, grandsons, daughters and granddaughters. But, Elizabeth, Fancy and Mary were his chosen ones, since he knew they were the last babies of his clan he would ever see. They got to hear the story more often than the rest. On each telling, the old colonel would emphasize about weddings and how it was right, but that it was also a duty of the daughters to keep their inheritance, keep the blood he would say, within the family and to always, always keep the family strong. It didn’t matter, the old colonel said, whether or not the family was scattered. Families do that. What mattered, as Zelophehad had learned, was that the family’s traditions were more important than anything else in the world. That was the lesson of Zelophehad’s Daughters.

As they grew into young womanhood, Elizabeth, Fancy and Mary, thought no more of those old stories. Their great-grandfather had long since died. They had married and had families of their own. But as they passed through the years, they began to realize the wisdom of Jeremiah and they told their sons and daughters the story of Zelophehad’s Daughters.

It was a story handed down, but then faded into the mists.

By the time of the 20th century, the story had become family legend. No one in the Lamont family had the slightest idea of the story’s origins. It was just always there. Where or who originated the story had drifted away across time. It didn’t seem to matter, as few things from the past do to the young.

That is not until Fancy Lamont, the youngest of James Lamont’s three daughters, decided to seek out the answer to the family riddle.

She was a sophomore in college, studying English literature, when as a class project she decided to see what was behind the family legend. She had asked her grandfather, Hemish Lamont, but he had only a vague memory of his grandmother, Mary Lamont, telling him something about the Old Testament story. He had no idea where it had come from. She asked about letters, had great-grandmother Mary Lamont left any letters? A bible, perhaps? Hemish could not recall.

“My grandmother Mary Lamont was a strong woman. She kept the last 100 acres of the Lamont land and was living on it when she died. It left with her. She just came in one day from walking in the last pecan orchard and told everyone it was time to go. She laid down and died. Right there. That minute,” Hemish told his granddaughter.

“The only thing I know is that your name, Fancy, has been in the family for a long time. I think that comes from fanciful. One of those babies way back must have been fanciful and it got shortened to Fancy. At least, that is the way I heard it.

“You, Fancy, aren’t the first Fancy,” the old man said, laughing into his bony chest. He rocked and looked at his granddaughter. He was more fond of her than he was of living.

“The land is all gone now, sold, but she was the last. Stayed there to the end,” Hemish said, as he rocked beside a fire in Fancy’s home. Her father, James Lamont, took in his father and kept him, saying he would never let the old man waste to dust in a nursing home. Fancy, lean, with fire-blue eyes on an eager face, had grown up around her grandfather and had heard all of the Lamont stories. To her, Hemish Lamont, a World War I veteran who had been in the gas-filled trenches, was her hero.

“You got a lot of spit and vinegar,” Fancy, her grandfather told her often. “Be careful how you use it. Use that pretty head of yours. There’s lots of people out there who will use it for you if you don’t fill in the spaces.”

That’s one of the reasons Fancy loved her grandfather so. He was always coming up with some sort of funny saying.

There was another one she liked from Hemish: You can always make a can whip a can’t.

“You get your determination from great-grandmother Maudie. She was a gritty little woman. Feared nothing. Neither man nor beast. Never seen anything like her. She was strong in spirit and mind. And smart. Goodness, she was smart. Like she would take her time making up her mind. She thought a thing through, clean through, and all around before she made a decision.”

Fancy liked that, being like her great-grandmother Maudie. It pleased her, and that may have had something to do with the reason she felt the deep need to know more. Something inside of her compelled her to know more. It was as if in the knowledge of her family’s past she would find herself. And that was important to Fancy.

Fancy determined she would find her family’s traditions, trace them to their roots.

First, she found out that the family was related to Jeremiah Lamont, a Revolutionary War officer of great rank and reputation. He had been a hero at the battle of Yadkin’s Bend in North Carolina. In fact, Gen. Nathaniel Greene, second only to Gen. George Washington in importance in America’s battle for independence against the British, had given Jeremiah a sword after the battle in which the Americans devastated the British in a series of brilliant military maneuvers devised by Jeremiah.

