My Musical Family - Joy Riggs

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A blog about my family's adventures in making and appreciating music.
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Echoes of the Past, Hope for the Future

Mon, 05/25/2015 - 6:44pm
Two months ago, I stood in the cemetery at the Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia and looked out at the rows and rows of nearly identical white gravestones. My paternal great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, stood in that cemetery in November 1906 with other members of the 51st Iowa Regimental Band, his cornet to his lips. At the close of a memorial service for Iowa soliders who died in the prison camp at Andersonville, G. Oliver played “Taps.”

The Iowa Memorial in the Andersonville cemetery.Earlier today, I stood in the Northfield Armory, the rain location for the 2015 Memorial Day Tribute to All Veterans. The building was packed with people of all ages, from infant to centenarian, and members of the Northfield High School band provided music for the occasion. At the close of the service, I listened as my older son, Sebastian, played “Echo Taps” with fellow trumpet player Jarrett Croy.

If I could have been in two places at once today, I also could have listened to my dad play “Echo Taps” at a cemetery in Alexandria, as he does every year.

Sebastian after the event at the armory.Participating in Memorial Day services is a long-established tradition in the Riggs family, going back to the time the holiday was known by its earlier name, Decoration Day. The holiday started as a way of honoring Civil War soldiers, and it was meaningful to G. Oliver because his dad, Jasper Riggs, and several of his uncles had fought to preserve the Union.

G. Oliver was 16 — the same age Sebastian is now — when he began playing for Decoration Day services. Except for the time he was in the hospital recovering from typhoid, he continued to participate every year, as a performer or band director, until he retired as director of the St. Cloud Municipal Band in 1944.

I teared up several times today at the Northfield event, mostly during the speeches by eighth-grader Reed Roney and high school senior Erin Hahn. Hearing the eloquent words they had written about what Memorial Day means to them, as young people who have not experienced war themselves, gave me hope for our country’s future.

Their speeches also brought to mind a speech that G. Oliver heard in 1906 — not at Andersonville, but at Shiloh National Military Park, another stop on the battlefield tour. During the dedication of a memorial to the Sixth Iowa Regiment, Jesse A. Miller, the son of the regiment’s colonel, said:

“I, as one who was born after the war, as one who knows nothing of the war except what I have heard and read, feel that I am a better man and will live a better life for having visited these battlefields ... I hope that as the days go by and as the years roll on ... these memorials will ever tend to raise the citizenship of this country and make the people of this nation a better and higher type of civilization than any that has gone before.”


As someone who also knows nothing of war, except what I have heard and read, I feel that I am a better person because of the veterans I have known in my life, and those I wish I could have known. As the days go by and the years roll on, I will be forever grateful.





Categories: Citizens

Seeing Life Through My Great-Grandfather's Eyes

Wed, 05/20/2015 - 3:35pm
When I returned home on Sunday afternoon after a four-day writing retreat in northern Wisconsin, a gorgeous burled walnut secretary was waiting for me. The piece of furniture had once belonged to my great-grandparents, G. Oliver and Islea Riggs.

The burled walnut secretary in its new home.My parents delivered it to my house because they are downsizing. I had admired the secretary for years, even though I knew little about its history.* I figured it would be a good fit for our circa 1920 bungalow-style house, which has high ceilings and dark wood built-ins. But it was even more fun than I had anticipated to walk into the family study and see it there; it looks like it has always been there, like the space was made for it.

My dad had also left a surprise gift for me on the secretary:

G. Oliver’s glasses.These are the glasses that my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, wore during the later years of his life. My dad had unearthed them several years ago from a box in the garage.

It seemed right to find the glasses after I had spent the weekend thinking and writing about key moments in G. Oliver’s life. I have been trying to see things from his point of view as I write the chapters in my book and reflect on all that I have learned about him, his family and his career. Now I have his actual glasses.

I tried them on yesterday, and I can report that the view through them is slightly blurry, which also seems appropriate. Memory and time have the same effect on me, as I try to write about scenes from my own life that happened even just a few years ago. Some details are sharp, but some are more difficult to bring into focus without the help of photos or notes.

It’s often difficult to know in the moment what is going to seem important to you later. Sometimes your vision at the time is blurry, with or without glasses.

Fortunately, I have a wonderful teacher and mentor who loves to dig into issues like this. What do we remember, and why? At the Motherhood & Words retreat at Faith’s Lodge, which I attended with five other women writers, teacher/editor/writer extraordinaire Kate Hopper somehow knew the right mix of readings and writing exercises to use to inspire and motivate us in our nonfiction work. During the retreat (my fourth time attending — I am hooked!), I wrote an important scene from one of my book chapters, and I wrote two new parenting-related essays. 

I also had a massage — a fairly new, and highly welcome addition to Kate’s writing retreats — and I walked the new labyrinth on the lodge grounds, picking up only two hitchhiking wood ticks in the process.

