One advantage to being descended from people named Rumble is that early in life you become acquainted with absurdity from the skin outwards. If the world is a ridiculous place, you and your kin (who have had that name since 1753 when an illiterate young whelp named Jacob Rumel–or Rommel–came over from Rotterdam) wear ridicule like the crown jewels. I have a distant cousin by marriage named, I think, Rowena Butt Rumble. All over the South people are named strangely: Smellies marry Pughs, the Butts (a large clan) call themselves Sugar and Biff, and roadsigns to Veal, Wax, Dewy Rose, Fair Play, Talking Rock, and Pickens Nose testify to the bottomless inventiveness of the literal-minded.
“Shit fire!” was what my mother wanted to say when Grandmother (her mother-in-law) launched into one of her marathon family stories. Of course my mother didn’t say that; she’d fix her face in a constipated half-smile, averting her eyes from anyone who might make her laugh (me.) Grandmother, or Mother Rumble as she wheezily called herself in later years, was like some aboriginal reciter of genealogies. What her stories lacked in plot they made up for in information: who was the son, daughter, great-niece, or third cousin twice-removed of one of Granddaddy’s ten siblings, or any of the generations before that. If she could have found out more about the hapless Jacob Rumel from Westphalia, she’d have harassed any number of German paperpushers into early graves. In the thirties she took to rooting around in remote archives for information about the Rumbles. She was a one-woman genealogical research agency: if Roosevelt had known about her, he would have called her a bureau.
Except for the odd name that crept in now and then (“Maybelle was a Porch on her mother’s side”), I mostly remember the ghost stories she told when she visited us in Louisville. All the neighborhood kids would gather in our backyard after dusk had fallen and enough mosquitoes had been swatted or inhaled to make the hot summer night bearable. She’d start in on a story in her creaky little voice–a good ghost-story voice–and lean forward, looking each child in the eye. My brother would be sucking his thumb so hard the hide would come off, especially when she dropped her voice down low and then burst out with a shriek as the tale reached its climax.
Exa Woodruff Rumble was her name–the ugliest first name I’ve ever heard, except perhaps Hepzibah or Irmgard. Exa Lee Angeline Woodruff. She was a descendant of an Englishman named William Woodruff who came over with Oglethorpe when he settled Georgia in the mid-18th century. One story went that William Woodruff got in a fight with his father in Bristol, hit him over the head with a ham, and ran off to join Oglethorpe. Maybe Oglethorpe wouldn’t take anybody who wasn’t a minor criminal; I don’t know. It makes a good story.
The several stories my grandmother told about her family mix poignancy with absurdity. A good writer, she knew the effects she could create with a literary allusion. “First I shall set down that I was born, not that I remember it, but as I am told and most certainly believe (according to David Copperfield.)” To me this statement carries the nutmeg flavor of her wit. Reading her letters and brief memoirs makes me remember what I have been told and most certainly believe: that the telling of stories is part instruction, part homage, part kidding around.
* * *
But every now and then a family story instantly becomes part of something larger; as you read it, you are set down on the crowded, confused plain of history, where private old home places lose their boundaries and recede to wilderness. During the Civil War my relatives fought on the Confederate side. Not a one of them, in the few letters I have, mentions the issues of slavery or states’ rights, though one or two complain about the Yankees. In my hankering after rectitude, I may want them to absolve me–but they stubbornly insist on being themselves. The letter my great-great grandfather John Boyd wrote to his wife Sarah from a camp in Catoosah County, near Chickamauga, is filled with loneliness, frustration, sorrow, worry, and hope. Death is on his mind, but John Boyd struggles, as he writes, for dignity, even though his life has little of it.
