Under the Plum Tree
On a spring day in Cleveland, Ohio, two children are walking on the steep roof of a two-story home in a lower middle class area of town. They are handsome children. The boy is 15, dark haired and slim; the girl, 12, yellow-blonde and blue-eyed. They have climbed up a gigantic plum tree, just starting to bud after a snowy winter. They call to each other, walking on the edge of disaster, but mostly they call taunts to their little sister, only 4, much too small to climb the tree.
She is round-faced, also blonde, though her curly hair will tend more towards red and end up just short of strawberry. With solemn gray eyes she regards them, high above her, shouting down to her with glee, “You can’t come up here, you’re too small.” Just before her eyes brim over and her face dissolves into crying, a state that will characterize her childhood, their father, tall and terrifying, roars at the older two to come down. It is not their safety that troubles him, it turns out. It is the potential damage to the roof.
On a different day, this one deep into wintertime, with snow everywhere, a group of children has gathered around a cement goldfish pond, where ice has formed, perhaps a ½ thick. The little girl is there, with her older sister, but she can’t see what everyone is looking at because she is so short. She exclaims, “I want to see, too.” The older girl picks her up and stands her on the wide cement edge of the side of the pond, maybe two feet high. As she looks down and tries to process what she is seeing, she feels two hands in the middle of her back, shoving.
The next thing she knows is terrible cold and she is inhaling water. She can see the underside of the ice. She has never been in water other than her bath and has never learned to swim. This being-under-water experience is completely new to her. Hands reach to pull her out, but no one seems to be in a hurry to get her home and warm. For 60 years, she will believe that a bully named Bruce has pushed her in and she will have negative encounters with both older boy bullies and men named Bruce, but she finally realizes that who pushed her in was the same person who stood her on the edge of the pond, the very person assigned to protect her, her big sister.
All of my memories of Cleveland, the city of my birth, are not as bad as those two. Neither are all my memories of my older siblings, my strange mother and my tall and terrifying father that negative. But, the two stories make handy metaphors for my experience of my childhood–places I could not go but my siblings could; places I was forced to go and did not want to; my sister and brother all-powerful and often tormenting, high above me. The plum tree and the ice-pond, though not unusual as childhood stories in themselves, have been with me all my life as evocative images. Not until I reached college and was able to compare notes with students who had grown up in normal families did I understand that, although my story is by no means the worst to be found among my childhood friends, none of my college friends even believed me when I told them my stories of home. I soon learned to shut up about them.
A long line of crackers
Since critics of the student movements of the sixties are so fond of characterizing us as rich, spoiled and ungrateful brats and/or the children of commie immigrants, none of us patriotic, I will elaborate a bit on just what kind of people I come from. It is an argument from exception, perhaps, but I don’t think I am as much an exception as current histories would have it. My immediate family is characterized by high intelligence, extreme upward mobility, an unassailable work ethic stemming from the Great Depression, religious conflict, and ambiguity, to put it nicely, regarding our humble cracker roots.
Having in my retirement become interested in researching my genealogy, I now know that I can claim ancestors on both sides who arrived on this continent in the 1500s. I used to think I could also claim ancestors who were already here when the European ones arrived, but that has turned out, to my great disappointment, not to be true. Most of my European ancestors, originally from England, Ireland, Spain and Germany, have lived in Arkansas, Georgia and Florida since long before the war they called the War Between the States. Most of them were farmers, at least according to census records, and one of the farmers was also a “hardshell” Baptist circuit-riding preacher.
According to my DNA analysis, 2% of my genes came from Africa and of those ancestors all I know is that they were from the Bantu gene population. Assuming they were slaves, it is probably safe to say that there were also slaveowners among my ancestors, since it is hard to imagine there was any consensual sex involved, so long ago. I have located at least one slave-owning family in Georgia from whom I am directly descended. The younger siblings in that family migrated in a block to Florida after the Civil War and one of their descendants, my great-grandmother, is listed on a census as a mulatto.
My distant cousin, who did the research on this family, claims that they migrated because they were the younger siblings in a huge family and thus not expecting to inherit much. However, I think it possible that they did not migrate because they were the youngest. I believe they may have migrated because they were they mixed-race children of the slave-owner and hoped to either pass for white or fare better as Florida pioneers than Georgia tenant farmers. Obviously, someone in my direct line was able to pass for white and that is why I and the last two generations of my ancestors were white. I am now somewhat bemused by the thought that 150 years ago, had this genealogy been known, I could have been sold down the river and 50 years ago, had it been known, I would have been ostracized, at the very least, and perhaps sent to an inferior school. Nevertheless, I am glad to have learned of this connection, albeit so late in life.
