I’m in Georgia with Tallulah—on shore leave while Adam works on the boat and eats pressed meat sandwiches and bachelor biscotti. I’ve been working on and off on a project about the Confederadoes, Southerners who left the south after the Civil War for points farther south—Mexico, Cuba, Brazil. These were some of the most committed separatists, perhaps among those who envisioned themselves becoming white Yankee slaves. South Carolina, where my mother’s family has lived for generations, was the first state to secede, so it’s no surprise that the Edgefield (SC) Colonization Society was prominent in discussions of expatriation. And, as it happens, one of my ancestors, a man named Harrison Strom, was a member of the Society. I sat trying to imagine Harrison Strom. I imagined him sitting in an upright chair in a dim parlor, reading Ballard S. Dunn’s Brazil: A Home for Southerners. People, even prominent people, would have been poor, I figured, after the war, and maybe he didn’t have much money for lamp oil. Harrison Strom was thinking. He was thinking about what to do. As he lives in my mind he is filled with bitterness. His thoughts are angry thoughts, and he dreams of leaving this mess behind even as his blood feels tied to the land. Perhaps he populates the unknown country of Brazil with docile slaves and makes the fields grow rich crops, the Portuguese names of which he has heard, but which slip from his brain like water.
Harrison Strom never went to Brazil. He lived and died in Edgefield County, and I have no idea what happened to him. Perhaps he died in bitterness. As for the real Confederadoes—some of them went and came back, some of them formed Southern colonies, and their descendants speak fluent Portuguese, and many of them have dark skin.
On Friday we drove over to Greenwood to visit my grandmother, who is 96 now. Her voice drops a note and grows confident when she talks about the past. I remember her haunting small-town archives and libraries, researching genealogy. She found things that shocked her—like the ancestor taken away by Cherokees, who turned his back on the world he’d left. This seemed deeply embarrassing to her, yet she confessed it as if she wanted us to know. Perhaps she has secrets. Her daughters tell each other stories about her. She was illegitimate, they say. Her father was a mulatto. There is nothing but stories upon stories, blurring the edges of each other, wearing upon each other like water does on paper and I’m left with vague impressions as powerful as vivid dreams.
My mother was telling me the other day about her grandfather—he was superintendent of schools in Edgefield, then signed up soldiers for World War II. And out of the story—not a story, really, but a kind of meandering river that doubles over on itself, leaving ox-bow lakes—in a instant I felt this man, whose name I still don’t know. I felt him very near, even, I would say, in my blood. I knew then that he had lived with the intention of creating me. So that I—he could not have known it was me—so that I (not only I) could live. And now I present some part of him to the world. This rural Southerner, with a patch of cotton and a job downtown and who knows what thoughts in his head. This unknown man suddenly seemed almost as real to me as my own child. Almost. Just for a single, vertiginous moment.
I opened a book about Edgefield, a work of scholarship that, according to the inscription, my sister and mother and I presented as a gift to our grandmother in 1985. None of us have any memory of that. There was a blue piece of paper inside, carefully folded, with a little dot of something in the center. I touched it idly, like you would an old receipt or tag-end of paper that might be good for writing a grocery list. After awhile—I was doing something else at the same time--I took the paper out again and unfolded it. It was a letter that had been written and posted in Edgefield. It said something about a debt. An ordinary thing committed to paper. The fine sepia ink was dipped by A. Simkins as he wrote to R. M. Fuller about some piece of business that concerned them both. It startled me, I admit it. The paper didn’t seem to have aged at all in a hundred and fifty years.