Vernon waited too late. A cousin, he now wants to assemble our family tree. A branch of it at least. One comprising our mutual matriarchal entities. The moment to have done this was decades ago when enough generations still stretched among us to weave that narrative together.
My grandmother Alice, his aunt, was born in 1908. Hers would’ve been a fine memory to excavate. She could’ve provided his enterprise’s bones. After all she was old enough to have known ex-slaves.
Ex-slaves. Talk about history coming to life. It’s one thing to watch Skip Gates’ Finding Your Roots or Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. It surely would’ve been more immediate to have such recollections lent voice from a listener who heard them directly from people who underwent those indignities.
It’s no stretch to any imagination in Alice seeing her own grandparents as having once been chattel.
What prompted Vernon’s late, nearly futile search? Edna Long. Edna Long piqued him.
He’s getting older. We’re both in the Boomer cohort but his portion began at our wave’s very beginning. His turning 18 coincided with a draft number that eventually shipped him to Vietnam before the Tet Offensive. When whatever the United States intended doing in Southeast Asia still looked “winnable.”
Vernon served just as In Da Gotta Da Vita explained everything better to black, poor, and unlucky draftees than safe think tank strategies couched in alt-world academics. Me? I derive nearer the Boom’s conclusion. We got all the benefits of being the most swaddled and coddled generation of Americans ever while the obvious folly of Vietnam led to ending the draft.
All that militarism during our formative years went for naught. Here’s the level of the era’s perniciousness. Gym teachers had taught us how to march in likely preparation of boot camp. After all in Quarropas who didn’t know that unlike sons from elsewhere we’d never become draft-dodging conscientious objectors or much-much worse, blustering warmongering coat holders seeking as many deferments as possible.
Who knew really? Maybe some consciences had been raised. The muddle of Vietnam ended selective service. That muted any contention about which way and where we’d jump.
Vernon and his brother as well as their able-bodied friends, aware as they might’ve been, lacked our escape. Quarropas being one of those New York Revolutionary towns, one where George Washington just didn’t sleep but also fought, expected to answer whatever call the country sounded. Besides, whose father hadn’t served in World War II? A k a, “the last good war.”
Even if the potential meat grinder fodder had apprehensions, how could he have justified his shirking to any of those men? They’d sacrificed much so that their sons would enjoy plenty. The country then simply asked for reciprocity.
While everyone understood saving his skin, we still owed, didn’t we? After all, we were raised never to consider ourselves Fortunate Sons.
That was how Vernon and plenty of other Quarropas boys saw it. After returning from Vietnam unscathed and never hearing the insults of civilians whose misdirected ire landed upon grunts instead of the best and brightest, the lauded geniuses who bollixed the campaign from the get, he got on with life and rarely considered his path traveled.
Until Vernon’s recent discovery of Edna Long.
In the late autumn of his life, the road ahead of Vernon has shortened. Once among our family’s youngest, natural consequences have now placed him ahead at the oldest. I suppose from that distance one sees plenty and can reflect upon much. Maybe the questions from such a vantage ultimately led to him asking about the shoulders he stands upon. Hence his tardy genealogical backfilling.
Without humans alive to help complete the puzzle, Vernon resorted to an online site. It sent him a 1900 census tract and this was fine as far as it went. However, I had doubts about the enumerator’s diligence and scrupulousness.
The family members listed were South Carolina blacks. And though states receive federal allocations based on populations, mightn’t it have been hard for a census-taker to overcome regional and his own innate peculiarities to properly perform the job?
After all, it’s no great stretch to state that black lives mattered less throughout that era than now.
Upon my request Vernon forwarded me a copy of the pertinent ledger page. I imagined we shared the same excitement poring over it. Not that it magically opened the past immediately, but from the names. The repetitions we knew tumbled from this point on, their genesis earlier, strengthened our continuity.
Relatives we’d known continued the names of long gone people who though lost through time wouldn’t exactly be forgotten altogether. Bearing those names a generation or two removed kept the absent circulating, kept alive the possible comprehension behind linkage. Therefore, that might prompt discussion and further revive our past.
Talk about perpetual memorials.
One name in particular struck Vernon’s curiosity deeper. It ought have. She didn’t share any family surname. Not only was her given name a standout from our accustomed handles, but the relationship was indirect at best. Instead of being bound by blood, she’d been listed as a stepdaughter.
Edna Long, a 12 year-old-girl in 1900. Who was she? How did she become an acknowledged part of our family?
It was discombobulating reading our portion of that census tract. I recognized several of those listed. Not personally, obviously, but from whom begat some of the older figures comprising the younger parts of my own life.
During overheard recollections the aged children would mention their elders. Here were (great) great-fathers, -mothers, -aunts, and -uncles in my hands beneath my gaze as adolescents.
