“The past is never dead. It’s not even past. All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born.”William Faulkner
One sharp pain. One utterance of surprise. Oh. He leaves no great philosophies. There are no medals, no headstone. Only a few strings left attached to this world. Letters in government files The sacrifice a mother makes to prove her relation to the boy whose life is opened up on paper for a pension she is denied. Is it invasion to hang on their every word -- the words of intimacy and filial love in these letters? I am his family too and he is mine. These strings scribbled on cheap, creased stationery little ways of knowing a great deal (though I knew him without knowing it all my life ). Apologizing for his handwriting and blaming his pen. Butter from a country doctor as he sits in a hospital bed. No letters from home yet. Despair in one string, bravado in another; A book sent home to remember him by and I'm a tuff buck now. Have brother plant these pair seeds They be big as a fist and From Vermont. He spells as he spoke: haint, dast, Upstate I be The book cost me dear. The last string of words money sent home for mother's new house never be afraid to ask, I gladly go without. He is my muse and my relation All these years later a picture is found and we look the same. I've known him and I have no doubts. Never question God's creative force, or His happy coincidences. The heavens open sometimes and the saints speak and pray -- happy for reunion.
Yet we are courageous, and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord.2 Corinthians 5:8
For Further Reading:
“They said in the D.A.R.E. class that since my real mother did drugs Then I probably would too.”
(D.A.R.E. is the anti-drug class taught in many public schools in the U.S.)
This is why too much information given to children may sometimes be a bad thing. Our newly adopted daughter is only mildly intellectually disabled which really means that she seems “normal” until you realize that everything you say to her she takes literally. Some of you may remember the funny antics of Amelia Bedelia the main character of the children’s book series who constantly mixed up things like steaks and stakes.
In real life the concrete thinking goes more like this: My real mom does drugs and smokes. Therefore I will do the same by begging other students through email on my Chrome book during class to let me vape with them. I will side with the devil and really believe that there is a tiny devil on my shoulder. I will then say I had to try since my mother did and the people teaching the DARE class said I would.
(once my husband caught her bringing to school an inappropriate note. The body parts mentioned in the note were spelled wrong. my husband sarcastically told her to ask her teachers the next time about the spelling — and so she did the next day).
Anyway, it made me think about how our parents affect us. Sometimes we like to blame parents for everything — I think this is a trap to keep us from reaching our full potential –and sometimes we neglect looking back in gratitude for some of the better traits they’ve passed down to us.
With the holidays in full swing most of us are probably thinking a lot about family memories — the good and bad. Or maybe we are dreading seeing parents over the holidays …
Lately I’ve been getting deep into my genealogy and wondering which strands of DNA have been passed down to me. Am I more like the stoic and heroic men and women on my mother’s Dutch/English side of the tree or more like my father’s Irish side with its sentimental streak and love of the underdog? Am I fearful of the neighbors because of the peasant blood of my father? Am I rebellious when it comes to religion because my great grandfathers were all seekers?
On both sides of my family is a deep love for humanity and storytelling and for those things I am truly grateful — fear and self-loathing, not so much.
Now what about you? What family traits are you most proud of and which would you rather were tossed a few generations back?
Please let us know in the comments. It may be cathartic. LOL.
Yes, it’s a little too soon, but I wanted to offer all of you wonderful writers an opportunity to promote yourselves here in the next few months. 🙂
AUTHOR PROMOTION in two ways:
I’m hoping to do a holiday edition of Family Histories. Those of you who participated in the past are welcome to submit another piece relating to history and/or family in some way. Don’t be shy either. The more the merrier when it comes to promoting our fellow writers! For those who didn’t submit in the past, the basic “rules” are that there are no rules (okay, do I need to say no monster porn?). Whatever comes to mind when you put the words FAMILY and HISTORY together (while keeping holidays in mind as well).
This is a good place to promote any books you may have written (or are in the process of writing) and your blog writing too.
I’ll accept work up until December 15th. (we can talk about exceptions if you’re interested).
2. Author Interviews
If you have written books (or are writing a book) that in some way involves history (historical fiction, family history, human history, poetry about history, the history of your blind date last week — you get the point), then I’d love to feature you here!
I’m not going to reinvent the wheel on this one so the deal is that you pick 5-10 questions on this excellent LIST to answer at your convenience. Send me your answers, any promotional material you want to share, and links to social media.
This is an open invitation with no deadlines, but I will work with you if you have a special release date or something.
