My mother, Chickie Ling, Jerome, Arizona, around 1920

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Don't Move Pat. He Got Run Over by a Fire Truck

Difficulty and Delight in Soliciting Family History

This was written about ten years ago. Of all the people in the story, only three of us are still living. For those who have passed on, including the dog, their voices have been silenced and their stories are no longer available to us.

It's Thanksgiving morning and I drive the sixty miles to the retirement home where my eighty-four-year-old mother lives. We, together, then travel another one hundred forty miles to the town where she gave birth to my brother and me. We go there to share the holiday with my father's sisters and their husbands. We will retrace our steps this afternoon so that we can sleep in our own beds tonight.
This assemblage is all that is left of my parents' generation in my small family, and the planning has been fraught with angst and last minute changes of heart. My mother has been sick and has recently fallen. She commits, is then ambivalent, finally deciding to attend at the last minute, afraid that she will miss what may be her last visit with the group intact. My father had three sisters, all still going strong, the baby being a mere eighty-three. The two who married have husbands who, God willing, will soon attain the age of ninety. Although small in number and now in stature, they are intrepid souls, each placing one resolute foot before the other as another holiday season rolls around at breakneck speed. At my callow age, I am the only one who drives with any impunity so it makes sense for me to deliver my mother.

I have a hidden agenda. Although I am happy (and sad) to see my aging relatives, aware that these gatherings have a limited future, I am here for information. I want the scoop and time is of the essence.

I have only recently become interested in oral history, in family lore, too late to ask my father. Having talked my poor mother mute with requests for stories of her childhood, I am moving in for the kill on my only link to my patriarchal side. My quarry are unsuspecting as they masticate their Chex Mix and drink their Bloody Mary's, their thoughts centered on survival issues like social security, high prices and poor service.

I point to an old family portrait, hoping to spark a natural segue. As we all gather in a corner trying to look, I become confused and a bit claustrophobic. "Who is that?" "I don't know." "That's Granddaddy." "Which Granddaddy?" Adding to the befuddlement is the family penchant for reusing names. "That's Susie." "Which Susie?" "Is that me?" "No, you weren't even born yet." The people in the portrait gaze stolidly back at me, unmoved by my distress, people who, although still unnamed, look disconcertingly very much like us.
I haven't yet mentioned my objective for the day, nor have I produced the tape recorder. We have had some discussion about my digital camera, the consensus being that, with its preview and deletion capabilities, it is a good thing. That is until I mention that it works best when affiliated with a computer.

As we gather at the table, I get up the nerve to mention that I am interested in hearing the stories of my aunts' childhoods. My middle aunt, the one hosting our feast, says, with some vigor, "I have always said, if someone wanted to write stories, we have stories!" But before I can get my tape recorder out from under my chair, the talk turns to which aunt made the salad and is the meat cooked to everyone's taste. The uncles are contentedly eating, dabbing at their mouths, passing the bread. Thinking it might not be nice or smart to try to control the dinner conversation, I decide to hold off until dessert.

As we choose between rum cake and pecan pie, I lay the tape recorder on the table. It looks out of place on the snowy cloth, the black plastic defiling the aura of the autumnal centerpiece. My mother smiles encouragingly at my aunts, glad it is they for whom the recorder records and not she. They utter a collective sigh, as if steeling themselves for something they just can't seem to escape. Resorting to form, my middle aunt attempts to get things started, asserting, a bit protectively, that they had a wonderful father and a great childhood even though they were motherless and poor. My oldest aunt, the one who never married, looks vague and says that she can't remember much. The baby says that she just isn't good at telling stories. I ask specific questions, just trying to get the players straight. I learn that, after the death of their mother, an aunt and her son came to live with them. The son, their cousin, was like another brother to them and my daddy was glad to have an additional boy, a compatriot, in the house. After a few more helpful facts but no real stories, the talk turns to contemporary matters and we finish our meal by lining up to talk on the phone to my brother who is eight hundred miles away. I put away the tape recorder, pondering when I can schedule a return trip to talk to my father's sisters individually.

Making our way back to the den for coffee, I can tell my mother is tired and I think of the long drive ahead. It's time to take our leave. In gathering up my paraphernalia, I deposit the scorned tape recorder in the bottom of my bag. Before adding the digital camera, I show my youngest aunt the picture of my Labrador Retriever I'd taken just before leaving home, a practice shot to make sure the battery was charged and the disk had space for the family pictures I would surely take. As we begin heading toward the door in a sluggish throng, my aunt says, "I remember that we had animals. I had a dog named Diddiebycha (as in Did he bite ya?) and George" (her brother and my father) "had a cat named Black Cat Kitty." My middle aunt says, "I remember that too. George also had a big dog named Fritz. And Earle" (the cousin) "had a bulldog named Pat." A look of amusement settling around her eyes, she asks my other two aunts, "Do you remember the time George came home and found Pat in his bed with a note from Earl that said, 'Don't move Pat. He got run over by a fire truck.'" They nod, smiling, their faces rapt.

I perk up at the splendid story, wishing that I could dislodge the recorder from the bottom of my bag, but I'm afraid of breaking the spell. As they continue, I find that Pat survived being run over by the fire truck and my daddy endured the indignity of having a dog appropriate his bed. As if this were not enough, as if this story wasn't worth the trip and putting my poor relatives through a stressful and strange holiday get-together, my oldest aunt, the one who earlier couldn't remember, the one who never married, stands up, grasps a chair arm to gain her balance and announces with some surprise and a great deal of enthusiasm, "I had a goat!"

As we pass through the back door, sharing hugs and promises of future occasions, I am reminded why family is so important and why it's worth the time and energy to make these trips. I'm also reinforced in my sometimes misguided attempts to hear the stories of my antecedents and to share those stories with my own children. Although we have learned about the era of my father's youth in our history books, we know little about what it was like to live in that time in a family torn apart by illness and economic decline in a small town in South Georgia. We need to learn all we can about a certain motherless family, which happens to be our family, which was presided over by an overwhelmed father who loved his children and allowed them pets, including an injured bulldog in a boy's bed and a goat for a little girl who would never marry.

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