Wednesday, June 29, 2016
A year later: family secrets and distance
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.