It was across the sea in Cardiganshire, Wales, near the rough coastal line, that the home of Grandfather David Rees had its roots in the soil. They called it ‘Killolog’ (spelled as it sounded and not according to the Welsh) because it stood against a slope, for Killolog means “house under the hill.”
It was a sturdy stone structure flanked by a heavy roof, with thick doors and deep-set mullioned windows that swung outward. Around its acres a hedge fence spread its greenery to be interrupted by a small ornamental gate near the house where a huge shade tree guarded the front door like a sentinel. Farther west and away from the highway a slow stream meandered toward pasture-land, and there the cows cooled their feet on warm days, and the Rees youngsters squished the soft mud with their adventurous toes. Trees in orderly succession bordered the hedgerow, and old-fashioned perennials vied with vegetables for the favor of the family that gathered about the table indoors.
Grandfather must have shared a part of the fairies’ crock of gold, for the house he provided was not only ample but charming as well. Within, the timbered ceiling, floors, and furniture were polished till they shone like a puppy’s sleek coat. A tall grandfather’s clock towered above the room like an admonishing monitor to remind of vanishing moments, while across the well-waxed floor a sort of highboy-buffet which the children called a ‘dresser’ squared itself against the wall. Capacious cupboards below and open shelves above, displayed rows of mugs, platters of varying sizes, and plates of china called “willow-ware.” Probably it was the English willow pattern, though we have no way of knowing. Here too, a gold luster tea service which Grandmother brought to America dominated the commoner ceramics.
Grandfather had a “come hither” charm with the ladies and had already shared one romantic marriage [Sarah Richard(s)] before he led tiny Janet Lloyd over the threshold to be greeted by his sons John and Thomas. I said led because I cannot believe that my dignified little grandmother would have permitted Grandfather to carry her over the doorsill in conformity with the old tradition.
Grandfather was over six feet tall with red hair and beard and, in spite of his physical prowess, was gentle and playful, whereas Grandmother measured a bare five feet, took life seriously and was generally conceded to be severe.
She was several years younger than he and with chivalrous grace for her petiteness he called her “Shannavach.” ’Shanna’ is the Welsh for Janet and ‘vach’ the diminutive form. When he wished to refer to her in a complimentary manner he would say:
“Shannavach hath a mind like a man.”
In spite of her masculinity, Grandmother was conventionally feminine and demonstrated that fact by bearing him three daughters and a son respectively: Letitia (Lettiscia) or 'Letty', Elisabeth known as ‘Libby’, Sarah dubbed ‘Sally’ and ‘Sade’, and David.
Grandfather seems not only to have been popular with his family but with the townspeople as well, and his children were impressed by the respect shown him throughout the community. Other men were addressed as Evan Evans or John Jones, while Grandfather was always greeted as Thene David Rees, “thene’ being construed to mean ‘gentleman.’ Grandmother took her hurdles in religion and knew her Bible so well that she was considered an authority in the village. Young ministers came to discuss controversial passages of scripture with her and so serious a subject for conversation permitted of no gossip.
Elders and ministers occupied exalted places at Killolog, and when either was expected for tea, the house was polished till it shown and the gold luster did its bit. The children of the family (mere common clay) were never allowed to taste the choice cakes baked for the “cloth.”
“No Dear, these are for the elders. You may have bread and butter,” Grandmother would say in her best company manner.
Grandfather was more fortunate than many in the matter of education, and to these acquirements added the graces of being both a singer and harpist. When Sally was small he used to take her for walks. Her legs were short and it was necessary for her to skip or jogtrot in order to keep up with his six-foot fleetness. When he inquired if she were tired, Sally found it distinctly profitable to acquiesce. Then “Da-da” would pack her on his back and carry her back to the house.
When night fell and supper had been eaten in the great room, he would fetch his harp in front of the fire and sing songs of Wales as he plucked its strings. “Men of Harlech” with its stirring spirit seemed to belong when the fire snapped and crackled and the flames lighted up the burnished timbers overhead. Then when the cedar logs were no longer noisy, burning with a steady warmth and glow, the mellow voice would take up the strains of “Ar Hyd Y Nos”, and a quiet like a soft grey veil would drift over the listening children. Grandfather had a rich baritone voice which Mother said, “Had tears in it.”
It seemed now to melt with the firelight as he sang:
“Sleep my love and peace attend thee All through the night. Guardian angels God will lend thee All through the night. Soft the drowsy hours are creeping, Hill and vale in slumber steeping. Love alone his watch is keeping All through the night.”
Ard Tyd Y Nos was a great favorite with the children. Sometimes they sang their own original words to it, but Grandmother never approved of her husband singing secular songs. She would rise stiffly from her chair and say reproachfully, “Da-veed, thee should not.”
