Fast Bound by Family: Look Back at Ancestry
Thirty years ago this month, my first national magazine piece appeared — an essay about the sustaining power of one’s family. It opened new doors and changed my career in ways I never could have imagined. In some ways, it seems more relevant than ever. I hope you enjoy it.
I have always found the idea of a family a little difficult to deal with. It is at once life’s most wonderful and agonizing circumstance.
For years, I used to think Catholic families had the best arrangement, because they are traditionally large, boisterous and expansive in both their fighting with and loving of one another. Being spun from a Protestant family of four — two parents and two sons —I always found the thought of losing one of our members to some untimely fate to be one of life’s genuine terrors. There were just enough of us to fill up one car on a roller coaster.
Nobody ever got left out in Monopoly. Except for the day when my older brother, Dickie, and I created a minor tumult in the middle of Park Avenue in New York City by hurling spectacular streamers of toilet paper from our 17th-floor suite at the Vanderbilt Hotel into rush-hour traffic (in fairness, it was our first trip to Manhattan and our parents had left us alone in the suite for 20 minutes to have a quiet drink downstairs), family vacations were simple and efficient affairs.
A loss of one would reduce our number by a whole fourth. How could I shoot a hoop or eat a meal with a fourth of our flank exposed?
I’m still worried. No matter how you attempt to rationalize it, the loveliness and inevitable anxiety of a family will follow you everywhere — even into the grave, I suspect. I have known plenty of people who, for reasons and demons exclusively their own, attempted to escape from tedium and responsibilities of family membership.
One of my own best friends from high school claimed he hated his mom and dad, who had provided him with a Cutlass and a classy education. With absolute seriousness, he once told me that he couldn’t wait for his dad to keel over dead so he could take his family’s prosperous plumbing-supply business, sell it, and strike off for Canada, where he would stay stoned and listen to The Grateful Dead.
A year after we finished college he found out his dad was dying of cancer, and I watched a change come over my wild friend. He is home now, running the family business, trying to find a few more days with his old man.
Families, I am inclined to believe, are accidental. We hurl along breakneck through our lives, forgetting to notice one another, until some unexpected event brings everything into crisp focus. I read “Our Town” in high school, and I never thought about it for a minute. But now, 10 years later, I can’t get the ghostly voice of Thornton Wilder’s Emily Webb out of my head.
“Oh, as though you really saw me,” she laments, and tells the stage manager, “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. Do any human beings realize life while they live it? — every, every minute?”
Pair of Sash Weights
I like to think of the evolution of our four-member family as one big, lusty accident. If my father, Brax Dodson, a year-old newspaperman, hadn’t journeyed north in 1940 to find out what exactly was up there, he wouldn’t have accepted a job on the Cumberland, Md., News Times, and he never would have set foot inside McCrory’s five-and-ten one sweltering August day in search of a pocket comb and met 22-year-old Jane Virginia Kessell, who sold big-band records in the store’s music department.
At the time, he later told me, he only wanted a dependable comb — not a wife. But he wound up buying records all that fall. He didn’t even own a record player. Eleven months later, he had a wife. At a corner church down the block from McCrory’s, two families — one “Northern” and Methodist, the other Southern and Baptist, both as big as small armies — were linked by Lutheran rite: another accident of sorts, although at the time everyone called it a religious compromise.
All through my childhood, the presence of those two families, like a couple of enormous ancient iron sash weights, anchored my innermost sensibilities about who I was and where I had come from. My mother’s people — the Kessells — were a wintry mountain race, sturdy descendants of German coal miners scattered across the hills of Maryland and West Virginia. They were a sharp-featured, strong-fibered people rich in family ties, eccentric, honest, proud. Some of the men had died in the Civil War — boys who had a notion that the Union ought to be preserved, even though they’d not seen more than 50 square miles of it.
My father’s kin were Southerners, single-mule farmers and tradesmen — English in heritage, Baptist in everything else — who had settled in North Carolina in the early 1800s and whose descendants had fought and died at Shiloh and Vicksburg. I’m named for both my grandfathers, which may explain why I’m steadfastly fond of church hymns and cheap cigars.
My taste in music comes from my maternal grandfather, James Kessell, who liked church hymns — along with women and corn whiskey. When his wife, Maggie, died two years after the birth of my mother, who was the youngest of 11 children, he gave up trying to be a father. The oldest Kessell kids raised the younger ones while my grandfather came and went, a grizzled apparition who turned up at family ceremonies now and then.
My dad’s father was named Walter. He loved fishing, bourbon and King Edward cigars (pronounced “see-gars”). He was a cabinetmaker who showed me how to saw a straight line. He also showed me how to fish for black bass with a cane pole in a Florida bayou. Alone with me once in his flatboat, he let me puff his vile cigar. It was delicious. His favorite phrase was, “If the good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.” But the creek did rise on him and he went fast. His kidneys just quit on him one day when he was 78.
