, Muskogee, OK

February 24, 2014

Portraits of life

Woman's home a showcase for family photos

By M.J. Van Deventer
Times Correspondent

— For the past decade, a wheelchair has been Ramona Sheffield’s constant companion.

“I see now the wheelchair was a gift,” Sheffield said.

A mysterious illness plagued her health 18 years ago and she retired from the mental health field. Numerous tests indicated multiple sclerosis. Recent tests suggest a hereditary disease.

It affects her balance but has not slowed her pace or her zest for living.

Her wheelchair has given her a pulpit to encourage people not to let their disabilities keep them from serving others. For Sheffield, that service is helping her family every way possible.

On days when her wheelchair seems a bit confining, she finds comfort in an old African proverb: “Smooth seas do not make good sailors.”

Sheffield finds comfort in her family as well as through genealogy and photos.

When Sheffield found an old photograph of her great-grandfather taken while he was preaching a sermon, she was ecstatic. Soon, she found an heirloom photograph of her grandmother when she was a 20-year-old bride. Then she found a pipe her grandfather had smoked.

It didn’t take long for Sheffield to envision a family wall that would pay tribute to her parents, grandparents, her three children and five grandchildren. Less than a year after her interest in family history was sparked, three walls of her charming home are dedicated to family photographs and long-forgotten heirlooms. Now, three hallways vividly portray the photo stories of Ramona’s family.

Unlike some genealogy buffs who start their ancestral scavenger hunt online, Sheffield scoured the home of her 89-year-old father as he prepared to move from Vian to Fort Gibson to live with Sheffield last May.

She already knew much history about her family.

“I have a cousin who is a Mormon, and she had thoroughly researched our family history,” Sheffield said. “She gave me a 1,400-page notebook about our family generations several years ago.”

That 3-inch-thick volume reveals, Sheffield said, “that we have royalty, horse thieves and slave owners in our family.”

It was the rooms of her father’s home that yielded the mother lode of family history. Sheffield found a gold mine within those walls. Among the treasures are her mother’s priceless ivory hair pin, a tiny photo of her maternal father now preserved in a silver frame and a portrait of her sister, who died at age 7. On that wall, each photo is devoted to her parents, siblings or grandparents.

When that wall was filled, she began hanging portraits on two facing walls near the home’s entry. There, she placed portraits — formal and informal — of her children: James Wagner, a landlord and mechanic in Muskogee; Sara Forhetz, a TV anchor in Springfield, Mo.; and Rachael Herrington, a psychologist in Springfield.

The most recent addition to the family gallery is a beautiful color portrait of her 18-year-old granddaughter, Chloe Wagner, a senior honor student at Fort Gibson High School who lives part-time with Sheffield.

The next addition to the wall-size family album will be a photo of her father when he was a baby wearing overalls. She recently found those overalls and is creating a shadow box to display them in.

“Those overalls and that photo were the greatest find,” she says. “I hadn’t thought about that photograph for 37 years.”

The family walls are more important to Sheffield than just a place to display memorable photos.

“They remind me how lucky I am to have come from a Christian family,” she said.

Meet Ramona Sheffield

CAREER: Mental health, including 14 years as a counselor for Muskogee Public Schools.

EDUCATION: 1970 graduate of Vian High School; Southwestern State University, home economics degree; Northeastern State University, master’s degree in counseling.

FAMILY: Three children: James Wagner, Sara Forhetz, Rachael Herrington.