Thursday, July 24, 2008
You'll Always Come Back
You’ll Always Come Back:
“In the matter of seeing ghosts I suspect water is important too…” Sylvia Townsend Warner
When my dad died, Mrs. Johnson, mother of my friend Elaine, sent me a card. Inside she had written an expression of sympathy, and placed a one dollar bill.
No one had ever sent me a card with one dollar in it. I was touched by the gesture and it stuck in my mind. At the time I wondered if it might be an African American custom, but years later when I mentioned it to Elaine she said, “Oh that’s just something that mother does. Just before Paul died (Elaine’s husband) mother sent him a card with a dollar in it.” I told Elaine that her mother is one of the few people I’ve known, like my dad, who could change money into love.
My introduction to the Diaspora flowed out of a crevice in a rock. The spring in the holler just above my parent’s first house was called Pete’s Spring, after Pete Dutton, once a slave on my father’s home-place. His cabin had stood just above the spring - the edge of a field in my childhood, a housing development now. My dad told me about digging Pete’s grave in our family graveyard when he was a teenager. Pete’s family arrived with the coffin before he could finish digging into the August baked red-clay. The family stood and watched him dig.
The family story was that Pete and Charles, then 7 and 9, were given to my great-grandparents, Daniel and Lucy, as a wedding gift from Lucy’s father. Daniel went to Missouri and rode back with them on a mule. After the emancipation, Pete stayed on the farm. My dad recalled that he could not be persuaded to eat at the table with his family. Of Charles, the only mention was “He left.”
Pete’s spring was the best one around - reliable, cold, clear, and good-tasting. And like so many of the storied places on the farm, it had a saying attached to it; If you tasted from Pete’s Spring, you would come back for another drink. I don’t know who made that up, perhaps it was Pete himself.
It was such a pretty spot then. The holler cut back into the hill like a sudden arrow-head shaped groove, the water tumbling out of the point over willy-nilly limestone slabs greened with moss and liverwort. Wherever stones slowed the freshet into little pools, baby crawdads and tiny black mudpuppies with frond-like gills stalked the sun-dappled pebble bottoms. The steep slopes had the mottled tri-foils of lemon oil-scented toad trilliums, patches of snake-root spurge, delicate crow’s foot, anemones, and hepaticas, clumps of ferns, doll’s eyes. Even a few ginseng, more likely found in deeper hollers, grew on the south facing slope. If you lay on your back on the immense slab nearest to the spring, as I often did, looking up at the stars, the giant hickories and maples that rimmed the slopes appeared as a ring of trunks and branches that reached out into deep space, like a tunnel into the milky way. The clucking voice of the spring, strengthened by the stone so that it spoke inside my head, was a mysterious comfort. When my mind had traveled as far as it could go, I would return to take a drink from the spring. I always came back.
Once Elaine’s son, Jonathon, and I were looking up at the night sky. I asked him what he thought about when he looked at the stars and he surprised me by saying “I think I’m trapped here on this rock.”
The family story told that after the emancipation Pete and his wife Jenny stayed on the Dutton farm, content perhaps, or resigned, to linger near the spring. Their tombstone, situated in the space between the ancient cedar that shades (and no doubt penetrates!) the “family” graves, and the corner that once was a gate, is inscribed “Pete Dutton, born 1836 in MO., died 1931 in KY. Born in Slavery. Died Free.”
Jonathon, just returned from the war in Afghanistan, modeled for my painting of “John Henry”, the steel-driving man. When the painting was displayed in a museum hotel, one morning before the public opening I happened to overhear one of the hotel staff explaining the story of John Henry to a impromptu huddle of his co-workers, all with African ancestors. He spoke of how John Henry, a prisoner and a former slave, was a symbol of endurance, how the bluebird he looks up at represents freedom.
After the group dispersed I introduced myself and told him how moved I had been by what he said. The frame of the painting alludes to Yoruba stories of Ogun, the Orisa of Iron, stories that traveled in iron shackles from Nigeria to an unfamiliar and hostile world of enslavement here - stories I know only as things imagined. The arrogance of portraying such things, considering my family history, seemed shameful, a transgression of a boundary of heritage. His reply was that it is the fear of sharing our stories that keeps us apart.
Ogun is present in iron, so you could say that he is the intent embodied in metal-smithing; tool-making, or more exactly, in the “survival of that which asserts its own will to make a place for itself in the world.” (Awo Fa’lokun Fatunmbi) Progress; the knife cuts both ways.
My dad told about an old-timer who fox-hunted with him, Pony Sears, declaring on a cloudless night that rain was coming. “How do you know that Pony?” “Because the trains are running!” was his reply. It’s true. The pressure change in advance of rainy weather carries the sound of the train whistles out to the knob-tops as though the tracks cut close. It’s a haunting sound.
The field above Pete’s Spring was the site of a Civil War battle. Cebah had a shoe box of bullets she picked up in the turned up earth of the cornfields. An obelisk marks the site with this inscription;
“Here off duty until the last reveille, lie the Southern soldiers, in numbers who were slain in this county during the war of the secession. They fell among strangers, unknown and unfriended. Yet not unhonored; for stranger’s hands have gathered their ashes here, and placed this shaft above them, that constancy and valor, though displayed in a fruitless enterprise, may not be unremembered.”
In the 80s my dad’s brother forced the sale of their family farm. A housing development covers the site of the cabin, and Pete’s spring is spoiled for drinking. The plants and creatures that lived there in my childhood are gone. Visiting it is trespassing, but I decided to make the trip one last time, accustomed to crossing boundaries. I drank the legendary water, unsure as to what power it might have beyond nostalgia. I lay on the rock and looked up at the sky, but I didn’t go anywhere.
“A ghost can’t hurt you, but it can cause you to hurt yourself.”; That’s what my dad used to say.