My mother drew me out of my memories as she went on with her story.
“He was away for a long time,” she said. “I guess the company store didn’t have it. Or maybe he didn’t want to go there. No one was supposed to know this man was coming. Of course, everyone knew. They found out as soon as he drove up to our house. However that dinner went, Dad was inciting hate just by looking for another job, just for daring to hope. But I didn’t know that at the time. I thought that it all hinged on that one dinner. Maybe that’s why I remember it so well.”
“Dad got back from the store with only a half-hour to get himself ready before this man arrived. The doorbell rang while he was still in the shower and my mother sent me upstairs to tell Dad while she answered the door. I ran into the bathroom, staying just long enough to blurt out the news before I ran back downstairs to see what the man looked like who had stirred up all this fuss.”
She smiles and stares down at the wheel of the car. Never at me, though. Not once as she tells me all of this.
“He was unremarkable, needless to say. Looking back, he probably heard me yelling at my father. You could hear everything in that house. The desperation was probably as tangible to him as the chair he sat in. That’s probably why your Grandpa got the job.”
She’s silent then. She checks her makeup in the mirror and looks over at me for the first time, but I get the sense that the story isn’t over.
“What happened at dinner, Mom?”
She looks back out at our relatives by the cookhouse.
“I’ll never understand why you think any of this matters,” she says, but she continues.
“Dad came down with his face bright red; I could tell he’d been scrubbing it with the brush. Beet red, understand? But no dust. Then, at dinner, I saw the dust peeking up at his collar. He’d only scrubbed the skin that would be visible. I pushed my meat around and hoped no one would notice. Everything would be all right, he’d get the job and no one in town would know this man had passed through.
“But when my father turned his head, the dust on his neck left a big, grey smudge on his white collar. The city man noticed, of course, and mentioned it. My father laughed it off, but once my mother diverted the conversation, he excused himself. I saw him go into the bathroom. He must have checked his collar, because when he came back he couldn’t meet the city man’s eyes and conversation didn’t flow the way it had before.”
She’ll never admit it, but I can tell this moment meant something to my mother.
My boyfriend, David, comes from money. His family is an old name in the District. You know the kind: wealth is as much a part of their genetic code as bone structure or eye color. My family was always comfortable. We had to watch what we spent, but we still had what my Politics of Identity class would call disposable income.
David and I have been together for three years, but I can count on my hand the number of times he’s taken me home to see his family. The first time I met them was at a restaurant. We were late, so his parents had already ordered for us. They asked all the typical questions I had expected: what I majored in and how David and I met.
(The answer: history and at a Halloween party. He was Gatsby and I was a flapper, but I told him that I was dressed as Daisy, just to get his attention).
I was saved from having to answer where I was from by the food arriving. Whenever someone asks me that, I always wonder how I should answer.
The truth would sound something like this: Where I’m from? Well if you’re asking where I grew up, that would be Falls Church, near the east Metro stop. Family lineage is more complicated. My mother’s family were all coal miners in West Virginia, but my grandfather fled as soon as he could. My father, from Florida — the part that’s actually Southern, not the places that are basically just retirement communities.
So you see, where I’m from depends on whom you ask. I’m Southern as far as the Civil War and Southern Living magazine are concerned, but you’ll never hear Florida belles lump themselves in with the hill folk.
And if you consider that when someone like David’s mother asks you where you’re from, what they really want to know is your pedigree, then the answer becomes even more confusing: To the family we ran from, we’re traitors. To Oprah, we might be an inspiration. So, I’m sorry that I can’t give you a straight answer, Mrs. Marshall, but in all honesty, the jury’s out on whether I come from a family you could liken to Benedict Arnold or one that embodies the American Dream.
So I was happy to be saved from that, until I saw what was on the plate in front of me. It looked like a steak, until I tried to cut into it. I kept hitting what felt like bone and when I tried to scrape the meat away, all I got were little slivers. I looked up to try and see what David was doing with his and saw his parents staring at me.
“You’ve never eaten osso bucco before, have you, dear?”
No Mrs. Marshall, oxtail isn’t usually something that graces the dinner tables of riffraff.
“David, help her cut it,” she said and David leaned forward and cut my meat like I was a child.
I have just been accepted to graduate school at UVA for history. I have attended entire lectures where I’ve listened to professors argue that most heritage and identity is imagined and just as subject to change across generations as our interpretations of history are. In layman’s terms, that means that what happened to me at that dinner shouldn’t have been a big deal. But knowing what I do doesn’t make the sense of shame and embarrassment I felt go away anymore than it made David comfortable bringing me home to his family after that.
My mother taps me on the shoulder and hands me her room key.
“I’m driving back,” she says. “You and Carolyn check out whenever you want to.”
I tell Mom I’ll see her at home. We all agreed to drive back to Northern Virginia where Carolyn and I would stay for the rest of the week before heading back north. I kiss Mom on the cheek before I get out of the car. As usual, she gives no acknowledgement and drives away without even saying goodbye.