***BTW, I have a few books out and certainly wouldn’t turn down any interviews 😉
Please share the love on this because it’s so fun to see what others are up to!
A Dead Civil War Soldier
Waldo Potter was a cousin of mine who perished on the battlefield the day before Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. It was only the beginning of April and in Upstate New York where his family awaited news of his whereabouts the earth was still barren of color and cold. Taylor, the little Cortland town he hailed from, had already lost at least one other young man to the war who was also a cousin of mine.
I wonder if snow topped the soft mountains or if spring plowing had begun. Had the cows had calves yet? For on Waldo’s enlistment papers it says he was a farmer and 19 years old. The papers tell me he was fair-skinned and blue-eyed. His hair was dark and he stood at 5 feet 9 inches.
New York provided 400,000–460,000 men during the war, nearly 21% of all the men in the state and more than half of those under the age of 30. The average age of the New York soldiers was 25 years, 7 months, although many younger men and boys may have lied about their age in order to enlist. Wikipedia
By the time Waldo’s parents received word that their son would not be coming home the war had ended and Lincoln had been killed. The short note from the artillery lieutenant explained that Waldo had been wounded on the battlefield near Farmville, Virginia in one of the final engagements against Lee’s army. He had died a day later and been buried in a marked grave on the Brooks Plantation — a place that would have meant nothing to Waldo’s grieving family. The lieutenant wrote that he’d been a good soldier and friend.
POPLAR GROVE NATIONAL CEMETERY
I’d wondered why he had not been buried in Taylor with his family. When the war was truly over crews of men were sent out to gather the dead to be brought to national cemeteries where many of their identities would be lost.
“About 100 men comprised the “burial corps.” With ten army wagons, forty mules, and 12 saddle horses, these men began their search and recovery mission. One observer noted “a hundred men were deployed in a line a yard apart, each examining half a yard of ground on both sides as they proceeded. Thus was swept a space five hundred yards in breadth . . .In this manner the whole battlefield was to be searched. When a grave was found, the entire line halted until the teams came up and the body was removed. Many graves were marked with stakes, but some were to be discovered only by the disturbed appearance of the ground.” (See below: The Awful Work Begins)
Those in coffins were mostly bones when pulled from the earth. Those in mass shallow graves were in varied stages of decay. Some bodies were missed in thickets. Most bodies never went home.
And all of it gone — the Brooks Plantation, the men, the families with their broken hearts, the memories of young men fighting to end a way of life that none of them had ever encountered. The North that Waldo had left was bleak and beautiful and only for the individuals ready to break their bodies in hard work. I wonder what young Waldo thought as he lay dying on plantation land once worked by slaves. Would he have felt he’d died for the glorious cause of freeing them? Would he have thought nothing at all of slavery as we do today even as we wear clothing made by slave laborers?
No, I will not allow for people to say that all white men are somehow guilty for a thing that they actually ended, if only on one continent. I wonder what cause I would be willing to die for and come up blank.
“Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.
Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the
first just lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray’d hair,
and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?
Then to the second I step—and who are you my child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?
Then to the third—a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you—I think this face is the face of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.” Walt Whitman
Images: Library of Congress
Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.
Today ANNIKA PERRY shares poignant memories of her strong but kind fisherman grandfather.
LOSS OF A PATRIARCH
The humid heat radiates around the room as the bright summer sun glares through the wispy cotton curtains. Sleeping bodies are sprawled on the beds, sheets cast aside or crumpled in a heap. The day has arrived. I lay wide-awake. Just thinking; thinking of the day and trying to feel. Trying to feel anything but hot. How pathetic on this day of all days to concentrate on my own selfish needs. I am alive and can enjoy the beauty of sensation, thought, sight. Yes, I am alive. And where is Morfar?
I remember him alive: his teasing, his laughter, the passionate discussions. The interesting chats about world affairs and events closer to home. The mealtimes that ended up resembling global conferences, punctuated with the occasional clanging thump on the table with his big hand as he emphasised a particular point.
He’d been hard at work for most of his 92 years. Fingers lately swollen and gnarled, but incredibly strong all the same and once in its vice-like grip, my puny fingers didn’t stand a chance. Rue the day the giant crab took Morfar’s thumb in its claw and held. You never had a chance Mr Crab! Morfar’s patience far outlasted yours and sorry, I am sure you were a most delicious dinner – for those who like crustaceans!
