Joan Didion famously wrote: “It’s easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends,” but I don’t know. As I waded through my divorce, all I saw was End End End. Myopia is one of suffering’s dirtiest tricks, temporarily stripping us of our ability to imagine a future.Read More
Filtering by Category: Family history
I think of it like fingerprinting—fingerprinting for someone’s being-in-the-world.
Anybody can do it. Perhaps the best place to start is with those closest to us. I have three sisters: one with laser intellect able to bless or zero you through her eyes; another with a Phoenix-like power, able to sacrifice her body and make it rise again; and a third with a charisma spoken right from the heart, which effects everyone it touches like pixie-dust.
Then again, it’s a practiced art. Think of the teachers who first name it for us, who watch hundreds of students parade through their classrooms, but who turn to us and name it, the thing in us that we grasp onto and say, “I am __________.”
The “thing in us” that I’m talking about is something akin to the Native American term “medicine,” though that concept is larger and more powerful still, a concept about which I’m not qualified to speak. Humbly, though, I’d still like to borrow this term “medicine,” a term that speaks to one’s powerful effect on the world, an outworking of an individual’s internal qualities.
To name someone else’s medicine takes intimate knowledge or just careful observation plus language, which is why it is so often the domain of teachers or writers. Language undoubtedly plays a role in understanding these things, in “unlocking” them, to tie into the language of self-help, which for my money flattens the concept. In naming a person’s medicine, we cause those qualities to be, we bring them forward from the chaos of personality and give them being that they might be wielded in the world.
In writing terms, to name someone’s medicine is creative nonfiction’s version of characterization, except it’s naming what’s already there. Actually, then, it’s more like simple exposition: naming the power that inheres in a person that is their driving force in the world. Naming someone’s medicine, and knitting various people with their various medicines together, surely transforms the world into a place of possibility.
It’s a skill we could stand to cultivate. Another easy place to start is with the famous. Muhammad Ali’s self-characterization, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” only captures one aspect of his powerful medicine, one that both continues to ripple in the world and of which we now feel the loss. Currently, I’m spellbound by the wood elf mischief of the basketball player Steph Curry: elusive, playful, masterful.
But mostly, I think, we should look at the people right around us, to name the medicine in the lady we otherwise might look past, in the fellow who has no beauty that we should desire him. There might even be prophetic insight or balm for the world in the act. How much medicine is lost on the world because there is no one to name it?
It’s hard writing about the salty Gulf Coast without the taste of fried biscuits in Mendenhall, Mississippi, or the hypnotic curves of rice paddies in southeast Arkansas, the lonely cotton gins and weathered Baptist churches that survive calamitous storms year after year. Before we can throw our bodies into the roiling sea, there’s a rite of passage we must traverse. It takes nine-and-a-half hours to drive from Little Rock to Orange Beach. Nine-and-a-half hours of poverty and the whims of commodity crop economics. It used to be cotton and rice. Now it’s GMO corn and soy. “You can’t even eat that corn,” my mom would say. A black cloud of starlings shoots past us. “I know, it all goes to the cows outside Denver,” I would reply. Dollar General replaced the mom-and-pop small town shops, and now even those soul-starved places are empty, only to be filled by storefront churches promising salvation by the highway. One sign reads Just Church. Fast food wrappers skitter along asphalt and half-smashed snakes. Upturned armadillos try to hold up the sky with their stubby legs. Meanwhile, kudzu swallows up longleaf pines and the lives that depend on them, and the forest turns into a tomb, encased by this foreign, medicinal vine only Agent Orange could knock out. The roadside greenbelt looks more like a freak show displaying storybook monsters frozen in time – their movements, their joys, their battles all swallowed up by this relentless vine. I don’t care how medicinal it is and what the rumors are for curing cancer. That vine is killing the forests.
