Photo credit: Nina Subin
The summer I was 11, I took a friend to my family reunion in St. Simons Island, Georgia, where every year my father’s seven siblings and their children gathered in a cluster of aging cottages a few blocks from the beach. I was the youngest of too-many-to-count cousins — the oldest were in their '40s, with children older than I was — so my mother let me bring along my best friend, lest I grow bored with the weeklong, front porch Skip-Bo tournament run by my gray-haired aunts.
I don’t remember a single thing I did with my best friend that week. We probably sunbathed on the beach, choreographed dances to mix tapes, walked to the corner store to buy Cokes. I only remember a night when my family gathered around the living room of the largest cottage, maybe 30 of us along the four walls of the room, on wicker couches, in folding chairs and rocking chairs, on the floor, and told stories. I don’t think anyone announced a family meeting. After dinner and a game of Win, Lose or Draw, we found our places and the stories simply began.
Some of them I’d heard before. My father was born in 1932 in Fitzgerald, Georgia. His parents were sharecroppers on 200 acres of peanuts, corn, tobacco, and five token acres of cotton, planted in honor of my great-grandfather. My father thinks his grandparents probably couldn’t read, but his grandfather made enough money from a good cotton crop to eventually buy his own farm. My own grandparents finished only about six grades of school, but like many during the Depression, they were resourceful — for a time they ran the country crossroads store, and my grandfather also worked as a plumber, a carpenter, a gas man, and a local politician.
So my childhood was filled with stories of my father’s rural youth — one older brother washing him with kerosene after he painted himself with tar, another convincing him that a potato carried in the pocket of his overalls would turn to stone, another catching a skunk in a rabbit trap. They were stories of hard work, a little trouble, and simple adventures on the dirt road they called the Ten-Mile Straight.
I had heard, too, the story about the house fire. I knew that my father couldn’t watch Backdraft
, a movie about firefighting that had come out that year, and I knew that my Uncle Jimmy had died in the fire. My nine-year-old father had run from the house under an arch of flames that sounded like a freight train. For the rest of his childhood, every time a train passed by their new house in town, he feared fire.
But I hadn’t heard the story from anyone but my dad. Slowly, sadly, with a kind of practiced patience that must be the result of growing up around a table with seven siblings, my aunts and uncles took turns sharing the details of that terrible night. Just before his 18th birthday, Uncle Jimmy, up late studying, threw gasoline on a potbelly stove. The explosion could be heard for miles around, but my father slept through it. My grandparents rushed to clear the house of all their children. My Uncle Buck, then about 12, woke my father. Then Buck dashed back into the house to rescue his baby brother, my Uncle Butch, from his crib, and jumped out through a window. Everyone escaped. My grandmother peeled the burning clothes from Jimmy’s body. By the time the fire trucks arrived, the wooden house was gone. They saved a single mattress. When Jimmy died in the hospital early the next morning, it was from smoke inhalation.
My aunts and uncles, and my father among them, told the facts. They didn’t elaborate or dramatize or moralize. They weren’t anguished. The story had passed through them, and now they were passing the story on to us, the children at their feet.
I sometimes still feel like an 11-year-old at the feet of my aunts and uncles, silently, furiously scribbling, plagiarizing our family’s painful history.
It was the kind of circular storytelling I came to hunger for. Literally circular — we might have been sitting around a fire not many generations before — but also formally circular. Is this a Southern thing? Maybe. At my mother’s large family table in Vermont, there were lots of stories, too, mostly punctuated with liquor, swear words, clever comebacks, and the triumphant counting of poker chips. Those stories were linear, with elegant architecture, and if they weren’t technically jokes, they had much in common with the joke, their timing, reversals, and punch lines, and their chief goal, which was the raucous delight of the other people at the table. I relished those stories, too — I wanted to be in on the joke. But I now wonder, long after my grandparents’ deaths, how much that laughter masked an alcoholic dependence on story as a deflector. As far as I can remember, we never talked about death at that table.
My father’s family, though, didn’t seem to mask much. They wore their pain plainly (which is not to say they didn’t also laugh, drink, and swear). I imagine my family’s mode of oral storytelling had as much to do with family, class, and education as it did with region. Without much money or many books, when literacy wasn’t taken for granted, when you worked all day every day but Sunday, stories were king at the supper table, on the porch, and at the church picnic. And with eight kids at the table, there were a lot of tellers — each voice adding another detail, correcting, expanding, amending — with no clear beginning or end to the story. It’s no wonder that, years later, I would fall in love with the fiction of William Faulkner — whose sentences are so circuitous that they lose sight of their own heads and tails — and Edward P. Jones, who sometimes introduces a character, kills him, and brings him into the world all in one breath, and in that order.
Not everyone was enraptured by my family’s stories, though. Later, in bed, my best friend whispered, “That was so sad, but so...boring
I don’t think I’d ever felt so stung. (Later that year, upon learning that my mother’s brother, a gay man, had just died of AIDS, my best friend said, “Gross.” She was not my best friend for long.)
Me, I was taking notes, of my mother’s family’s stories and my father’s. Raucous jokes or painful memories, I wanted to know it all. I never shared much during those family stories; I only listened. Years later, sitting at my desk, I sometimes still feel like an 11-year-old at the feet of my aunts and uncles, silently, furiously scribbling, plagiarizing our family’s painful history. Though none of my writing is based directly on my family’s experiences, both of my novels are influenced by my parents’ parts of the world and no doubt by the ways stories shaped us. My first novel was set partly in Vermont; my second, The Twelve-Mile Straight
, is set in Depression-era Georgia. The first is fairly linear; the second one moves backward as often as it moves forward, as far back as the turn of the century. I didn’t intend to go about the book in this way. But I suspect that that night in the dark living room on St. Simons Island stayed with me, and that the story I wanted to tell, like the story my family told, had to be addressed through many voices, without a clear path, beginning, or end, just a laying bare of an open wound.
I wasn’t interested, I learned, in retelling the stories I’d heard. My family had told those stories well enough already. Eventually I began to fill in the gaps instead, to imagine the white space, to write toward the voices I didn’t hear. Because, of course, despite how long that storytelling session lasted, the story wasn’t complete. There is always more to the story. There were many voices who were not part of that circle: the voices of my family’s African American neighbors, the voices of the Native Americans their farms displaced, the voices of their own parents, the voice of my Uncle Jimmy, who will always be just shy of 18, who can never tell his nieces and nephews what happened that night.
There is a house fire in The Twelve-Mile Straight
, but it’s a brief gesture. The Georgia story I tell is different from any I heard from my father’s family. But what I learned from them that night was that stories are a means of sharing our suffering, and making some sense of it. Only thinking about it now do I begin to understand the powerful aptness of that Southernism, “reckon.” What else was that night but a reckoning? What else are stories?
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grew up in Florida and lives in Ithaca, New York, where she teaches at Ithaca College. Her first novel, Ten Thousand Saints
, was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2011 from The New York Times
and was made into a movie starring Ethan Hawke. Her new novel is The Twelve-Mile Straight