Friday, July 16, 2010

Going There

It was our year to get kicked out of the house.

There were too many people, not enough rooms and someone had to go.

In fairness, it was our turn.

As a bonus, Grandma Seattle said the kids could stay at the house with her...

...which made us think we might just show up at 10:00 a.m. and leave at 4:00 p.m. every day! Huzzah!

Instead of staying at a Motel 7 by the side of the state highway, we decided to splurge and stay at Berry Hill.

My relatives thought this was an extravagance, and it was, but all my life my Granny talked about this great southern mansion that had fallen into disrepair and its once resplendent wishbone staircase.

It was finally restored in 1999 and I'd always wanted to stay there.


Before the Civil War, Berry Hill was owned by the richest man in the state of Virginia.

And here comes the tricky part...

Berry Hill was home, as I understand it, to three thousand slaves.

Three. Thousand.

There was a room near the registration desk where guests could find continental breakfast items and K and I found ourselves in there one morning when an older, African American guest came and sat at the table next to us.

We talked about the fact that the coffee was tepid and exchanged small talk.

He told us that he was retired from the Army and now working for a federal agency in Washington, D.C.

"What brings you to this part of the world," I asked him.

"My wife grew up here," he told us, "but she hasn't been back in twenty years."

And here's where it got really tricky...

"She grew up around here?" I said with a wide-eyed look. "What's her last name."

He told me.

I took three deep breathes.

"That is the middle name of both my uncle and my cousin," I said.

There was a pause.

Only the day before, at the tiny, rural community pool near my Granny's house I had been gobsmacked and at a loss for words when someone actually said to me,

"Around here, we say that if you share a name with someone, you're kin to 'em, you used to own 'em, or both."

The man at Berry Hill and I looked at each other for a few, long moments.

"It's too bad my wife isn't down here for breakfast," he finally said. "I bet she would have been interested in meeting you."

He seemed to mean it, but there was suddenly both a strange intimacy and an electric tension to the conversation.

I didn't know what to say, so I did what I always do and fell back on idiocy.

"Well, maybe it's for the best," I said. "If she was here, we'd have to go to counseling and then write a book together."

He laughed. I smiled. We were released.

After he left, K said, "I'm surprised you went there. You don't know him and he doesn't know you!"

Maybe K was right. Perhaps it was forward, presumptuous even.

Still, if I never go there, if I never talk about it - the things that my ancestors did and those they did it to - how will I ever overcome them?

On the other hand, I exercised a certain privilege in going there.

If our roles had been reversed and he had been the one to realize the possible familial connection, it's most likely he would not have mentioned it, not in the shadow of Berry Hill.

What is the path forward?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Night Swimming

Sometime in the mid-1960’s, my great grandfather, Granddaddy Bee, donated land to a local trust to build a community pool in the rural Virginia farmland where my grandmother grew up.

Other gentlemen farmers from the area contributed resources and a small, country swimming pool opened to serve the local population.

There has never been a lifeguard on duty there.

No whistles are blown.

No one shouts, “no running!” and there’s no such thing as “Adult Swim.”

There have been numerous jumps off the pool house roof into too shallow water, many attempts to capture a greased watermelon bobbing in the pool long after dark has fallen, hundreds of vigorous games of beach volleyball in the sandy court behind the pool and thousands of cans of beer fervently sipped by underage drinkers.

A life time of memories of my summer visits to my great-grandmother’s house, and later, after she and my grandfather retired there, to my grandparents house are inextricably linked to this country pool, lost in time.

Before my grandparents moved back to the farm, I rode from my great-grandparents house to the pool in the bed of a pick-up truck along with remnants of hay and silage, bumping and tossing from one side of the truck to the other on the uneven country roads and dirt lanes.

My grandparent’s house sits on a piece of the family farm land adjacent to the pool and, since they built there, getting to the pool involves only a walk down a rough path mown the length of the overgrown meadow separating the two properties.

These days, we clomp through the spiky, minefield of balls from the Sweet Gum trees pulling wagon loads of floating rings and pool toys for The Mayor, The Rooster and their cousins.

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Just as it was for me, The Mayor and The Rooster are related to almost everyone they meet at the pool.

On the fourth of July, they spent the entire day back and forth between the pool and my Granny’s house.

I don’t think clothes or underwear every came out of their suitcases that day.

I lost count, but upwards of 50 relatives stopped by for our annual covered dish affair.

My Aunt bought 20 pounds of pulled pork barbecue and some obscene amount of slaw.

[Which meant there was some serious over-eating to be done on my part!]

After dark, that same Aunt doled out glow stick bracelets and necklaces by the gross.

The children looked like aboriginal glow aliens.

My cousin Colin set off a cache of fireworks purchased at the state-line and, while his display didn’t have quite the same awe factor that a municipality’s fireworks might, there were no crowds, nor issues with parking.

There were only “ooohs and aaaahs.”

We appreciated the show. We clapped. It was perfect.

Afterward, my cousin Kaycee insisted on being baptized in the pool, having never been baptized in real life.

And so it came to pass that she was baptized.

On our last night in Virginia, my cousin Leslie stopped by after dinner to tell me she was at the pool with her kids.

The Mayor and The Rooster changed back into their still dripping suits and dashed back down the path to the pool.

When the sun sank, and the sky darkened, we flipped on the pool’s night lights.

“Pool Party!!!” The kids screamed.

They swam until long after dark, squealing and shrieking, reminding me of being little and up late at this pool.

I remember thinking something incredible must have been happening to be, not just awake that late, but swimming and playing in the pool after dark.

I smiled watching my kids have the same experience, while playing with the children of one of the cousins with whom I did the same things.

Bat wing flashed in the brightness of the pool lights as they swooped over the pool again and again catching their evening meal and I was grateful for them and for all of it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Who Dat?

On the 4th of July, my cousin Kaycee announced that she wanted to be baptized in the pool near my Granny’s house.

She was never properly baptized as a child and she declared she was ready.

“What name do you want to take?” family members asked.
“Cowbell and Batman,” she replied.
The Mayor, always literal, said,
“I think you need to take a saint’s name.“
And then, doing the best that a six year old without the benefit of a proper religious upbringing could, he continued,
“Like from the New Orleans Saints.”
And so after the home-grown, state border purchased, family only fireworks display executed by my cousin Colin and his fiance Alyssa, it came to pass.

Kaycee was baptized,

"Kaycee Cowbell Batman Reggie Bush [Last Name]."

I hope you had a happy Fourth too!