Thursday, April 09, 2009

Sodom, South Georgia

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.


Julie said...

You could always ask your dad, but I guess that's not as much fun as speculating.

It is sad, maybe, that the crazies make for better entertainment. Perhaps we would have a better society if we preferred to hear the boring stories.

courtney said...

It's cool that you know so much about your family's history. I knew one great-grandmother, but I don't know very much about the other ones at all.

Naylz said...

I have a very similar situation. My grandfather, on moms side, was a bit of a wild-man drunk himself. I think the main reason we are so enthralled by these kind of stories is because their lives are the difference between really living and just breathing. I, on the other hand, revered my grandma. I mean, she had to have been a saint to put up with my granddad and that was just amazing to me.

Jacob said...

Did you know those grandparents? My great-grandfather was killed decades before I was born and my great grandmother was born at least a decade before I was born. I think if I'd known them personally, I'd have truly loved her and felt similarly to my eldest aunt about him. My dad never really knew his grandfather. He died when my dad was pretty young.

Naylz said...

Oh yeah, those grand-parents died while I was in my mid-teens (13, 14, 15)so I grew up with them most of my life. Which is why it was such a shock to me when I started hearing the stories of how... wild my granddad had been in his younger years (he was well into his 70's when I knew him). But hearing those stories also gave me a lot of respect for my granddad. He lead a varied and interesting life. From sharecropping to logging to trapping wild game for fur trading. He raised 10 children with nothing more than a 3rd grade education, if that, and through the Great Depression on top of that. He, and my grandmother, ran a multitude of businesses including a road-side burger and fries stand to a rough and rowdy honky-tonk at Grey's Landing on the banks of the Altamaha River (those that know, it is now called Juniors). But, I agree: knowing, and growing up with, the protagonists of these types of stories is very important in how you view them.

A Free Man said...

Wonderful writing, Jacob. You're quickly becoming one of my favorite reads.

Have you read "Look Homeward Angel" (Wolfe) or Robert Penn Warren's "A Place to Come To"? Both wonderful. So much of Southern literature is about coming back to the ancestral homeland.

Jacob said...

Thanks. I always say that I write for myself here, but it's nice to hear someone say what I produced was worth reading.

I have to admit that I've never heard of either book. I was already planning on doing a Southern lit reading session this summer, so I'll see if I can work those in.