I have my back against the legs of one of the antique chairs that flanked Granny’s TV. My father is behind me, playing with my hair.
Granny sits in her recliner, a burgandy cushion of a seat that lifts here when she cannot lift herself. Beside her, Aunt Mildred, Granny’s sister, reclines on the petite loveseat, her feet elevated to ease the swelling of life in her ankles.
They are telling stories, spinning one of the tail of another. Of their father and the woman he took as his second wife and the children that came to be Granny’s charges and making her a pre-teen surrogate. Of their mother, a woman who left their father and them and married 3 times more times, the final pairing to a man younger than my grandmother and great-aunt and who came, finally to live behind Granny’s house. The arc of forgiveness swings long and wide in southern families.
For years I had asked Granny for her stories, years when Papa was alive, years when she must have felt it important to let her voice stay tucked behind his. I knew many of Papa’s stories – how he was a milkman, the time he was one of the first people to taste Pepsi-Cola – but hers were part of a silence that was much larger than her tiny body.
But now, her sister in the room, the stories sprouted forth and grew, filling the silence and glowing into the room.
A history, a story, a truth from her great-grandparents – Cassandra Lane Rich sculpts the tale of her great-grandparents, the lynching of her great-grandfather, the ragged sorrow and strength of her great-grandmother. A story that carves me out and leaves me richer and rawer.
I read a draft of this piece when Cassie and I were in grad school together, and the story has haunted the edges of my mind for years. I cannot even begin to imagine how it has shaped Cassie to write it and to live it.
The stories of our families wrap around us like blankets, or straight jackets, or the finest of gossamer threads. They form us in every way, and they also leave untouched our freedom (if we have it), our time, and our choices as we carry the lengths of the tales behind us, or as we climb the branches of legacy to find a better view.
The metaphors for family are strong, vast, and fragile as a rotten limb.
I long for stories carried through voices, not just on paper. I ache for the quiet of firelight, the way sound can shape a story, fill a deep evening, the scars and timbre of vocal chords making the tales dance and cry.
I wonder what a griot would sing of my family. Of Emanuel Cambow born in Angola made American by land. Of James Henry Cumbo crossing the color line and then marrying a woman who would inherit enslaved people. Of all the women whose stories I have not yet heard or read or even seen. Of my grandparents cousins of Emanuel and James Henry’s line.
I wonder what Granny would say if I could tell her our story, the whole of it. I wonder what she would sing in.
The Painted Steps Writer’s Group is beginning anew on February 1. If you’d like to join us in a journey to draft your own book in six months, we have 7 spaces available. More information is available here – http://andilit.com/painted-steps-writers/