With a few notable exceptions discovered quite belatedly, everyone in my family history was poor but fairly respectable, although allegedly having an Indian in the family was apparently considered less than respectable by somebody, since I never knew of that belief until I was a teenager. It was a revelation that also caused me some bemusement. I was bemused again to find that not only was it a secret but it was a lie, one among many I discovered on my genealogical quest. Another late-breaking secret is that my grandmother was not, as I had been told, just adopted. She was a love child, raised by her own grandparents as one of their own children, something not hard to do in a time when people might have 15 children.
Whatever happened to that loose-living great-grandma after she gave birth to my grandma, no one seems to know. Only her name remains, buried deep on a census list. One of my grandfathers was at one point in his life a moonshiner—I saw the still, out in the woods, myself— and my dad and all my uncles are said to have been hell-raisers when they were young. The other grandfather, whom I never knew, on the other hand, was at one point in time a guard on a chain-gang, one great-grandfather was a lifetime cop and an aunt was a “matron” in a prison in Florida. So, it seems, there were slaves, slave-owners, preachers, lawbreakers and law keepers and even, if you go back far enough, Quakers, amongst my kin, but, as far as I know, I am the first one with a rap-sheet.
I now wonder if the lie about our being part Indian was made up by someone of my ancestors, perhaps the one that passed, to cover up the African part. In any case, regardless of whatever shame may have been attached, I derived a certain portion of my self-identity from the lie. This spurious Native American connection was a secret my parents never mentioned until I brought it up, after overhearing conversations among my aunts and uncles and putting those together with the clue I now think my grandparents went out of their way to plant in my 8-year-old head.
The clue my grandparents gave me was taking me to a revival meeting at a Seminole reservation and telling me the children I saw “could well be your cousins.” They did not elaborate further. I had to remember and ponder it for years. I thought maybe there were churches where instead of calling each other “Brother This” and “Sister That,” there were churches that called each other “Cousin So and So.” It was the only explanation I could come up with. I now believe that my grandparents themselves had been duped by the family lie and were determined that I should know and accept what they believed to be true. They would have seen it as undermining my parents’ pretensions to middle-class respectability, which they saw as a rejection of them, which it probably was, in part. My grandfather would have done it just to annoy my mother.
Whether Seminole or Cherokee was an open question for me later on. We children were told Seminole, but my father’s face and body type was not at all like Seminoles and much like Cherokees. Eventually, I came up with a simple historical solution to the Seminole vs. Cherokee question. During the Trail of Tears era, many Cherokees ran south and joined the Seminoles. I came to believe my Granny Mary Ann, who does look Indian in her picture as an old woman, was descended from some of those. I identified with her because my great-aunts remarked, when I was introduced to them at a family reunion as a child, that I looked like “Babe,” their sister, who I then heard looked like her mother. I have lined up the pictures of the three of us and it is indeed true that I resemble both of them by having high cheekbones that would be consistent with Native American genes.
The whole Native American thing is important to my story both in that it is one more family secret I had to find out on my own and that it has been a part of my self-image all my life and figured into my choice to become an anthropologist. I put it all together, the trip to the reservation, the half-heard jokes at family reunions, my mother’s vehement denial when I claimed my resemblance to Granny Mary Ann and finally got my father to tell me the story. He claimed I was 1/8 Seminole. It gave me great pleasure to think I was mixed-race when my mother had tried so hard to make me proud of being a WASP, the pleasure my own little rebellious secret. But, knowing that I am still mixed-race, albeit still only genetically, not socially, is not much of an adjustment in terms of the pleasure value.
In any case, the implication of my family history to my own history is that I am descended from out of the ordinary people. If there is anything to the idea of genetic behavioral defects, rebellion is an my genes. At least leaving home and striking out from authority seems to be. Pioneers, swamp rats, moonshiners, descendants of slaves who fled racism—it’s a family tradition of independence.
As to the question of patriotism, for those who equate it with military service, there are military people everywhere in my family. The two blood uncles, one on each side, who lived to adulthood, were both decorated veterans of World War II, one in the Navy and the other a Marine. The only reason my father was not also a decorated war hero is that he was a steelworker when the war broke out and steelworkers were more needed at home. My brother was in the Navy and my brother-in-law is a retired and decorated career Marine officer. My nephew and three of my four husbands were also in the military and one of them is a Vietnam veteran. Some may not wish to count my great-grandfather, who was in the Confederate army, but my southern family certainly would. If patriotism equates to the military, then we got patriotism in spades in my family.
© Jentri Anders, 2016