Last time dad was up for a visit, my sister and I got into a discussion about dad and Trump and all this, and she was upset. Clearly upset, and confused, she was upset at this, my blog and what I was writing. Not only my writing really, but my writing in regards our father, and if I really thought he was racist? Did I love him?
Now, I’ve covered some of that in previous recent posts, but one thing I’ve hesitated with, is that maybe I needed to go back again and tell our story, the stories of our family and the way we came to be here and not down there, so my readers better understood my background, and my point of view, and how I maybe arrived at it.
So this is that, a short history of how I came to be.
Now, my family roots in America go back into the misty dawning decades, not as far as the Mayflower, but not far off I suspect, as the first (and only) American ancestor I’ve traced back over the pond arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, from Wales, in the 1670s as a bonded servant. The other branches of that side of my tree all get lost back in the middle of that 17th century, with but traces of them I’ve found over the years. We have legends of Native ancestry and I’m even supposed to be a descendant of Black Beard.
I look down yonder over the border, and I see battle lines have been drawn once again, with rallying cries of one side or other established, etched in the hearts and minds, of left or right, good or evil, white hats against the black hats, it’s me or you, no longer just him or her, or even the North vs the South.
While maybe not a physical war, make no mistake, battles are being fought, via social media, news media, from community halls to Main Street U.S.A, a fight for democracy is underway.
But yesterday morning I was reminded of this one particular moment in time when it all sort of hit me.
It was sometime after the election, sometime in the spring 2017, I was busy doing one of those bi-annual (for me) mega cleanings, with the windows open and a crisp breeze washing through my apartment, and at this point I’d finally made my way to the front door to clean off the dirt of the winter.
I’d put on some classical playlist on YouTube, and found myself lost in the uplifting strains of violins and piano, cello, trumpeters resounding, inspiring, soothing, when something familiar began to unfold, so I turned my head to listen. Sitting there on the floor at my front door, a cello, and what is that, I thought?
This version was sung by Alison Krause, with Yo Yo Ma on the Cello, and its beauty brought tears, and those tears streamed down my face, and at that moment I wept, not for the tangible, but the intangible. For something profound and, I don’t know, maybe mythological, something that with the November 2016 election had been lost. There was this story I believed, a tale, a legend of America, lost to the winds of greed and wealth and power, and it was within that moment of clarity that this sorrow overtook me.
This place, this country of my birth, yet somewhere I had only visited as a child, then as a teenager, and grown up and married, and still I didn’t really understand.
Visiting dad’s family, vacations in Florida, Virginia, California, off some interstate highway or other, in motels and hotels, Cracker Barrels, Stuckeys, and whatever roadside attractions we could pester the snot outa dad to visit (only managed 1), my visits were brief and shallow.
If you’ve followed my blog for a while you’re familiar with this, and I don’t know why I was reminded of that this morning, but it came, again, those first strains of the Cello, and the words, and I was reminded of Simple Gifts;
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be freeby Joseph Brackett (1797–1882) in 1848.
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
So I straddle the 49th parallel, as my mom is Canadian and my dads American.
They first met the summer of 1965 when he and his buddy had come up to work tobacco. He was on what was termed at the time an ‘agricultural ticket’, this was during the Vietnam War where men joined up and went into the National Guard, working through the summer, and back to base for the rest of the year.
My dad was born and raised in a small town outside of Greenville, North Carolina, worked tobacco from the time he was 9 years old at his Grandma’s farm. He’d been a difficult child, hyper-active, smart, lippy, and with a mom who tried her best, he was just too much. See, Grandma, his mom, had what we would now term severe anxiety, that in her later years gradually turned into Agoraphobia.
Agoraphobia is basically “fear of the market place”, which means she would have major panic attacks whenever she left the house, and so for the last 40 odd years of her life she rarely ever left their cement block tiny house, ‘cept to maybe with courage welcome us on our arrival from Canada, or to watch with tears in her eyes as we drove away after our 2 week visit.
A good story that kind of sums up my dad’s early childhood is the story he told me at his 70th birthday party, when I asked him about growing up, maybe a story I hadn’t heard before.
Well, maybe it was the beer, or his age, but the story he told, well, ahem.
Anywho, he spent his earlier years in Norfolk, Virginia, and I guess as a 6-year old he would steal neighbourhood bikes and sell them off to this gang in his hood for pocket money.
I kid you not, while other boys were playing games with their friends in the sandbox, my father was hobnobbing with the underbelly of late 1950s America, at 6.
Now, don’t get me wrong, that is not the direction he went, as his family moved not long after that back to grandma’s hometown outside Greenville. Perhaps it may very well have been due to my fathers proclivity towards this attraction to said underbelly, of which there is far less of in rural North Carolina.
It’s those sporadic visits that defined my view of America though, from smoke stacks and sprawling metropolis’ down i95, to wooden shacks by the side of gravel roads that would be condemned in Canada, housing a family of 6, generally with black faces, rarely white.
Those are my earliest memories of the place where I was born.
But let’s go back to the beginning, and how my sister and I came to be here and not down there.
After mom and dad were married up here in our family church, she travelled the miles down yonder to his home – she was 19 when they married, and the year I was born she turned 20.