“Beloved Wife [he begins] in the kind Providence of God I am permitted to speak A FewWords To you. You are out of Sight But not out of Mind. tis my heart’s desire that these lines May find you and our loved ones all Well.” Then follow a few lines about the cost of thread, meat, salt, and wheat meal, and the rations available to soldiers’ wives, “a bunch of thread every month at five dollars and ten cents,” which doesn’t sound like a bargain to me in Confederate scrip or any other kind of money. “Thank you [he continues] for the consolation you give me for comen Home. The guard tents has been Some What crowded. I seen A man leave under guard to Go into Confederate service for goen home to see his sick child. The child died and his Wife was sick. I also seen three others with him go in like manner…was ever tyrany like this was ever despotism so fully displayed. Wood that the lord wood send peace to this troubled land.” After this outburst he turns to a private matter which I have to read several times before it makes sense. “The ear that we thought that spider run out of whilst I was at Home has never felt exactly right since. its very painful atpresent I am only tolerable well [word illegible] hope to see you in this life again. Give my love to the children. rite as soon as you can your loving husband until Death.”
This is a worried man singing a worried song, rambling up and down the scale of his spiritual, military, and domestic life. God is in there as both providence and the angel of death; “tyrany” is in there in the parsimonious Confederate army, which had suffered defeat the month before at Gettysburg and was never to recover. Here too are family values by the wagon-load: How will he provide? Will he ever see his wife and children again? My great-grandmother, young Sarah Boyd, was ten years old in 1863. I can imagine her hanging over her mother’s shoulder, trying to make out the words, asking “What is tyranny? What is despotism? When is he coming home?” in the manner of all anxious daughters of men at war. But my imagination takes me only so far, and then I find a stew of conflicting emotions that I can’t resolve.
For there is that spider–Jesus wept! A spider ran out of his ear and it hasn’t felt right since! Did some eight-legged Charlotte build a nest for herself in John Boyd’s inner ear and a mess of tiny spiders were now hatching there, or travelling up the road toward his brain, in a kind of arachnid Sherman’s march? What kind of spider? Trap-door, wolf, black widow, tarantula? Was it the same kind of spider that “assiduously crawled” on Emily Dickinson’s “reticence” when she was “Alone and in a Circumstance reluctant to be told”–in the outhouse at the Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts? It is not possible to stop thinking about such things, once I start. I don’t know whether to be horrified or to do a little hilarious tarantella right here in my study.
* * *
But here comes Cousin Gabe Rumble to restore sanity. Gabe was my father’s first cousin, an inventor who retired at forty after making a pile of money. He married a nifty Danish lady named Inge Lykkeberg, who tolerated the Southern pronunciation of her first name, which they rhymed with “cringe.” My parents had come down with Anglophilia sometime in the 70’s, and my father was anxious to prove our Englishness by hunting up Rumbles in the London phone book. Daddy found 67 of them–67 possible umpty-ninth cousins to set beside (or against) the Scots from Ayrshire, the renegade William Woodruff (possibly Welsh), and random infections from those near-barbarians, the Irish and the Germans. “Well,” Gabe said, who had already done the research, “us Rumbles are not from that branch.” Jacob Rumel, the bad speller of Westphalia, remains our ancestor, and what’s more, he married a woman named Susanna Gans, which means “goose.” Hail to thee, Susie Goosie!
Gabe speaks to my father as a graduate of a twelve-step program in genealogical obsession-compulsion speaks to a raw recruit. “Since all family trees go back ab initio, there is no such thing as a complete genealogy, and the thing has to stop somewhere,” he says sagely, in what I think is a dig at his cousin’s wife Exa. And then comes one of the sanest, most comforting remarks I have ever heard about family:
“You have 32 great-great-great grandparents–one a Parks and one a Rumble–how about the other thirty? If you spend too much time in ancestor worship, there won’t be time left to eat and sleep, ha.”
