Impact of Taking the Back Roads

When I visit my family, I often drive the back roads instead of the main highway. The back roads pass through a part of the town that curves sharply several times and plunges deeply into the hollow, a site that I’d heard was where a meteor crashed “a long time ago.” While we’re making the serpentine descent, my husband always remarks that he imagines a Native American tribe along the bluffs. I shrug, saying, “Who knows?”

During my last visit, I asked my grandmother about her father’s heritage. I knew only that he was a tall sharecropper with a sun darkened face. He wore overalls and had large, dark hands and high cheekbones. His sharp appearance didn’t seem clearly aligned with a particular race or group. She said, “Supposed to be Dutch and Indian. His Momma looked just like an Indian.” I had never heard this about her family, though it was a common description of an ancestor from another part of my family.

I asked, “What tribe?”

She said, “I believe it was Shawnee.”

The next day, my great-Aunt Linda let me borrow a book that gives the history of the town. The book doesn’t have an ISBN or Library of Congress number. Compiled and typed by two of the town’s historians, it seems that they simply printed & bound some copies and sold them a few decades ago. One of the first stories I read was about a small group of Shawnee, about 150 people, who lived in the fertile valley in the hollow. They traded with the settlers and contracted Scarlet Fever, which wiped out about 85% of their population. It felt like I stumbled upon the family of that great-great grandmother.

As I read more of the book, I learned that hollow is actually a crater that holds even more surprises. About 360 million years ago, a meteorite did crash into that location, on the backside of what was once my great-grandparent’s and later my grandparent’s farm. The book says the crater was formed “sometime near the middle of the Devonian Period” and it “belongs to a controversial class of structures that number at least 50 throughout the world and have been variously termed Cryptovolcanic, Cryptoexplosion, or Meteorite Impact craters”, though theories for the former two terms have been abandoned by geologists. Meteorite impact site is the agreed upon definition. And this particular crater has been the site of a core drilling, along with other studies that “indicate…the formation…is consistent with a cometary impact.” I haven’t finished the book and look forward to more discoveries. And, I cannot wait to hear what’s revealed during my next visit.

If you’re curious about Meteor Craters, check out geology.com’s map. You can zoom up close to 50 of the world’s meteor craters, though you won’t see any in the Southeastern United States on this map.

The Last Storytellers

The last of the living get to tell the stories & shape the past with their descriptions, I thought while listening to my Nana last weekend. Keeping my promises, I drove through the rural town, mourning its brown fields and dying trees due to the drought and heat, and visited my Nana, great-aunt, and great-Uncle B with my Mom and my daughters.

I had often heard stories about my family while growing up, but since last year I’ve been asking questions with the purpose of writing a novel. For my first book, Multiple Exposure, I spent most of my time like a stereotypical writer–researching, writing alone, and then asking for fact checkers and readers. This second book (Poke Sallet Queen) has been so different, and I’m more social and more intrigued by the process of talking through different scenarios and connecting with both sides of my family (maternal and paternal) to produce the stories.

First, Nana obliged me by answering my inquiries. She described the way her mother reeled quilt frames up to the ceiling so that her family of seven could have more space in their three-room house. Nana reclined in a cushioned chair and recalled carrying a lantern over the hill in the middle of the night when her mother went into labor with another brother. All of Nana’s siblings are brothers. More details ticked off the minutes until it approached midnight and I tried to keep my eyes open while writing about her parents in my notebook.

For the other side of my family, I went back to the nursing home, where my great-Uncle B’s voice has become stronger but is still strained. He laughed with delight when he saw my baby daughter and said, “Been a long time since I saw one this little.” He shared descriptions about his mother-in-law (another of my great-grandmothers), a fearful, nervous woman who looked out for her daughters with the sharp awareness of a red-tailed hawk, the same bird I saw turning in the sky over fields that once belonged to our family. He told more stories about bootlegging, and between them, he quickly went through the files in his mind, not allowing too much silence to encompass our time together. After a chuckle, he said that my grandfather had once “gotten to drinking” down at the creek with one of their friends, and my grandfather had a old Ford Thunderbird. Uncle B said, “Well, he got so mad about something that he was gonna leave and caught the gravel under his tires and flew off the road, missing the bridge, and ended up in the creek. That son of a bitch totaled the car and had to leave it there.”

After a few more stories, I asked Uncle B his exact age, he said, “Sometimes I wonder why I’m still alive, but I guess it’s so I can tell you about this, tell the stories. So I can be here for you all. For them.” He pointed to us–my great aunt, my Mom and my children.