Census Report, Cherokee, Christian Science Monitor, Danish, Elizabeth Warren, Genealogy, Heritage, Hillbilly, Lowell Malcolm Britt, Mystery, Neil Gaiman, Odetta, Oprah, Shawnee, Shawnee National Forest, Showboat, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Trail of Tears
Memoir Mondays are a flash back to the past to examine my writerly roots. People, places and events that shaped me and influence my world and how I write about it.
The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision.
So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.
“Whose little girl are you?”
“I’m Paw Paw’s girl”
My grandfather, P.A. or Paw Paw––and yes, it needed to be spelled thus––otherwise known as Lowell Malcolm Britt in official records, was a son of a preacher. His humming, singing and whistling repertoire included church hymns, folk songs, negro spirituals and popular tunes. I was too young to understand that these forms usually don’t mix, don’t keep the same company.
Before I knew any different the world had shifted enough that Tennessee Ernie Ford featured gospel singer Odetta on his show performing a progressive medley. Genre-bending. Arts at the vanguard of cultural change. Any wonder that it is the first casualty of budget cuts. But that’s a blog for a different day.
Who was I? I was Paw Paw’s girl. That I knew for certain. And to this day and always. I was his “Little Indian Princess.” My “Indian” name was “Snake-in-the-Grass.” Bright green grass snakes were abundant at the farm, and I was their charmer. Not too long upon being turned loose outside would I be adorned in bright green slithery jewelry of the serpentine variety. Necklaces, arm bands, bracelets, even anklets. To this day, I have a penchant for spring green accessories.
I could put in the research for tribal affiliation. My native American ancestry springs from more than P.A.’s mother’s side. I know as much as one can know anything in family lore, that I have mostly Cherokee and some Shawnee. Since our farms were situated in Shawnee National Forest along the Trail of Tears, that’s not much of a stretch. I also know that P.A.’s mother was born in Georgia but raised in Oklahoma. Again, that’s family-style knowing, but the indicators are pretty good. So while I, like Elizabeth Warren, am proud of my native roots, I’m also aware that I can live my life without reference to them. I have checked the “white” or “Caucasian” box on all of my forms until most recently. I still feel a twinge in checking “mixed.” I am proud of my heritage but don’t want to be unduly privileged by it when I have the option to choose. When people ask me about my heritage I reply, “three quarters Hillbilly and one quarter Danish.” Seems most honest.
…My grandfather was supposedly half native American, but social pressures of his time were great for him to renounce that heritage with the urging of his native mother. Similarly, my paternal grandmother wouldn’t discuss life in Denmark, her birth country, with her own children… From Embracing a Multicultural Heritage, my op-ed piece in the Christian Science Monitor.
P.A. was a charming man. Everyone said so. And very handsome, by all accounts. He could spin a story as adeptly as he could whistle a tune. Spontaneously bending the air with treats that would resonate in your soul. I would sit on his lap with my head resting on his chest to get the full vibrato as he punctuated his story with some whistling or eased out of a tale with a spiritual.
Family lore has it that P.A. learned all of those spirituals and old slave songs from standing on the levee down in Cairo as a toddler singing with his cap out for change. A toddler singing on the docks along Old Man River, the Mighty Mississippi, to supplement his father’s preaching money, now that’s a tale to wrap my mind around. But it’s a tale I was told true my whole childhood. Where else could he have learned all of those songs? I only started guessing the answer to that when I first saw the movie Showboat.
I knew I was adopted. That was another oft mentioned topic. Gail, my adoptive mother, would spin the tale of seeing me in the hospital and knowing I was hers. That portion of the story was common to me as bedtime prayers. It was only after P.A. had died, after the rapid progress of oat-cell carcinoma from lung to brain when he could reach out to me thinking I was alternately his mother, Emma, his sister Merle or his daughter, Shirley––it was only later that I realized that I was P.A.’s girl no matter what. My birth mother and my adoptive mother were sisters. How else could Gail have spotted me in the hospital?
Family stories are full of mysteries with their clues hidden in plain sight. For the world pre-Oprah, families guarded their secrets and kept kitchen-table-talk “out of the parlor.” Has your view of family shifted when you understood the full meaning of something you took for granted?