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Matriarch retains genealogical details

November 30, 2009 12:36 am


Madeline Curtis shares pictures of her ancestors, most of whom lived in Partlow. She can recite their birth dates, wedding dates and other biographical facts. lo1127curtis2.jpg

Curtis keeps photos of the 'three men in her life' framed together: husband Robert, son Thomas Rodney Curtis and brother Thomas Aubrey Payne. lo1127curtis4.jpg

Madeline Curtis' parents, Mary and Aubrey Payne. lo1127curtis5.jpg

LEFT: Curtis' parents, Mary and Aubrey Payne. lo1127curtis1.jpg

Madeline Curtis, 92, recounts stories about her ancestors in her Partlow home. She remembers all sorts of details about family members past and present. As a girl she used to ask her grandparents questions about the family.


Ask Madeline Curtis about anybody in her family--from Civil War ancestors to her great-grandchildren who get off the bus at her house--and prepare to be amazed.

Curtis--who turns 93 Wednesday--knows almost every detail imaginable.

About those who came before her, she can recite who married whom, when and where, and what the bride wore--down to the color of trim on her gown and the flowers on her hat.

And where the couple had their wedding photo taken.

And the bride's middle, maiden and married names.

"She has people calling her all the time," said Vernon Acors, whose grandmother was the sister of Curtis' mother. "There's nobody who knows genealogy like she does."

Curtis, who pronounces her first name Mad-uh-leen, says her memory's not that keen anymore, that she can barely remember what she did last week.

Don't be fooled.

Her two great-grandchildren, Thomas Jay and Maycen Alexis Heflin, are 13 and 8. Without taking a breath, Curtis rattles off details of their lives, for instance that Thomas played football last season and is now into wrestling. She loves to see him eat because he seems to enjoy it so much.

She cooks regularly for him as well as for her son, who comes by for dinner, and for others on special occasions. Just last week she made a lemon meringue pie for her daughter and a cherry one for a friend; their birthdays were the same day.

Without skipping a beat, Curtis talks about her other great-grandchild, Maycen, who reads two grade levels above her age.

"I'd like to think she got that from me," brags her great-grandmother, who also likes to have her nose in a book.

Then Curtis continues: "Her birthday is the 24th of October, and I don't know who her teacher is this year, but she had Mrs. [Ann] Dickinson last year."

Any more questions?


Virginia Madeline Payne grew up in Partlow in southern Spotsylvania County, across the road from the rambler that has been her home for almost 50 years.

Lots of relatives lived nearby, but she was particularly close to her Payne grandparents, Samuel and Amanda Payne.

She was one of 26 grandchildren in the family, and her grandmother--her "Big Ma"--loved Sunday gatherings with the whole clan.

"She used to tell us a lot of stories, and I used to ask so many questions," Curtis said.

Clearly, she remembered the answers.

As she reached into a shoe box that contained six or seven generations of family photos, she pulled out an image of a soldier who lived long ago.

"This is my mama's uncle, he fought in the Civil War," she said, holding his photo against her face. "He was at Appomattox for the surrender, and then he walked all the way from there to Caroline County."

When asked his name, she responded in typical fashion by giving his whole name: William Wirtley Durrett.


Curtis pulled out a photo of a kid she used to call Curly Top. That was Vernon Acors, who lives down the road from her.

She fumbled for another picture and held up one of two servicemen.

"Know who that is?" she asked Acors, handing him the image.

He squinted for a better look. "I believe that is my daddy."

"I know it is," Curtis said. "He was my first cousin. I kept him the day his mother was buried. He was 2, and I was 9."

Acors' father's mother died giving birth to her 12th child, and Curtis' mother, Mary Virginia, took all the children to raise as her own. It broke her mother's heart, Curtis recalled, to see her sister's children deal with such a loss.

One day, Acors' father asked Curtis what his mother looked like. Even though Curtis was a child when she died, she still remembered her beautiful locks.

"She had the prettiest hair," Curtis said. "That's where they get their curly hair from. Mama's hair was straight as a poker, and so is mine."


Curtis is the oldest member of Waller's Baptist Church, and one of seven Payne grandchildren still alive.

Like her "Big Ma," she likes her family close. Of her two children, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, all live within three miles of her except one grandson in Richmond.

Still, it has been hard to watch so many loved ones go before her. Her husband, Robert, died in 1970, and she never remarried, although she did have a boyfriend.

"He died 10 years ago, on his son's 20th birthday," she said.

Curtis' husband, who served in World War II, was more deliberate and laid-back than Curtis.

"I used to tell him, 'How you ever followed General Patton across Europe is beyond me,' " she said.

Curtis never wasted a moment. If there was a chore to do, be it wallpapering a room or painting the whole house, she took care of it.

"If you have anything to do, you do it so you'll have it behind you," she said.

Curtis said she has slowed as the years have passed. She doesn't drive anymore because people seem to be in such a hurry, and she's not sure she can move fast enough for them.

But she still cooks and cleans, and she's always ready to share a family story or to listen to someone going through tough times.

On a recent night, one of her younger cousins stopped by. Leigh Goodwin recently moved back to Spotsylvania, and she enjoys visits with Curtis despite their age difference.

"She's not only a relative, she's one of my dearest friends," Goodwin said. "I can tell her anything in the world, and she usually has some pretty sound advice."

And, of course, she can ask Curtis any question about her family's past.

"She's the matriarch of the Payne family," Goodwin said. "Just about everybody in the family has picked her brain for the history."

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

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