Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Vanished Hands

"But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
          And the sound of a voice that is still."  Tennyson.

South of Marion, Illinois, are two cemeteries that I wandered over to on August 15. One I have visited, I don’t know, maybe fifteen or twenty times in my life.  The other, perhaps, two times before this summer.  The first, Mt. Hebron, is a church cemetery.  The small church, wooden, painted white, always beautifully maintained, sits atop a rise.  As I have always approached the church, the road runs directly at it and then takes a sharp turn to the north.  So you slow down, look to your right, ease further up the rise on a gravel drive maybe twenty feet, and park beneath the overhanging trees. 

Major Dude's Paternal Grandparents. 
Mt. Hebron Cemetery

The cemetery, which I am guessing is a couple of acres in size, gently rolls down the rise on the west side of the Church.  My memory is that we used to be able to see beyond the cemetery, and admire the rolling farm land descending, then ascending again to a western horizon.   The cemetery is enclosed in a chain link fence, and this visit I noticed that the trees had grown along the far edge so I could not see beyond the cemetery itself.  Maybe my memory is just a fantasy, but I am struck, now, by the idea that in youth I could stand at these graves, turn, and then look to the future, and now that vista has shrunk.  This year, Southern Illinois maintained a lush green with generous rainfall, so even in August the grass was thick and vibrant and a few days past needing mowing.  The tombstones, also, seemed to be thriving, and I thought that if one wanted to join these dead in their serene neighborhood, one better hurry.  There weren’t many lots left.

The second cemetery, up the road to the north, past Mt. Hebron, used to be called, I believe, The Brooks Cemetery, and is now called Friendship Cemetery.  In my first visit, during a family reunion in the mid-seventies, the cemetery seemed to be just a few old tombstones in a pancake flat field, right at the side of a dirt road.  Five years ago, my oldest son and I found it again, and it was still just a collection of tombstones scattered in a field, but this time the grass was cut and a sign had been erected.  I am guessing that the space is about a half acre in size, slightly larger than a lot for a house in the city.  There are perhaps ten to fifteen tombstones arranged oddly in groups of two or three.  Are so few buried here, or have so many markers been lost?  I do not know.  My son, an anthropologist, explained to me then, or some other time, the difference between a “cemetery” and a “graveyard,” the first being an organized, orderly arrangement of tombstones or other such symbols and markers.  Even five years ago, Brooks Cemetery certainly veered into the “graveyard” end of that scale.  Now someone has claimed it, erected a wooded sign hung on a pvc structure, cut the grass, arranged the broken headstones in what might be the appropriate places, and is attempting to bring new life to this old graveyard. Except for the company being so few, Friendship Cemetery appears to be a lovely place to rest one’s bones.  

            So why did I choose to visit these cemeteries?  If as Walt Whitman says that we can look for him beneath my boot soles, well, I was searching the grass for my family.  But we all know that if one is searching for one’s family, one’s heritage, one is looking for oneself.  It is somewhat infuriating to me that a central question motivating the Caravan of Wonder is one of the great original questions for humankind.  Who am I?  It’s a question that takes different forms:  Where do I come from?   Am I my family?  How has the past produced the present? 

            I say it is infuriating because I wish for something more original, something more individual.  But I have to face the fact that I am not unique, a one-of-a-kind human with startlingly different motivations, a character with a new plot and unheard of conflict.  No, I am just a Dude living in the good-old U. S. of A., trying to learn a little bit more about myself before I die.  Not that it will matter that much, of course, because my sons will, at some latter part of their lives, say, in thirty or forty years, be faced with the same, most likely, unanswerable questions.  Who am I?  Why did I become the person I have become?  What moves me?  What makes me happy, proud, joyous, and why?  What part of them is part of me?  My answers to those questions will be mine and most likely are not transferrable genetically, intellectually, or legally, in a last will and testament. 

            For portions of this year I will be repeating journeys that my mother and father took before me, and in many cases with me and my sisters, visiting relatives, living and dead.  These are the basics, we begin with:  My father, Lyman Winstead Grant, was born in 1911, in Marion, Illinois. Except for a few years at the University of Illinois, from which he graduated in 1933, he lived there or thereabouts until 1942, when he was drafted into service during World War II.   The war took him to Nashville, Tennessee, where he met a young worker at the IRS, Birdie Louise Jamison, born in 1921.  He served the war stateside, married Birdie, and soon they had a daughter, Diane Elizabeth.  Eighteen months later, a second daughter appeared, Barbara Louise.  Both girls were tow-headed, of similar size, so in photographs it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart.  As the war ended, Lyman left full-time military service to join the Air Force Reserves, and eventually parlayed his desk work in the Air Corps into desk work for the Veterans Administration.  By 1953, after I had been conceived but before I was born, the family moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where like all the other red-blooded American families, the man worked hard, the woman raised the children, money was saved, noses were kept clean, reputations protected, regular automobile vacations taken, and distant families visited.  In my family’s case, my father shepherded us for our almost annual photograph beside his parents’ graves at Mt. Hebron. 

