Were you ever forced to read the first book of the Old Testament of the Bible? The one with all the ‘begats’? What’s up with the genealogy list of a bunch of people who lived 5000 years ago, who died leaving no notable mark? I never understood it until much later in life. Having a connection to the people who came before you is a thing you may never notice. You may never miss it until you have it and lose it.
Shiloh, Ga. 1955 A.D. Descendants of Tobe and Carrie Grant.This is the first time I made an appearance in a version of the “begats” story.
In this picture, Mom is on the porch of her grandparent’s house, on the far right holding a blanket. That’s me in the blanket. My dark-haired Dad is in the front row, wearing a tie, with the bored toddler who wants to run. That’s brother Mark, and brother David is over between the girls and not thrilled about that. The super tall man in the hat is Papa Grant, and the very, very short lady in the middle scolding children is Mama Grant. Grandmama is wearing a dark dress and stands in the middle of the porch. She is the oldest child of the very tall man and very short woman.
Every year since some time before this 1955 picture, these people got together on the first Sunday in October for a reunion, a homecoming. These gatherings are my begats. Their existence back in time since 1880 or earlier tie me back to that west Georgia land for more than a century. I don’t know most of the people in the picture, but we have spent two recent years trying to get the elders to pick out which child was them, and label them, so our begats have a face and a name. I do remember some of these people, having met them later, before they died. My uncle Pete is the closest kin in my next generation who is alive still – he’s the grinning teenager on the porch within arm’s reach of Papa Grant.
This year, I will not be staying at Uncle Pete and Aunt Joyce’s house in Georgia, eating from two huge tables of delicious, home-cooked food on Sunday. I took Mom and Dad there for nearly twenty years as their driver. The family is breaking a century old tradition for the first time, on purpose. And it hurts a little. We don’t know most of the people who gather – we see them once every few years. Second and third cousins, and great aunts and uncles and cousins once removed. Who can even keep up?
Shiloh, Ga. 1880 AD. Calhoun McDuffy Grant and family Morgan, Quitman, Jasper, et al.
In these uncertain times, there is comfort in knowing I am part of a tradition that I didn’t start – but that I have a responsibility to help continue. It ties us to each other, to history – in a way nothing else can. We are tied to a tiny wooden church none of ever attended, to the cemetery containing Papa and Mama Grant and Aunt Doris from the porch picture, to the cemetery next door containing people named McDuffie, Calhoun, Jasper and Quitman Grant, to a line of Grants named John and James that stretches clear back to Grant Castle before 1540 AD in Scotland. Most were farmers. Papa Grant built railroads and lived in a section foreman’s house in that little stretch of dirt in Shiloh, GA. I knew him, although I was seven when he died. I knew Mama Grant forever. She died at 96 years old when I was in college. Her funeral was in that church where we meet now. And while they didn’t handle snakes, they washed each other’s feet and that’s almost as cool. We ‘own’ that building. We eat there once a year under shelters we built. A piano so badly out of tune that it scares away wildlife is played sometimes.
Shiloh, Ga. 2015 AD. Mama’s last reunion. In front of the church.
If you took a poll of the people who gather each year, we’d no doubt cancel each other’s votes in any given election. Mama’s dear cousin Paul Goodin said that to me the year of his last reunion. We don’t care. We have people with PhDs who teach college and people who struggled to get through school or dropped out. We have people who build cars, work on electrical poles, work in hospitals and people like me who are paid to work on computers.
We are part of something more, something bigger, something that carries the weight of people’s dreams past and going forward. I wish other people felt this, or maybe they do and they don’t get it. The world doesn’t revolve around each of us. Once a year at least, it revolves around a group of mostly strangers, some of who share DNA, who gather in a never-used church yard in rural west Georgia, wandering among headstones, trying to match names to the family trees taped to the church wall. Once a year, we carry on tradition handed to us by people who lived much harder than we do, who survived the Black Death, starvation, Spanish Flu and Polio and regular old infections that used to kill people.
Shiloh, Ga. Dad in his natural state. Removing wasps before the reunion using a flaming paper sack, while standing on a plywood table, with a hand in his pocket. Everyone but the wasps survived.
Once a year, we gather and miss our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers and know that somewhere, they approve. We shake hands, we hug, we compare waistlines, hairlines and wrinkles. Then we eat. This year, I’m hosting a Zoom call. Some of the local cousins will make sure the church is OK and put flowers on the graves. At some point in the future, we will gather again at the church. You know the date, For now dear family, I love you too much to visit you. See you on Sunday.
I write. I fix computers. I feed cats.