* * *
Still, I have to spend a little time with Gabriel Parks who, through no fault of mine, is my great-great-great grandfather. Lots of his descendants have told on him, no doubt trying to exorcise his demon. As a child I harassed my father for information proving that nobody we were related to had ever been bad to black people, or owned slaves, or joined the KKK. Daddy had a talent for philosophical evasive speech, no doubt acquired in labor negotiations at the newspaper he worked for, and this talent matched up beautifully with my naivete and love of pretty lies. But Gabriel Parks puts paid–or rather owed–to all that, for he owned slaves and had a plantation on Tobesofkee Creek, which in Choctaw might mean something like “place where lives big mean red-headed sonofabitch.” His first wife turned up her toes after a year of marriage, and then he took to wife a preacher’s daughter named Mary Hardie, by whom he had five children. One of them, red-headed Mary Candace Parks, married Robert Richardson and had three children right away, Josephine, Henry, and Alaqueen. One Sunday morning in 1854 she sent the children off to church and hanged herself in the smokehouse. Mary Candace was 25. Josephine, who was five years old, found her mother when she came home.
Despite furtive mention of a divorce here, a love of whiskey there, terrible tempers and narrow Calvinist ways throughout the narratives I have of my family, nobody mentions the rill of depressiveness that has surfaced in every generation since Candace Parks hanged herself–at least, nobody names it for what it is. It’s hard to name, in any case, and not until recently have we had whole drugstores-full of new words we can apply to our private torments. Poor woman–what led her to kill herself on a Sunday morning, in the smokehouse, when her kids were at church singing “Bringing in the Sheaves”? Was she pregnant again, too soon? Had she fallen in love with an itinerant salesman in an old-timey version of The Bridges of Madison County?
Maybe Candace’s troubles went back farther than that, or were rooted in some wild, uncooperative cells deep in her brain that messed up its chemistry and made her the victim of her neurotransmitters. Who knows? The Southern law of families is that, if Something Is Wrong With You, you have both the uneasy comfort of sharing it–as Candace shared her red hair with her father and passed it on to a grandson and his children and grandchildren–and the knowledge that God has marked you for affliction forever. Whatever the cause, it probably didn’t help Candace to have had a father like Charles Gabriel Parks.
* * *
The Parks family causes trouble even for earnest genealogists looking for a pedigree. One Zella Armstrong (in a book called Prominent Southern Families, a book to keep in the bathroom if there ever was one) says they’re a Huguenot family; someone else claims that they’re Irish; another says (in 1670) that they’re a “600 year old family in England,” which means that they go back to William the Conqueror. Southerners who claim to be kin to William the Conqueror are as unnumbered as ticks on a hound in July, only challenged by those who claim to be related to Bonnie Prince Charlie, the wimp who lost the Battle of Culloden in 1745. Someone else has figured that the Parkses emigrated from Scotland to Ireland (thrown out, I’d guess), and upon reaching America became “agriculturalists.” (!) And yet another pedigree hunter has come up with a coat of arms sporting a spread Eagle and an “Eagle’s head coupee ermine about its neck, a mural crown sable and beaked sable.”
Eagles and ermine! More appropriately, this Parks coat of arms should have sported a shovel argent and a buzzard’s head coupee with a raccoon about its neck, and in the corner a worried-looking black man trying to free his neck from a yoke, gules.
“The good die young,” said Wordsworth, who lived to be eighty. Gabriel Parks lived to be 82. In a family full of saints, martyrs, and genuinely good people, he seems our Simon Legree. When it comes to family myth, I can read between the lines as well as anybody, and comments like “he had a forceful character” are a dead giveaway. Like many domestic tyrants, he had a way of getting people to serve his needs. “Fleshy and rheumatic” in old age, according to his great-granddaughter Mollie, “he had his Negro man…make a special chair for him and put casters on it,” which he rolled about the house since he couldn’t walk. After the Civil War had just about ruined him, old man Parks was determined to make his tired-out land pay, and bade his overseer work the field hands hard. With a spyglass in one hand and a conch shell in the other, Gabriel Parks would sit on the porch and bellow to the field hands by blowing on the conch shell, which “sounded like a steamboat whistle.” As Cousin Gabriel said, “Tobesofkee Creek will never be the same again.”
