Wednesday, June 29, 2016
It's been almost a year since my second research trip to eastern North Carolina and I am still trying to process its bits and pieces.
Going back to North Carolina a second time was a heavier experience than I'd anticipated.
I met living family I didn't know I had -- one of whom said Why did you bring this Yankee down here to see me, just kidding (he wasn't) -- and learned new sad stories about ones who had died.
There was the cousin who died at 37 in Dix Hill asylum, having been committed 16 years earlier, her death attributed to a chronic kidney condition that might well have caused her behavioral symptoms.
There were babies that had perished shortly after birth, or who'd never been born. Ghosts of where families once lived, homesteads long consumed by termites and back hoes, their foundations peeking out of rows of cotton.
There were revelations about the frailties of people who blustered and postured and talked tough, and the strengths of quiet women.
But most of all, there was the pervasive sense of disconnection and the irony of researching dead family in the hope that I might find connections that felt better, truer, more meaningful than the ones I've had with family I've actually known.
Even as I've been collecting ancestors like baseball cards, I've known that in this lifetime, I will not form deep and sustaining connections with most of my extant family.
We were isolationists. I don't know what it is to attend a family reunion, to identify with family members, or even to go to Grandmother's house for Thanksgiving. My grandmothers died before I was born. I had no relationship with either grandfather. My parents always encouraged individualism, separation and competition over community and cooperation. They didn't even like each other.
Late in life I am challenged to understand why family was not -- on the surface -- important to us and what family dynamics and secrets shaped our particular brand of separation.
Maybe it started when my mother married a Yankee. Or when my great grandmother, Ida Fritz Fries, met my Southern mother and flashed back to the day the Confederate soldiers had raided her Franklin County, Pennsylvania farm, on their way to burn Chambersburg.
I know pieces of how my parents' lives derailed from all they had known, how they struck out on their own and created a failed experiment. In the past year, new pieces were given to me, laid at my feet.
Some of them, mysterious bits like the cousin who lived and died in Dix Hill, shimmer and pulse in my brain. Figure this out, they say. Make sense of it all.
Monday, December 7, 2015
|Daisy Century as Sojourner Truth, Dec. 6, 2015 St. Paul's Elkins Park|
Or a woman you’ve met in a genealogy group on Facebook, Marilyn Nance, learns about the event and drives down to Elkins Park from Brooklyn with her husband, combining a visit to the celebration with meeting one of her DNA cousins, who lives in the Philadelphia area. And then you learn that you and Marilyn are both related to genetic genealogist Shannon Christmas.
Or you meet local poet Bernadine Davis, who asks you about your Going Down Home project, and confirms that the process of weaving together our past and our present is necessary work, often guided by the God of Second Chances, and meant to find substance that is missing.
Those abductions into the past and Eastern North Carolina occurred over the weekend, Dec. 5 and 6th, here in my community. The two-day celebration combined music, lectures, a gospel concert, author’s table, tours of the church (built by Jay Cooke in 1861) and the replica of a station on the Underground Railroad. There were wonderful actors who portrayed Harriet Tubman, Lucretia Mott, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sojourner Truth. There were members of the 3rd Regiment, US Colored Troops who marched, presented colors, staffed an exhibit.
There was no escaping the past – not America’s legacy of slavery, the enviable courage of the abolitionists, music that still calls to us from fields of memory.
There is no way of escaping how we are led to each other in the present.
Shango-Jamal Lewis, Old York Road to Freedom Concert
Dec. 5, 2015
Tuesday, July 21, 2015
We met on the West Millpond Road in Roper a little before 11:00 a.m. at Millpond Crawfish, where it was hot in the sun and almost cool in the shade. We drove around the countryside in a truck that seated five, over paved roads, grass and sandy lanes, hugging tracks next to fields, looking at empty spaces where family homes used to be.
Weeks earlier, I’d looked for pictures of my mother’s childhood home. I have no picture of the house, which was torn down long ago -- just the sense of it standing off stage. Most of my pictures were taken with the house behind the photographer’s back, the subjects framed by trees and the Millpond Road.
When we stopped on July 7th to look at the space where the house once stood, I felt the familiar orientation of the view beyond the missing house. But I could not quite picture the exact footprint of the farmhouse that had once been home to Ben and Inez, Alger Ben and Reinette, then Alger Ben and Margaret and their children.
The big tree, draped in Spanish moss, which appears in most of my pictures from the old homestead (and here sits above my grandfather’s shoulder) is gone, but a tall pine still remains. It may be the same tree seen here in 1942, to the left of his bent elbow, smallish.
I sat in the truck and looked toward the field with the physical memory of that view. There was a big tree where I remembered a big tree, but a different species. There was a view toward a field that seemed timeless, and a line of trees to my right, but the house they once shaded, gone.
