Screw manners

Photo c/o  Leslie  on Flickr

Photo c/o Leslie on Flickr

Note: I wrote most of this a couple of years ago, but hadn't found the right way to finish it, or the best place to publish it. I am still not sure if this is the best place to publish it, but I sure as hell have an ending now.

It was a spring day in 2002 when I made a promise to myself to leave the South and never look back.

Earlier that morning, my dad and I drove up from Atlanta to Willow Swamp Baptist Church in Norway, South Carolina to attend a family reunion.

The purpose of this particular reunion (there are many, many other reunions) was to attend a rededication ceremony for Hiram Williams, my great-, great-, great-grandfather who fought as a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. I had heard of Hiram before, but never of such an event. At that point, I’d only known one person who had died and she dedicated her body to science.

On the day of the reunion, Norway felt like the hot, dusty middle of nowhere. Pictures from that day show tables full of extended family members, few of whom I actually knew. Many still lived in the Williams family strongholds of Columbia and Savannah.

And even those who no longer live in the Deep South are still fiercely proud of their heritage. Four years ago, I drove my belongings from Boston to San Francisco and spent one night with my late great-uncle Cooper and his wife in St. Louis. They claim that their adopted hometown is just as much a part of the South as Birmingham. At the time, I was writing a series of stories about eating across the country and at dinner that night the subject of barbecue came up. I was talking brisket, Kansas City ribs, and vinegar sauce, but Uncle Cooper insisted that I could not possibly prefer any of these foods — South Carolina mustard sauce is my heritage. Palate be damned.

I do, in fact, carry this heritage in a more personal way. My parents, after what was likely much cajoling from my dad’s family, gave me the middle name Hendry, which, after decades of relentless teasing for having a “boy’s name,” I had come to like. After that reunion, and especially after this week, I am not so sure.

Hendry connects me to a people who moved to coastal Georgia from Scotland far before The Civil War. One of those descendants married my great-grandfather, him the proud resident of Norway, SC, forever tying a rural Carolina family to a coastal Georgian one.

The only reason I know any of this is because my dad’s brother David tracked down a massive family history written by that great-grandfather of mine in the 1940s. David put it online and, with the help of countless family members, has updated and amended the tree. It’s a mostly Biblical list of men who married women and begot children who begot children, but there are a few crucial nuggets slipped in between the patrimonial monotony: A couple of letters written during The Civil War. A scanned document listing the names of my immigrant ancestors. A contract written by my widowed great-, great-, great-grandmother detailing how she would go about dealing with her newly freed slaves after the Confederates lost the war.

They were a mildly aristocratic bunch, my ancestors. After the war, when they lost much of their land and all of their slaves, they turned to business and academia, a tradition that still continues today. Just about every adult male on the tree has a PhD, JD, or at least an MA. Whatever the profession, they were all remained fiercely proud to be so deeply tied to a place — Carolinians through and through.

At reunions today, there are plenty of mentions of this vast historical document. There are stories told and updates suggested, but never a whisper about slaves. We’d rather opine about barbecue sauce.

One item of controversy on the family tree is our relation to Robert E. Lee. My grandfather insisted that there was a direct connection between our families stretching back to the 18th century; the belief is so intrinsic to my understanding of my ancestry that I used it as a conversation starter when meeting new friends in elementary school. I started to doubt the factuality of the relation when, in fifth grade, another girl insisted that she was also a descendent of the general.

No matter, I still have Hiram to directly connect me to the Confederate army. He was a private in the first company of the 20th South Carolina Volunteer Regiment and was was killed late in the war at the battle of Cedar Creek. There, he fought alongside his brothers before he was shot in the hip and abandoned on the battlefield. It turns out the story made it into a Charleston paper. His brother James (Roland) told the Charleston News and Courier long after the war:

''We rallied to give our trains more time to get away and then fell back, faked another rally and were going to continue our retreat when Brother Hiram received a shot in the hip. There was no way of carrying him then. We had to move too fast, so l wouldn't leave him. When I saw a company of Northerners approach I ran up to an officer and told him that my brother had been shot and that l wanted to stay with him. He drew his sword and, had l not dodged, l believe the blow that he aimed at me would have cut my head off. He then ordered me taken to the rear and I was quickly surrounded by a squad to execute the order. I had walked a piece with them when I decided to turn around and wave at Brother Hiram. But the ground was hilly and l could no longer see where he lay. We never heard of him after that.''

Even though he didn't live long enough to make much of an impact in the war, it never surprised me that my history-obsessed family would want to continue to honor his short-lived legacy. Grave dedications are a fairly easy way to do that, but because he died on the battlefield, we only have a guess to where his actual body lies.

So instead of visiting an actual gravesite, the family commissioned a new headstone to be placed on the grounds at Willow Swamp. Not only is the church one of the longest-running churches in South Carolina, it was also founded in the 18th century by another one of my ancestors, William Tyler, whose great-...something...granddaughter married Braxton Bragg Williams, the only son of Hiram. Both the Tyler and the Williams families stuck around the area for generations to come. (Do a quick search on Willow Swamp’s grave registry, and you’ll see my family listed there like royalty.)