            All this is merely the lead up to saying that for three nights Waller Grant parked the caravan at Glendale State Park, about forty miles south of Marion, and one day I made my pilgrimage to the graves of my father’s parents.  And, like a dutiful son, I took photographs of the gravestones that I already have dozens of versions of.  On this occasion, for this trip, I decided not to bundle up the family and insist everyone beam their beautiful smiling faces at the right moment.  One reason, I already knew that the family home has been razed and replaced by a branch office of a bank. So all I would be doing is visiting graves.  There are only so many graves I will drag them to, so why not leave it to the Lincoln memorial or Billy Holiday? Another, I hoped to spend a little time in the Marion Library “looking stuff up.”  I have learned from previous impatient comments that research is not a spectator sport.  Third, I really don’t know, but I sense that my questions about self-identity are not Jacob’s and Theo’s questions.  Or maybe it’s just that I can’t explain who these people are.  I don’t know enough about them and what I know is troubling in a slow minor key mysterious way.

            I am the one who has done the therapy, not my father, who viewed therapy as a sign of weakness.  So it’s not that he ever sat down and explained who his parents were and how he felt about them.  Anything I know I have picked up through innuendo and a little research and sifted through the netting of my own neuroses.  One thing I am hoping is that if my sisters and cousins read this, they will amend and correct my speculations.  I should also add here that I never met my grandparents, on either side.  My maternal grandmother died when she gave birth to my mother, and her father died of a heart attack, in his early fifties, shortly after I was born.  My father’s parents passed away in the mid-nineteen thirties.  So I have no personal stories of grandparents taking me for the weekend while my parents went off to a convention for a little adult recreation. No Christmas memories of grandma and pa sitting around the table piled with food and seasoned with embarrassing stories from my parents’ childhoods.  No long , tearful goodbyes, or churches full of friends in thin suits and out of fashion hats saying farewell to yet another hunched over contemporary.  My memory pool is shallow.

            What I can figure out is that my father’s relationship with his mother was, as we say, “complicated.”  Nora Lilley was her name.  “It’s an Irish washerwoman’s name,” my father would later say when someone suggested naming a daughter after her.  Did that sentiment come from him, illustrating his shame of her, or did it come from her, and depict her shame?  She was a teacher, first of small country one room affairs, and later, I guess, she secured better pay and security in town. Her obituary, which I uncovered this trip, states she had taught 24 years.  Occasionally, Lyman attended his own mother’s classroom.  He prided himself on being a good student, and perhaps was a sort of know it all.  [He once bragged to me that he recited in one class fifteen (or so) times, and I thought, “I bet the other kids loved that.”]  So Nora Lilly was educated, and had attended Southern Illinois Normal, now University, in Carbondale. There were books in the house.  By the age of twelve, Lyman was a voracious reader and trading paperback copies of Horatio Alger tales with friends.

            But my gut tells me that home life was not a tender affair.  Lyman and his sister, Helen Elizabeth, who stayed in Marion her entire life, had a somewhat contentious relationship.  They were intensely loyal to each other, visited each other almost yearly.  But I would hear my father and mother talking about a letter or a brief phone call and pick up that someone was disappointing the other.  Everyone then was a drinker and when they would all visit and the whiskey emptied after midnight and the children were asleep, I think “things were said” that probably could have been left unsaid.  Jealousies and slights between them lasted a lifetime and they learned that habit somewhere.  My guess is that it was Nora.

            Nora was a large woman, perhaps average height, but over 200 pounds, I believe.  When she died in 1936, at aged 61, the newspaper announcement described the cause as “after a long illness with a complication of diseases.”  I imagine my father and his sister sitting at the kitchen table in their home, pondering how to describe their mother’s death.  How long had she been ill?  Six months, a year, two years?  Am I wrong, I hope I am wrong, but I see her as a fat, ill woman, sitting at home making demands of everyone, criticizing how everyone does everything.  My father told me she died of cirrhosis of the liver, and that she never touched alcohol.  My father’s advice, much of it very good and helpful as I have matured, was “don’t let yourself get fat.”  Advice I wish I had headed.

There are a few photographs of her.  One shows her as a young woman, a little full in the face, a dark, handsome frock, and a hat with a jaunty feather.   Another, taken in later years shows a deadly serious woman, steely eyes behind thin wire rim glasses, serious jowls.  Was this a photo from a school year book and she was giving past and future students her “don’t fuck with me” stare?  Maybe.  But why, I wonder, was this the photo my father framed and hung in his bedroom.  Talk about your internalized superego!  My father could have been a poster boy for a Freudian Clinic. 