If Grandfather teasingly begged: “One more Shannavach?” it was difficult for her to resist his soft words and she would relent, but if he grew bolder and dared to sing a tune that was trivial and had a tra-la-la swing, she would take his harp away, and music for the evening would be over.
Grandfather’s singing thrilled Sally and once again when the two were alone he told her that the vibrato she loved was a punishment from Almighty God because when he was young he had sung to Venus. “Singing to Venus” meant singing love-songs, and Sally was glad that was what had made his voice appealing and full of tears.
His children adored Thene David Rees and a displeased look from him was a harsher punishment than Grandmother’s laying on of hands. In spite of her severity, however, the children admired her spiritedness and loved her. She taught boys and girls alike to knit, and feminine virtues were faithfully instilled as the girls worked.
Their time was budgeted - two hours work and then half an hour’s play and in thirty minutes two hours of joy were concentrated. There was a vine swing at Killolog near the road and when carriages passed, Letty would grab a stocking she had dropped and ply her needle with all her might while people were passing. Someone was sure to exclaim:
“Look at that tiny child knitting on that long stocking!”
And Letty loved their praise. Letty was the clown of the family - very bright and pretty. She looked like Grandmother, was a wonderful mimic, and like her was quick and sharp at times. Sally had red hair and the verve that so often accompanies it. Libby was gentle.
Grandfather and Grandmother believed in higher education and John and Thomas were sent to England to college. As the parents watched the boys grow more liberal in their outlook and discard the extreme religious views of the elder Reeses, they became skeptical. College they decided had imperiled their son’s souls. It grieved Grandfather to hear Tom say,
“Why pester the poor Lord with prayer Father, when he knows far better than we what we need.”
Tom was an imaginative person of fine tastes whose two loves were Shakespeare and music.
While John was still young he died at sea, and Grandfather grieved at his loss. Perhaps it was in sorrow that he first entertained the idea of abandoning Killolog. The calls of the birds in times of loneliness carried a plaintive note. Even the sun setting behind the hills lost its splendor “when Colin is away.” Children knew little of their parents’ plans in those days and almost without warning in May, when Sally was five and David three, the parents and five children boarded a ship and set sail for America.
The voyage to the new country was long and tedious for sailing vessels were the only mean of crossing the ocean. It took nine weeks, and the children watched their homeland fade in the mists to be out of sight for forty-nine long days and nights. There was little opportunity for them to romp on the ship. They missed the play spaces of Killolog, and the days crawled slowly by. Sometimes they took their plates of food out on the deck to eat. Once when Sally had settled herself comfortably, a big wave impudently swept her plate clean before she had even tasted the food. After that the wind died down, and for days the ship was becalmed.
The unexpected arrival of a crisp breeze was a signal for rejoicing on board the vessel, and the Welsh group crowded around Grandfather in genuine thanksgiving. It had been his custom on the voyage to lead religious services and no objection had been raised when one day the captain came upon them kneeling in prayer. He was very angry. A storm was brewing and probably disturbed his equanimity. In an irascible manner he snarled,
“Cease your silly praying. I’ll have none of it on my ship.”
Grandfather grieved at heart, apologized and sent his people back to their tasks. The storm as if in retaliation now worked up a fine crescendo and broke in unrestrained fury on the big boat. Families gathered together in terror, their fears reflected in their faces. Grandfather and Grandmother had their children in a huddle when a member of the ship’s crew drew near and addressed Grandfather.
“I have a message for you, Sir. The Captain told me, Sir, to tell ‘that damned Welshman’ to pray and pray hard for the crew and the passengers on this vessel:
He hurried away.
Grandfather had a nice sense of humor and he appreciated the apology hidden in the Captain’s message. Gratefully, he gathered the frightened Welsh people on their knees and his rich voice rose above the tumult.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Higher criticism was unborn at that moment and there were no questioning minds as he repeated David’s psalm.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea. Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled. The Lord of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge.”
Reassured by Father’s calm, the children’s fears were quieted and, when Grandmother tucked them in their beds, no qualms for their safety troubled their childish sleep. As it was with them, so it was with their elders. Panic was over and once again God had carried them over not figurative but literal waters to a quiet haven.
Not many years ago my cousin met an elderly man in Pittsburgh whose father had been one of the passengers on the same ship that brought the Rees family to America. He said he heard his father tell the story of the storm many times and that both the Captain of the vessel and his father firmly believed that it was the prayers of the red-bearded Welshman that had calmed the troubled ocean and enabled the pilot to find the new world.
On the 13th of August 1846 the shadowy shores of the coast appeared on the horizon, and when the ship sailed into the harbor, Thene David Rees and his people knelt and kissed the soil of the country that was to give them a new and abundant life.