We drive and drive through one small southern hamlet after another. We look for the places where the good bathrooms are. Lake Providence. Hattiesburg. We pass the HoJo where my parents stayed on their way to New Orleans for their honeymoon. I casually mention that I’ve never tried boiled peanuts. My husband shakes his head and exclaims, “You’ve never tried boiled peanuts!” We stop at the first roadside sign—just a piece of cardboard and the words, Boiled Peanuts, written in black marker. A round man in overalls scoops them out of a steaming metal barrel next to his pickup truck. I hold the heavy brown paper bag between my legs and feel the warmth radiate through my thighs. The slippery peanuts taste like what they actually are, legumes, and this feels right. I can’t finish the whole bag. I can’t write about the ocean without covering the ground leading there. Those peanuts and disenfranchised farming dreams. We cross five hundred hardscrabble miles for the promise of beach paradise at the end of the road. Yes, there is beach litter – cigarette butts, Styrofoam scraps, tampon applicators, and the odd flipper. Tar balls have decreased since the 2010 oil spill. Pelicans, osprey, and gulls act like nothing happened. Some say not to eat the oysters and shrimp, but I can’t resist the flavors holding my childhood together. I walk to the water and dive into a small wave. A school of fish shoots past me, and I know my ashes will be scattered here someday. I know I will return and become part of a swirling gyre of manmade debris and God’s holy mysteries, and that will be fine.
As holidays with my extended family arrive, so does the expectation of playing games. Whether in a pool, in the snow, in a gym, on the floor of a living room, or, especially, at the table. Ah! The evening table game. We’ve played everything from “Awkward Family Photos” to “Risk” to “Tenzi” to “Reverse Charades” to the incredible, mind-bending card game “Killer Bunnies”.
It begins innocently every year. One person suggests altering a rule of a game because of an injustice. It descends quite rapidly. Soon we are borrowing the rules, pieces, boards, dice of any number of games and combining them into one. It is not lightly we alter the rules of games — but we’ve found it’s great fun to create new rules and new games. Especially when hilarious calamity can ensue: a roll of the dice being named after someone despite indignant protestations, a chandelier almost yanked out of a ceiling, a mirror nearly shattered, a dining room table upturned.
This suspension of the imposed order is the epicenter of creativity. We’ve all seen the phenomena of the broken straw in the glass, or the way a shimmying pencil bends. Quickly it is explained. There is nothing to see here, the rules are still in place. The pencil is still the pencil. But doesn’t creativity abound when we marvel at refractions, not define them? Perhaps it is a disservice to the immutable and often, in and of themselves, astounding laws of the physical universe. But give me a three-year-old and a No.2 and I can alter reality.
One game my family has successfully refracted is “War”. There are five pages of new rules; it takes a lot of energy and attention to play it. Our most clever rule is a combination of cards — a straight flush— that will reset the entire game. It’s likelihood explained away by statistics. It was foolish to think this could actually happen, but still we hoped.
It was nearing two am. Three players were left. The other seven of us watched. Nerves were frayed. The game had dragged on. A play of the cards. An almost straight flush. One number off. The ten of us froze before erupting into astonishment and agony —and admittedly gratefulness at such an hour— that it hadn’t happened. And as we resumed our seats around the coffee table, still hemming and hawing about the nearness of such a realized but possibly, now that it had almost happened, stupid rule. The remaining players played their next cards.
It sounds simplistic and obvious if I tell you what happened next.
So remember when you were toddling along unaware, and, then suddenly, in a flash, the rules that govern the universe could make a pencil bend.
My brother-in-law died on Thanksgiving. His death took him away from a suffering that began, in truth, the day his wife died suddenly nine years ago. His wife’s death did not mark a tragic beginning. It was a bookend holding up decades pressed against the day his father drowned trying to save his life in the Spring River.
The news about Mike stunned me for a moment, and then I breathed a little easier. Mike was free. The cancer didn’t get him. That was our biggest fear. Pneumonia eased him into a greater life unburdened by softball-sized tumors and excruciating pain. If vices exist in heaven, he can now drink without becoming an alcoholic. He can smoke without getting cancer. He is made whole. This is what I am to believe as a Christian. That’s good news in my tradition.