And his father?  He is almost a blank slate.  William Orlando Grant was born in Charleston, Illinois, northeast a hundred or so miles from Marion.  He was not an educated man, as far as I can tell, at least not in the college educated sense.  For a time, he farmed around Charleston.  But my father said and census records and his obituary, which I also found this trip, confirm that William worked as a coal miner, and my guess is that that work took him to the Marion area.  By the nineteen twenties or so, it appears that coal mining ceased being a large employer of labor.  In fact, the region suffered great violence concerning the development of unions and while it is purely speculation, I wonder if William got out of coal mining because of this trouble.  In his later years—I do not know exact dates, but after 1920—William became a merchant and ran a gasoline station and market across the street from his house.

I do not know what he looked like since I have never seen a photograph of him, which again I find fascinating given the prominence that Nora assumed in my father’s house.   If he looked at all like his brothers and sisters he was of medium build, strong from the waist up, perhaps with blond or light brown hair, with a sort of squashed or broad face.  I know my father was ashamed of him, thinking him a failure, and certainly ashamed that his father was not more wealthy and highly regarded in the city.  “Merchant” was not a word of praise from my father.  My father would criticize others, as I grew up, saying of a small business owner, “He keeps his records in his shirt pocket,” and now I wonder if my father developed this distain watching his own father.  Whatever the answer to that question, for me a more puzzling moment was a statement my father made near the end of this life, saying, “I am beginning to think I have been unfair to my father.”  By what I can tell, William died suddenly and unexpectantly, of a heart attack at age 65, two years after Nora.

I have wondered if my father began feeling regret because he thought that I was judging him more harshly than necessary.  Which I did and probably still do.   Or was he beginning to see that his father was a gentle soul and that perhaps it was okay to live life as a gentle soul and not fight, fight, fight for a place the table.   In any case, I have decided that the family dynamic in the Nora Lilley and William Grant house was that of a very dominant woman who was unhappy in her marriage to a man who would not earn the money she thought they needed.  She pushed the children, and he comforted them when he could.  But often he just disappeared to avoid the trouble.  She was full of platitudes and sage advice from the Bible and Romantic writers; and he occasionally drank too much, especially on election day when the Democrats won.

Why these two people wound up with each other is anyone’s guess, and somewhere in some future blog post, I assume I will attempt my guess.  Right now, what I know is that the 1910 census states that Nora Lilley, at 35, lived as head of a house she owned in West Marion.  Living with her were her mother and her step-father, Tom Waters, and a nineteen year old nephew Raymond Brooks.  At the same time, William Orlando Grant, at 37, resided with his parents in Charleston, Illinois, and with his four unmarried sisters.  The census does not list a profession for William, while one sister was teacher and another a milliner.  What does this tell us about William?  In 1900, he was working as a farmhand away from home.  Had he left home to make it on his own but returned?  Proof of a kind of failure?

Interestingly, both Nora’s and William’s obituaries announce that their wedding date was January 2, 1910, in St. Louis, thus protecting a little family secret.  Their actual wedding date was January 2, 1911, three months before my father’s birth, a fact that I discovered when my aunt let me look at the family Bible when I was in my early twenties.  My father’s reaction to this and other family secrets that I read about in that Bible was, first, to say to me, “I bet you think you have something over me now!”  His second reaction was to renew the long feud between his sister and himself.  Shame and blame.  Learned behaviors, behaviors passed down through generations.  Still, we know one thing that happened after the April census date 1910 and before Nora and William married in January.  Yet we can only speculate how these two relatively older unmarried adults—one supporting her parents, the other still supported by his; one educated, the other not; one Protestant, the other Catholic—found each other and why.

However they found each other and however they loved and treated each other and their children, another fact in the story is that on August 15, 2013, more than a hundred years after the birth of their first child, who was my father, I stopped by to pay my respects to Nora and William.  Of the various family narratives available, this one is quite acceptable.  At this time, I choose to be a son who honors his father’s honor for his parents.  I also know my oldest son, who has his own life now, honors my honor, etc. etc.  At the appropriate time, Jacob and Theo  will  discover their own way in this story.  It was important for my father to revisit his home city and the graves of his parents.  It can be important for me also.  Maybe we do so for different reasons; maybe not.  And next week, Waller Grant will travel to Charleston and visit William’s parents. 

I know I haven’t gotten said here all that there is to be said.  We’ll discover what that is further down the road.

Soundtrack.  Sister Sledge:  "We Are Family."


  1. Thank you, Lyman. What an expression of love for your parents. Our hearts have no design, no reason, no pattern for love. To try to find reason in affairs of the heart is to try to reach out and grasp the wind. That is what I hear you saying here about your family. Thank you for putting it into words. --- Man you are killing me.

  2. Hi Lyman,

    Wow! I agree with everything Lance Worley said in his comment. His words are very powerful, and they resonate with me in my own family history research.

    On another note, as a fellow family history researcher, and as a complete outsider, I really liked Nora's picture on Ancestry.com. Her expression was like that of many others I have seen in posed photographs of that time. I see a spark in her eyes, and not a "don't fuck with me stare." Of course, that's from the perspective of an outsider, who has seen many photographs of her own family.

    Thank you for sharing your family story.