Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Explosive Power of Memory

Yesterday an elderly woman walked into a pawn shop in Rapid City, South Dakota. She brought with her some World War Two memorabilia her husband had brought home with him from the Philippines. Unfortunately, one of the grenades was still live creating a scenario in which the explosive ordinance experts at nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base had to be summoned.  Why had this woman lived with a dangerous explosive in her home for decades? This hand grenade was a souvenir picked up during the war. It was very common for soldiers to bring home mementos. My uncle brought home pictures that you will never see in history books. Grisly, barbaric images that realistically present the war the soldiers fought. Not the war of John Wayne where the good guys and the bad guys are clearly delineated by the color of their uniform…or their skin. The word souvenir is French and is about memory. Souvenirs help us to remember certain places we have been, or people we have met. We all like to pick up different things. Some people pick up rocks, or refrigerator magnets or the ever-present t-shirt. Souvenirs help us to remember the way we felt at a particular time and in a particular place. They are meant to evoke emotion.  Perhaps these souvenirs helped soldiers sort through the emotions that society didn’t permit them to discuss out loud. World War Two veterans are a stoic group of men, but what they didn’t talk about in words haunted these boys for the rest of their lives. Like the World War Two veteran who brought home a live grenade, these men brought home dangerous, explosive memories. My mom talks about her brother coming home from the war and waking his siblings nightly screaming in terror. My dad’s brother came home with a fondness for alcohol that eventually took his life. Although memory inhabits the world of the mind it has the ability to present itself as something very real and ever-present. Memory has the ability to cripple. Memories are the pages of our lives, some are pleasant and some are heart-wrenching. But like a book, even though the page has turned, it is what happened in the previous chapter that moves the narrative along. We like to believe we can forget the things that hurt, annoy, or bother us but they happened and we must accept them as part of our life’s story. There are unsavory chapters that we wish we could tear out of the book but they are there and they have made us real characters, with flaws and hurts and victories. Memories are powerful. Like the old woman’s grenade they can sit by quietly, but a word, a smell, a song, and they can come upon you with a realness that reminds us how easily they retain their capacity for explosion.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Grandpa's in Jail?

Georgia was one of the first states to build a penitentiary to house their convicts and the first one was built in Milledgeville.  The reason this little fact is meaningful to me is that it is a reminder that in genealogy one never knows what one will find. In fact, if one looks far enough back they may find a convict (or two) resting comfortably on a branch of the family tree.  I found my great-grandfather (X3) living as a guest of the penitentiary from November 1, 1824 through January 25, 1826. At close to six feet tall he was a large man for the time and his crime was assault with intent to kill. The weapon of choice? A knife. This information perfectly illustrates why I love genealogy and why it is so valuable to me as a writer. There is a story here. Samuel had a daughter named Matilda, who was only three-years-old when he went to prison. Because she was the child of a convict Matilda was able to obtain land in the Georgia Land Lottery of 1827. Ironic, as family legend describes Samuel’s wife, Susannah, as being Cherokee, the very people from who the land was taken. Was this Cherokee wife the reason for the fight? Samuel fought with a knife. Hand to hand. He didn’t shoot someone in the back from long range. This was a personal, face to face confrontation. Who was the other man? What happened to him? We only know he lived because Samuel was not convicted of manslaughter. Samuel’s story does not end here. We know that in the 1840s he leaves Georgia and joins his extended family in Arkansas.  He matures, like most men do, and raises a family and farms the land. He dies at a good age and bequeaths  to his remaining children items valuable for the day: a feather bed, a couple of milk cows, some mules.  History is not made of events, it is made of stories. I love to find stories in unexpected places.  Next week I will be in Deadwoood, South Dakota. There will be a story waiting.  Peace -