Since it is Memorial Day weekend, I am introducing my Ancestors.
Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day, is a U.S. federal holiday set aside to honor those who died in combat. In the southern states, and Appalachia in particular, the holiday has expanded as a time to remember all of one’s relatives who have passed on.
Because my dad was in the military and for a host of other reasons, I grew up without an extended family – without ancestors, so to speak. My immediate family does not have a cemetery that we can go to this weekend and decorate. We will not be attending any Homecomings (family reunions often held at churches or cemeteries).
While I’m not really all that keen on the idea of spending Monday at a cemetery eating potato salad, I do miss knowing the people that make up the furthest branches of my family tree.
When we moved back here in 1985 and bought “Frank’s old place,” I was often asked, “Who are your people?” That, or some more subtle variation, is a common question and one of the defining characteristics of Appalachian culture. Often the conversation begins with “Where are you from?” The questioner is expecting an answer that names a county or town with more descriptors identifying the family tree. We don’t particularly want to know your occupation (so forget the “so what do you do? question), we want to know who you connect to – how you fit into the quilt of our communities.
I explain that I’m not from anywhere as my dad was in the military, but that my great-grandparents were Appalachians who out-migrated around the turn of the century. Consequently, I grew up with hillbilly ways in non-hillbilly places. My people, the ones I’m related to by blood, are scattered around the country and due to different life circumstances, I don’t have a lot of information about the kinfolk much past a few generations. It’s kind of sad.
One day, while perusing stuff in an antique store, I found a bin of old photographs. I was enchanted and appalled. Who? Who, in their right mind, would get rid of old family photos? These people, their individuality permeating sepia, were languishing unloved and unappreciated in a dusty cardboard box in a junk store. The indignity! And then it dawned on me. For $3, I bought the first portrait of my Ancestors. I’ve adopted many Ancestors since then.
The photo below is one of my favorites. I’ve named them the Kinton family and have decided that the photo is of a married couple, the vicious mother-in-law, and the sulking teenage son (who, as you may note, is trying to distance himself from the embarrassment of having to hang out with his parents).
I’m particularly fond of the noble steeds. Apparently, my extended family eschewed equestrian activities for burro-ian ones. [Note: Now we know where I got my innate sense of dignity in awkward situations.] Of all the Ancestors, this family intrigues me the most and set the tone for my collection. Not all, but many of my Ancestors, are quirky. While I regret not knowing my real family well, I love the freedom of choosing people and creating biographies while simultaneously being pissed off that someone, anyone, would give up such precious photos.
The Ancestors have been languishing in a dusty cardboard box on my church pew for sometime now. I want a better life for them, buth such things take time and money – precious commodities in my life. My goal is to have them all professionally framed so I can hang them above the church pew to be viewed (and remembered). I will be able to point to “my people” and, as soon as I finish writing biographies for each of them, explain where they lived, what they did and who they loved. [Note: I adore the church pew. Having been raised in a fundamentalist religious tradition, I take a certain amount of contrary pleasure in sitting on the church pew en flagrante déshabillé, smoking a cigarette and sipping wine.]
I’ve spent the morning digging through the ancestors as well as photos of my more immediate family. It’s been a bittersweet time. I’d like to go to a cemetery and sit in green grass and remember them – pull some weeds, plant a rose or two, admire the daisies growing on the hillside. Instead, I will spend this weekend working in the garden that includes many of the plants they gave me or I dug up from their yards after they passed.
We lost two of my dad’s sisters a couple of months ago. Marvelous women, both of them, we are still grieving. They died two hours and 900 miles apart, some what unexpectedly. I’m planning to go to the nursery and buy their favorite flowers to plant in my garden. I think that will encompass the spirit of things.
In memory of Kathy, and, in particular, Irene, who loved the absurd as much as I. One after one, they endured some of the most horrible events life can offer, yet still managed to laugh. I miss them both.