My great grandfather and great-great grandfather loaded up a wagon almost 100 years ago and rattled their way down rutted tracks from the rolling hills and deciduous forests of north Georgia, through the red clay of the Piedmont and into the level swaths of pine, live oak, and cypress swamps of south Georgia.
This was before they drained the bays, those wonderful remnants of craters from a long ago meteor shower that stretch from this part of Georgia through the Carolinas, and my great-great grandfather was chased back to his familiar hills by a swarm of bird-sized mosquitoes. My great grandfather was either too ambitious, too cheap, or too lazy to follow suit, and he ended up building a homestead at the edge of one of those bays. From the stories, it's fairly safe to assume that he was just too lazy or too cheap to leave. He was an interesting man, but a mean drunk and never known to do a lick of work he couldn't convince someone else to do. He converted the smokehouse into a dark room for his photography and my dad still has a box of his namesake's daguerreotypes and early paper prints, but those photos are always accompanied by stories of dragging the old man to rehab in Atlanta and how my eldest aunt was terrified of her own grandfather.
It's hard to reconcile the man who was the center of so many stories I loved as a kid with the less savory parts of his character. The brilliant man who could add up the serial numbers on cars of a passing freight train before the train passed by and who earned a patent for an adjustable monkey wrench, but refused to sell it even with Sears and Roebuck came knocking is the same guy who was too lazy to help my dad's uncle unload the gift of a television from the trunk of my uncle's car. My great-grandmother had to help lug the behemoth in. The same man who crashed his pickup while drunk back in the early '60s and was killed by a car as he tried to walk home. I grew up hearing only the funny stories like how he gave himself electroshock therapy using the wires in the back of the refrigerator. It wasn't until I was an adult that my aunts and dad started letting me in on my ancestor's darker side. By then, I'd already idolized the man I'd never met but who seemed suspiciously like me in many ways.
My great grandfather's wife, on the other hand, was an angel. She made up for all of my great grandfather's flaws with her virtues. Hardworking, gentle, loving, and boring to his wild brilliance, sloth, and anger. While I grew up idolizing my great grandfather, the woman who gave my beloved grandfather his gentle streak, the woman who was idolized by my father and his sisters never captured my interest, probably because I grew up with only stories. My great grandfather may not have been very lovable, but he definitely made for the best tales.
I grew up in the house this complex man built after it had begun to take on my parents' lives and grew, sprawling under the old pecans he planted and the ancient oak that was ancient even before he picked that spot to build his home. Like my grandfather, who grew up in the same rooms under the same trees as I, I ran away to the north the first chance I got.
And like him again, I ended up coming back to the place I was born. I wonder if he felt as restless after his homecoming as I have these last three years.