The general was so grateful that he had removed his own campaign sabre and had it inscribed with the words: “Duty, Honor, Country,” on one side. On the other side of the gleaming silver sword were these words: “To Jeremiah Lamont, Hero of Yadkin River. Gen. Nathaniel Greene.”

After reading this, Fancy set about to find the sword. She learned that it had been lost and was probably in a museum or an attic. But through her research she discovered much about her famous great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather the Continental Army colonel and the Patriots who fought to give the new nation its first breaths of democracy.

She wrote the first of many essays on Jeremiah Lamont for her English class and earned an A. But Fancy wasn’t satisfied. That summer, she took off for the family homestead in South Georgia, the place where Hemish had told her his grandmother had stayed to the end. It was down in the sand country. On a long, red and rutted backroad, Fancy Lamont found what had once been the stronghold of the Lamonts. Now there was only a modern day house, though an old barn still remained.

She knocked on the door and asked if she might wander around the land, explaining she was a student and researching her family for an English writing project.

In the barn hay loft, Fancy found a wooden trunk underneath a pile of rubble. It was crippled with age. Its leather hinges almost crumbled when she lifted the lid. A large L, but white-faded, emblazoned the front. As she opened the trunk, a feeling of wild excitement shot through her like an electric charge.

Inside, she discovered letters and an ancient diary. On the front of the diary was another big L, in leathered bas relief. Fancy could barely contain her enthusiasm as she opened the first pages and read the words: “This is the diary of Colonel Jeremiah Lamont, 1774.” The last entry was 1803. By that year, the handwriting had become spidery and very difficult to read. The letters were practically undecipherable difficult anyway, since “Ss,” looked like L’s or f’s.

Fancy stuffed the diary and letters into her backpack and returned to the nearby house. She showed the diary and letters to the people there, who said it would be just fine for her to take the stuff. They were just about to throw them away anyway to tear down the barn. It was just junk, they said.

Fancy went home with her treasure and over the next several months, she read the material, studying each line. Here she discovered her great-grandfather and much about the Lamont family. She learned of the pecan orchards and how they were handed down and eventually wound up with her great-grandmother, Mary Lamont Williams, the one they called Maudie.

But, it was in the Lamont bible that she made the strangest discovery.

The word “parhelion” was scribbled in front of the biblical notation “Numbers 36:10.”

Fancy, pretty, but with the personality of Maudie, which was fire and ice, picked up the Bible and began flipping through its pages when a small yellowed slip of paper fell from inside its onion-skin pages.

She quickly read the faded words. She recognized the handwriting as that of Jeremiah Lamont, but the words were strange indeed.

They spoke of ancestral lands, but made no mention where. The words spoke of Thomas Jefferson and pecan orchards, but made no mention where.

And, there was that word, “parhelion” again written in front of “Numbers 36:10.”

In addition there were other strange words that she had never seen before. They were foreign, but nothing that she had ever studied. Fancy was good at French and Spanish, but this was not a romantic language. This was something quite old and out of time.

She took the yellowed page to her English professor who didn’t recognize the language either. Together, the professor and Fancy visited a language scholar on campus who told them the words appeared to be of ancient origin, probably around the time of the Picts.

“The Picts were of Northern Scotland. We think the word ‘Pict’ means the painted people,” the language scholar told Fancy and the professor.

“That probably means they were tattooed in some way. We aren’t sure. But the language is pre-Celtic in origin, which makes it about the time of the Picts, who spoke a non-Celtic language.

“It is thought the Picts were in England long before the Celtic Britons. They were a strong-willed and brave clan of people, who feared very little. They were quite tribal and fierce when invaded.

“It is said that had they not died out for some reason, they would still be on the same land they first inhabited. They were that loyal and devoted to their country,” the scholar told her.

“They seem to have disappeared all at once. Just vanished.”

Over the next several months, Fancy worked harder and harder on the mystery of Jeremiah Lamont and her family, trying to connect the word “parhelion,” to the Biblical story about Zelophehad’s Daughters, and the strange words she found in the Lamont Bible.