Slowly I stand up and pad about the room, take a quick refreshing shower and by six I am dressed in shorts and T-shirt heading outside. The beauty of the day strikes me immediately; it is so quiet, calm and just the right temperature. Everything is sparkling in the brightest clearest hues. The blue sea is still and peaceful. Walking down to the harbour I see a fishing boat heading back in. On many such mornings and many stormy ones too no doubt, Morfar steered his vessel into the harbour. Once he had off-loaded the catch, sorted the nets and cleaned the boat he’d come home for breakfast. Often I would just be awake and at the table munching away on Mormor’s homemade bread and drinking my chocolate milk. All bright and breezy he would come up via the cellar, washing first before greeting me with a teasing “Good Afternoon!” The conversation would be fast and at times incomprehensible as the morning’s catch was discussed; the number of crabs, other fishes, market price. I kept my fingers crossed hoping it had been a good day. After breakfast, as I sauntered to get dressed and ready, Morfar would be out fixing the nets.
I sit down on a bench looking out to the island where he had lived all his life. The blue bridge, which connects the oasis to the neighbouring island, now brings modern life and its opportunities as well as problems that much closer. On the untouched southerly point the rocks ripple in colours of greys and pinks with yellow flowers taking hold in the tiny cracks whilst heathers grow abundantly in the shallow dips, their purple a delicate and beckoning welcome. The two lighthouses guide the way to ships at night. How many times had I climbed those rocks? The same rocks my Mamma grew up on and the same rocks Morfar and his friends clambered.
Wasn’t Morfar just that? A rock: A patriarch to a large family of five children, 19 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren and increasing. He was infinitely wise, but always humbly so. Praise was only offered at one’s peril; unwelcome and brusquely brushed aside and a new topic quickly introduced.
These thoughts are going through my mind this summer morning, as anything else seems too grim in this tranquil haven.
I recall the smell of Mormor’s fresh bread filling the house, as I’d quickly dash downstairs to see if I could scrounge some before lunch. I shudder at the memory of the fish odour in the boat, the sight of crabs in the wooden boxes scrabbling to escape, the sensation of bile in my throat as the fishing boat bobbed slowly but sickeningly in the waves as Morfar hauled up the nets. Ever so slowly it seemed to me. Please hurry up, I’d mutter. He’d looked at me surprised, amused at the thought of rushing the act of fishing. I know I wasn’t a natural sailor, but thank you for showing me your world.
Thank you God for reuniting Mormor and Morfar; thank you for letting them be together again. A thought I cling to for the rest of the day, a phrase repeated by many and the only possibility that brings any sense to this madness. That Morfar is no longer with us. Even now, in black and white, the words are too nonsensical.
Morfar is here. He is at home, just back from the net-making factory after doing some work and having a good chin-wag with the chaps down there during morning coffee. Often he jokingly referred to these friends as ‘babies, well most of them were 20 years younger! Whilst eating the homemade cakes, Morfar would start discussions with “well, chaps, what arewe going to talk about today?” Later at the funeral, these warm kind friends brought me to tears as they spoke with such love of my Morfar.
Resigned that I could not stop the day, I head back to the hotel to get ready. Mundane life continues as we prepare to say farewell.
Outside the heat blasts like a furnace. At least in dresses and shawls, us women don’t swelter too much, the men in suits do, however no one complains.
In near silence we drive to the island, first across the bridge. This time the usual tummy butterflies of excitement fail to greet me, instead heavy dullness crashes onto my heart. Cope with this minute, then the next; that mantra is how I struggle through the day.
The changes on the island are more striking than ever. The newly built houses and marina greet us where before the rolling rocks stretched to the water. The hill up and over to the centre of the island remains the same, as is the tree-lined lane up to Morfar’s house. We pass his house and home. We don’t stop. No, this is all wrong. So wrong. After what feels like an eternity, we finally arrive at the cafe by the old harbour. There is his boat. Not that he has been on it for the past year but it was his. The past tense angers me. Clip-clopping on our high heels we meander along the wooden quay. The sailing boats bobbing rhythmically, children running past playfully, a couple sipping coffee in the shade.
Our dignified group takes a seat in the shade, the choir rehearsing in the cafe adding certain pathos to the day. The café which used to be a net making factory built by my grandmother’s father and where Morfar used to moor the big trawler and off load the nets, all spread along the wooden pier to dry before repair could begin. History, I’m surrounded by living history. Morfar, I know you are no longer with us, but oh, you are so very much all around us, inside us. Never gone.