It was a rocky start, living in a cramped tiny trailer in dads hometown. She said many a hot humid afternoon she spent on the front step of that dinky place, tears running down her cheeks, as I cried myself to sleep in my crib.
One story I loved, is of the day I was born, and she had me all swaddled up in her arms, and a black nurse came into the ward, sat down beside her, and said “you know, you are the only mom talking to her baby?” To which mom replied, well she’s all I have to talk to.
But by the time I could walk and talk in full sentences, at 1 years old, she was exhausted, and the man who she married had not turned out to be who she thought he was, that kind and humble man, once back home became a drunk and would take-off sometimes for days.
He was a ‘good ol’boy’, and looking back I suppose she realized he was just not ready for all this – a wife, a child, a responsibility to feed and cloth and house us.
When I was two and a half she had had enough, packed up her meagre belongings, and she went home, with a bewildered 2 1/2 year old in tow who did not understand and spent the whole journey back on the plane entertaining the two drunk businessmen in the seat behind us.
Apparently the stewardess’ had taken pity on this obviously overwhelmed young mom and moved us up into first-class.
When mom died in the fall of 2001, a week before she passed, I spent the night in her hospital room, on a cot beside her bed. She had a stroke in September, and they’d found the cancer coursing through her body not long after, and they told us she was palative, she did not have long, weeks, maybe a couple months, but not long.
So that night I lay there beside her, as I had many times before growing up, and I asked her that night what was her favourite memory of her life… and her answer still to this day brings tears – she said she LOVED being a mom.
I often wonder what she would think of all this going on down yonder, what wisdom she would have, what she would think of this president that dad voted for. I do wonder.
So, dad eventually followed us north, but it took him 6 months. In the intervening months he sold all the rest of their belongings and headed out to California – why he went there I have no clue, and he didn’t either.
One of the stories he tells is of this old guy he met in some bar in Texas. Can’t recall the full tale, but when he was leaving, and after dad had told him his story, this old man told him that he would be a fool not to follow mom, that a woman with that sort of courage, a woman who has the strength of will to pack up and take her child, to protect what she loves, to tuck her tail between her legs and go home to parents that did not understand what she had seen in this man she married and followed back to his southern home – well, he told dad that sort of woman was a rare gift.
A simple gift.
A woman with the strength to leave when the man who she marries decides he is not going to take responsibility, because she can, and she will.
After she died I found a letter she had written him, done in pencil on this beautiful but yellowed writing paper. The words in that letter were from a person I had not known. This was a young woman who loved this man, but even though she was heart broken she was resolved that she would not starve and have her child go without for a man who refused to grow up.
My dad is a good man, a hard-working man, a humble man, and over the years when I was growing up, he slowly did as well, bit by bit, grow up.
Now, seriously, my dad ain’t winning no Father of the Year contests, but even so, I know he loves me and I love him. Oh, sure, getting him to show it is like pulling blawdy teeth, as he hides his emotions away like a shameful secret. I have always suspected it was because they are so powerful that they overwhelm him – I know, cause I inherited a couple, like his temper.
My dad was never abusive, unless you think clearing your nose 50 billion times in the morning is abusive, which my teenage self did. Or, maybe you think travelling hundreds of miles on vacation with a grumpy truck driver is abusive, then, I suppose he is. Other than that, my father doesn’t have a, well, doesn’t have an abusive bone in his body.
Neither is he a bully, a liar, nor a crook (well, least not since he was six).
Which, quite frankly, is why I really sometimes question how on earth he can like that 45th, that president who bullies and lies and cheats and has not one single humble bone in his body (though quite a few racist ones).
Same goes for my step-mom, who I call here MsB. She’s god fearing, says grace at every meal, church on Sundays, the whole nine-yards, humble, sweet, kind, and like many Christians in the South, loves that 45th con artist, and I am completely gobsmacked, still.
And these divisions are becoming wider, and more pronounced, as with every tweet and rally and hate-filled mob chant, the wedge between left and right grows ever wider, swallowing up families and communities all across America in its wake. Churches, and angry town hall meetings, protests, marchers, with violent clashes sprouting up all over, racist slurs in some factions being propagandized even as patriotic, and worthy, I guess, in this battle sweeping the land of my birth.
So I wonder, how many times are they going to keep fighting the same battle, over and over again, of black and white, him and her, them and us? Who wins in these battles? Certainly not the average American, when whole families have been ripped apart by profound and deep divisions, over basic kindness and compassion, over values and morality kicked aside for profit and power.
In our house, back in Dodge at the Homestead, I have a sort of unwritten, though voiced on numerous occasions, rule that I WILL NOT discuss this stuff with dad or MsB.
I am not inclined to invite that disgusting president of theirs any further into our family then he is already.
Oh, and my sister tries, and dad every once in a while, but I refuse to bite, I will NOT fight about this there, in our home, our ancestral home, my Canadian home. I will not, not to win, not to lose, not for anything, nor anyone, not for any event, or racist word or rotten no good xenophobic tweet or other, not for a war, or a rally or anything.
That’s my line.
And that I believe my silence speaks louder than any words I may say.
I know full well that I am not going to change their minds with any fancy words or clever arguments. No pithy slur or derogatory dig will do me any good.
No, for me, my silence with them on this matter is my statement.
Anyways, my Canadian grandma always said that if you can’t say anything nice, then perhaps one should say nothing at all.