Snow and Sweat
As a child, I was captivated by the Kessell clan. There was a lovely deep-eyed quality about them. And there were so bloody many of them, including the men who had married into the family, I had 10 uncles on my mother’s side. They worked in factories in Baltimore, and they mined coal and farmed corn. Frequently, in spite of their wives’ threats of punitive action, they drank all night.
Without much difficulty, I can imagine myself 10 years old again and lying warm as toast beneath a down quilt upstairs in my Aunt Fanny’s and Uncle Gerald’s house in western Maryland. It was mouse-quiet, the dawn of Christmas Eve, and without even looking out the frosted windowpanes, I could feel the weight of all-engulfing snow dizzying the world around me.
To a Southerner, the high drift of snow piled against the north side of the garage was almost incomprehensible, and I savored the thought of plowing a canyon through its flour-pure prairie later that morning. Meanwhile, the house, with a secret life of its own, talked to me in whispers and creaks and rustles. The old house was, I calculated, exactly 10 times older than me. My family’s feet had creaked on those stairs for nearly a century.
I wanted to believe then that the concert of early morning noises was the revenants of my kin scattering at dawn, fleeing to Braddock mountain, which loomed darkly above the house out back. I had roamed its forgotten dead-leafed hollows dozens of times, and knew that an old Confederate rail line was lying in ruin somewhere up there, entombed by snow that morning. That was all the evidence I needed to believe in ghosts.
Similarly, I can transport myself back into summer. At gargantuan Kessell reunions, the uncles came with their wives and dozens of babies and cousins. For days, people whose name or blood was the same as mine ate and drank and gossiped. Inevitably, the uncles all convened in my Uncle Russ’s back pasture and shucked their shirts and conducted marathon horseshoe-pitching bouts, drinking beer from a keg cooling in a nearby root house. I watched my own dad, an outsider who had long ago been accepted into the gruff fraternity of Kessells, slinging horseshoes. His back glistened with sweat. He was as happy as I’d ever seen him.
One of my uncles, a brawny silver-maned Irishman named Carson Jewell — perhaps my favorite, and certainly the most skillfully profane of the bunch — took me to Baltimore Orioles games with him later that summer. We always sat on the first-base side in Memorial Stadium, where in quiet concert with the tinny play-by-play staccato of his transistor radio my uncle patiently explained to me the mysteries of baseball and women. “There’s no sure strategy for winning with either one,” he assured me.
A Family Gem
The Dodsons, on the other hand, were something of a Faulknerian enigma to me, even though I grew up surrounded by them in North Carolina. For many years I used to think it was because most of them were Baptists, making our branch of the family a lonely outpost of Lutheranism. That thought was reinforced by my grandmother, Beatrice Dodson, who came to live with us after the death of her husband.
A Gabriel-like guardian of the Holy Gospels, she was a Southern Baptist’s Baptist. Before she became a Dodson, she’d been a Taylor (a great-grandniece of Zachary Taylor, I always heard), which in my boyish mind accounted for her natural scrappiness. The year she had been born the Apache leader Geronimo surrendered; the Statue of Liberty was dedicated; Grover Cleveland was president.
Remembering her now, I realize that she was probably not unlike most Southern women of her day who had raised a large family during the Great Depression. I was initially intimidated by her. I’d been closer to the old man, with his smelly cigars and unhurried talk. She made extraordinary buttermilk biscuits, however, which pleased me, and quoted the Holy Scripture relentlessly, which made my knobby Lutheran knees quake.
In Beatrice, I began to see my father’s world — the world before me — as an immerse and fertile domain populated by my kinsmen, a world that was as real in my imagination as the sulfur-tang of wood smoke, as crisp as the report of an ax slicing the icy stillness of a January sundown. She told stories about our people — how mean, living, gentle and crazy they were. She took us down a hundred lost roads of our ancestry. She told my brother and me that we were, in the end, no different from our own daddy who always had a streak of the devil in him. Dickie and I were 19 and 17 then, explorers of the new worlds of women and 3.2 beer. But she didn’t preach at us.
I will always remember one thing about her. Much to my mother’s embarrassment, Beatrice always insisted on carrying her pocketbook with her to the communion rail on Sundays. Her pocketbook was a small suitcase, really. She clutched it in her veiny hands like an archangel’s lifeline, willing to loosen her vice-grip only if her Savior appeared and gave the word. “Mom,” my mother used to whisper, as we rose to tread to the sacrament rail, “you can really leave your pocketbook here. It will be all right.” Grandmother didn’t even flinch, just marched ahead to accept her wine and her wafer.
Maybe she just didn’t trust Lutherans. Anyway, her practice eventually became a family gem. We still excavate the story at holiday dinners. I tend to think she carried her purse constantly because she always wanted to be ready when her Master sent for a good biscuit-maker. She died one night while I was off with a group of high-school buddies trying my damnedest to become a man overnight. I missed her funeral. I miss wondering what was in her bag. I miss her saintly biscuits.