I should have gotten out of the truck, put a little of that sandy soil in a baggy, brought it home.
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
I had several goals for this trip to Washington County, and one of them was to visit the Spruill Farm Conservation Project, then write about it for my Plein Air column at www.terrain.org. I was able to visit with owner Jack Spruill twice during my brief stay in the county.
The first visit began with Jack telling me about his connection to the land, as we sat under a cool shade tree at nine in the morning, drinking coffee and eating meaty Coinjock Creek Farm cantaloupe. I quickly learned how that tree, and the chairs and benches beneath it, serves as a gathering place for a cadre of talented and like-minded friends of the project.
The Friends share Jack’s vision for the 110-acre farm, which abuts the Albemarle Sound with 1,600 feet of undeveloped shoreline, and has been in his family for 100 years. And while the farm currently supports a variety of activities – a community garden, bee-keeping, fig-growing – its ultimate incarnation would be as a beautiful piece of land donated for perpetual conservation and some combination of low-impact public access, organic or sustainable farming, environmental research and education programs.
The public access issue is especially important to Jack, who is quick to note that there are only two places on the Albemarle – the world’s largest freshwater sound – where direct public access exists, even though there are nine counties that have direct frontage.
By providing low-impact public access, the Spruill Farm of the future might accommodate a kayak and canoe launch, enclosed swimming area, benches, picnic tables and a pier for crabbing, fishing and nature activities. It would make access to the Sound available to local children who have never waded in its waters.
One of the Friends – Jack’s cousin, Bob Spruill -- offered to drive me down to the water before I left. We joined his wife, Georgia, and two grandchildren, traveling along the eastern edge of the planted fields to descend to the shoreline.
Like the kids, I waded in the clear, cool water where generations of Spruills and their friends had waded. Before the Spruills, there had been Chessons, descended from one of my maternal lines. But the tree line showed that where I now waded had once been swamp or solid land, not sound.
In spite of bulkheads and good intentions, shorelines and farms morph, disappear, sprout condos. Jack Spruill intends to protect his family’s farm with a conservation vision that has a lot of supporters.
Monday, July 13, 2015
On Sunday, July 5, I met Rebecca and her daughter, Cora. At 87, Rebecca is likely my mother’s last living first cousin and such a lively representative of her generation that I felt I’d gotten a crash course in Life on the Millpond Road. Details that my mother had parsed out over the decades came tumbling out of Rebecca with a specificity and quick recall that I hadn’t truly expected.
Like my mother, Rebecca left Washington County with a World War II serviceman from the North. She married at an age when girls today are not yet able to drive, and traveled from place to place with her older husband and growing family. She had a sense of adventure and good humor, tempered by a religious faith that has stood her well over the years. These qualities persist today. She has an impish smile and twinkling eyes. There are, as my mother would have said, no flies on her.
But unlike my mother, and in spite of leaving the South, my sense is that she remained part of a cohesive sisterhood.
She and Cora gave me a glossy print that features two generations of Chesson women. Three sisters – Inez, Hilda and Cora in their spectator pumps– are flanked by Hilda’s daughter, Sarah Mac, on the left and Cora’s daughter Rebecca on the right. Missing is my mother, Reinette, daughter of Inez.
That she is not part of the group haunts me. Had she been there, each mother would have had a daughter beside her. Had she been there, this picture might have implied that there would also be solidarity with the next generation: mine.
Instead, I am looking at three women who had difficult lives, and two daughters who don’t yet know their fate. One will be funny and smart at 87; the other will die in the Dix Hills asylum at 37.
From what Rebecca told me, it's likely that my mother did not see those cousins again after that day.
In a 1995 interview at Tulane University, writer Dorothy Allison said: “I don't know any southern writer who doesn't begin with momma. You know, she's like the air you breathe and it's a little dangerous because in fact there is this concept of the southern mother in literature. To get serious attention is to give a kind of reverence, you have to write against the stereotype. And the stereotype is frightening. The stereotype is inhuman. The stereotype IS the mother who starves herself to feed her children, you know. And then the other stereotype is the mother who eats her children alive if they do not quite measure up to what she wants them to be. And you're always caught up between those two things if you're a southern writer….”
What will I do, I wonder, as I write my own book, with the stereotype of the ambivalent Southern mother who loses her place, who tries to eschew all things country, many things Southern, and who is often missing from the picture?
Friday, July 10, 2015
|our party in the front row, from right to left: Taneya, Kaleya, Jane|
Although I’d soon learn that the restaurants and shops in Edenton would be closed on July 4th, one Washington County historic attraction that is usually closed on major holidays was open.
