The Faces of My Family

When my sister brought the family Bibles to my house last spring, I unofficially took over the project of somehow loosely organizing our family history. Along the way, I fell in love with some of the women among the pages of the books, letters, poetry and photographs that later became a part of this family collection. Most were on my Mother’s side of the family, some I had known, some merely heard about and I finally looked into the eyes of my namesake, Nanny Cato.

As I carefully sifted through delicate pages of a 300 year old Bible, it surprised me to recognize some of the handwriting as that of my paternal grandmother. More amazing still, my name, and that of my sister’s and brother had been written on these fragile pages.

Dutifully, I wrote in the dates of deaths, marriages and births.

This summer, I opened boxes of memories, breathed in dusty fragrances, and marveled at the lovely handwriting and inscriptions. I caressed dried tears smearing poems filled with broken hearts over the lost, carefully touched nosegays and ferns tucked among yellowed pages, and gazed into a multitude of faces. The faces of my family.

Last November my husband Tim and I drove back to the small mill town in South Carolina where my mother had been born. Much of my family that I remember is dead and gone, but, I am sure there are dozens of cousins I have not yet met. My very best friend in all the world is also a distant cousin and we enjoyed our stay at her mother’s house in Kershaw. We are related in the southern way, her mother’s great aunt married my great grandfather’s uncle’s brother or something like that, she wrote it down for me. Therefore, we are family and are beloved above all else.

While there we visited Aunt Lucille and her son, David who still lived together in the side of town where the mill had once flourished. Aunt Lucille is my grandfather’s youngest sister. Her son David was born with spina bifida and is developmentally disabled.

My mind flashed back to my childhood as we drove into the dirt driveway and parked behind Uncle DT’s 1989 Buick. Although DT died in the 90’s, his car remains at the ready in the drive, a drift of autumn leaves and dust across the windshield. The housekeeper met us at the door of their little house, now appearing little more than a poor shack. We ducked through the small doorway and in my heart I’d never left.

Despite end stage Alzheimer’s, Aunt Lucille reigns supreme in her loveliness, grace and gentleness. We visited as if she knew who we were, and they both seemed to enjoy the little photograph album I had brought with me. She recognized the pictures of my parents and asked how they were. Her face never changed when I told her they had died.

Like a small child, death has no meaning for her. I took some pictures of them before we left. I was fairly blinded by tears as Tim held my hand out in the dirt yard.

Before leaving Tim and I took a short walk down the street to see where the community gardens had been. Now overgrown and only a memory, we crossed over the little branch of a larger creek and my mind once again stepped back in time.

Uncle DT had his huge vegetable garden here along with others in this tight knit community and it was his pride. He also had a crib of hogs here somewhere, and feeding them and watching the piglets was fun when we were little children. We enjoyed many a meal with fresh corn, okra, tomatoes, black-eyed peas and watermelon. It was always a treat to come home from church and find a sack filled with fresh corn or black-eyed peas during the summer. I told Tim about the watermelon seed fight on my grandparent’s back porch, the one we were all paddled over. Now only vague outlines of walls and walkways remain, and my memories stepped through the thick weeds and blowing leaves onto mowed grass trails lined with wooden trellis, flowers, and the sounds of song birds.

The next morning Susan drove us around town to look it over. Most of the changes had taken place on our side of town. Downtown looked pretty much the same, newer, perhaps. We gazed into the window of the beauty shop where Grandma, Aunt Winnie and Mom had their hair styled as we played on the floor. Years later I would sit under the dryers with my son, Ian playing nearby. Susan said she and her mother still go there.

We drove by Aunt Winnie’s house, the one she shared with Mrs. Knight. Aunt Winnie died in the 1980’s and this house was sold. Susan and I took a short walk down the alley way and peeked over the fence into the back yard. Through trumpet vines and yellowing maple leaves we could see the screened porch where we had played in the cool shadows under moist sheets hung along wires strung from wall to wall.

The whole trip became more difficult when we stopped in front of my grandparent’s house. Grandpa had remarried and the grandchildren of that woman now lived there. The big magnolia trees once gracing the dusty driveway were gone, along with a huge evergreen and the hill next to the house had been leveled and other houses were missing along that row. Everything around the house except the green lawn was dry and bare. Red leaves flipped past the car in the wind, swirling down the dirt road and drifted against my grandparent’s front door.

I froze when Susan asked if I’d like to go in. She knew this family and they wouldn’t mind, she said. We are related in a way, she said.

My mind raced; and I was afraid of seeing the belongings of strangers where my family things had been.

Worse still, what if nothing had been changed? Mentally, I walked into my grandparent’s house, their bedroom door was softly closed, the sound of the window air conditioner droned within, the soft “skaaa” of my grandfathers’ breathing in the bed next to the door. I hung my head in the car, squeezing back tears and felt the pressure of Tim’s comforting hand on my shoulder. As we drove away I looked to see Grandma’s wire clothes lines winding their way down the long back yard and the four Rose of Sharon bushes Grandpa had planted with pride each time a grandchild had been born.

The next day we drove in the rain out to Mount Pisgah and what was called “Buffalo Community.” This was where my Grandmother had been born. According to some papers Aunt Winnie had given me years ago, Nathan Catoe had preached here in 1847, although this was a newer church and had probably been replaced more than once.

The list of family names flipped like the leaves around me as we all walked to the cemetery out back. Everyone was there, except for my Grandparent’s who had been buried in Kershaw. I managed to take a few pictures of headstones and take in all the history of the place. Many of the names have been repeated over and over in my family over the generations. Young ones died in early childhood; my Mother is named after an Aunt I never knew I had.

It has been nearly a year since that trip and it still stays with me.

I’m so glad to have taken the time to go. Once again it’s Autumn, my favorite season. Driving into town the other day I enjoyed the leaves changing color, and blowing across the road. My brother-in-law Mike brought over another box of pictures and papers belonging to our family, the papers inside lifted like leaves in the wind when he brought the box in with a flourish, and I am looking forward to taking the time this winter to once again look into the faces of my family.