A year ago last October, my old man suggested I sneak home to North Carolina so the two of us could go to Chapel Hill for a football game between our alma maters. His was ranked seventh in the nation. Mine was just rank. But the possibility of knocking around Chapel Hill on a radiant October afternoon with just my old man was too alluring.
I call him my old man. He’s anything but that. He’s 64 and still hits a golf ball straighter than I do. Anyway, we got up early that Saturday of the game like a couple of giddy teenagers, much to my mom’s amusement, and struck off in his car through the country. There was a place we wanted to see. Exactly nine miles from Chapel Hill’s town line sits a weedy crossroads. There’s not much there — a sunken white country store, a rusting pump, a squat brick house. But we still call it Dodson’s Crossroads. I’d been there before, including once when my father, my brother and I had gone in search of my great-granddaddy’s place, abandoned in a tall, silent forest nearby.
Uncle Jimmy had been my grandfather’s father, the original Jimmy Dodson, and was called “Uncle” by everyone. He had married a half-Cherokee woman, and his homeplace had two pastures and several stands of hardwood and holly trees. He also had a bull who was always trying to kill him.
One night, the family yarn goes, Uncle Jimmy was awakened by a ruckus downstairs in his house. He found the bull standing in his living room. Shinnying out an upstairs window, he trotted out to the barn to fetch a pitchfork. He climbed back in the window and went downstairs to have a go at the bull. Blood was let on both sides.
A few weeks later, however, the bull gored Uncle Jimmy while he was crossing the pasture. The bull shattered his ribs and put him in bed for two months. But Uncle Jimmy lived a dozen years longer. One night while contemplating the fire, he put down his pipe and told his wife that he felt a twinge of cold coming on. He quietly went up to bed, lay down and died.
“That’s the way Dodsons seem to go,” mused my father.
“That’s how I want to go,” I agreed, as we rode along.
“Just put me in a pine-board box and stick me under the ground,” my father continued, nodding toward a pasture. “That way, the Earth will have me a couple of weeks. We humans are funny — plug somebody full of embalming fluid and pretty them and put them in a straight box for eternity. That’s not eternity. That’s not a step up the evolutionary ladder. No sir,” my dad said, griming. “Let me give something back to the Earth. Just plant me in the ground and let me make flowers.”
I will, too. And I hope somebody does the same thing for me.
My team lost that afternoon. They lacked imagination. They wouldn’t throw the ball on first down, which was the fatal flaw that led to their demise, my dad and I agreed while walking across the campus quads amid a fiery swirl of leaves. I don’t know if it was the autumn inferno around us, the smoky Jack Daniel’s old time No. 7 charcoal mellowed genuine Tennessee sour mash whiskey effervescing in my brain, or the sharp happiness of just being with my old man on an afternoon I would never forget, but the world, as A.E. Houseman might have said, suddenly seemed none so bad.
We walked to a crowded cellar bar where my father had sat with a handful of other journalism students in 1939, arguing about the looming shadow of Adolf Hitler. Emboldened by drink, fortified by the indomitability of youth, they vowed to go do battle with him if it came to that. Sitting there, with a new generation’s babble swallowing us, I asked my dad if he had ever worried about survival then — was he afraid, or even aware, of the great cancerous thing that Faulkner claimed most people feared, the star-spangled, last-gleaming ding-dong of doom? Was he then concerned for the world that would face his unborn sons and the women they would someday woo, marry and procreate with?
Did he think there might be some glimmer of truth to Faulkner’s optimistic pronouncement about man’s flinty endurance? Had he ever thought that he would someday reach 64 and have a shaggy face as fine as Lear’s, luminously alive beneath a jaunty green wool cap? Did he ever imagine becoming a sentimental old fool with two grandchildren and perhaps someday half-a-dozen more?
He took a sip of beer. “No,” he said at length, and then, bolder, admitted, “Yes.” His gray eyes glittering, my dad told me that of course he worried then, as now, about what was happening in the world around him. “But you’ll go mad worrying about it,” he advised. “There’s very little that’s certain. The people you love, a family, a home. You can’t expect more than that.” The sanest idea for coping with the problem, he continued, was to view it as Montaigne, the 16th-century essayist, did. “The value of life lies not in the length of days, but in the use we make of them.”
My old man told me he had always wanted a family. He damn-sure got it. Near the end of the afternoon, riding home into a pumpkin-smeared sunset, he sensed my restlessness and at last asked me whether I had any inkling of what I really wanted.
I told him I wanted to be five years younger, carefree and in college again, with one of those miraculous, golden-haired beauties we had admired at the bar floating on my arm. No, I wanted to be five years older, a grown-up at last, with a wife, kids and a strangling mortgage. I wanted my mom to quite smoking. I wanted Wilder’s Emily Webb to be wrong and Faulkner to be right. I wanted my team to throw on first down next year. I wanted it to remain October, this October, forever.
Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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