I grew up in an older time, a time when family members still shared stories about the family’s past. As a kid I latched onto the simple narratives. As I got older I learned to listen between the lines for the more complicated chronicle, the one that linked me with past generations of heroes, rascals, and ordinary men and women. It still amazes me at the amount of family history and stories my parents’ and grandparents’ generation amassed and cherished.
The paths of knowledge of that family culture for most moderns are overgrown and ill-used. But it’s not too much of a stretch to say that lack of knowledge of our own families’ past leaves us at the mercy of others to complete the narrative for their own ends. Knowing the stories and the paths help us as a people and culture navigate the present and the future.
A primary thread of my paternal ancestors was Huguenot. Kicked out of France at the revocation of Nantes, they landed in New Jersey in the early 1700s after spending a generation first in Amsterdam, then in the Lesser Antilles. My 3x great-grandfather and six brothers fought in the American Revolution. They got land grants in Lycoming, Pennsylvania, after the war. My great-grandfather was born there in 1860. His family joined a wagon train to Cedar County, Iowa, the same year.
A maternal line of Scotch settlers from Vermont fought for the Loyalists and removed themselves to Canada for the next 100 years. One of them finally connected with the Louisiana branch on a hunting trip that also resulted in his marriage.
My 4x great-grandfather owned a plantation in Lyons, Louisiana. The pirate Jean Lafitte’s men sneaked up the bayou one night, robbing the family and stealing all the slaves. The U.S. Navy sent a warship after the pirates. They were caught in Galveston Bay. Lafitte disavowed any knowledge of his men’s indiscretions and washed his hands of their fate. The Navy hung them on the deck of the warship and returned the slaves to captivity.
A maternal great-grandfather had a Confederate pension for carrying the mail during the war. He was the youngest of six brothers. The five older brothers fought in Gray’s 28th Louisiana Infantry in the Battle of Mansfield. One out of five men on the Confederate side died, and many more were injured in the fight. The Southern troops fought with buckshot-loaded hunting shotguns against the rifle-armed North. They walked across the field of battle as their ranks were decimated by rifle fire. They walked up to the Yankee line and fired their buckshot from mere yards away, and they won the day. Only one of the five brothers lived to surrender in 1865. This line of the family owned no slaves; another that did own slaves did not fight.
My aunt, who turns 95 next month, recalls her father giving food to a hungry black man who was asking for work one evening at the back door of the family’s farmhouse near Crowley. A few days later the man was found hanged by the Klan in a tree some miles from the farm, having eventually knocked on the wrong door.
She also remembers the day, while working at Barksdale airbase in Shreveport during WW2, when two black bomber pilots walked into the cafeteria. Both of the men were officers. The white ladies at the lunch line, she says, walked out in mass and were replaced by the black cooks from the back.
A great-uncle was port master in Baton Rouge. He had the excellent facility of being able to swear within a word. “I won’t be under any obli-god-damn-gation to any man!” was a favorite collected by my uncle, a professor of speech and rhetoric.
My father recalls buying live chickens at the A&P in Lake Charles. Back in the meat department, customers would pick out the live chicken they wanted to buy. It would then be butchered and packaged for the walk home. There was no refrigeration either in the grocery store or at home.
One early December day, my dad and a friend, who had been camping near Alexandria, Louisiana, stepped out of the woods and flagged a truck down to catch a ride. When they climbed in the truck, the driver informed them that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor the day before.
When Dad, after serving in the Navy in WW2, disembarked for the final time in San Diego and was discharged, he and his friends headed to their favorite ice cream malt shop. It’s an image that confounds the standard script of the hardened vet. He was 19.
I recall Dad stopping the car on Ryan Street, greeting a man by name and giving him a ride. The man had no legs, and a burlap bag around the stumps. He pulled himself up off the curb and onto the seat next to me.
These and many more stories ground me, place me on the path that goes in front and stretches out behind. Each of us has our own trailhead. That we forget the way and step off the path seems somehow dishonorable and unutterably sad, not only for our immediate families but for the larger human one.
Reading this weekend: The Master of Hestviken by Sigrid Undset