Margaret Edds, a former longtime reporter and editorial writer for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., has written a moving account of her search for a mother she barely knew.
Sara Barnes Edds was born in Tennessee in 1915 and died there in 1950, when her daughter was barely 3. This book recounts that brief life and recaptures a lost world.
Finding Sara: A Daughter's Journey was made possible only by the discovery of several troves of letters, the sort of material every family historian yearns for. When Margaret was a teen, she found the love letters her mother and father exchanged before they were married, when they were separated by World War II. Margaret sneaked peeks at the letters as a girl but never let her father know. She recovered that word hoard only after his death, 40 years later.
About the same time, the letters meticulously preserved by Sara's favorite sister, Eleanor, also came into Margaret's hands. After years of trying to ignore the vacant place left by her mother's death, she now had the leisure, the maturity and the means to fill in some of the blanks and to recover a life as told in Sara's words.
Sara Barnes was a farm girl, but she and her sisters and brother all had a chance to attend college. That was unusual for her time.
Sara's letters are literate, lively and intelligent. She came from a family of schoolteachers and briefly tried the classroom but didn't care for it.
Instead, she turned to the kind of business jobs that were open to women then, largely clerical. She first worked in the paternalistic coal-company town of Lynch in bloody Harlan County, Ky., where she met Tom Edds, and then spent two years during the war at the secret atomic city of Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Despite these brushes with history, one might regard the life of Sara Edds as plain and provincial. Her longest journey from home was to Texas, where Tom Edds was stationed, as a sergeant in the Army Air Forces.
But the very ordinariness of her life makes it emblematic and strangely enthralling. We return to a world without indoor plumbing or central heating, where one traveled by bus or train and communicated by mail rather than expensive and unreliable long distance telephone. This also was a world of close-knit communities, families who canned the crops they harvested, played parlor games for amusement and attended church regularly.
In Finding Sara, we learn what it was like to be a schoolgirl in the 1920s, a young woman seeking an education, a job and a husband during the Depression era when labor strife and hard times were a reality, as were nickel movies. We watch as Sara becomes a war worker, living in a rented room and carrying on a long-distance courtship with her soldier. After the war, we get our first glimpses of the baby boom and an economic recovery that brought new prosperity to rural places, including coveted kitchen appliances, and tires and gasoline that were no longer rationed.
The tale is then cut short, when mid-century medical care cannot cope with a heart damaged by rheumatic fever.
In the interest of full disclosure, I worked with Edds a dozen years ago at The Virginian-Pilot and always admired her efforts, but I never expected to read a book by her on so personal a subject as her search for a mother she barely knew.
In this book, her fourth, Edds has bravely chosen not to embroider or even to rely too heavily on her skills as a reporter in bringing us this story of her mother's brief life. She has largely let Sara's letters speak for themselves, with a minimum of editorial gloss. When she does comment, it is with unself-conscious directness — in a kind of dialogue with her mother across the decades. She is delighted to find that Sara was independent and daring, disappointed when her mother shows herself to have shared some of the prejudices of the era, touched when she realizes how happy her parents' marriage was and how much Sara loved her two little girls.
Margaret Edds' minimalist method at first takes the reader aback, but it lets us more fully inhabit Sara's life — share her joys, suffer her doubts and experience her family's terrible grief when the end comes far too soon. Readers might find themselves touched in the same way they might have been by Little House on the Prairie or A Death in the Family. I found myself recalling Alfred Lord Tennyson's elegiac lament: "So sad, so strange, the days that are no more."
This is a lovely book that brings a real person and her times fully to life. A mother was lost, but now, thanks to Margaret Edds, she is found.