Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Thanksgiving. It's complicated.

Thanksgiving is an odd holiday for me.
It's complicated.
Or maybe three times.

My grandparents moved  from Tennessee to Colorado when my father was five years old.  I loved my  quiet and reserved Grandpa and tried to love my irritable and opinionated grandmother. Grampa's Thanksgiving prayer was always short and sweet, but I remember him including the "Cherokee Nation" once or twice, because his mother--my great grandmother--was half Cherokee. He explained to me that the earliest colonists would never have made it through the first winter without a lot of "Indian" help. He said all the tribes got a "raw deal".

When I was in forth grade, my father began to buy me books about the Cherokee. I remember him turning it into a math lesson:  Great Gramma was 1/2 Cherokee so Grandpa was 1/4,  which made my dad 1/8 and me 1/16th.  My father was proud of our fractional heritage. I heard him tell  people that he had both Irish and Cherokee blood, so I started saying it too. The books he gave me on birthdays and Christmases taught me more about about the Cherokee culture. I read about the atrocities, too, the 1500 mile forced march from the Cherokee's home to a reservation in what became Oklahoma was called the Trail of Tears. Underfed and exhausted children who died were left by the wayside. Some mothers pretended their babies were alive, carried them day after day, desperate not to leave them to the crows and coyotes and ants. Old people who could not keep up were left behind, too. And there is more, so much more to lament and be ashamed of in the long, cruel history of the "settling" of America. I finally realized years later that was what my grandfather had called a "raw deal."

my great grandparents and their first four children.
My great grandmother was half Cherokee. Her other half  never came up at the dinner table. My grandfather never mentioned or prayed for that side of his heritage and I don't think anyone ever wondered why. I didn't. The books all said many Scotts-Irish people and others  married Cherokee people in Eastern Tennessee long before and long after the Civil War.

 My grandfather died when I was eleven.  Years later my cousin told me they found his KKK card in his sock drawer after the funeral. He was a gentle, kind man and I was stunned. Some people said that  when he was growing up the Klan was like a service organization, a club that helped out members in need. Maybe he believed that. I can't. It weighed on my heart and still does. I can't reconcile it with the sweet and soft spoken man I knew.

One of my cousins researched our family history. He found relatives none of us had ever met and documents we had never  known about. There were a few vague references that made me wonder if we had a third heritage that had never been talked about or honored. But all hints were blurred and old and where there was ink on paper, it was faded and uncertain. I wanted to have more strains of humanity in my genes. I was writing by then and visiting schools. I would have loved to claim a broader heritage -- but no one found anything of substance. I was sure I would never find out, never know.

Years later, when my father's Alzheimer's became profound, I was the one who took care of him, spending many hours every week  in the fenced-in old house that had been transformed into a small care facility. I spent the last few months of those days sitting with him, interpreting his tangled, associative way of speaking for the caretakers on staff, and treasuring the times when he was suddenly himself for a minute or two.

One day, about six months before my father died, we were sitting side by side on the slumpy green couch in the TV room. He was relaxed, not agitated or scared as he was so often then.  A new employee walked past us, a wonderful caregiver who had come to the US from Haiti. My father focused on her as she asked him if he would like a glass of water. She waited for him to answer and when he didn't she patted his hand and said she would ask him again later.

As she walked away, Dad gripped my arm hard enough to hurt. "You can't tell anyone," he whispered, then repeated those four words two or three times, looking into my eyes.
"Ok," I answered, "tell them what?"
"That we're part negro. Give me your word."
He was shaking and sweating and I wanted to ask him so many questions but I knew he wouldn't be able answer them. At that stage of his decline, his clear moments were truly just....moments. So I told him it didn't matter anymore, that lots of  families had mixed heritages, that it was common and accepted by most people.
He cried.
My father cried.
And then he thought I was his brother and he asked me if I wanted to go fishing in Oregon come spring. I sat there, feeling light and changed, holding both his hands as I promised to get his tackle box cleaned out soon.

So my family tree is taller and wider than I thought.   I am very thankful for that.


*Adding this later, their children's names:  William Wynne, George Franklin, Andrew Thomas, John Kinser, Ira Walter, Samuel Edward, Joseph Lequire, Rosanah Arty, Lennie Ann, and James Harvey Peery


Joanna said...

Thanks for sharing this, K. So glad your Dad had that moment of lucidity and trust to unburden himself and bring revelation to you. Where we come from will always be a part of who we are.

jaclyndolamore said...

That is complicated! But interesting. A lot of stories hidden in there... You've got the blood of a lot of continents in you. My ancestors, as far as we can trace, all come from a relatively small space on the planet. I think it's so fascinating to imagine one's roots, flying in branches all over the world.

Lia Keyes said...

Ah, you even weave the truth with iridescent threads!

I was 19 when I met a hidden black cousin, quite by accident—a latter day product of Portugal's colonial past.

As a half Portuguese girl growing up in a London still suspicious of 'foreigners' in the sixties and seventies I was never wholly accepted by my English peers at my posh private school. There was something other about me that they found too awkward to navigate.

My mother cooked with olive oil and garlic to soothe my father's yearning for home and we had a different perspective on so many little day-to-day things. My father was a bit of a handsome thug, and my mother was a green-eyed beauty who listened to the Red Army chorus because the voices were beautiful and proud and rousing. They were war babies in a time when lines were drawn in sand still running with blood today.

I grew up in a home that celebrated the best of every culture we rubbed up against, and shook our heads sadly over the way they each at times let themselves down.

We never had a team to root for, because we were too much citizens of the world to pledge allegiance to anything smaller.

I'm happy that you celebrate your cultural complexity!

kathleen duey said...

I am grateful for this, and for a lot of other re-connections that were made in his last years. We had a stormy relationship from my teens on... I envy all the places you have lived, all the cultues you have absorbed.

Jackie/Jaclyn, it IS interesting, and yes, there are stories here. My great grandfather fought in the civil war and I have a copy of his interview with the local newspaper when he came home (from a centennial reproduction of that issue) It is amazing he lived through what he had to face. If he had given up, I would not be here. I want to write it someday, a novel-length thanks to him for surviving and giving me my life.

I have never attended a posh school, but if I had been there, I would have been fascinated with your family and the olive oil and we could have written terrible but sincere short stories together.

Lia Keyes said...

Kathleen, you would have been such a fun friend to have in high school! I was there on a government grant, a full ride, thanks to surprising my teachers by passing the mandatory 11+ IQ test with the highest score in my year. It never did me any good, though. I was probably the worst student they ever had. Now they call it learning differences. Then they called it bone lazy. I called it leave-me-alone-so-I-can-read-this-book-itis.