I turn back toward the cookhouse and see all the women come out with their huge tins of food and set them on the tables.
After making myself a plate, I wander out to the edge of Bernard’s property to the river I recall from my memories. I sit on the hill and stare down at the sliver of water that somehow seemed bigger to me as a child.
I think of my grandfather, who is, of course, the reason I am here. I can’t remember much about him. I saw him on every major holiday from the time I was a kid, but less and less once I had started college. The first night after Mom called to tell me that he had died, I cried, and David acted like he was supposed to: he held me and said things I can’t remember now. But since then? Nothing. It scares me that someone I should be so close to can drift so far away from me that when I lose them completely, I barely feel anything at all.
I look back and see Carolyn teetering towards me, softly cursing as her heels sink into the grass and she has to pull them back out again. I turn back towards the creek, imagining the two of us making that fort when we were little. I don’t emerge from my daydream until I can sense her sitting next to me, setting her plate and a bottle of beer between us.
“God!” she says, as she takes a swig. “I need to drink to be with these people.”
“Then why did you come?” I ask her.
“Well, he was our grandfather.”
“He did a lot for us,” I say.
“I know that!” she snaps.
We sit in silence for a while, staring at the river.
“Do you remember when we used to play in this water?” I ask her.
“I remember the fuckers who threw cherry bombs at us,” she answers.
“I still have that scar on my back from where one hit me.”
“I know. I see it every time you wear a bathing suit. It looks like a knot in your skin.”
“So how are you and Josh?” I ask.
“Don’t talk to me about Josh.”
“He’s good to you.”
“Well, are you my sister or his?”
“All right, I guess. I don’t really know where I’m going with him.”
She doesn’t know how to respond to this, so I start again.
“Hey Carolyn, do you ever wonder how we’d be different if Grandpa had stayed here?” I ask.
“Sure, I was thinking about that when I met Connie Stokes and her three kids. It’s scary isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. I’m just thinking, here’s an entire side of the family that we’ve never really known and…I don’t know. I’m wondering what else I’m missing out on.”
Carolyn looks at me, confused.
“Would you want to live like this? Jesus, I can’t imagine it. Grandpa did us a favor. Three kids and she’s only twenty-one. I can’t imagine. I don’t even like kids.”
“No, I mean…it feels weird, you know. We have a whole side of family and history that we don’t even know about.”
“I don’t think there’s much to find out.”
“Come on Carolyn, that’s Mom talking, don’t buy into that crap. There’s plenty to know.”
Carolyn keeps staring at me to the point where it makes me uncomfortable. I can tell she’s waiting for me to say something but I don’t know what to tell her.
“What do you hope to find out?” she finally asks.
I don’t even know how to describe it to her.
I have a friend named Amelia at school. Her entire family is Italian and when she goes out with a boy, she’ll never think of him in any serious way unless he is Italian too.
She’ll attribute so many of her quirks or beliefs to being Italian, as if that explains everything, and every time she meets someone who turns out to be Italian as well she can talk to them for hours, doesn’t matter who they are.
But I can’t point to anything like this. I have no community to return to or heritage to hearken back to. Amelia seems to derive so much sense of self from being Italian, but I have no similar compass to guide me, no people I belong to.
I think of people like David’s mother, who fish for a pedigree I don’t possess. I wonder what such people think of me, or if I register at all without such a lineage. How do I explain to them that when you start over and try for something better, that that sometimes means leaving everything behind, even your history? How do you tell someone who can trace their ancestry back to the drafters of the Constitution, what it is like to feel as though you have just appeared? I can’t imagine that they would understand, but when you come from nothing, that’s what you also feel you’re headed towards.
This is the question I ponder, but will never pose to Carolyn as we sit by the water: How do I know where I’m going, if I don’t even know where I’m from?
I agree to drive back, since Carolyn got us here. As we drive in silence through the hills toward home, I stare out at the land passing us by and remember something my grandfather said to me years ago. It certainly isn’t my fondest memory of him, and really, in the scheme of my life or his, it probably isn’t anything important. But it’s all he ever said to me about this place I’m about to leave and will probably never return to.
It was the summer after my junior year in high school, during a private conversation we were having about colleges that I wanted to apply to in the fall. Somewhere between my mention of Syracuse and Emerson, he asked me if I’d given any thought at all to West Virginia University, where he had taken night classes over 50 years before. I confessed that I hadn’t given it any thought at all. I didn’t tell him that to me, West Virginia seemed like a barren wasteland, full of nothing but hicks and mines and forests.
My grandfather just nodded and told me he’d thought as much. But then he said something that I didn’t know what to make of, then or now.
“It’s a shame, you know. Everyone’s leaving. It’s a dying place. When I was young, the youths were just starting to realize that there was nothing there for them, unless they wanted to go to the mine. So they started to leave. I left too. I never had any particular loyalty to that place either. But it calls to me, now that I’m older. And it seems sad to me that soon it won’t even be a place I could go back to, if I ever felt the need.”