Journal: family secrets never really are . . . secret

It took about 20 years to get the whole story, and I still feel the same way about Buel.  I don’t understand how she got on a bus and left that kid in Georgia, but I do know the story now.

She was a pretty thing at 17, and courted by two guys who were the best of friends.  She was openly dating one, his name was Toby, and secretly dating the other, Griggs.

When she turned up pregnant, she was near hysterical, and I don’t believe anyone knew why.  She drank Mercurochrome to suicide, but it didn’t work, and her mother, my grandmother, instructed the younger girls to watch her, to keep her from trying something worse.

She married the Griggs boy, but it didn’t last long.  When Phil was born with black hair and dark eyes, the Griggs knew he wasn’t theirs, he was Toby’s, and Buel’s marriage was over.

She met another man in the next year or so, and took up with him.  Married him and started having kids right away.  Her second son died very soon after childbirth and she quickly followed that with two sets of twins.

At some point they moved from Blue Ridge to Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  Phil went with them, but Beul called soon after and asked that my Grandmother come for Phil.  It wasn’t working with him and her new husband.

After raising six children, and learning more and more of Phil’s story over the years, I’ve come to believe in my heart that Phil’s pain is the reason my mother wanted Anicia to live with a family apart from us.

I was 16, and no better equipped than Buel for a baby, and Anicia’s father was not going to step up and admit to her.  I was alone, and on my own with her, and my mother was determined she would be adopted.

Sometimes I think she may have been afraid that eventally I’d leave Anicia to her like Buel left Phil to her mother, but I don’t know.  All I know is she had fears and they were of demon strength.

And because of them, she forced me to surrender Anicia.

 

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Journal: journey to my present; Summer, 1967

I’m 15; sitting in a playroom in my parents house when my mother comes downstairs crying.  I don’t think I’ve seen her cry since I was 3 or 4 and it is frightening.  She tells me that Phil is dead.  Something about a tractor accident on the side of a mountain.  I’m numb to think I won’t see him again.

He took me to my first movie, Bambi, when I was less than five.  I remember riding in his pickup truck, listening to country music, watching him shift gears and thinking he was the greatest guy in the whole world.  I can’t remember ever not being crazy about him.  I couldn’t imagine him not always being there.

At my Grandmother’s house, which is quite small, two bedrooms, there are scads of people.  Phil’s mother Buel has come in from Detroit with at least 10 of her 12 or 13 children.  She sits with my mother and my grandmother in the kitchen, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, crying.

I can’t figure out why she’s so upset.  She left Phil here when he was just five or six and took all her other kids to Detroit to live with their Dad, her new husband.  During the planning and preparation, Phil thought he was going with them until he discovered the next morning that his mother and siblings were gone.

If she’s so torn up about him dying, why’d she leave him here in the first place?

His brothers and sisters pretend a grief they don’t know.  They hardly knew him, how could they grieve him? 

There is a confusion on their part, too. Some of them didn’t know til now that he was their brother.

Journal: journey to my present; Summer, 1967 Oct13

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Journal, Summer 2008, Walking the streets of the Cherokee

My mother is writing a book about her Cherokee heritage.  It is a love story, about a Cherokee woman who was rescued from the removal by a white man and how the two of them began a family that would eventually wind its way to me and my children.

She wants to investigate every possible Cherokee thing in North Georgia and East Tennessee.  We travel to New Echota, the last place civilized Cherokees lived until they went on the Trail of Tears.  I’m surprised that they had houses, and spinning wheels, and dressed, mostly, like the whites that they’d come in contact with.

She, my mother, doesn’t want to get into the grit and pain of the removal . . . that’s not what her story is about.  She just wants to tell that her heroine escaped, narrowly, and made her way to the hills to pass as a white and pass her children as white until we, in the 21st century, want to declare our Native Americanism. 

She sings a song to me as we walk the paths of New Echota.  Her father sang it to her when she was a little girl:

All I want in this creation
is a pretty little wife and a big plantation
… away down yonder in the Cherokee Nation

I’m incensed at the the things I discover (my history classes didn’t cover the white man’s greed, the gold lottery, the stockades that families were placed in to die); I can see myself trekking through the hills to get away from the whites, perhaps long before they showed their true colors. I’m shamed somehow, that they took up the ways of the white man, gave up huge tracts of land, and it wasn’t enough.

