"Your Grandfather killed hisself, I don't know if you know this or what you have been told, but your momma run off with a nigger, that's why he killed hisself, that's what I have been told." A descendant of my family told me in his home.
Those were the words that punctuated the smoke filled but quaint house that a man that knew my entire family told me. Instead of embarrassing him with my own racial background, I decided to leave the out the fact that the "Nigger" he referred to was my father who now resides in Dayton, Ohio. This man and wife knew my Grandfather, his brothers, his sisters and most of my extended family, even after all the years of hard physical labor and fading family memories. The flame of anger over the ever constant racially charged commentary on my mother's side is becoming ever more apparent, with every word spoken.
Anger of the racially charged conversation quickly dissipated as I listened to such an amazing and equaly tragic story of my family's deepest ties with sharp, angular and foreboding mountains, Tennesee and eachother.I learned of my Great Uncle Sam Jr's battle with women and booze that eventually landed him in a mental hospital where he was reportedly able to "escape" with impunity, however, he passed from old age in the mental hospital itself.
Sam Jr. scared my grandmother and her children (Including my mother) so much, my grandfather Willard had to comeback from Dayton where he found work as a contractor building houses. My grandmother Gladys sold her cows,and walked over 2 miles to a bus station where he met Willard. Together, they traveled to Cincinnati together, as a family, once again. It has been confirmed that all their children (including my birthmother) on a Greyhound bus.
"Back in those days, not like today, when you had a family, you WORKED to support them." This man told me. He himself worked in Cincinnati for 22 years on the Norfolk Southern line. His aged skin and deep stare showed the years of hard work that only physical labor can impress upon the human body. "All of your kinfolk are HARD workers,that's how we had to survive in the mountains, there was no work here". This descendant reminisced on working on his father's (My great Grandfather) farm all summer long to survive the long winters. "We had two pigs and momma canned all the berries we picked". My family are survivor's.
This man, while an open racist, was a kind sensitive host. His hard eyes showed a streak of caring and love that one cannot hide. I can EASILY see him being my grandfather teaching the city boy how to till or take care of cows. I could see him telling me more stories about my grandfather that I have yearned to hear since I was the tender but violent age of 10. My descendant took me through his home and showed us oil lamps they used on cold, hard winter nights when electricity wasn't available. This was hard country and there was absolutely no way not to admire my family's resiliance to the harsh living conditions in the mountains as children.
After 3 hours of conversation about the TRUE story of my family was narrarated to me, I saw the sun falling behind the trees. Sadly, I stood up and told my distant family that I had to leave. I wanted to stay all daylong and listen to more stories of my family's past. My family descendant took me by the arm and walked with me outside. "That was Willard's land, he built that barn all by hisself, and his house was right across the street". He said, one hand pointed out into the lush, green distance, his over hand covering his faded eyes from the bright, southern sun.
In a brilliant flash, I realized what I must do. I had to confront this nightmare where it first began and that was by seeing the place that bore so many children is a drunken, racist and violent environment." Ya'll are more then welcome to go down and see the area, it's just yonder". In fact, my descendant told me he would be more then happy to see us again and even stay on his property if we wished. This, while amazing, was very telling of my bloodline. No matter what, our family has stuck together in a loose, but supportive net throughout the years. I was honored to be asked to come back, regardless of my family's racial views.
Without another word, we hopped in the car and drove down the road to where my own grandfather built his barn. I stopped the car and felt immediately calm. Much calmer than I have in many years. Crickets and other insects chirped and as I closed the car door I could smell the sweet smell of plants and flowers. It is no wonder my family loved this land, it was beautiful. Slowly I creeped forward in the overgrown grass and thickets, trying to avoid sticker bushes and snakes. Every step closer to this broken down barn was a telling tribute to the long, painful and sometimes lonely quest to find this place.
I found the barn, broken down and covered completely in weeds and overgrown bushes. This was a ghost of a time that set the gears forward for many broken lives. This barn signified both the madness in my family and it's determination to survive. This barn, to me, was more than just a barn. It was quite literally my connection to the world. This was a physical object that I could actually touch.