* * *
Sooner or later a writer of a memoir will be obliged to haul out some family pictures and try to see what she can make out of them. Some memoirists love to look for their own features in these pictures, but I’m not much interested in subjecting my dead kin to aesthetic analysis. What I’m looking for is character, and, as with everyone who looks for character, I see what I already know.
In her wonderful book Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South, Shirley Abbott studies a photograph of her grandmother and kin which was taken at the turn of the century. Her forebears, from Arkansas and points east, sound a lot like mine: plain, hardworking, hardheaded, strong. Like Shirley’s folks, my great-grandmother Josephine Parks Richardson Rumble and her surviving ten children look ramrod-straight and serious as sages. At first, what with all the black outfits and poker faces in the picture I have of them, I thought they might have been at a funeral, but I can’t find any mention of one. Maybe it was a summer day and they were all sweating like hogs in their tight starched collars.
I expect the photograph was taken between 1900 and 1905, when lots of families gathered together to mark the new century. There’s Josephine, seated in a wicker chair, wearing her favorite high-necked dress with the lace collar, framed by daughters Jo Lee and Woodie Belle, with Wylene standing protectively behind her. Ranged around them are Woodbridge and Lester, the two youngest sons, and in the back, Lemuel, Early Cleveland, Bela, Gabriel Parks II, and Douglas, my grandfather. They all have the same large, protuberant ears, wide mouths, straight noses, and long thin necks. As I look at it, like everyone looking at a family picture, I wonder what they’re thinking: of the century to come, or the one that passed, taking away so much.
* * *
Their father had either taken his life or been murdered on April 12, 1894, when Lester was six months old and the other kids ranged from Bela’s 26 to Woodbridge’s four. Woodbridge Sr. was found in the woods with his throat cut. The farmhands’ payroll money had gone missing. An alternate story I heard recently from my second cousin Juliette was that Woodbridge had been asked to safekeep some valuable jewels and precious heirlooms belonging to the Smarr family, and when they’d asked for them back, some items were missing. Stung and disgraced by this accusation, Woodbridge took his life. This story opens up to other stories, like closets concealed in closets. Who stole those jewels? Or were they simply misplaced, or did the Smarrs accuse Woodbridge for some other reason? He had to have been a difficult man. Juliette and I, his great-great granddaughters, sat in the Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Smarr, trading ideas and indignation that Woodbridge had left a wife and ten kids without a father and the crops just in. It was as if the deed had just happened.
Later that day, I began to put it together: a family curse, and not a very interesting one, but a curse we could still detect traces of in the stiff-necked, narrow pride of some of our relatives. There, too, was a melancholy and a need for self-justification I had witnessed in my own father and at times in myself–me and a billion other Southerners from similar backgrounds: smart people who wanted something of the world, something for which they had no name. I sat at the reunion, watching my brother and his wife thoroughly enjoy themselves, wondering again where I belonged, wishing to be transported instantly back to the New England village I call home. “Lighten up!” The ghost of my mother whispered in my ear. My mother had hated these reunions: the greasy barbecue, the gloppy desserts, the unidentifiable green-and-yellow lumpy casseroles. Her spectral whisper had the advantage of coming from one now free of earthly obligations.
* * *
Great-grandmother Josephine would never have talked of crime or grievance, even to my grandmother Exa, who became a kind of confidante to her after Wylene killed herself in 1922 by walking in front of a train. (In the picture, Wylene looks unhappy, but I may be reading into it. None of them looks ready to dance a jig.) There’s a hint of pride mixed with bitterness in the prayer Josephine uttered daily when Lester was fighting deep in the Argonne Frost, in World War I. “Bring him safe home again. He is mine, mine alone. I raised him by himself, his father was dead.”