The silent morning is broken by a few disjointed mournful utterances. Silence dominates. The crying air is deafening. What is there to say? A few practical points are addressed. Toilet stop. Shoes. Where best to sit. Sun? Shade? Then once again silence.
A smart group walks purposefully towards us along the quay and I realise it’s my brother and his family. I see the resolution in my brother’s eyes. I feel it. To get through this day and not to be too emotional or he will crack. I understand.
Memories of our last visit to Morfar and our goodbye come to mind. Leaning against the kitchen counter Morfar once again said goodbye. Just before he had given my son the biggest longest hug. The two of them squeezing each other like there was no tomorrow. My son engulfed by this huge man and his love for his great-grandchild. My son who loved and respected his great-grandfather so much. His ultimate hero. Their greatness and goodness so alike. Holding him out, Morfar looked at my son and my little man returned the warm thoughtful gaze. A farewell hug to last a lifetime. Morfar hugged with me with strength and depth, yet I sensed his inner weakness, his frailty. It was not commented on, but definitely noticeable; his appetite was near non-existent and he seemed in constant pain. Subconsciously I wondered whether we would we see him again – a thought I immediately dismissed.
It was hard leaving him after our wonderful days together. We all had such fun, joviality and laughter and felt closer than ever. A journey of discovery had been undertaken and completed with a quiet resolution. Everything felt right.
The gleaming white church stands on the hill, towering over the park and gardens. The beautiful gardens created by the fishermen over 50 years ago and tended by them and their wives. A few years ago a moment of insanity drove the local council to rip up the fragrant border of pink wild roses and replace it with a plain white picket fence.
I walk towards my three fishermen cousins, who live on the island with their families and were particularly close to Morfar; they are already red-eyed and totally inconsolable. No words are exchanged. Just hugs. Us grandchildren are self-conscious and self-aware in our grief. Looking around I notice Mamma talking warmly to her siblings, father’s friends, to her cousins, sharing tears and hugs. So natural and right. We have a lot to learn.
The bright light outside throws the foyer into a gloomy darkness. Or is it just my soul? We wait. As always we are early. Then it time and the door to the main church opens.
A glorious warm light strikes us and I spot the beams up to the high vaulted ceilings. White and wood. Wood. There he lays in the light wood coffin surrounded by a variety of flowers with the anchor, designed by Mamma ,in white and blue flowers, resting at its feet. The coffin. The reason we are here and yet again I feel anger and a sense of finality.
A single angelic voice radiates around the room and tears at our hearts. The first verse is the serene acappella of ‘Amazing Grace’ then the soft tones of instruments are layered with the voice and finally, the soul-wrenching choir comes in; it is heavenly and moving beyond words. Here is our release. Mamma, at last, cries her heart out. Most are moved to tears and beyond. It is as if the song never wants to end. No, don’t stop, I want to cry out. This is enough. Just let us sit here, listen to this ethereal infinity and feel. Alas the song ends, now we are all shaken to the core.
The service ranges from the everyday to the deeply touching. The talk of Morfar ‘going home’ seems fine the first time. I can relate to the imagery here. But the numerous repetitions drive me to distraction. “He had a lovely warm home,” I want to stand up and shout at the top of my lungs. A home built into the hard granite rocks that he helped blow up and haul by hand up the hill, a white wooden house with lots of steps. He had his chair right where it should be, in front of the TV and don’t you dare come and disturb him now, it’s time for the news. A home he lived in for 67 years. It is his home; rock solid, waiting for him, now so lonely and sad.
At one stage people come to the front and say a few words. At this point I collapse in tears as one of his friends recalls Morfar and some of their good times. He paints such a true picture of the man, his life and vitality that I expect Morfar to walk through the door with a funny teasing comment. Even his grand age becomes the subject of his wit as at lunch one day Morfar commented that he had been told he was now officially the oldest person on the island. As silence descended, everyone was unsure what to add, Morfar filled the gap with a sardonic, “And that is not always a good thing!”
The choir consists mainly of Mamma’s cousins, singing some beautiful songs, some of his favourites and some I remember Mormor singing as she cleaned, baked, cooked.