Here’s the problem. Now that he’s been relieved of his pain and angst, I’d like him returned back to us, whole and renewed. He’s been dead for over a week. That’s plenty of time to rest. In my book, he’s had a decent break from this messed up world and his broken body.
I never knew Mike before his wife died. I’m told he was a pillar of his community. I don’t need him to be a pillar. I wouldn’t mind if he returned in a cloud of cigarette smoke. I just want to see him restored, free of pain long buried in a riverbed. I need his stories, his expressions, his laughter, and music. I need him to be a brother to my husband and a father to my niece and an uncle to my husband’s children.
When my husband was fighting for his own life in a Seattle hospital a few years ago, I talked Mike out of driving 2,200 miles to break his brother out of ICU. I don’t doubt Mike’s conviction that his little brother was better off in his hands. Now my husband and I are released from our worries. We will no longer wonder about Mike’s mental and physical health. This trade-off feels like a bum deal.
The shape of my husband’s family is made by the endings of family members gone too soon.
I’ve known about death in the pot since I was little. My parents never shielded it from me. Mike’s death is different. It’s uncomfortably fresh. I feel such relief that he is no longer afflicted that I forget he’s dead. And then I remember. And it’s stunning.
A sharp December wind strikes my face as I walk to church on this second Sunday in Advent. I am supposed to be preparing, literally and spiritually. I put my Advent wreath out a week late, and the center candle is missing. I can’t find it anywhere. I should be writing about snow globes and, instead, all I can think of is this ridiculous arrangement I’m forced to consent to. Mike is dead and will not return.
Each year, I celebrate the birth of Jesus without fail. I try, with little success, to block the holiday ads and treacle songs. I try to focus on the raw story of Mary and Joseph and a messy birth in a barn. I imagine what it must have been like to be part of such wonder. It’s hard for me to focus on newborn Jesus right now. I light two candles of my incomplete wreath. At least it has some greenery, I think. I feel selfish. I’m more focused on Mike and his body and spirit made whole so far from our reach.
I know this is magical thinking, wanting Mike to come back as if he’s been away at a cosmic rehab center. But it’s Advent. This is the time of waiting for the unexpected, the miraculous. I am trying my best to prepare, but I can’t even find the dang center candle on Amazon.com. Logic dictates Mike is not returning. This means we will never go fishing on his beloved St. Francis River, nor will he and my husband drink a tallboy in a backwater bar.
Maybe I don’t want what I’ve been taught, at least not right now. He is in a better place. True. That doesn’t change the gaping hole left in our family. It doesn’t alter the fact that my husband lost his only sibling. I don’t want tidy expressions of grief. They are too much like the holiday ads. I need the freedom to be messy in our tangled loss. I’ve got no choice but to wait in the muck and long for impossible things until the longing becomes part of an unforeseeable making. I need permission to want Mike back. He was my husband’s brother.
I find a broken white taper at the bottom of a moving box. It’ll do.
My grandmother was crazy. I stand at her grave in Virginia and know this is true. She was also achingly beautiful. I have seen old photographs from her youth. She is buried next to her parents who loved my mother unconditionally.
My grandmother's grave is near another relative who may also have been crazy. Both women were institutionalized. Both lived during a time when treatment for mental illness bordered torture—or simply was torture—and was certainly a life sentence for disgrace.
My grandmother’s grandmother died of tuberculosis when she was 29. I visited her grave too. My parents and I found her tombstone in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Her name was Elizabeth Whaley, and she lived in the woods near the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River in Tennessee.
We did not intend for our eastern road trip to become an ancestry hunt. One discovery led to another and fed our hunger to piece stories together. My mother found a description online for how to locate her great grandmother’s grave in the national park. She took my father’s arm and used her cane to move rocks from the path. We walked the half-mile, following the edge of a mountain stream lined in yews and rosebay rhododendrons. We found the family cemetery on a rise in the land. A canopy of gold and green leaves shaded the burial ground. We found dozens more relatives. The weathered tombstones still bore the Whaley name. I had no idea this cemetery existed. I had no idea there were so many strong mountain people in my family.