A life like Josephine Richardson Rumble’s would teach humility to a Trump. Every major personal occasion of her life that might have given her joy has, for Josephine, the burden of sorrow: her mother’s suicide; her father’s death in prison camp three months after Gettysburg; even her early wedding to Woodbridge, marred by the meanness of her grandmother Parks. The old lady thought Jo was too young to marry at eighteen and manage a household, so on the wedding day in 1867, she locked herself in the bedroom through which Jo would have to pass into the parlor to be married. A nice man named Griffin, who boarded with them, “broke the door open with his big strong knee,” forcing Grandmother Parks to witness the wedding. I guess she was soon reconciled, for Jo got pregnant on her wedding night, and pretty soon the old lady was carrying slab bacon, corn meal, and fresh beef across Tobesofkee Creek to the newlyweds.
Josephine’s 22-year-old groom Woodbridge had gone off eagerly at 17 to fight in the war, but soon saw the waste and evil of it. “What a foolish war this is. It ought never to be. There is no reason for it,” he said to a friend as they camped in the moonlight on a Virginia hillside. Somehow Woodbridge had acquired the name “Little Yank,” which he bore all his life. My brother says that “Yank” in those days meant “American,” but I suspect it also had to do with Woodbridge’s Non-Secessionist leanings. (I wonder if it gave old Gabriel Parks apoplexy to hear it. Hope so.) Woodbridge was 5’8″, with pale blue eyes, red hair, and a long serious face. He may have been taller before he walked home to Georgia all the way from Appomattox, after the surrender.
* * *
“I never did get well acquainted with him,” says Woodbridge’s second oldest son Gabriel Parks II about his father. “He was distant, reserved, unapproachable,” though “highly respected in his community, a pillar of his church, Sunday School superintendent,” etc. Reading this gives me a chill. “I was as afraid of him as I was of a bear,” says Parks, who had known a bear or two in his day. Twenty-three when his father died, Parks may have felt relief, or something darker, a release from the grip of iron-willed righteousness. The pillar of the church used to “avoid even the appearance of evil” by refusing to drink a glass of soda water in a drug store, lest one of his Sunday School pupils see him with a glass in his hand and think, maybe, that he was into the gin. I would like to work a kind of reverse haunting on my great-grandfather, luring him down to my house from the tiny John Knox quarter of the next world. I’d put on some fetching outfit and loll around my garden, swilling from a jug of white lightning. “Have a swig, Yank,” I’d say to him. “It beats the hell out of soda water.”
“Next year I will have another plough hand,” Woodbridge said to his son Doug after he’d finished seventh grade. Doug hungered for schooling, but that was as forbidden to him as drug-store bubbly. Nonetheless, he found a teacher, Mr. Taylor, at Smarr who saw the boy’s genius, and by 1899, having been out of school for seven years, he’d become a lowly “sub-freshman” at Emory College in Oxford, Georgia, north of Atlanta. He frantically studied to make up for lost time. Sometime after the family picture was taken, Doug kidnapped his brother Woodbridge Jr. from the back field and carried him off to Emory.
* * *
I remember Woodbridge at a family reunion in 1962. I was a snotty 16-year-old, and I felt out of place, hot, bug-riddled, and bored. Woodbridge came up to me and gave me a glass of lemonade to help choke down the barbecue. “You don’t feel like you fit in here with all these old Rumbles, do you?” he said, eyes twinkling. “It’s all right,” he reassured me. It was decades before I understood that he, Douglas, and Lester (not to mention their wretched sister Wylene), felt like misfits as well. They loved their mother dearly, but they didn’t want the farm, they wanted the world: books and learning, cities, students, colleagues, travel. Lester got more of these things than his brother did, I think because he’d never known his father, and never had to be afraid of him or fume at the uptight ridiculous example that “Yank” tried to set. In Woodbridge, who returned to the farm every summer until he married, and in my grandfather Douglas, I see the old tug of guilt that demands payment for even the mildest dreams.