I took a break from writing to walk the new labyrinth.I came away from the weekend feeling even more confident about the direction of my book; I just need to keep writing and meeting my self-imposed deadlines. I also felt happy that I stepped away from working on my book occasionally to explore topics I had not planned to write about — these exercises became the essays I am revising this week.

That is one of things I enjoy most about the retreat — it offers the freedom and opportunity to play around with writing, in a supportive and nurturing environment, in a way that I don’t always allow myself to do at home.

I have had great success lately with essays I have written at Kate’s Motherhood & Words retreats, so I am hopeful that the new ones I wrote will find homes, too. The essay I wrote at the Februrary 2015 retreat about wig shopping with my mom was published on Mamalode on May 4: Life and Death in the Dressing Room. And the essay I wrote at the February 2014 retreat about whether to have a preventive mastectomy appeared in the Star Tribune last month: Women's Health: Mastectomy Now or Later?

I have already signed up for the next retreat in October. By then I hope to have written three-fourths of my book chapters. I don’t think I will put on G. Oliver’s glasses as I write, but I may try sitting at the secretary with my laptop, to see if it helps me travel back in time on the page. The secretary has been a witness to a great many years of family history. It is ready for a new chapter of its own.

* In case you are interested in the secretary’s history, here is what I have been able to determine, with the help of Ancestry.com and the 1882 History of Mercer County: Within the secretary I found the name of a Chicago furniture company and the handwritten words: Jos. B. Moore, Aledo. Joseph B. Moore is my third great grand uncle; he is the brother of Islea’s grandmother, Scienda Isle Moore, for whom I think Islea was named. 

Joseph Moore moved to Aledo, Illinois, in 1865 from Ohio. He worked on an 80-acre farm for ten years and then quit to work in Aledo as a cabinet maker and furniture dealer, which was still listed as his occupation in 1882.


Categories: Citizens

Back from a Blog Hiatus

Sun, 05/03/2015 - 1:02pm
I did not intend to take an extended hiatus from blogging, but the past seven weeks have been so filled with other to-dos, something had to give. I don’t know why I forget every year, until March arrives, that spring is just as frenetic as fall. Unrealistic optimism?

Our family fit in a 10-day vacation during the last half of March, an epic driving trip to Savannah, Georgia, to visit Louisa, who is nearly done with her first year of studying at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). In our typical fashion, we packed the itinerary with sightseeing, delicious food and lots of walking, which helped balance the food intake.

Elias, Seb, Louisa and Steve at Montgomery Hall, the SCAD animation building.The itinerary also included a few stops related to my book project and my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs—at this point, my kids would probably be shocked if we took a trip that did not relate in some way to G. Oliver.

Highlights on the drive down and back included visiting friends in Nashville and Kansas City, having barbecue with Steve’s cousin and his wife in Memphis, and visiting the Andersonville National Historic Site, where G. Oliver performed a sacred concert in 1906 as a member of the 51st Iowa Regimental Band. 

The Iowa Monument in the Andersonville cemetery.We all had a blast, but toward the end, Elias did ask, “Can we ever take a vacation where we just relax?”

Steve’s quick response: “No.”

I thought April might be better, but I was deluding myself. Steve has been in rehearsals for the Northfield Arts Guild’s production of Oliver!, which just wrapped up its successful three-weekend run last night. Sebastian has been in rehearsals for As You Like It, which opens on Thursday at Northfield High School, and he has been busy with high school speech, band, jazz band and choir events. Elias is playing on the middle school tennis team, and until his match last Thursday in Lakeville, he and his doubles partner were undefeated.

As for me, I have been busy with writing and writing-related activities. Along with 12,000 other people from around the country, I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference April 9-11 in Minneapolis. The panel discussions were inspiring, and it was invigorating to be amid so many writers, editors, publishers and others who share a passion for writing and literature.


In mid-March I received a $2,500 emerging artist grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council (SEMAC) for my book project. As part of the grant, this month I have started sending draft chapters of my book to my friend/teacher/mentor Kate Hopper. Of the planned 25 chapters, I have completed the first five, plus the prologue and two other chapters.

The grant requires that I organize a public capstone event as part of my project. I will provide more details later, but if you want to put it on your calendar now, it is set for Monday, Nov. 23, which is the Monday before Thanksgiving (this year Thanksgiving happens to fall on G. Oliver’s 145th birthday). I will give two presentations, one at 3:15 p.m. at the Northfield Retirement Center and one at 7 p.m. at the Northfield Senior Center. I will read from my book in progress and show photos, and it should be great fun!

My goal this month is to complete four new chapters, so I need to get busy. I will be returning to Faith’s Lodge in Wisconsin in mid-May for another Kate-led writing retreat, and I am looking forward to an inspiring and productive weekend.

I may find some more time for blogging, too. But my priority at the moment is to keep up the momentum with the chapter writing. Now that the weather is nice, you are likely to find me writing on the back porch. Stop by if you are in the neighborhood! I can give you a tour of all the cool boulders and landscaping we had done last spring, just in time for Louisa’s graduation party.
Categories: Citizens

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