Sunday, August 17, 2008

Promises Kept

Often we come back from vacation and wonder where the time went. We arrived home from Memphis feeling, in a way, as if we had been away for a life-time. There was a life-time of catching up to be done.

There were aspects of the visit that were heart-breaking. There was such an outpouring of love from Göran's family. "We never stopped thinking about you. Everybody always talked about you," we heard again and again. A cousin confided that Göran's father had never been the same after his wife disappeared with his son and daughter forty years ago. They had never seen Göran's father so happy now that his son had returned. The joy was shadowed by the sense of an unrecoverable loss of forty years. But at least there was this joyous reunion.

My most prized souvenir from the trip is the little black notebook I kept at my fingertips throughout the entire visit. Into the notebook went names and relationships, addresses, and stories. It became a wonderful way of breaking the ice with family members. They would mention a name, and I would stop them and say, "Who's that? How's she related?" The answer: "Oh, she's Vera's daughter." And the follow-up question: "But I thought Quin was Vera's mother?" "That's Quin Ivy. They named the daughter after her grandmother." And so on.

There were stories about family long-dead too. Aunt Dottie was always pointing out photos of ancestors. One such photo was of Art Gossett and Lula Bradbury, grandparents of Göran's grandmother. We didn't have photos of their parents, but we had their names recorded in a family book: Nat Gossett and his wife Emma, Josh Bradbury and his wife Polly Robinson -- the first generation in that family line to be freed from slavery. Another photo was of a couple we knew only as the "Olivers," also born slaves, and the first in their line to be free. Another photo was of a distinguished looking gentleman with a long white beard: Andy Ivy, born a slave in 1848. Andy Ivy had twenty-seven children by three wives. The first child, Mary, was born in 1868, and the last, Pearle, still living in a nursing home in Alabama, was born in 1916. Göran has a living relative who is one generation from slavery.

An expansive sense of family persists among Göran's relatives in Memphis. It was one of the challenges of keeping track of everybody. Second cousins, third cousins, even fourth and fifth cousins with various degrees of removal were all just referred to as "cousin." We were told of family connections to Lena Horne, Isaac Hayes, George Foreman, Michael Jordan, and Jackie Joyner Kersie. When I probed into the exact nature of a particular relationship, they could always tell me. "Oh, that's Eloise's sister Ecola's boy." There are frequent family reunions, every year or every other year depending on the family. Knowing one's kin, and honoring some sense of reciprocity between kin is extremely important.

By the end of our stay, I had taken note of some 180 family members, both living and dead, all of whom I entered into a genealogy program on my computer before the end of our visit.

Over time I began to understand the implicit promise between Göran and his family; the reason why he had never been forgotten, even after forty years of absence; the reason why his grandmother kept his picture and his sister's picture on a small altar in her hallway, and never stopped praying to see them again before she died; why there was such a large crowd of people waiting at the end of his Aunt Dottie's driveway, and why they surged around us and threw their arms around us as we emerged from the car at her house for the first time.

"I was so afraid he would think we just threw him away," she said, "But we never stopped thinking about him."

We went on three major outings in Memphis. The first was to the grave of "FreeJoe" Harris, Göran's oldest known progenitor, his fifth great grandfather, where we met with distant cousin Earnest Lacey, the author of FreeJoe's biography. The second was to the National Civil Rights Museum, with Göran's Aunt Dottie, who shared with us her first-hand observations of living through this era, both in Memphis and in other parts of the country, and where we learned of the participation by the man who raised her and Göran's father in the "I AM A MAN" sanitation workers' protests in Memphis. The third was to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music with Göran's dad, where we learned about the subtle interconnections between black history and culture and the twentieth-century struggle for freedom.

