I ran across these thoughts just now while looking for an old lesson plan template. I think I'll revisit this project. I felt so strongly about it a couple of years ago. It still feels viable....and somehow suddenly important.
I’ve been thinking lately about how to begin writing down any sort of coherent narrative, or set of narratives, about my family---who they were and are and how their respective senses of self were formed, altered, damaged, rebuilt or not. It’s been intimidating to begin this project and I’ve had a hard time getting started, so I thought I would just start typing. First of all, I want to set some sort of intention, but I don’t exactly know what I want to end up with. So I suppose I should start with what I think I want. I want to collect and preserve and write family stories, but not primarily for their narrative qualities. I want the stories to come together or at least relate to each other in terms of having some sort of overarching coherence and meaning regarding specific themes, paradigms, issues, struggles, and recurrent personality traits, for lack of a better term. I don’t think I’m capable of writing a true family history and that isn’t really what I’m after anyway. Maybe these stories will morph into fiction; maybe not. I think what I need to do is record my experience of them—how I learn about the people, places, and experiences involved—in a journalistic sort of way, incorporating my own thoughts, impressions, feelings, disappointments and hopes into the mix as I go. I am not sure what will happen, but that really does seem all right at this point. I hope I gain a stronger sense of that as I write and learn and record more.
Starting off, I want to look at my grandparents and start to write down stories and impressions and information about them. I want to think about them, as well as my parents, in terms of several different aspects of who they seem to have been, but I know I won’t be able to get any sort of total or complete sense of that. That’s all right; a full and accurate depiction of character isn’t what I’m really looking for, and I don’t think it’s possible. There are always different perspectives, layers, stories within stories. So, I am also willing to be surprised. I hope I will be. One of these components of identity has to do with spirituality, one has to do with vocation and creativity, and one has to do with exploring what seem to me to be real polarities of personality---a need for solitude and a desire/need to be of service to others. (I suppose this last paradoxical set of stuff is pretty much typical of the human condition, but I think it expresses itself pretty intensely in my family, and I’m interested in how it has played out in our lives. How it’s folded into our beings, jerked us around, brought us loneliness and joy. Kept us whole, torn us up. I guess this is a universal sort of matrix but I am hoping there will be some sort of resonance and singularity about what I come up with that makes it worth reading. ) People in my family seem to be dealing with very strong desires to help others, to be part of community in a tangible, profound, and service-based way, and yet they also seem to be bumping up against very powerful tugs towards solitude. Sometimes silence. Sometimes a kind of self- or other-inflicted exile. I know I feel the paradox of this dynamic in myself, and maybe I am just splicing it onto my sense of who my people have been. But I don’t think so.
On my mother’s side, there’s my grandpa Floyd. I’m not going to enumerate everything I know about him here. There are a lot of gaps regarding him and it should be interesting to fill them in. he was a public servant, working for the Federal government as a revenue agent, and he had a sort of mythic status in this town, a larger than life character who was apparently well loved by even many of those he chased down and arrested. But according to my mother and cousin he was quite a curmudgeon—not a family man at all, and prone to needing time alone in the woods. There’s a story about how he informed my grandmother when he first went out with her that he wasn’t looking to get married. This doesn’t seem terribly unique to me but I am interested in how the specifics of his character might show me some of this apparent paradox. Maybe it isn’t there after all. But I think I will learn interesting things about him. I don’t have a strong sense of his spirituality at all. It’s a blank page for me aside from the bald facts of what church he apparently attended. That isn’t true of my other family members; he’s the only one.
My grandma Floyd is someone I knew, though not as well as I might have. I think my cousin Jeff is the primary one to talk to about her. I don’t have a sense, actually, of a need for solitude in her. She seems the least introverted, the least inward of my four grandparents, for sure. Maybe that’s why I felt less of an affinity for her when she was alive, less of an immediacy of kinship, than I wanted to. She had so much energy and was so connected to so many different people. I do relate to the sometimes chaotic and discombobulated expressions of that energy that I remember in her as I get older and acknowledge my own patterns of thinking and living and how very similar they are to hers in that way. I do know she had a strong sense of personal religion. I get the feeling it was an authentic thing for her, not lip service, at least when I knew her. I remember my mother speaking of her mother’s service to her church and to other communities she was a part of and how it brought tears to my mother’s voice. I also want to think about my grandmother’s creativity, especially in terms of her painting, and how it informed who she was. How she came to her various expressions of it, what it meant to her, how it allowed her to become more fully and completely herself. I know she began painting in middle age, and I’m curious about how things changed for her inwardly when that happened.
Next, my granddaddy Sorrells. He was a legendary figure for me in childhood and someone I grew up sad about not knowing. He was, according to everyone who spoke about him, deeply committed to serving his community. He was a city policeman, deputy sheriff, and then county sheriff for many years, until he was killed in the line of duty in ‘62. I’m prepared, at least a little I think, to have some of these perceptions shaken up a bit. I’m not sure who might do that, though. My father’scousin Danny? Maybe. I am specifically interested in how my grandfather Sorrells’ relationship(s) with the African-American community of Walton County worked, or didn’t. as far as religion and spirituality go, I know that my grandfather Sorrells was born a Primitive Baptist but left that church when they told him he couldn’t be a Mason. So he chose to be a Mason rather than a Baptist. That interests me. It doesn’t bespeak a spiritual lack at all for me, though I am sure it did for some who knew him then…I am interested in why he might have made that choice, what it was about the community of the Masons that appealed to him and called to him more strongly than that of the church.
My father’s mother is the person, of these four, whom I knew the best. She was a very private, quiet, shy person, and certainly someone who chose a great deal of solitude. I don’t think she disliked people or even society, though; she was partly just shy and partly traumatized by personal experience. I never got a sense of her as misanthropic. I am interested in how she created and found relationship in her solitude. I think my dad is the best person to talk to about all this, though maybe his cousin Jeannette will also help, as well as his cousin Danny. I’m interested, finally, in my grandma Sorrells’ generativity, her creativity. It expressed itself in her sewing, quilting, baking, and cooking---domestic activities that she seemed almost constantly engaged in, at least peripherally. I am interested in how they helped sustain her and how they, again paradoxically, maybe contributed, if they did, to her solitude. As to grandma’s religion—I don’t think she ever did any de-mythologizing of any kind. Her stories were simple and unquestioned. But the faith she had, the belief system she carried, seemed to work for her. She relied on it emotionally a lot. Maybe, though, it failed her in some ways. It must have. I am curious about that. And I’m curious about the specifics of her friendship with Claudia Hillman, the African-American woman who saved my brother Brian’s life when he was a toddler. What were the rules and understandings surrounding grandma’s and Claudia’s friendship? How did it help her be less isolated, less lonely?
These are some of the questions and considerations I am starting out with. I am excited about where they might take me.