In 1925, married fifteen years and the father of three children, my grandfather had a nervous breakdown. I expect it was the result of years of held-in grief, anger, and guilt over his father’s death, the tragedy of little Paul (the baby who died when his nightshirt caught fire), Wylene’s suicide, and pressures to provide for his family. His daughter Exa was 13, his son Douglas 11, and Cleve, my father, nine. Douglas too had become a pillar of the church. (In the Rumble family there are enough pillars of the church to make a credible reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral, except they’d have to name it Rumble Methodist Church. That would give it a certain je ne sais quoi, but might attract a congregation of bikers.) By 1925 Douglas had become a math professor at Emory (though he had wanted to teach history), a man of some property (though he never had much financial sense), and much responsibility.
* * *
One day, standing at the blackboard, he simply became paralyzed and couldn’t speak. Somebody took him home and he was put to bed, where he stayed for two months. He showed no signs of illness, but something had turned sick inside him, and for a while it took over his life. As with his grandmother Mary Candace Richardson, I suspect my grandfather’s depression had no single immediate cause such as an illness, an impending disgrace, an affair. But who can say?
My grandmother could out-talk anybody on any subject, but she never talked much about her husband’s breakdown, though of course everyone knew. Exa was lively, practical by nature, imaginative but not much given to dark thoughts. In her youth she’d been something of a flirt, and I can imagine how, as a young teacher in the academy where Douglas Rumble was principal in 1904-5, she charmed him with her merry brown eyes and quick wit. But I suspect that at times in their long marriage, she just plain wore him out. His usual technique for dealing with Exa when she pushed too hard was simply to say, “Hush, baby” and that shut her up quick. But now he was hushed up, by an unseen force.
In a letter to my father in 1951 shortly after my brother was born, Granddaddy reveals, in his eloquent vague way, how serious his breakdown was:
“Some of my most anxious moments had to do with the realization when I would get sick and particularly during long spells of illness in 1924 and 1925 that there were not sufficient funds to provide for the family if I should happen to leave them.”
No doubt he was thinking of his father’s sudden death at 43. I notice that his breakdowns began the year he was 43, as if he had to relive his father’s self-destruction. As Douglas goes on with his letter, I think he’s reflecting on the price paid for an obsessive work ethic:
He asks my father, “…when have you had a real vacation? Of course you can’t get one now. But you have a heavy load on you. The very nature of your work makes it so. You should have some relief quite often and give your mind and spirit some rest.”
* * *
At Emory, Granddaddy’s close friends naturally worried about him when he broke down. One of them, James Hinton, an English professor, wrote Douglas a consoling letter, the kind of letter that restores a sick spirit:
“…We miss you while you are away, and we want you back among us. I am sure that God receives prayers daily for your recovery and restoration. May he grant our petitions and quickly give us back a man that could not be replaced were he once lost to us. If those who love you can affect you, you will need never lose heart or suffer depression… for there is ever reaching out to you a that brightness of consolation that you are loved and earnestly wanted in your accustomed place. We must have you back, old fellow.”
The fact that Granddaddy kept this letter for the rest of his days shows how much it meant, whether or not it served as the priestly command to come out from his Lazarus tomb of depression and resume his life. The letter was written in May, sometime near Memorial Day, when everyone in the South would traipse out to the cemeteries to visit the dead and tell stories. The Georgia spring was leafing into summer, and the air outside Doug’s bedroom was warm, sweet, and full of flying seeds. His favorite bird, the cedar waxwing, was busy with his own family duties, and the creek behind the Dutch colonial faculty house was full of smallmouth bass. I can see him reading his friend’s letter with its graceful Methodist hymn-book phrases. I can see him taking off his glasses to wipe his eyes, thanking the Lord for people like Jim Hinton, and then easing his long legs over the edge of the bed, rising up, a little dizzy, and groping for his socks and suspenders. Everyone’s worry and concern had begun to weigh him down. Four pairs of brown eyes, his wife’s and children’s, regarded him anxiously. He wanted nothing so much, on this sweet day, as to go fishing up at Rabun Gap. Maybe he took Doug and Cleve along. I hope they caught some brook trout and grilled them with bacon over a fire.