As I placed my hand on the very worn, wood I imagined my grandfather with two large nails in his mouth,pounding away with a hammer on the same piece of wood that I am touching now. I imagine the sound of hammer reports echoing through the hills as my birthmother sat, playing with her brothers and sisters trying to stay cool in the Tennessee sun. Then I spotted it. A bottle.
Yet again, another testament to the madness in my family bloodline. A single bottle covered in dustand dirt on the floor. this was an old bottle of whiskey with some content still in it. It looked as if had been there for 30 years. I stood still as a bug crawled on my neck gazing at this reminder of my own battles with addition. Smacking the back of neck, hoping to kill the insect I looked around the interior of the corroded barn and saw a bed spring and a mattress. I wonder how many nights Willard or my great uncle Samuel slept off booze fueled rampages. I can only imagine how many stories this rusted and grimy mattress could tell me.
I walked across the street into a pasture where a house once stood. This house was my birthmother's home. Long since destroyed, I searched for remnants of the home, but overgrown grass and the assurance of snakes kept me from investigating to deep into the ground. I did, however find the depression where the house once stood. I stood in the field and without any particular emotion running through my head, I reflected on my arduous journey. How far I have come to stand in an empty field trying to imagine this place in the 1940's. My journey was over. I wasn't going to learn any more than I already had, and I wasn't going to feel anything new here. It was time to say goodbye to the family members that were stolen from me before I had a chance to know them.
I walked back up the path to the car, just as my own family did 70 years ago. I felt both oddly alive and subjectively numb at the same time.
My great grandfather built the oldest church in Sunbright with his bare hands. It was torn down and rebuilt. He and his wife, Minnie, however are buried there, along with my Great Uncle and other relatives (Including a great niece and great nephew that died as children). I took out my notebook and for the first time in my life, I wrote to the family I never really got to know and even if I would have,most likely not understood them. "AFNF" I wrote. Then, I wrote about how I wished I got to meet them,that regardless of how we got to where we were, here we were together. I wrote about how our roots are shared through common suffering, tragedy, victories and losses. Our roots cannot be taken away from us and together we are linked.
I placed my note into a bag, weighed it down with rocks and placed it at their headstone. I stood for a moment lost in the dizzying amount of information that I received. Both relieved that I finally had a viable story of my family history and saddened by the fact that a cold, grey headstone was all that I had to cling to. No memories, no visual references to these people that I wished I could see.Just a cold headstone in a no name town in the middle of the mountains.
My adoption stole my family and destroyed a link for over 30 years that led me down a path of personal desctruction that I speak about daily to O.F.A.A.T. clients and and lectures when I am permitted the honor. My trip to Sunbright, Tenn taught me something about not only my adoption but my family roots and how they have affected me.
Through the mental madness, the abuse of drugs and alcohol, racism and violence that has plagued my family I came to understand something much greater.
This place is just a town, my family like many, many others. The places I have visited, the tears that I have shed and the stories that I have been told doesn't change anything. The stories that I have been told, the headstones I have seen and the endless phone calls won't fundamentally change me anymore then walking down a path my grandfather did. None of these things has made me the way I am, I just have a better understanding of WHY I am the way I am.
These stories wouldn't have changed the way I killed the animals I did, none of these family members would have stopped me from drinking and driving, hurting others or trying to end my own life multiple times. These are simply stories and nothing more.
The fact that my own birthmother cursed me after she met me and tried to hide the reality of what my family was doesn't matter either.
What does matter is the fact that I have walked many, many roads in my life with my battle with not only my adoption but Reactive Attachment Disorder as well. Just as I have walked the same path my family did, I didn't do it their shoes, just as they haven't walked the road in mine. I won't find closure in chasing ghosts that never knew me, and even if they did, they would hate the fact that I of mixed race. Would I be just as accepted as I am of them? No one really knows, do they??
So today, I am sitting in my apartment looking at so many pictures and today I am rejoicing the fact that I have come to the realization that while I share my families history, I am not bound to repeat it.
A Family Never Forgets