Tuesday, December 27, 2011

History Lesson

I spent yesterday driving north from Alabama to Nashville with Patrick and his parents, visiting the places his father's family lived. We passed old log tenant homes, plantation houses, and slave-built stone walls.

There is so much history there.

On Christmas Day, Patrick's granddad came to spend the afternoon with us, telling stories from his childhood in Lynnville. We heard about someone's dog peeing on the lettuce, left outside in the shade so it would not wilt in the southern sun, and about the mayor--who was also the barber--who scolded Grandaddy Jim for taking the hill into town too fast. In the morning before we left, we had Mother Linda's--Patrick's great-grandmother's--biscuits, and headed north into Tennessee.

In 1918, Patrick's great-great grandfather died during the flu epidemic, leaving behind his wife, nine children, and an unfinished house in Lynnville, TN. Mama Brown raised her children, finished the house, and ran the family farm until her death, becoming the embodiment of a Southern matriarch. One thing that separates the south from my homeland is the connection that people have to their families, to their heritage, and to their histories. Patrick and his family have been to these old family homes, despite the fact that they are no longer in the family. The new owners are kind people, caring and respectful that others have a history on their land. The owner of Mama Brown's house restored it, furnishing it with beautiful antiques and quilts, retaining the original flooring and doors and architecture. He was sick yesterday, but he drove out to let us in to his house, so that Patrick's father could show us around, explaining where Mama Brown died, where his Uncle Bobby convalesced from tuberculosis, where the large family gathered around their piano to sing in the evenings together. When a house leaves your family in the west, it leaves your family. In Patrick's south, these places become places to share.

We ate lunch at Soda Pop Junction, where Patrick's great-uncle served as a soda jerk years and years ago, and had Tennessee's Number 1 burger, according to the Food Network and the Travel Channel and me.

Before leaving Lynnville, we went to the town cemetery, where generations of Browns & Weatherlys are buried. Like New England, there are flowers on nearly every grave. Patrick said that for the people in the south, the dead are just as much--if not more--part of the family as the living. Visiting gravesites isn't really a holiday affair in Alabama. The Brown & Weatherly gravestones are grouped together, and the large Brown stone lists name after name, child after child--most of whom lived to around a hundred years old, with the exception of one little girl who died at age three. The current owner of Mama Brown's house said that his daughter, when they lived there years ago, had a young friend who was about 3, who they couldn't see. His wife refuses to stay at the house anymore, because she wakes up to piano music and singing. When he told this to Alan, Carla, and Granddaddy Jim, he didn't know that Mama Brown and her children would sing together in the evenings in the olden days.

I know there is history here, too, in Seattle. Native history, and logging history. Fishermen and pioneers. History that is no less interesting and no less valuable or storied than the history in the south. But there's something enthralling about the south, about the family ties and sense of community. There's something about driving through somewhere that you know was built on slave labor, driving through a place that you know has struggled to grow and move past that history without forgetting, driving through a place like Lynnville, TN, where--despite its municipal neighbor of Pulaski, TN being the place the KKK was born--Patrick's granddad said he never once heard the n-word, in all his life there.

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