My Great-Aunt Audrey lived comfortably on the borderlands of her memory. She spent her last years hardly moving from the upstairs bedroom she inhabited in the house of my Aunt Bernice, which was the hub of the family for more than two generations.
I don’t know exactly how old she was, but to me, when I was twenty, she seemed to be in that place in life of not wanting or needing very much. But she took great pleasure it seemed, from having one of us younguns stop in and sit with her for awhile, and listen while she shared some memory of us when we were younger, or even better, of our parents, whom we so much favoured when they were our age.
Aunt Audrey was the repository of family lore, the keeper of the otherwise forgotten details of how we’d come to be what we were, where we’d come from, and why, and of all the comic and tragic turns that had shaped and informed us. I wonder why we didn’t recognize that, and value it more. Most of us, of the generation of her children and grand-children, enjoyed our sits with her, half an hour or an hour at a time, listening as she shared her recollections of uncles and cousins and nieces, their comings and goings, careers and scandals, and their marriages and dalliances, and the children that resulted from them. But we didn’t value them enough.
I spent a month in Detroit, in the month around my twentieth birthday, right after I’d dropped out of University, restless and impatient about discovering all the newness I suspected was out in the world waiting for me. I arrived there straight from Mardi Gras, and would go on from there to Atlanta, then would hitchhike to San Francisco and live there for half a year before returning to academia to give it another try.
Ironically, only a month earlier, I’d begun to record a journal, which I maintain to this day. But I recorded hardly a paragraph about my month in Detroit, and not a word about all that Aunt Audrey shared with me. I was too busy looking for that newness, too caught up in the changes happening inside me to accord much value to the rambling memories of a sweet, old woman.
But I loved and enjoyed my Aunt Audrey. And so I sat with her many long hours during that month. And She told me how this great-uncle had come to Detroit from North Carolina in the forties, and another from Georgia in the fifties. She spoke of the family from Oklahoma whose daughter had married her brother and then become a favorite aunt to most of her own nieces and nephews.
According to my great Aunt, the family had produced business people and craftsmen, hoboes and preachers (my maternal grand-father, her sister’s husband, had been both in his time), gamblers, musicians and crooks. Most of her memory sessions began with a detail, then took off into a broad sweep of family lore. She’d start in about how her sister Birdie loved music and to go to parties, and then remember that their older brother John loved music too, but didn’t care for parties and would only sing in church, which was something he got from their mom, a real church lady, who kept herself occupied as a seamstress, she had such a talent that way. And how she wasn’t so much of a cook, but she had this way of baking biscuits, different because in her childhood she’d been raised in Louisiana, and how their Daddy liked her biscuits fine, but always complained that she didn’t fry chicken right, the way they did in Alabama, where he’d been raised. And how you could always recognize a person from Alabama from the way they pronounced their ‘r’s, drawing them out – “aw-ruh” they’d say. But one cousin had come North determined to leave everything about the South behind him, so had worked hard to speak like the city folk, and so managed to ‘pass’ in that way. But others had been light skinned enough to ‘pass’ the other way, leaving their connection to the family entirely behind and disappearing into the white world.
It was Aunt Audrey that told me where some of the white blood had come into the family lines, in those days before the ending of slavery, and right after, usually some white man with a black woman, but not always: a white woman had born the child of one of my ancestors, then left the child to grow up in an orphanage.
I was most fascinated by her claim that one of our ancestors had been a “full blooded Indian”, and that another had come to America as a slave from Madagascar. She had some speculations about where in the family tree these two were to be found, and some few added details about their lives, but it never occurred to me then to write them down.
My Aunt died before I ever set foot in Detroit again. By that time, I was more aware of the importance of what she’d shared with me. But when I asked others in the family what tribe our native ancestor had belonged to, they knew nothing of him. And when I asked how it was a slave had been brought here from Madagascar – far off any slave trade route I’d ever heard about – they recalled nothing of that story either.
Many times since losing my Great Aunt, I’ve wondered about all the family history I do not know. I have no details to speak of that pre-date the generation of my grandparents. Of my eight Great Grandparents, I have the name of one, not stored in my faulty memory this time, but recorded in a notebook after a talk with another elder from another branch of the family.
And I’ve come to realize that this isn’t uncommon. Occasionally, I’ve met an individual with a reckoning of their ancestry back as far as two centuries or more. But always, it’s a history of merely one strand of their ancestry. That is, one strand of two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen greatgrands, thirty-two, sixty-four, one-hundred-twenty-eight, two-hundred-fifty-six, and on and on and on. Really, that amounts to not knowing one’s history at all.
On the other hand, there was a claim issued in a scientific study a few years back, that everyone on earth shares kinship, that we all have common ancestry. Somewhere in the past, as those familial inputs double with every generation, our connections get broader and broader, to the point where the numbers of direct ancestors is larger than the population of the world at a given time. It's only common sense, really. Whatever beliefs you have about the 'how' of it, the human population must have started off very small, so we all had to come from a common ancestry. An ancestry that spread itself with every generation, to the point where distant cousins could meet and marry with no sign or notion that they were related. Meaning that we are all multiply related.
Imagine the fascinating web, if each of us could go back even a hundred years or so, to know all we wish to know about each of our eight great-grandparents, or the sixteen that parented them!
I regret that I didn’t attend more carefully to the reminiscing of my Great Aunt Audrey. But even without the details, she left me with a great deal. She stimulated a wonder about the past and its connection to the present that has stayed with me. To this day, I wonder about the African, enslaved in Madagascar and carried half a world away, where he generated a line of descendants that eventually led to me. And I wonder about that Native American, and at the connection he made with a Black woman that led to them having children, mingling their bloodlines in my veins.
And I cannot think of them without speculating for a brief moment about all the others I know nothing about at all. Who might they be? What were their stories? And what an amazing thing it is to think that I am, in some small way, a distillation of all of those myriad stories, and the lived lives behind them.
Thank You, Aunt Audrey!