In between the outings were visit's at his father's home, at his Aunt Dottie's home, at his grandmother's home. His grandmother had a huge collection of photographs which we examined together one by one while she and Dottie and Göran's dad told us stories. Inexplicably, Göran's mother had written letters to his grandmother with no return address. Göran found photographs which he immediately recognized as having been taken in Burlington, Iowa, that were labeled on the back as "Port of Spain, Trinidad" or "Porto Rico" (sic). His grandma also let me photograph and take notes from the family Bible, and from various family books. And we had stories and pictures to show as well...!

This was a week-long crash course in history and culture and family, and it was overwhelming. It was emotionally and spiritually exhausting, yet exciting and invigorating at the same time. Toward the end of the tour of the National Civil Rights Museum, there was a film about the connection between the African American civil rights struggle, and struggles for human rights throughout the world. Desmond Tutu was featured, and he spoke of how you cannot know who you are if you do not know your history. We held hands and wept quietly together as we listened to his words. Göran finally knows his history. He knows his place in the world. He knows who he is.

Goodbyes were emotionally impossible. I couldn't bear the look in his father's eyes. The only way we could deal with it was to begin making plans for the next visit. It was "See you later!" There was a promise in our departure; a commitment to keep all the promises that brought him back after forty years, all the promises they kept in embracing us lovingly and unconditionally -- me and Glen as well as Göran -- because of the promises Göran and I have made to each other, and because of the promises we have made to Glen.

Then there was the sight of them all standing at the end of Aunt Dottie's driveway and waving at us until we disappeared around the corner. Memphis is too far from Minneapolis! But it is close enough!


MoHoHawaii said...

Wow, wow, wow! What an experience!

Göran's family seems to be gay okay, is that right? Are there any other gay folks in the 180 family members you learned about?

Is the family generally religious?

How did Glen react to all of this?

J G-W said...

The family loved and embraced us unconditionally. It's a big family and some are more religious than others. But the two members of the family who played the biggest role in making us feel welcome and loved were also the two people I would describe as most devoutly religious. They both play a very active role in their respective churches, which I would describe as typically southern, black, and conservatively Christian.

When Göran and I went to church with the family on Sunday, the pastor knew we were coming and made a point of welcoming us over the pulpit. Afterwards he came and greeted us individually and let us know that we were always welcome back in the future. By the end of the service, I was weeping. The tears just would not stop!!

At one point, one of the above-mentioned (religious) family members and I had a fairly frank conversation about the "gay" thing. She said that she had personally seen so many examples of BAD same-sex relationships, and her main concern had been Göran's happiness. She expressed gratitude (and even envy!) that we had a 16-year-plus relationship that was still strong and growing. I sensed that some family members don't know what to make completely of the gay thing, but they are willing to put their reservations on hold because it is more important to them to cultivate and restore the ties of family that were once lost and broken.

A couple of family members also told Göran that in Memphis, the gay thing would be considered less of a problem than the black and white thing, and based on some of what I witnessed down there, I can't say I would disagree. But the family seems to have taken it upon themselves to protect us from all that. I think from their point of view, that is what family is supposed to do.

One member of the family -- very frankly! -- told me that she was expecting me to be more "stuck up" (her words). She was pleasantly surprised that I wasn't. I was aware that we were being watched to see if we were as open and reciprocal and loving in our approach to them as they were in their approach to us...

Generally, I'd say the whole thing was proof of how miraculous a thing familial love can be... I would also say I don't take for granted how blessed we are, because not every family might have embraced us in the same way...

Reuben said...

It sounds like a wonderful experience for everyone. I am so glad to hear that things went well.

Ty Ray said...

John, this is beautiful. Thank you for sharing!

Bill McA said...

Dang, I've not been keeping up with your board lately and didn't know your Memphis trip had already come and gone.

Next time you are town, we HAVE to hook up.

Maraiya said...

Simply amazing. I'm so happy for both of you.

J G-W said...

Bill -- Darn! You're in Memphis? Why did I think you were in Kentucky?? We're definitely planning to go back to Memphis, probably next summer. So now that I know, we'll definitely plan to meet...

Maraiya said...

I gave you an award. Hope you like it.