Mere Mortals, All of Us

I’ve somehow become a member of the SHS Memorial Page. A Facebook page dedicated to all the people who went to my high school and died.

It may be “a thing” these memorial pages, but I find it discomfiting, and, I’ll admit, macabre.

But I Can’t Look Away

But, like a rubbernecker at a train wreck, I find I can’t look away. I keep paging through the years looking for familiar faces. Knowing when I find one, they’re dead.

I left Sprayberry High School in 1968 and I could count on one hand the classmates I’ve seen since then.

I never looked up anyone from high school, and the few overtures I had from others, I ignored. I saw high school as the last obstacle to overcome before I escaped my parents’ house and gained my freedom. I’d had friends, although no close ones. Most of the kids I knew had no idea of the life I had at home, and never understood my frenzied drive to get away. But they were teenagers and, how mature were any of us before age 30?

I’ve recently had what my children describe as a near death experience: four days in cardiac ICU. After I came off the drugs they gave me while I was there, I began to contemplate my mortality and the sum of what I would leave behind. Thumbing through the photos of my dead classmates I thought, too, of what they had left behind, and what I knew of them from long ago. At least what they had left behind that was my memory of them.

It is as if there is still a whisper, an imprint of those memories that is real, that people will pass through that shadow and be affected by it. And it is as if I can see those imprints. They are almost tangible.

jana anders, sprayberry class of 1969I think the most surprising death I read about was Jana Anders. Probably because she was so full of life, She died 10 years ago, a relatively young death in this time of 80-year life expectancy.

Even though I knew Jana from the second grade, we weren’t friends. It was more an acquaintanceship, but I admired her and sometimes envied her, starting at age 7.

We were in a play in front of the school, parents, teachers, etc. and Jana gave an Oscar-worthy performance of some character named duck or goose … It was so good that even now I remember my mother talking about it for a week and wondering how Jana had the moxie to put on such a show for so many people. Most of them adults.

My family moved out of that school district at the end of second grade so my path didn’t cross Jana’s again until the ninth grade. That year and every year after, she was the cheerleader who was known all over the state, along with being one of the most popular girls in school.

She wasn’t classically pretty, she was ‘cute’, maybe a little elfin, but she lit up a room when she walked in and I can’t remember her ever being unkind. And, she was a fabulous gymnast. Most of the complicated routines the cheerleaders did were designed to showcase her because, who else would do? No one. And … she was always marvelous.

I saw her two times after high school

Five or six years into adulting, I was commuting from Marietta to Atlanta to work. I carpooled with a couple of other people, one of whom, Donna, had also gone to Sprayberry and knew Jana. We were on 75N, almost home, when Donna fairly screamed, “There’s Jana!”

It was the sort of shout out one would make upon seeing Garth Brooks’ tour bus or finding Joe Perry in your favorite tattoo parlor. Jana had that kind of star power.

Donna blew the horn, waved, and kept yelling to get Jana’s attention. I waved, too, all the while surprised and a little disappointed to see her driving a rather old, ratty VW bug with the windows down which meant she could hear us plainly, but also that she was suffering through a summer in Atlanta with no a/c.

She was, after all, the ‘Star of SHS’ the entire time I was there. More so even than the boy athletes, she was probably the most well known student, I’m sure, for several years and not just at Sprayberry, but every high school who had played football or basketball against us also knew her by reputation. She was our own celebrity.

The next and last time I saw her we were 35 and in a maternity store buying clothes to wear while we carried babies we were already too old be be having. As I left the changing room, I said, “Jana? Aren’t you Jana Anders?”

“I was,” she said. It seemed sad to me considering the thoughts I’d had the time I saw her in her little bug, but I think her meaning was she had another name because she had married. I hope it was that and not that she’d lost herself somehow.

I told her that she had known me as Teresa Shultz, a name I didn’t use anymore, and as I saw recognition in her face I knew it was only the name she remembered. She admitted she wouldn’t have known me if I hadn’t told her who I was.

We didn’t have any sort of meaningful dialogue, but that meeting stayed in my mind, because I was once again reminded that I had expected her to leave this small town and perform. Perform Something. Somewhere.

cirque du soleil

And now as I read the notes about her death, aged 57, from colorectal cancer, I am so saddened by it. And I think to myself, ‘Oh, Jana, if only we’d had Cirque du Soleil in our youth! You could have been an international star of Circus of the Sun, and I could have worked with show horses my whole life.

When I ran away from home I could have gone where I’d have been welcomed for my oddness and, well, like everyone else who met you, they’d have been mad about you! Neither of us were really suited to a desk or a boring life and we hardly knew where to look for anything else. We could have been running away to the circus. And what a grand one!

She may have been ecstatically happy with her professional life, I don’t know. I don’t even know what she did. She may have been happy to stay in this small town her whole life. I don’t have any impression of her other than my own memories, few as they are, and the expectations she brought to my mind with her exuberance for life.

 

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 the Cherokee 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 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 plantations, 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 inclination 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 didn’t take 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 heartening.

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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