What We Leave Behind

Yesterday, I was added as a contributor over at The Mighty, a website that publishes “real stories by real people facing real challenges.” It’s an amazingly honest and encouraging place for people who have disabilities, chronic/rare diseases, or mental illnesses. As someone who has one of the many conditions listed on their site (Multiple Sclerosis or MS), I was thrilled to be able to add my voice to their robust community. If you’d like to read them, please click here.

Seeing my story on their page and reading those of other people whose lives have been impacted by MS, I started thinking about the value of words. Ever since I was little, I’ve always loved working with them, stacking them end to end to make a beautiful sentence or poetic phrase. I love the way certain words sound (Go ahead and say “mellifluous” out loud and fail to enjoy it. I dare you.) And even after 30+ years of using them, I’m still amazed at the way they can morph from noun to adjective (novel), adjective to verb (stiff), verb to noun (grid).

But I didn’t come by this lifelong obsession naturally. Many of my family members are readers, some more voracious than others. But only a few are writers, and most of them are in my generation. I have a few letters and handwritten notes written from loved ones who have passed, each of which I treasure, but there are entire branches on my family tree that have died without leaving a single syllable behind.

I have sermon notes and a short letter from my great uncle James.

james_letter

 

james_sermonnotes_tight

 

james_sermonnotes_wide

A letter from my paternal grandmother, Betty Lou Hill, given to me just weeks before she died.

betty_letter

I even have a postcard and a book inscription from Myrl Rhine Mueller, a lady in my hometown who published a book about the history of Greene County. When I was in third grade, I lugged a boom box to her little house, which was down the street from my grandparents’ and conducted an interview with her for a history project.

muller_book

 

But there are no diaries, no journals, and no handwritten notes in the margins of beloved books.

It’s an absence I’m feeling more acutely these days as members on both sides of my family pass away. I can no longer ask Papaw, my maternal grandfather, his thoughts on a current event or hear about the things he had a passion for. He loved to sing. I know that for certain, but I don’t know how singing made him feel or why he enjoyed it so much.

He played a small role in the Civil Rights movement too, but no matter how many questions I ask or how deeply I dig, I’ll never know the entire story.

In the early 1960s, he was the assistant manager of an S.H. Kress & Co. in Memphis, Tennessee. For many weeks in the late summer and early fall, young black students would stage sit-ins at the Curly-Q Luncheonette inside the store. He was given strict orders that if one happened on his watch, he should immediately stop service and turn off the lights. Some time after this, the protesters would get up and leave. It was always peaceful, always respectful, but every time Papaw flipped those lights, he felt pitiful. He was a boy from rural Arkansas—a farmer’s son, dirt poor in every sense of the word—and some of his closest friends were black. He believed in their cause, but because he had a wife and two young daughters at home, he had to toe the company line and keep the job. But he did the one thing he could do: he apologized to each of them as they walked out.

It’s not a big story of great sacrifice or drama, but it’s his. That makes it mine too in some small way, and I love it, despite the fact it’s secondhand and shaggy around the edges.

Our two kids, who we are adopting from the foster care system, already have a lot of holes in their stories. Several members of their birth families were also adopted or given up for adoption, so there’s no way of knowing exactly where they came from, who they favor in looks and temperament, who their “people” are. There’s nothing I can do about that, but I do want to leave them a legacy, a heritage of sorts.

There will be notes in my favorite books, so they’ll know why I loved them. There will be journals, short stories, poems, essays, and articles. I want to leave behind an ocean of words for them to swim in—to find me and perhaps, in some small way, to find themselves.

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3 thoughts on “What We Leave Behind

  1. Jamie, first of all, I love the new look of your blog! And second, I have a sticky note in my ‘blog post ideas’ folder called “The Things We Leave Behind.” Seriously.
    The idea started with a letter from my granddaughter…. Oh, the stories we can read in our letters.
    This is a heartwarming post. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Jody! I’m coming to see just how important it is. Folks used to keep diaries and journals, and they are an invaluable research tools.

      I just finished “The Boys In the Boat,” and a lot of it came from the papers the nine rowers left behind. How great to have something like that to draw from and hold on to.

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