Months earlier, I’d learned that genealogist Taneya Koonce would be visiting family in Plymouth on both Memorial Day and the Fourth. I’ve wanted to meet Taneya for some time, and since it’s unlikely that I’ll be getting to Nashville any time soon, and I couldn’t travel south in May, meeting her at Somerset Place in Creswell became central to Saturday’s schedule.
Operated as a state historical site, Somerset Place is a partially-restored plantation established on the shore of Lake Phelps in the 18th century by Josiah Collins and investors to grow rice. In the span of its 80-year history, Somerset Place maintained an enslaved population that totaled more than 850 slaves, the first of whom were transported directly from the West Coast of Africa to the Collins plantation in 1786.
I’d visited Somerset Place last fall in the rain, on a day when I was the sole visitor, who did not get the guided tour, and expected that this visit would be different. Taneya and her daughter, Kaleya, arrived shortly after I did. We were soon joined by Jane Chesson, a fellow researcher of my maternal line and a seventh cousin. It was 10:00 a.m., sunny and already very humid and very hot.
Prior to joining a tour, Taneya, Jane, Kaleya and I walked the grounds and spent time in the shade, getting to know each other a bit and enjoying the behavior of a curious goat.
As the tour began, docent Dan Simpson led us through original and reconstructed structures where the enslaved community had lived, worked, cooked, been treated when sick, been preached to about obedience by Episcopalian clerics, been punished or jailed. As the 19th century life of the enslaved community was presented to us in detail, more tourists joined our group. The tour concluded with a walk through three stories of the plantation house.
There is something surreal and haunting about Somerset Place, even without the tour. I’d read about its history and development in Dorothy Spruill Redford’s book, Somerset Homecoming: Recovering a Lost Heritage and longed to feel how Ms. Redford – who spent 10 years of her life researching the plantation and bringing it to its current status as a public historic asset -- could stick with an under-appreciated project for so long, yet prevail.
But a fact-filled guided visit was different from my sole wanderings in the rain. The remnants of the plantation beg many questions across two centuries, beginning with how many slaves actually boarded The Camden in West Africa before 80 of them arrived in Edenton on June 10, 1786?
Many of my own questions focused on the roles of women. How had Mary Riggs -- a Yankee from Newark, New Jersey -- become the mistress of a plantation with a house staff of 25 slaves? Who was with her long-time assistant, Charlotte Cabarrus, a free woman of color, when she died? How is it that at any given time, 60 percent of the Somerset field hands were women, and yet we don’t automatically picture 18th and 19th century Southern agrarian life carried on the backs of women? Why didn’t I know before July 4, 2015 that the monetary value of an enslaved women was based in her multiparous status?
I’m glad that before I went to Somerset Place this time, I read Margaret Biser’s June 29th piece from Vox posted on Facebook by author Michael W. Twitty.
But I was not fully prepared for the group experience. I had no way of actually knowing how this long, hot, tour might be simultaneously experienced by descendants of slaves and slave owners.
And I had no understanding of why, against the backdrop of America’s deep and most difficult history, a twenty-something in our group was posing at every stop on the tour for a selfie, indifferent to the context of the docent’s narrative. Her experience was spatial, it seemed, as she tied her large scarf into a sarong, and then a shawl, affecting a glamorous pout or smile against the backdrop of another century, over and over.
Thursday, July 9, 2015
I’d waited almost a year to return to eastern North Carolina in order to extend my family research from Tyrrell County to Washington County. Maybe early July in a heat wave was not the best time to visit, but I’d coordinated my trip with others, and meeting over the Fourth of July weekend worked for everyone.
So, on Friday, July 3rd, I flew from Philadelphia to Norfolk, where I rented a Hyundai Santa Fe with great air conditioning and drove to Edenton, the state’s first colonial capitol. Edenton is located in Chowan County, directly across the Albemarle Sound from my destination. I’d driven through Edenton on my way north last fall, and remembered its historic architecture. But in July, it’s the explosion of crepe myrtle that welcomes you. White, soft pink, loud pink – the color palette was azalea season revisited.
As drivers enter the state on Highway 17, they are greeted by crepe myrtle and lilies in the median landscaping, but that gateway of young trees didn’t prepare me for the arching old myrtles that lined Queen and Church and Granville streets. I loved the idea of walking under them. Even in the heat.
I checked into The Parsonage Inn early, and while my room was being readied, took a walking tour of the town. Iced coffee with coffee ice cubes and a lemon bar at the local café, a vintage book store where I picked up a few local treasures, and I was able to make the mind shift of being far from Philadelphia.
I'd entered a new landscape, with a different climate and different light. I walked back to the Inn under red crepe myrtles. A passing stranger waved and I looked behind me to see who was there, but I was alone on the sidewalk.