I remember my mother saying a few years ago that she had family who were real country.
“What do you mean,” I asked.
“They spent a lot time on their porch,” she said.
I have known for decades about the mental illness in my family. In truth, though, it was my grandmother and another distant relative, Lucy. That is all. The rest of the women share a remarkable trait. They may have been stubborn or fiercely independent, creative or stern or effortlessly generous, but they all seemed fortified by an unshakable strength. This should be the observation I cling to. Yet, I’ve often focused on the two women afflicted by mental illness and how my grandmother’s mental illness led her far away from strength. She was abusive, manipulative, and unpredictable.
A fear has chased me for years. I have worried I may be like my grandmother.
When I told my cousin, Kelly, about my fear, she set her iced tea on the table and pointed her chin down so I could see her eyes over her sunglasses. “You’re kidding, right?” Her disbelief forced me to also laugh at the unlikely prospect, but I still feel this pesky fear. Swirling in my blood is the potential for downward spiral. Even if this were the case, though—even if I did manifest mental illness—we live in a time of improved access to good health care. The stigma is changing. I know these things. What I do not understand is this irrational fear.
My mother brought a Hillary Clinton campaign sign on our road trip. We posed for photographs next to the sign on our way through the Mississippi River delta to the Smokies, into the Appalachians, down into the Piedmont and finally to the Virginia tidewater where my mother learned how to survive her own mother. We talked about the lack of strong female leadership in our culture. “The main problem I see,” she said, “is that women don’t have accessible role models of female leaders who use their feminine energy to lead instead of trying to act and dress like men.”
She’s right. She’s absolutely right, I think to myself.
My mother grew up at the confluence of the Mataponi and Pamunkey rivers. She lived on a peninsula and could walk from her house to the water’s edge. Sometimes she found fragments of peace pipes exposed by lapping waves. Her grandparents farmed across the Mataponi, and she would walk the land with her grandfather on Sundays.
While crossing the bridge toward the farm, I asked, “Did you ever swim across the river to your grandparent’s house?”
“No,” she said in a wistful tone.
While driving across North Carolina, I learned about my mother’s first job after she graduated from medical school. She worked for the state health department. “I rode around in a mobile clinic, kind of like an RV, and administered IUDs and handed out birth control pills and gave women pelvic exams in small towns near Memphis.”
“Really,” I asked.
“Yep. I called it my sex-mobile. The driver was Roman Catholic, but she never said a word because she needed the job.”
I wish there was a photograph of my mother and her sex-mobile.
I took photographs of my mother standing next to her great grandmother’s grave in the national park. Elizabeth Whaley’s son was five years old when she died. He would live in the Tennessee wildness until the U.S. government forced the Whaleys out in the 1930s. He would marry Annie, and they would have a daughter, Florence, who would be my grandmother one day. My mother and I share the same name. It formed by combining my mother’s grandparent’s names together: Joe and Annie became Joanna. My mother’s relatives would worry for her safety as a child. My mother does not know that I know this.
At my grandmother’s cemetery, I found Lucy’s name nearby. Her tombstone was practically hidden by a bush and covered in leaves. I snapped branches and used a twig to dig dirt out of Lucy’s name. I do not know if Lucy was actually crazy or if she was sent away to an asylum for other reasons. Perhaps she showed signs for strong feminine energy, and her family did not know what to do with her. Maybe she really was ill.
I sit here on my porch in the Arkansas Ozarks. It has been a week since we returned from our eastern road trip. Oak leaves drop at my feet. There are hundreds of lifeless leaves covering the ground. I am only beginning to learn the stories in the land. The leaves remind me of the smallness of my worry. My fear is not remarkable. It is a shape amongst hundreds of shapes. What is remarkable is my mother emerging from her childhood, scraped and wounded, full of resilience.
At my grandmother’s cemetery, I take a photograph of my mother standing next to her grandparent’s grave. She sets her cane aside and leans against the stone. The look on her face is of vulnerability, gratitude, and unshakable strength. I want what she has.