The church’s stark fellowship hall was the host for our pre-dedication meal of a greasy, rich, belly-aching buffet of food — macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, and “green squares,” a dessert/salad of dubious origin that contains an even more dubious concoction of jello, cool whip, and a few other things I rarely eat. I can’t remember all of the details, but probably ate too much fried chicken. I do recall a stomachache.

After lunch, we moved to the gravesite. My physical discomfort only intensified when I realized who was there to re-dedicate the grave: The Sons of Confederate Veterans, proudly waving the Confederate flag. Printed in our bulletin were the words to the pledge of allegiance to the Confederacy. Just about everyone joined in, promising their hearts, souls, and dreams to an exhausted desire for an individual statehood that allowed for the enslavement of an entire race of people. In that moment, I made that vow to leave.

Three years later I held good on my promise and moved a trunk full of clothes to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. I never had much of a Southern accent to begin with, but once I arrived in Portland, I immediately stopped using the word “y’all.” I delighted in telling my visiting relatives that the atheist club was far more popular than the small Christian organization. I hung tapestries, ate tofu, smoked pot, and hung out with the RKSK, Reed's vaguely communist "kollectiv." It wasn’t a very serious rebellion.

About halfway through college, my dad’s father was diagnosed with lymphoma. Grandpa Loren was always my healthiest grandparent — an avid outdoorsman, he was constantly hiking, exploring, camping. His mind was sharp and his library full of history books. Like most men his age, he was a proud military man. He was still young in the 1940s, and only joined up as World War II was ending. He spent his active service on the USS Antietam scooting around the Pacific and his only battle scar was a lifelong obsession with SPAM.

He had been there that day in Norway, wearing his standard uniform of khaki hiking shorts, a short sleeve button-down, and loafers (no socks). He was quiet, yet friendly, a talented listener and the keeper of so many of our family tales. He spoke in short, parenthetical essays, spinning oft-repeated yarns about our family’s ancestry, our rich connection to the Carolinas, and how all of those hundreds of years coalesce around meal time.

I never expected him to get sick.

And no one — not even his doctors — believed the cancer would kill him for decades to come. So the phone call we all received in late December 2008 was a bowling ball to the gut. He was bedridden and had given up on hospitals. I drove north from Atlanta, and we spent Christmas huddled at my aunt and uncle’s house, itself huddled on the side of a mountain outside of Boone. There was an awkward hush throughout the home as we tiptoed around my grandfather asleep on the couch. We acted as if he’d wake up and regain his strength, but he was already gone, emaciated and silent.  

Distant relatives and friends came around with armfuls of macaroni casserole, green bean casserole, mystery meat casserole. I drank tea and dreamt of salads and went on long walks on semi-treacherous one-lane roads. My grandfather ate one popsicle a day. When New Year’s rolled around, I said my goodbyes and drove back to Atlanta to work on my senior thesis and to ignore the inevitable.

By the middle of January, he stopped eating popsicles. He took his last breath under hospice care in my uncle’s computer room.

The funeral was at the Episcopal church in Boone, the sanctuary packed with as many friends as family. I saw my father cry for the first time. We buried his ashes in a small grave outdoors, unadorned with any of his military regalia, and returned to the church to pick at more casseroles, cheese, and crackers.

All of the people I had last seen that long ago spring in Norway showed up at my aunt and uncle’s house. More cream cheese, corn pudding, chips, dip, and a leftover gingerbread house littered the counters, but I couldn’t eat. Comfort food can’t pass as a soothing meal when it is served next to the vision of a body slowly dying.

The South has been bearing witness to death and then rebuilding homes on its many graves for centuries. Those of us with such deep history in a troubled space can’t help but be haunted by the ghosts living in our land and our food. Our comfort food was, after all, built on the backs of the men and women we forced to work our land. Each time a family member ignores that slave tally on the family tree, calls our ancestors “farmers,” or forgets where that sweet potato recipe really came from, we sweep that history further under the rug.

Even before this election, I was haunted almost daily. I have felt myself being tugged back by a quiet, invisible thread any time I start to feel lonely or discombobulated in my adopted West Coast home. I find myself craving that comfort food, that warmth. I have a collection of my Grandfather’s recipes sitting on my computer, and I flip through them whenever that feeling strikes. I read recipes his notes on dinner rolls and salmon grits, and then I drag my boyfriend to eat fancy fried chicken and mediocre barbecue.

There were days when I forget the discomfort I felt at the Norway reunion, or when far off family members would scold me for not attending church.

But this week, after Trump was elected, I have made sure not to forget, and to no longer stay silent about how my ancestors built their wealth and prestige. There has been a long tradition in my family of keeping politics away from the dinner table, of the liberal side staying silent around the conservative side. Screw that.

Screw manners, screw pretending like our ancestors weren't racist slave owners, screw acting like history of the South isn't about white pride. I know this story isn't unique, but I am sorry I have let it sit, unpublished in a Google doc for years, and I am sorry I've sat by and nodded my head while my relatives spout crazy bullshit about states rights and "God's path." I'm done with that. Now is not the time to sit there and be polite. As privileged white people, now is the time to stand up to the implicit racism in our own families. Now is the time to show up and listen and learn from all of the many other Americans who have so much more to lose than a polite dinner conversation.

Here is what I'm currently reading/watching/listening to this week:

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson
13th on Netflix
We got it from Here.. Thank You 4 Your service (A Tribe Called Quest)

Give me suggestions for next week.