Suddenly I am at their house, transported away from the church. Mormor bending down to the living room floor and giving it a loud couple of knocks with her knuckles. Ouch, that must have hurt. Morfar downstairs in the cellar, busy with the nets and as usual he’d failed to hear her initial call down the stairs that lunch was ready. She’d asked me to knock on the floor but was unimpressed with my quiet feeble efforts and so had come over to sort the job herself as usual; she was always so efficient and fast in all her actions. After lunch Morfar would lay down on that very same floor, just a cushion under his head and rest for 20 minutes whilst we, the grandchildren, would have fun jumping over him to see if he woke, or reacted at all, but to no avail.
The service is drawing to an end. Despite my earlier inner predictions that someone would faint from heat exhaustion we are all still very much alert.
The night before we had written little notes to place on the coffin. At the time we thought we might feel self-conscious leaving them there, but no, how wrong we were. We walk respectfully past, we all pause for a moment, place our notes carefully under some flowers or ribbons, bid our inner goodbyes.
Soon it is time to leave the church. With resolve my brother and five of my cousins move to the front and take their place by Morfar’s coffin. Eighteen years ago he was one of six to lift Mormor’s coffin onto their shoulders and carry her out to the hearse. Handles this time, but I wonder, what is he feeling? He is never a man to speak easily of emotions, if at all, I am troubled for my brother. He has, literally, had so many burdens to bear.
The bells toll ever so slowly, so mournfully and resonate with sorrow and loss; echoing the moment and all our emotions. Later, we walk towards the grave and see Morfar’s coffin laid out on slats, placed above the hole. My brother once again, along with our cousins, takes the weight of the coffin as the slats are removed and lower it slowly to his final resting place. I know this would soon be it, our final farewell to Morfar.
A few more words are said by the priest – reiterating once again the phrase of ‘going home’, a song is sung and people step forward for one last farewell. I have said mine and so remain back. My brother and his family step forward and I hear a gentle clang. Oh yes, the stone from the island picked by my nephew the day before. How perfect to throw it down and leave forever a fragment of the island with Morfar. Perfect cosmic balance.
I lift my head and gaze across the blue sea with its sparkling dance as ripples of diamond light reflect on the water. There you are Morfar. My eyes move to the rocks and trees. I can feel you Morfar. Quickly I glance up at the sunlit sky. Yes, you are there too. Not in that deep dark hole. Most of all, you will live forever in our hearts. Missing you forever, the earthly human contact now gone and mourned, but you are still here. Reunited with your beloved wife and lifetime companion, reunited with your long-lost parents, seeing your brothers and sisters once again. You are with them as well as with us.
Hope the fishing is good Morfar, catch lots of crabs won’t you and look out for that thumb! Who knows, you might meet your match one day in the form of a very patient huge crab!
Judy Collins – Amazing Grace
Hungry for more? Here is a piece about Annika’s GRANDMOTHER
And another about the FISHERMEN of old.
Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.
This week Luanne Castle discusses how the exploration of family history has enriched her creative life:
By combining a passion for family history with my creative writing, I felt able to—for a brief moment—inhabit the lives of women and men from previous generations and imagine how their stories felt to them.
Family history as done by genealogy buffs only interested in filling in the dates and places of lineal ancestors miss the point. Everybody has ancestors. What becomes fascinating is that by recreating and listening to the stories of previous generations, we learn from the experiences of those who have lived on Earth before us.
Family history is a messy, complicated, and very loose collection of stories bound together with overlaps and gaps and sharing. Those are all the reasons I love it.
And all the reasons that I keep picking at the loose threads, following clues left in documents and photographs, and searching for information to fill in the empty stretches of time—or so it can appear from this angle—of the people who have come before me.
Researching family history is never ending. I’ve been at this for a long time. New information can refine, surprise, or alter what I think I already know. As a writer, this makes my path difficult. There is no moment where I can say to myself, “OK, my research is done. Now I can write.”
Therefore, research has to be done for the sake of the hunt, the rewards fate doles out to me, and an appreciation for the continuous process. In this way, Kin Types is the slim fruit of years of difficult “gardening,” but not the final fruit or the final say.
The following prose poem from Kin Types explores a moment in the life of my great-great-grandfather’s sister, Jennie DeKorn Culver, the custody battle during her divorce.
What Came Between A Woman and Her Duties
14 May 1897
On this Friday, in our fair city of Kalamazoo, Recreation Park refreshment proprietor, John Culver, has applied to the Circuit Court to gain custody of his two young daughters from his divorced wife. The girls currently reside in the Children’s Home. They were accompanied to court by Miss Bradley, the matron of the home.
