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.