She never got to meet her great-grandmother, Maudie, so she couldn’t ask her. The Lamont land and pecan orchards had disappeared, mostly gone to suburban homes and parking lots. She did find out, though, that there were one or two of the original trees still around near Lamont, Ga., in the sand country.

For her senior year project, Fancy decided she would visit again her ancestral home in Lamont, Ga., and see if she could finally unravel the family story and to find the old pecan trees and to feel the generations surge through her.

She did find the trees with the help of an old farmer familiar with the land. She dug up a sprig, which she intended to plant from the old pecan tree that the farmer said was ancient.

“I bet if we were to count the rings, it would go back more than 200 years,” he said. “It’s the only one left. They say where you see houses and stores now was once filled with pecan trees. All gone now, though.”

Fancy knew that the big tree had to be one of Jeremiah’s Jefferson pecan trees, and the sprig was an offspring of that tree. She just knew it was a Stuart pecan. Having discovered the whereabouts of the old tree, the only one left standing, she felt she would now find the answer to some of the other family riddles, like what the strange words meant on Jeremiah’s note.

Fancy returned to the homeplace where she had discovered the letters and bible, but the barn was gone. There was nothing there but a bare spot where the barn had been. The people who had owned the land when she came there two years ago were gone as well. The house was empty and no one was around. A “for rent,” sign hung on the front porch.

Fancy walked to where the barn had been and picked her way around the outline, still visible in the ground.

She found buttercups in bloom and remembered the story from one of the old letters that explained how oldtimers planted buttercups, which always return in the spring. To the old ones, buttercups were a sign of life, where people had once congregated as families.

As she walked, Fancy noted a sharp, bright shiny thing in the ground shadow where the barn had stood. The top bristled in the noonday sun. It was some sort of silver case. Picking it up, she rubbed away the clotted brown earth with her thumb. A large L was inscribed on the front.

Fancy practically stopped breathing when she opened the large silver case. It was flat and the size of her hand. Its hinges were rusty but not frozen. She opened it gingerly. To her disappointment, there was nothing inside, no note explaining the strange Celtic words. But as she examined the lid, flicking away dirt and rust, words began to emerge, as if walking in out of the dark into light. Fancy saw that something was inscribed on the inside surface.

There, on the underside of the lid were the words she had found in the note by Jeremiah and underneath the words there was an English translation.

“On Christmas Eve,” the words began, “I saw the meaning of Zelophehad’s Daughters. Three bright spots. They were on three sides of the sun. I knew they represented my three daughters, the three brightest lights of my life,” the words said.

“Whoever reads this will find written in the Lamont Bible the word parhelion in front of Numbers 36:10. Parhelion explains the bright spots around the sun. The biblical passage tells how the daughters will keep the clans and traditions. Look to the Lairg where the Shin meets the Fleet to find your way home. Jeremiah Lamont.”

Troubled that she had found another mystery, Fancy returned to her family more determined than ever to dig up answers to the intriguing family riddles. She turned once more to the Lamont bible with the large L.

In the Book of Numbers she read once more of the clans of Gilead, the grandson of Manassah. She read of Zelophehad and what Moses told him. But that yielded nothing. She had read the verses many times and just as before, she was still perplexed. The mystery would not present itself and she seemed at the end of the road.

Fancy read out loud the strange-sounding names of Zelophehad’s Daughters — Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah and Noah. She repeated the words. She knew they symbolized something but she couldn’t quite put it together. Then Fancy reread the passage and saw as if for the first time that there were five daughters with the last being named Noah, the ark that saved mankind and animals from destruction. They went forth and multiplied into plenty. After the flood, the ark had come to rest on the top of a mountain, then the center of the universe.

She looked at the inscription again and the word Lairg stuck in her head. Then Fancy found the word in a dictionary and discovered that in the late 14th century, the Celtic word meant plentiful and abundant.