The difference in the two us, my mother and myself, is again evident as we look at the houses, read about the plantatoins, the treaties, the lies and inhumanity of the government of the United States.  If I were to write of the Cherokees it would be with the heat and passion of my anger.  I have no inlcination to simply put the removal out of my mind; pretend it didn’t happen.  It was the largest act of genocide in the history of the US.  Cherokee Blood or no, I’m horrified that my country treated my people thusly.

She tells me, my mother, that when she was growing up, no-one would admit to being Cherokee.  There was a time when the Federal Government wanted to make right what they had done to the Indians in the Cherokee Nation and were paying large sums of money to people who were on the Dawes Rolls Census as Cherokee.  Many of them were not given reparations because they knew that the white men lied about their intentions, and they feared that if they admitted their heritage, there would be new tears. 

I wonder if I can, at 56, travel the Trail of Tears in protest.  I know it only matters to me, but I want to follow them.  To know them.  I wonder how long it will take me, and if I can afford to be away from my work that long.

I learn here on their land that I have even more Cherokee than my mother and her sisters: my father has a “full blood” in his lineage much closer to him than my mother’s.  She does however have Sequoyah in her family tree, and I like to think we (my mother, my daughters and I) write because there is a bit of him in all of us.  We don’t know if our Sequoyah was the Sequoyah who designed the Cherokee alphabet, but the idea that he may have been, that those genes are a part of mine, and my children’s is somehow encouraging.

Journal, Summer 2008, Walking the streets of the Cherokee Oct13

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Journal, March 2008

I drove Lillith down the length of Talona Road, even past the pavement and across the gravel to its end at White Rock.  She’d been born in a house on this road in 1929, and once again, we were looking for the place where it had been back then.  There had been a house across the road, where her grandmother and grandfather had lived with her uncles Loy and Cyril, and so we looked for the ruins of two houses that had given her her beginnings.
 
“There was a creek behind it, where Buel went to wash diapers every day.”  Buel was her oldest sister.  Nine years old when my mother was born, eight when their sister Leigh was born.  My mother in March, and Leigh in January, so Buel, at eight, was at the creek in the middle of winter, two years running, washing dirty diapers.  I shuddered to think of the misery of it, and I’m sure the reality was worse.
 
We didn’t find the house, it has probably been gone for years.  Why she wants to drive down that road every time we travel to North Georgia is beyond me.  But I drive her down it, and while she looks at everything that might be the remains of that house, I think about her beginnings, and mine, and wonder why it had to be so hard.
 

She was one of the five children who survived that family.  Four girls and one boy.  She was the third girl, right in the middle, and from her telling, seems to have been at odds with everyone in her family as long as she can remember.

When she married my father she was known as the prettiest girl in Blue Ridge, and his avowed goal in life was to marry the prettiest girl in Blue Ridge.  They lived off and on with his mother and her mother, and occasionally in a place of their own.

They married and divorced two times before I was four.  I remember that I loved him – in a vague ghostly sort of way.  I remember very little about being with him, but quite a lot about missing him.

When they were divorced once and for all, I stayed with my Grandmother, an Uncle, and my cousin Phil in Blue Ridge, while my mother worked in Atlanta.  She rode the bus every weekend to see all of us and eventually she had the money to buy a car, and that made our weekend hours longer.

She worked in Atlanta because she couldn’t make enough in that small North Georgia town to support all five of us, and so she sacrificed her time with me to be able to take care of everyone.

Eventually we moved just north of Atlanta and I was raised there, with a new step-father of exceptional means and a life that seemed at times to take on fairy tale qualities that disappeared as fast as Cinderella’s pumpkin.

I never got over losing Phil.  He was 9 years older than me, and the nearest I ever came to a big brother.  He was my cousin, though family positions were unimportant and seldom noted. I never questioned why he lived with my grandmother while his mother, Buel, lived 1,000 miles away in “Motor City”.  After all, I lived there too, and my Mother, who I called by her first name, Lillith, was only there on weekends.

All of us called my grandmother Mamma.  It was the first family I knew.

Journal, March 2008 Oct13

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Prologue

On learning that her new great-grandchild was a girl, Lilith leaned into my face and in a hoarse whisper said, “They used to sacrifice girl babies.”

That may have been the kinder thing. I think, than being your girl baby.

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