Thursday, May 12, 2011

Piecing Together People

Sarah Ann Broyles McClellan
“I remember my grandmother.”

When my mother talked about her grandmother, she often got a far-away look in her face. This was the woman who raised my mother in Florida for a year while her own mother attended to the health problems of a younger daughter—problems that included extended care at Johns Hopkins University’s hospital, a long way away from home.

“Sometimes, she looked so sad—but she had this laugh,” my mother would reminisce. It was a joyful laugh, and my mom loved to hear it. But in my mother’s reflections of this woman, she always left me with the impression that she considered her grandmother an enigma.

There was something so special about the year my mother spent with her grandmother. It must have been a year of angst—after all, why did her own mother leave her? It was time spent with a woman who loved her dearly, was tender and cuddled her when needed, but who was also an astute businesswoman (she owned some orange groves and contracted their produce with some national companies) and busy wife of a professional man.

I suppose my mother would tend to notice this coupling of contrasts. The strands of the tapestry that made up my mother’s own life produced a woman of contradictions I’m still unable to fathom. Since my mother’s passing nearly four years ago, I’ve plumbed the depths of her many journals, trying to piece together the reminiscences and observations she jotted down over the years. It’s times like today—her birthday—that my mind turns to those memories in an attempt to understand who she really was. Sometimes, in glimpsing her memories of others, the many disparate observations of my own mother coalesce.

It was this picture of my great-grandmother that once got my mother talking about those memories. She had this portrait on a shelf near her writing desk so she could look at it often—and remember. For some reason, years ago, she felt prompted to give a copy of it to my daughter. As much as my mother never liked pictures, she had a different feeling about this one. Perhaps it was for the few good memories it evoked.

That wasn’t the only reminiscing my mother would do about her family. The sticky summer evenings of my New York childhood would put her in mind of her own lazy summers at the family homestead in northern Florida. She could remember falling asleep on the porch while her elders droned on about the state of politics and other grown-up affairs.

The McClellan family had farmed near a little town called Wellborn—a speck on the road, halfway between Jacksonville and Tallahassee. That was the place they had called home since at least 1845, when my great-great grandfather William Henry McClellan was born there.

Wellborn was in a county called Suwannee—a fact my musician father had fun reminding me, considering composer Stephen Foster’s tune “Old Folks at Home” immortalized the name (or at least a misshapen replica of it). Mr. Foster never set foot in Florida, and neither have I, but we both can claim a little taste of its ambience.

And through those memories, I can claim a little bit of Florida’s history, too—but that’s a story for another day.

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