Ancestors: part one

When I was little, my grandparents’ house was my personal wonderland. The back yard had a terraced patio with steps zagging between lush, carefully-tended beds of flowers and shrubs. A shallow drainage ditch circled the property like a moat. By the door, a mosquito zapper lamp gave off a lurid glow at dusk and sizzled like a cauldron.

Their house was a split-level 1950s ranch with teal carpeting – not exactly the stuff of gothic enchantment. But even the indoors had a fairy-tale patina. A seaside landscape mural covered one wall. The spare room housed a small hoard of aloof dolls in satiny dresses. In the basement was a tall, old-fashioned clock with shelves built into the front, holding all sorts of trinkets.

When my sister and I would stay the night, we slept down there, in a cozy room with shutters on the high windows. I’d wake to blades of light along the wall and the sounds of my grandfather making breakfast upstairs. He liked to sing hymns while he worked. Sometimes the smell and clatter of bacon frying reminds me of his voice:

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free.
His eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me.

I liked his hymns, but I didn’t know most of the words. My grandparents were Southern Baptist, and supposedly my father once was too, but we were Catholic like my mother. The first time I went into their church, I genuflected at the pew, and somebody actually gasped. Neither one of my grandparents ever said anything about us not being quite like them, but there were signs of how they felt: kids’ prayer books with Protestant theology, invitations to Sunday school events. Later, when I got to college, I found myself mysteriously subscribed to a magazine for “America’s evangelical youth.”

I joked about one of the articles with my mom during a call home, but her voice got unexpectedly tight. She asked for the name of the magazine. The next month it disappeared from my mailbox as abruptly as it had arrived.

My grandparents were popular in their large congregation. Meemaw worked in the church library, where we’d sit together reading on summer afternoons. She always had a personal book recommendation for whoever came through the door. Papaw led an adult Bible study group that was packed with members. Each week he made notes for the next session in a yellow legal pad. His Bible bristled neatly with color-coded page markers.

After we went away to school, my sister and I both got monthly emails in addition to the unsuccessful magazines. He drafted those emails on paper, in the same legal pad. When he died, the notebook was in its customary place, under the Bible beside Papaw’s recliner. My sister, my cousin, and I had all flown home at the news of his massive stroke. We were there in the hospital room when he passed.

The next day, while we took care of some things at the house, I sat in my grandfather’s chair to read the email he’d been writing to me. It was, as usual, full of love and pride, cheerful jokes, hopes that my semester exams were going well. I flipped through the notes for the class he wouldn’t be teaching. Then I picked up his Bible.

For twenty years, I’d been a practicing Catholic, complete with Mass and Catechism and patron saints. Just a few months earlier, I’d left the Church. Not to become some other kind of Christian, but to stop being Christian at all. There were a lot of reasons for it, but the burden of years in the closet was one of the more pressing ones.

At the back of my grandfather’s Bible, in the blank pages, I found an index of verses on specific topics. He’d obviously used it for subjects that came up a lot in his class, subjects relevant to America’s evangelical youth: marriage, career, raising kids. Near the top, highlighted and starred, was an entry for verses condemning homosexuality.

I wasn’t surprised to see it. Part of me knew that’s why I’d opened his Bible in the first place. I wanted to see some proof of what had never been spoken while he was alive. We loved each other, but we didn’t know each other, and those truths grew from a common root. The bond we’d shared was overlaid with a veneer of mutual imagination, a protective but obscuring shell.

My grandmother outlived her husband by a decade. Once he was gone, though, we realized she was quickly becoming someone different from the person we thought we knew. Meemaw was never without a book nearby; now she looked at the pages but didn’t turn them. Papaw had always loved being the cook; now Meemaw didn’t remember to eat without him. She’d tell us the same story from her childhood over and over for weeks, but when she’d stop, that story was gone forever.

My parents cared for her in her house, until finally she couldn’t spend even a few hours alone. She lived then in a retirement home. By the time she died, she’d been away from her church for years. But one of the pastors came to administer the family-only funeral service. He said some lovely things about her in his genteel Southern drawl. She’d been the steadfast anchor point alongside her husband’s more boisterous persona. She’d brought depth and intelligence to the community. She’d been greatly inspired by the beauty of universe.

Then he started talking not about my grandmother, but about the opinions she surely would have held on the current state of our country. He started preaching. He said she would have valued the truth of God’s word over the arrogant explorations of science. I resisted the urge to look over at my father (a doctor) or at my aunt (an astronomer). The pastor said my grandparents would have been wary of the insidious influence of so-called progressive politics, of attempts to flout God’s law through the law of the courts.

I sat rigid in my folding chair, throat taut with a specific mixture of sadness and rage I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager. Behind me, my cousin stood with his husband, a man my grandmother only met after it was too late for her to remember. I wondered what they were thinking, and if this preacher was exceptionally oblivious to the living people in front of him, or just exceptionally cruel.

My anger wasn’t really for him, though. In that moment, sitting before my grandmother’s closed casket, I remembered the full truth of the old pain. Ever since childhood, I’d been letting myself become hidden, opaque. I’d been afraid not only of losing love, but of being the one to point out its gaps and boundaries, as if acknowledgment were synonymous with creation. And I wasn’t just heartbroken. I was mad as hell.

That part of my life has passed. With the rest of my family, I’ve had the chance to move beyond it. Even so, there are things we don’t actually talk about. My mom has left the Church, too, but we haven’t shared stories. My cousin and I have never talked about being gay. The rules are still in place, rules that go back so many generations it seems like some kind of biological betrayal to abandon them.

The day of Meemaw’s funeral, my cousin told us a story about one of the last times he’d visited her. She didn’t recognize anyone at that point, and was usually pleasantly bemused to have company. Sometimes she’d talk about things that weren’t actually happening. It was impossible to tell if she was narrating a memory or a dream. While my cousin and aunt sat with her, she said she was waiting at the dock for a boat. It seemed to be good weather wherever she was, and eventually the boat arrived and she went off for an afternoon of sailing.

A couple months later, I dreamed about the split-level house. In real life, it’s landlocked despite the nautical mural, but that night I dreamed of it by the sea. Inside were troves of trinkets, photographs, stories written on parchment and recorded on antique wax cylinders. It was the gothic fantasy of my childhood made real. Even the old fancy dolls were there.

The house stretched out around me in a huge expanse of hallways and nooks, filled with everything I’ve rejected or never known about my family, my ancestors, myself. The rooms were dark and the treasures hard to see, and I realized there was no way I’d get to them all before I woke up.

Behind the house I could hear the steady rise and fall of water, punctuated by a gentle knocking. I went to a window and looked out. There on the shore was a dock with a little blue boat, sails unfurled, swaying patient and solitary in its mooring.

 

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