Mrs. Culver, the divorcée, and the children were represented by J. W. Adams. The father was represented by F.E. Knappen. Mrs. Culver, pale and stern-looking, wore a shirtwaist with tightly ruched collar and generous mutton sleeves. The strain of her situation shows clearly on her visage. In the past, Mrs. Culver has been aided and abetted by her female friends in the art of painting, as an article of 6 February 1895 in this very daily can attest.
A large number of friends of both parties were in the courtroom and heard emotional pleadings on both sides. Judge Buck ascertained that Mrs. Culver is engaged in the pursuit of an honest living at this time and so ordered that the children remain in the mother’s care. She was given six months to bring them home from the orphanage or they will go into the care of their father and his mother. Let us hope that Mrs. Culver can stay away from the easel.
I used articles from the Kalamazoo Gazette, as well as legal documents, to recreate Jennie’s fight for custody of her two daughters. The only documentation I can find that Jennie was an artist is a newspaper article commemorating the gift of an easel to Jennie during the term of her marriage by her female friends.
Finishing Line Press has published my chapbook, Kin Types, a collection of lyric poetry, prose poems, and flash nonfiction that interprets the lives of some forgotten women in history—my own ancestors.
Luanne has been a Fellow at the Center for Ideas and Society at the University of California, Riverside. She studied English, history, and creative writing at UCR (PhD); Western Michigan University (MFA); and the Stanford University writing certificate program. She taught college English for fifteen years. Her scholarly work has been published in academic journals, and she contributed to Twice-Told Children’s Tales: The Influence of Childhood Reading on Writers for Adults, edited by Betty Greenway. Luanne is an amateur genealogist and publishes some of her family history research on the blog thefamilykalamazoo.com.
Winner of the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, Doll God, Luanne Castle’s first collection of poetry, was published by Aldrich Press. Luanne’s poetry and prose have appeared in Phoebe, Six Hens, Story Shack, The Antigonish Review, Crack the Spine, Grist, TAB, River Teeth, Lunch Ticket, The Review Review, and many other journals. Luanne’s 2017 chapbook Kin Types, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, was a semi-finalist in the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Contest.
She divides her time between California and Arizona, where she shares land with a herd of javelina. Her heart belongs to her six cats and the homeless cats at the animal shelter where she volunteers.
Luanne’s sites: THE FAMILY KALAMAZOO
Please come by next Sunday!
Is your world real or imagined?
The other day a distant relation sent me a thick packet with a copy of the history of our family reunions dating all the way back to the late 19th century and a ten page history, written in neat hand, of one branch of my family tree going back to the early 1600’s.
How thrilling it was to finally see a picture of my great-great grandfather Lucien as an old man and to read about the exploits of family members who escaped being scalped by Indians during the Revolutionary War and others who sadly died during the Civil War. My great-great-great-great grandmother was such a fine spinner that wealthy women paid top dollar for her work. Some family members drank too much, others were heroes and still others were exploited as children.
I knew a few of the stories through my mother but most of the history was new—yet as I read it I felt like I knew it all already. There was a satisfaction in reading it but not that sense of surprise I would have expected. My aunt told us of an unsettling dream she had about meeting many past generations in heaven. I remember my father and uncle teasing her about it, scoffing at the notion of heaven and not really wanting to discuss death since that branch tended to die young and they were all in that age window of being taken. My aunt died a few days later.
This sense of knowing the past through dead relatives, of knowing them though never having met them, is so similar to knowing the characters I write about. I’ve never been able to change a thing about a character once they appear in my mind. I’m only able to unearth deeper truths about them. It’s as if they’ve been there all along waiting for their stories to be told, not mine. When the story starts to go in a direction that isn’t true, the characters push back and demand I dig more.
Sometimes I worry that this or that thing may be too much for a reader or my characters to bear, but the characters won’t rest until I put them through the wringer. But am I putting them through the wringer or just transcribing their history? Do they live in another dimension? Will I meet them some day in heaven?
It’s odd to have this knowing and the desire to know more. Occasionally there is also a sense of being pat on the back, as if a character is whispering in my ear. Yes, that’s exactly as it was for me. Those are the best moments. And so strange. After I finish publishing this series about the Crenshaw and Weldon families I may fictionalize my family tree, but I find the line between fiction and reality blurring. I feel Buck Crenshaw and my great grandfather begging me to get things right, but what for?
Readers and writers: How real are your characters to you? How real is your past to you?