Who were these people who came before me? Who were the ones who made the sacrifices and contributions that make my life one of more ease and opportunity than what they experienced? I’m pondering these things and much, much more, probably because of some books I’ve recently read.  Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson is one of them. The other is Finding Oprah’s Roots: Finding Your Own by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Both of them have reminded me of the importance of the past in shaping the future.

No matter where we are in life, we’re the embodiment of all that’s come before.  The talents, aptitudes, noses, eye color, finger length, personality quirks, predispositions to certain diseases and disorders, and even longevity are influenced by DNA. We’re influenced by the past, and we of today will influence the future. My daughter Elizabeth says she can see her own father looking at her from her niece Emma’s blue eyes. Two-month old Olivia has an easy disposition like both of her parents. I hope she’ll be as sunny as Amanda, her mom.

Who are/were my people? Where did they come from, and how did they end up in the American South? Were my grandmothers and great grandmothers happy, morose, flighty, musical, well-adjusted, beautiful, or what?  How did they spend their days? Were they good cooks? My father’s mother, Beatrice, lost a child to scarlet fever when he was about 3 years old, and although I heard this alluded to, it was never really discussed. I know her heart must have been broken, and that although she lived well into her 80’s, she never forgot little Neil. Neither, I suspect, did my grandfather. In fact, I feel certain that his untimely death (an overused phrase but perfect in this situation) affected my father and his sister Polly too. What would it be like to live in the shadow of such a loss?

One of my grandfathers managed a store, sort of a small grocery story, in an area known as Dusty Bend. It’s at the north end of Camden. I’m currently remembering the big glass jars of candy and the cold chest where ice cream sandwiches were kept. My paternal grandfather worked for the railroad although I don’t know in what capacity…or even what that means (working for the railroad). I do know that the family moved a lot and that my father seldom finished a year at one school before being uprooted and moved to another town and another school. Is that why he was so quiet, so taciturn?

My maternal grandmother was somewhat of an enigma to me. She loved us all, and yet she made no bones about it: my brother Mike was her favorite. I don’t remember any of us feeling slighted or hurt by this. I knew she was partial to little boys because she often said so. Her preference for male children must have been a family thing since her own parents named her Mary John. They wanted another boy, pure and simple.

I’ve spent 30 minutes scratching the surface of what’s there (in my mind), and I’m looking forward to retrieving more memories in my quest to better link the past to the present. Realizing my limitations, I’m going to visit my aunt Polly in a little while. My father’s sister, she tells great stories and is a treasure trove of information.

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