Friday, October 05, 2007

remembering eleanor, remembering the south

As promised, despite the maelstrom of activity swirling around eating up the hours of my days, one of the topics that currently warrants the most attention in this forum (albeit a bit belatedly) is the passing of my grandmother a few weeks ago at the ripe old age of 93. My August vacation didn't begin the way I'd planned after I cut my foot on the oyster beds and subsequently hobbled around for the next four or five days. Likewise, it ended differently than I'd anticipated as we made the five hour drive from St. George Island up to Selma, Alabama, for my grandmother's funeral.

I could provide a blow-by-blow description of the familial activities and the service itself, but I don't think it would do justice to the experience. I was more struck by the abstract facets of this visit than the concrete. To explain: I've been away from the Deep South for a long time now, longer than I'd realized. While the memory of it is familiar to my conscious mind, the experience of it is an entirely different being altogether. I sensed in myself a very definite internal response to being in that part of the country...largely because of its familiarity to me, but also because of some inherent, undefinable quality that belongs to the land and the people there. It would be only partially accurate to call it an emotional response, or a spiritual response. The word that comes to mind is from my high school Latin class: "animus." It is a word that means mind and spirit and consciousness and being, all in one. Finding yourself in Selma, Alabama, in late August (or any time of year, really...but especially summer) is not just a different experience or way of feeling or way of thinking. It is an entirely different mode of being altogether.

People tell stories about the past. They talk about people they knew and knew about, and the ways those people were interconnected. This practice obviously is not unique to the South, but I think the method of doing so may be. These stories are told with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm and charisma one would expect from a children's fairy tale or a campfire ghost story. It's a consequence of inflection, an unconscious rise and fall of the voice, a slowing or quickening of the words at just the right time. It isn't affected...it's just the way things are done. The brilliant thing about it is that it is unintentional, off-the-cuff, and universal - it seems as if everyone is capable of this feat, as if the ability to be a storyteller is just another genetically defined trait like green eyes or tan skin. (N.B. - I'm reluctant even to point this out. Much like the "observer effect" in physics, I fear that, in shining a light on this phenomenon, I will somehow change it in the process.) Even the stories themselves have a mythical quality to them. There is a sense that they don't even belong to the world in which we live, to this culture or this time period, but to some parallel universe that is often richer, darker, more mysterious. Is it any wonder that when I read Flannery O'Connor's short stories in college, they never seemed to be too bizarre, too gothic, too far afield?

So, on a thick, muggy August afternoon, I found myself in suit pants and rolled shirt sleeves standing with my family in Selma's Live Oak Cemetery, shovel in hand, sweating through my clothes despite the shade of enormous two-hundred-year-old oak trees. We - my parents, my cousin, my uncles, my aunt...even my grandparents' housekeeper (as much a member of the family as any blood kin) - we turned shovels full of red-clay earth on top of the ashes of both my grandparents as we sang "I'll Fly Away" and "Amazing Grace." Acapella. In harmony.

The experience was so vastly different from day-to-day life in Richmond. Simultaneously (paradoxically?), there was a strange sense of it being more familiar, more directly linked to the essence of my animus. The line between the mythology of the Deep South and the mythology of my grandparents has always been blurry and shifting for me. It's like trying to define the point at which the ocean meets the land. It changes every second. Eventually you stop trying to pin it down and begin to regard that liminal space and the regions it separates as components of a single, unified landscape. Such was the case as the physicality of my grandparents was fused - quite literally - with the land that sustained sustained them and the culture that defined them.

3 comments:

rfe said...

Anne and I still think you should be the one to write the book, you know. Or, it doesn't have to be THE book. Any book will do. Just WRITE!!!!! You do it so well!

annabelle said...

Thanks, Chris! Btw, you just basically captured what I always feel about the stories my parents and grandparents tell, being richer and from a parallel place. Pefectly captured. Glad I got to meet your grandmother too-she was lovely.

rebecca said...

Chris
YOu must write soon and often and on the south as a starting point. You have a gift for capturing the moment in time. I loved your notes on Eleanors funeral. So sorry I could not be there but you helped me feel connected to the event
ALl the best
Rebecca (your ex aunt in law)