Quickly, she found a map of the British Isles and as her eyes roamed, she came across the city of Lairg, in the direct geographic center of the Highlands. Lairg is at the foot of Glen Shin, a high mountain body of water that flows through the valley to the River Fleet, running through the city of Lairg. The Fleet flows to the Atlantic, pointing toward the United States.

And then it hit Fancy. The Lairg, the Shin and the Fleet were the three origins of Jeremiah Lamont’s ancestors, the parhelions of his family history. Each Christmas Eve he told the story of Zelophehad’s Daughters and the clans and although Zelophehad had five daughters, only one was named Noah, the center of his universe, his parhelion.

Fancy could hardly contain her happiness. She rushed to her grandfather Hemish and began to babble about the family secret she had unlocked.

It was Christmas Eve and the old man was sitting alone, near the fire, rocking and thinking. He peered deeply into the flames, as if he found something in there of himself.

“I have done it, grandfather,” Fancy began.

“Oh?” the old man said.

“Done what?”

“Unlocked the secret to our family’s tradition.”

Hemish Lamont, his face wrinkled and sprinkled with dark spots, smiled. His red-purplish lips pushed into an O as he thought.

“Well, Fancy, tell me.”

As his granddaughter began to unravel her version of the family story, old Hemish began to chuckle. Now he knew the meaning of what his mother had told him: The Lamonts are plentiful, if not in numbers, then in spirit. They will endure. They come from the place of the fleet and the abundant.”

“Why, Fancy, I think you have done it. What are you going to do now. Maybe write another paper about it?”

Outside, wind began to blow. The temperature was dropping and the old man curled a shawl around his shoulders.

“You know, grandfather, I think on this Christmas Eve, I’ll let this be my gift to you, and to no one else.”

As if cut to the quick, the old man’s eyes became translucent in the firelight. His eyes glistened. He sniffed and looked momentarily into the flickering flames.

“Fancy, it’s like you were three bright lights in one the way you shine around the sides of my heart.”

“I know, grandfather,” Fancy Lamont said. “I know. It’s been written.”

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About tennwriter

FRED BROWN is a retired Senior Writer for The Knoxville News-Sentinel. He has been a journalist for 45 years and is a member of the Scripps Howard Hall of Fame. He is a recipient of the Malcolm Law Trophy for Feature Writing and in 1983 he was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in Journalism to study at the University of Michigan. He has published both fiction and nonfiction. Brown has a B. A. Degree in English Literature from Presbyterian College. Other highlights of his career include: Books and Stories Authored: Marking Time: East Tennessee Historical Markers and the Stories Behind Them, published by The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tenn. 2005. Discovering October Roads: Fall Colors and Geology in Rural East Tennessee, published by The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tenn., 2001. Co-authored with Harry Moore. The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith, published by John F. Blair Publishers, Winston-Salem, N.C., May, 2000. Co-authored with his wife, Jeanne McDonald. Growing Up Southern: How the South Shapes Writers, published by Emerald House/Blue Ridge Publishing, Fall, 1997. Co-authored with his wife, Jeanne McDonald "We Can Eat Sparrows," New Millennium Writings, Vol. 1, Issue 2, Fall & Winter, 1996. "The Devil's Roost," Voices From the Valley, Knoxville Writer's Guild anthology, 1994. Snake-Handling Believers, 2 chapters in book by Dr. Thomas Burton, University of Tennessee Press, 1993. History of Commission on Religion in Appalachia, 1992-93. "Seniors: Telling Tales to Life's Upperclassmen," Storytelling Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 4, fall 1992. Coker Creek, Crossroads to History, history of a mountain community and its people near Tennessee-Georgia border, 1991. "Character Building," Storytelling Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 4, fall 1991. The Faces of East Tennessee, a history of East Tennessee Counties, 1990. "Tillman Cadle, Memories of the Coalfields," Now and Then, The Appalachian Magazine, Center for Appalachian Studies, East Tennessee State University, Vol. 7, No. 7, fall 1990. Trader Jon, a biography; Castle Books, Memphis, 1986. "Mining Reform," Sierra, Vol. 71, No. 5, September/October 1986.
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