Friday, July 16, 2010

Going There

It was our year to get kicked out of the house.

There were too many people, not enough rooms and someone had to go.

In fairness, it was our turn.

As a bonus, Grandma Seattle said the kids could stay at the house with her...

...which made us think we might just show up at 10:00 a.m. and leave at 4:00 p.m. every day! Huzzah!

Instead of staying at a Motel 7 by the side of the state highway, we decided to splurge and stay at Berry Hill.

My relatives thought this was an extravagance, and it was, but all my life my Granny talked about this great southern mansion that had fallen into disrepair and its once resplendent wishbone staircase.

It was finally restored in 1999 and I'd always wanted to stay there.

Before the Civil War, Berry Hill was owned by the richest man in the state of Virginia.

And here comes the tricky part...

Berry Hill was home, as I understand it, to three thousand slaves.

Three. Thousand.

There was a room near the registration desk where guests could find continental breakfast items and K and I found ourselves in there one morning when an older, African American guest came and sat at the table next to us.

We talked about the fact that the coffee was tepid and exchanged small talk.

He told us that he was retired from the Army and now working for a federal agency in Washington, D.C.

"What brings you to this part of the world," I asked him.

"My wife grew up here," he told us, "but she hasn't been back in twenty years."

And here's where it got really tricky...

"She grew up around here?" I said with a wide-eyed look. "What's her last name."

He told me.

I took three deep breathes.

"That is the middle name of both my uncle and my cousin," I said.

There was a pause.

Only the day before, at the tiny, rural community pool near my Granny's house I had been gobsmacked and at a loss for words when someone actually said to me,

"Around here, we say that if you share a name with someone, you're kin to 'em, you used to own 'em, or both."

The man at Berry Hill and I looked at each other for a few, long moments.

"It's too bad my wife isn't down here for breakfast," he finally said. "I bet she would have been interested in meeting you."

He seemed to mean it, but there was suddenly both a strange intimacy and an electric tension to the conversation.

I didn't know what to say, so I did what I always do and fell back on idiocy.

"Well, maybe it's for the best," I said. "If she was here, we'd have to go to counseling and then write a book together."

He laughed. I smiled. We were released.

After he left, K said, "I'm surprised you went there. You don't know him and he doesn't know you!"

Maybe K was right. Perhaps it was forward, presumptuous even.

Still, if I never go there, if I never talk about it - the things that my ancestors did and those they did it to - how will I ever overcome them?

On the other hand, I exercised a certain privilege in going there.

If our roles had been reversed and he had been the one to realize the possible familial connection, it's most likely he would not have mentioned it, not in the shadow of Berry Hill.

What is the path forward?


Not Hannah said...

It's the path you took, of course. We can't run from it, those of us who live in the South. I think that we are lucky, in many ways, to be constantly confronted by the past. We can't ever forget it and we can be thankful every day for what we lost and gained.

Sayre said...

I think you handled that beautifully.

There is nothing you can do about the past - it's over. All you can do is recognize it and move forward.

Myself? I'd be curious about why HE was staying at Berry Hill!

JoeinVegas said...

The path forward is recognizizng the past, and not always repeating it.

Anonymous said...

Cousin Colin here. Great post. I had figured as much but had never asked. I choose not to dwell on it though. I have enough of my own history to atone for without concerning myself with what my ancestors may have done. As my once bunkmate 'Cookieface' said: "I can't do them. I can only do me".

Ennie said...

The path forward is what you did. My family name, on both sides is so uncommon, I would have leapt in with questions and family pictures, even if he was Andromedan.

Ashlie - Mommycosm said...

The path forward is that exact conversation in that exact location. You were both guests, able to talk about tepid coffee and other small talk.

THAT is amazing. You should bear no guilt for your family's past. Be mindful of it...and celebrate now. I don't believe in coincidences. It was synergistic that you met him. It clearly left a mark on you. I'm sure it touched him as well.

coldspaghetti said...

Oh, WOW. That is absolutely fascinating. I wish she HAD been there...

alimum said...

I think you took the first step forward. Perhaps the next step, after the one you took, would be to acknowledge that, just as Sally Hemmings was Martha Jefferson's half sister, you very well may share blood with her.

Magpie said...

Fascinating. The world is a small place.

(And that staircase is divine.)

WILLIAM said...

Great post. Glad to see you writing again.

annie said...

I loved this post. Great, heartfelt, honest, and what most of us Southerners have been confronted with at one time or another. I too, wish you had been able to meet his wife.

I do think it's interesting that you thought if roles were reversed, that he might not "have gone there." I think he might have - just depends on the person and the circumstances they have seen.

On another note, if you really are interested in delving into it further, there is a wonderful documentary called Family Name, which is a Sundance Film Festival Winner, which happens to be about one of the lines in my own NC family. It is really an amazing movie. Highly rec.

"This Sundance Film Festival winner is an absorbing genealogical real-life detective story that follows a personal odyssey to find out the meaning of the family name.

What does a name signify, exactly? Growing up in Durham, North Carolina, white filmmaker Macky Alston never questioned why all of the other Alstons at his elementary school were black. Twenty-five years later, Alston decides to unravel this perplexity in the award-winning documentary FAMILY NAME.

Alston s quest to solve his genealogical mystery takes him from New York to Alabama and then back to North Carolina. He seeks clues at family reunions, graveyards, church services, and, eventually, the original Alston plantations. The people he meets vary markedly in race, age, class and perspective, but they all have two things in common: the family name and a compelling story to tell. The biggest question of this investigation, perhaps, is whether it will provide the Alstons with catharsis or create an even greater sense of division. As the revelations mount, FAMILY NAME unfolds an unforgettable emotional journey that transforms our conceptions of the past. "

Cynthia said...

oh, but that's what I've always loved about you. those crazy things you just say when a lot of people wouldn't.

Leah said...

Wow, heavy post. Beautiful Hotel but what sadness it has seen.

jerseygirl89 said...

I think you handled it so well, but I do see what you mean about feeling more comfortable saying something than he might have.

Emily N said...

WOW. That kind of thing doesn't happen up here in the north :-) Seriously, I think it's GREAT what you said to him. I wish more of these stories were out there. Why is it the only big story about slavery was Roots and that was what, 30 yrs ago? There should be a TON of movies and books on the subject getting widespread appeal and there just aren't.

Blogging Mom said...

Wow! Looking at that staircase gives me goosebumps. That history of that hotel is really something. I am glad that you both handled it well.

Adventures In Babywearing said...

Wow. Yeah. Loved this post. :)


Franca Bollo said...

I came over from Bossy's site and read your two most recent posts. Despite both being far removed from my personal experience, each one made me sit back and think. Thank you.

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