A little over a month ago (actually, just days after my grandmother passed away), I went to Texas and Louisiana with my parents. It was rock-solid AWESOME to sleep without my husband snoring and little elbows and toes joining me in my bed in the middle of the night, but what was even awesome-er was the time I spent with my parents and the things I learned about them and my mom's family.
In Texas, we stayed with my mom's cousin, Edwina, who happens to be one of the funniest and biggest-hearted people I have had the privilege of meeting. She is all Texas--big hair, drawling accent, and land money--but she is delightful. She also has a brain that functions like a rolodex, recalling every near and distant relative that's come down in the last several generations, some 3 and 4 times removed, but still family. And she's full of stories about every one of them...
I never really knew my mom's family before this trip, aside from my grandparents and her two siblings. The rest were in far away Texas, and the only time I had ever been was for the funeral and burial of my grandfather. It was a rushed trip filled with so many names and faces I had never heard or seen before, and none of it stuck.
This time was a bit different. Because the visit was longer, and because of the nature of our trip, I was able to meet, hear stories of, and understand my mom's family in a whole new way. And I was able to see and appreciate her in a new light...
This is "Mama Kerley," my mother's grandmother. And, to see the picture of her, the source of every last one of my mother's physical traits.
Here is my mother (L) with Cousin Edwina (R), and Edwina's mother, Dorothy (C-my mom's aunt). Here you can see the strong resemblance between Mama Kerley, Aunt Dorothy and my mom.
Thankfully, the physicalities are the end of the resemblance.
Before this trip, I knew only a little about my mom's aunts, uncles, and father. I knew that Grandpa was a bit of a wild one--they left Texas because he was worse under the influence of his family--womanizing, gambling, and the like. I knew that he was far from perfect, and that he was often more unkind in words than a father should be. But I also knew that the man of my own memories had softened in his old age, was incredibly generous with his wealth, was funny, and was a good man in his own way.
I learned a lot over the trip that made me very grateful to him...
My grandfather had a brother, John, who it seems has a name that is invariably linked to some version of "son-of-a-bitch," because no one can mention him without it--who claimed money was his god, who beat his children, and whose wife thanked the doctors when they killed him.
I heard stories that told my grandfather's other siblings were also extremely hard on their children, my mother's cousins, in a way that seems brutal and shocking in comparison to my own gentle upbringing. When I asked my mom where it came from, whether Papa Kerley (her grandfather) had been that way, she told me she thought it was Mama Kerley that used her hand.
I contemplated this a lot in my time there and since. And I struggle a bit in writing this post because I don't want to seem like I am airing the family's dirty laundry, or letting everyone see the skeletons in the closet. This trip didn't leave me horrified at my ancestry, it simply made me more aware of the goodness that has come through my own line. For all his faults, my grandfather was the only one among his siblings who stopped that cycle of physical abuse, and my mother continued on that spectrum. Not only did she never lay a hand on us, but she never intentionally cut us down with words--removing us completely from that world.
My mother, like all mothers, is not a perfect woman. But she raised me in a way that I never had to doubt her love for me, in spite of some mighty fine effort on my part. I never feared her. I never felt anything but that her actions were aimed at my own best interest and in showing her love for me. Were it not for the stories I heard in Texas--the images of bruised skin, long sleeves in the Texas summers, and miserly aunts and uncles--it never in all my life would have crossed my mind that this could be my own fate, were it not for the interventions of two GOOD people in the way they chose to raise their children.
When all is said and done, every good trait I have as a mother to my babies was planted in seed by my own mother. Every loving word, every gentle moment I have with my children, all these are made possible by the work and love of my mom, as she struggled to raise us in spite of her family history. In the midst of the exhaustion, chaos, fear, and outright disaster five kids can cause, she succeeded. She did what every parent hopes to do: take the best, improve, and leave the bad stuff behind.
As I think about the legacy my mom will leave, I realize that some of the most important parts are the threads she cut and left out of her own tapestry, then spun anew with a more glorious weave. It is a legacy that I can only hope to pass along, to take the best of myself--those pieces of her--and pass them on to my own.
You can find more of Kierra - her beautiful prose, her mindful life, and her lovely creations - at her blog.