By the way shouldn’t some researcher or organization delve into whether oral histories have greater influence on us than written or filmed ones? Perhaps the spoken word lodges deeper into our cortexes than written remembrances or gilded images.
Call it “The Griot Project.” Maybe that’ll be impetus enough to make black Millennials recognize little of importance started with them.
The obvious and easiest explanation would be Edna resulted from a prior union before Henry took Sophia as his bride. An interregnum wife between Lem’s mother and the union formed with Sophia. Otherwise in 1900 could Edna, then 12, really have been the daughter of a 21 year old?
The wife of 48-year-old Henry, Vernon’s great-great grandfather, Sophia had not only bound herself to an older man, but one with an established family.
While present-day Americans are unfamiliar with large families, sepia America made them common. Especially in rural environs like the South.
Manual labor demanded backs, arms, and hands. Arduous agrarian conditions raised the mortality rates. Birth-recuperation-birth cycles claimed high percentages of fecund women. It surely created many extended families out of necessity.
Laying in and recovering sapped women’s vitality. This cycle killed mothers early. Consider that next time Planned Parenthood is assaulted by any be fruitful and multiply simpletons.
Until the braver ones migrated North, both sides of my family were laced by fathers who’d been interval widowers who became serial husbands. Once they wore out one woman, they acquired another younger bride to maintain the hearth and previous progeny as well as expand the line.
Henry did have an earlier marriage, from which at least yielded one known son, Lemuel, 20. I imagine Lem and Sophia together had more in common than Henry with either.
Maybe the 1890 census tract discloses whether Henry’s previous wife still lived and what others the union produced besides Lem. What’s to say they, unlike Lem, heard and answered wanderlust instead of succumbing to some scything disease?
After all, Alice followed her sons and daughters into Metropolitan New York; while her younger sister, Vernon’s mother, sought advance in Western Pennsylvania.
Mortality being relatively capricious until our nuclear age, and childbirth rates higher in order to sustain replacement populations, that middle-aged Henry took what would have been an 18-year-old bride seems commonplace. In their three years of wedlock, Sophia already issued three children.
The same merciless regeneration made Alice my grandfather’s second wife.
Only such people know if Henry ever spoke of his time in slavery. He spent his first 13 years as property. What sort of memories and scars had that inflicted upon him? Empathize as we might, investigate and corroborate and compile anecdotes as we may from numerous others, none of us will never know how Henry’s enslavement tasked him. To those he might’ve informed his words have now been obscured.
What remain are questions about Edna Long. She occupies the last spot on Vernon’s turn-of-the-century branch. Olivia, an 18-year-old daughter-in-law, presumably Lem’s wife, rates above Edna.
Alice named my mother Olivia. I wonder if this earlier iteration an honor bestowed. Again, it’s a manner in which memory is kept alive.
No one alive now remembers when, but the earlier Olivia died in a car accident. According to lore, she and Lem had no children. Or perhaps she and Lem died in the accident. Then again mightn’t she and Lem and their children all have succumbed in the same mangle?
In any case, however many years later Alice named her first daughter Olivia. I suppose Alice knew Olivia. The first one. If the accident wiped out Lem’s family, I guess Alice felt duty bound to memorialize Olivia in a lasting manner.
Nothing like that in our family commemorates Edna. She’s the sole woman on the maternal side bearing the name Edna. This leads me to believe Edna Long wasn’t a blood relation.
Her surname and relationship to Henry make me think she was either a daughter his prior wife brought into their marriage. A girl he’d taken on as his own child. Or just as likely a minor he must’ve assumed guardianship over after her own parents met their fate.
Far more so than today, relationships then among blacks were exceptionally fluid though no less binding. Certainly this casual condition is an undeniable legacy of slavery.
There wouldn’t have been much ink spread across many legal papers for Henry to have declared either circumstance. He was neither a member of the gentry nor an Anglo. Informal legitimization recognized by the community would’ve sufficed for his time and that place.
If so, I like that generosity extended. Those black Americans back then couldn’t have declaimed their circumstances a la a Cornell West. And we’ve bred their communal kindness out of us. Instinctively those people back then understood the precarious nature of black life in America. Unless they helped themselves, help would either be grudging or altogether withheld.
So they constructed workable social accommodations. If it meant accepting a stranger into the family fold, insisting that relationship valid, so be it.
Maybe this past explains why blacks have been so easy so long with referring to ourselves as “brother” and “sister.”
Whoever Edna Long was her mention never ruffled conversation or taxed memory. Vernon and I can recall instances when such long ago figures arose in conversation because our elders enjoyed returning their spirits into the circle.
I suppose without photos or recordings to bolster memory, talk kept these increasingly nebulous figures vibrant. And maybe the speakers hoped their chatter would soak into our young ears and extend their presences.
There are so few of us now. Dilution through diminution defeats the effect.
Edna Long is lost. Not knowing where to search, Vernon will never find her, and she’ll remain lost.