* * *
I listen to my relatives underground, through the tap roots of names and dates and stories. “If you hear it, tell it,” says Eudora Welty, naming the code of Southern writers everywhere–a code we often wonder that others don’t understand. Never mind that, unlike me, most of these relatives still go to church, have raised a bunch of kids, and still seem resolutely Southern. Never mind that we don’t look alike except for the rather beaky nose I saw multiplied in various cousins, and in myself. I’m not sure it’s even important that we can point to Jacob, the teenager from Germany, probably a runaway like so many guys who start families in remote lands, and say that we all come from his fecund testosterone. Lots of other folks claim a piece of us too, many of them nameless. I find myself hoping not for a pedigree, but for its opposite: a Cherokee relative who escaped the Trail of Tears; a black cousin or two (probably named Parks) who shares my sense of the absurdity of life. I want to be inconsistent, various, a mixed-up woman of the world, not a Dorothy longing to go home to what’s safe.
When you start hearing, reading, and remembering stories, you think you have control over them because someone else did. But even a born archivist like Exa Woodruff must have been covering up something. She couldn’t have helped it: covering up and telling go together, as one word will push another one from its place in the sentence. I suspect her stories at the annual reunions were written out beforehand in her characteristic eighteenth-century-style prose: witty, balanced, orotund prose for teachers and readers, not farmers. I suspect my grandfather endured these speeches rather than enjoyed them, and spent his time looking after the youngest ones, letting them crawl way up his legs to be wrapped in his long arms while the voices went on and on.
* * *
At the reunion, each family group, identified by a great-grandparent, is obliged to get up and report on itself. The recitals last year were funny, absurd, tiresome: marriages, births, deaths, diseases, a few glittering prizes, like my brother’s Grammy nomination for album notes. My brother mentioned my third book of poems, and I hung my head as if I’d done something embarrassing. I could hardly figure out what I was feeling. These are all good people, I kept reminding myself, and they mean nobody any harm. That they and I are strangers is nobody’s fault, but a simple fact of mobility and exile. Several of them called me a “Yankee,” and I let it pass. Peter, my third husband, escaped outside and sat by himself on a child’s swing, taking in the warm green countryside and trying to identify the Southern birds. When nobody was looking, I stole up to the family chart and Xed out the name of my second husband.
Last year my brother John took a picture of the oldest: Alfred, grandson of Woodbridge. Alfred is holding the youngest baby in the crook of his long arm. He is sitting in the sun, tall and poker-faced, wearing a clean white shirt and tie, and looking as if he would gladly give the baby back to its mama. John also took a picture of Woodbridge’s and Josephine’s graves–plain gray Georgia marble with names and dates and no inscriptions. I noticed that the date of Woodbridge’s death was carved in italics, and wondered if the forward-hurrying look of the letters signified untimely death. John would tell me not to read too much into stuff like that. But that’s what I do, I’d tell him; it’s my job. We’re all good at something, and the thing I’m most good at is reading too much into things. It causes me trouble sometimes, but it sure does make life rich with meaning.
* * *
I would rather hear stories about Josephine than anyone else. She made order out of the mess: the farm chores, the kids, her own early widowhood, the wild and crazy subtropical land. From her long life filled with tragedy, Josephine had a favorite story. It was about the blue-sprigged muslin dress she made to go courting in when Woodbridge came home from the war, all strange and sad, and good-looking. The dress took a long time to make, and ironing it took a whole morning, but it was a glory when it was done. She remembered that dress all her life, and talked about it long after it had fallen to rags. Her granddaughters said that when she talked about it, her face lit up with pleasure and she said, “It’s nice to have a lovely memory, now, isn’t it?” Not a dress, but a memory. Not a scrap of it is left, but here it is for me to imagine and feel between my fingers, smiling up at eyes I have never seen.