One day not so long ago my father and I took a trip through the country of our ancestors — the mountains and tidal basins of Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.
Standing on a bridge overlooking a body of water I can’t remember, Dad asked me if I knew much about our family.
Being the smart-ass teenager that I was, I mumbled some remark that almost made my father keep his mouth shut.
Instead, determined to make me see how serious he was, that this moment, more than any of the others, was his reason for taking us hundreds of miles from home, Dad began to talk while the sun set behind us, the dark purple horizon over the water rising up into the sky as stars blinked into life.
We could not see each other’s faces so we both leaned against the railing of the bridge, our hands hanging over.
The details of the conversation have faded. Being a determined writer who likes catching conversation on paper, I wrote a few snippets down after we talked but lost or rather, threw away, a large portion of my writing sometime after that trip and don’t have a single note to reference, depending on my middle-aged memory to capture now what he said then.
We talked about the girls I was interested in at the time, including Monica, with whom I had attended several proms and spent a lot of time in various groups such as Sing Out Kingsport; Janeil, who I had stopped dating before the trip with Dad; Alice Ray Knapp, a girl from my calculus (or was it Accounting?) class; one or two others whose names escape me.
Dad told me that he had no issues with the girls I dated and figured I was smart enough to choose a woman with whom I would spend the rest of my life — he could give my approval if I asked but didn’t think it was absolutely necessary; in other words, if I wanted to elope with someone, he would support my decision.
But he was interested in more than my love life.
He used my dating scene as a kicking off point, leading us to imagery of why to have a family at all.
I was noncommittal about having children at that time. Dad didn’t push me to name a number of children but wanted me to think about the purpose of marriage in all its social context, including responsibility to go to church, belonging to the right social organisations, climbing the corporate ladder wherever I worked and devoting quality time/money toward family.
That, too, was still the opening act of our conversation.
With the sky pitch-black, the Milky Way galaxy clearly visible, Dad decided we had better find a restaurant in the seaside town we were in, wanting to avoid seafood because of his shellfish allergies.
We found a place that served burgers and steaks and settled into a corner booth so Dad could continue the conversation.
He let me order a beer to show he was treating me like a man.
At that point, I told Dad my opinion about having kids with the various girls we had discussed, the whys and why-nots.
He nodded his head the whole time, not once interrupting me or criticising my opinions, a rarity for conversations between us, so I knew there was more in his thoughts he wanted to share.
I remember the waiter giving us strange looks because Dad sort of shooed him away whenever he came up, a friendly guy who seemed to want to tell us what was going on in the area over the next few days.
After I finished talking, Dad sat back in the bench seat and paused for a minute or two.
I wasn’t sure what he was going to say. I had grown used to Dad’s passive-aggressive personality, attuned to changes in his emotional state but didn’t sense any buildup of anger about to explode, another rarity.
Dad leaned forward and told me about his childhood. I sure wish I had a copy of what he said — summarizing it does not do either one of us justice but it’s all I’ve got.
Basically, Dad tried to get me to see the difference between his childhood and mine, as well as what he understood about the difference between his mother’s childhood and his, knowing nothing about his father’s childhood nor wanting to.
He then told me about various ancestors of ours he knew or had been told about, putting together family stories as well as personality sketches that would fill more than a novel’s worth of interest to the general reader.
Seeing that I still looked interested, Dad talked about where we were, somewhere near the Virginia/North Carolina border, not far from the ocean, and asked me to mentally picture what this place must have been like 200 or so years ago.
There were no fast-food joints, no highways, no street lights or hotels.
There were villages, wild animals, deadly diseases, ports of call that might or might not have been friendly to our ancestors and living pretty close to whatever you could kill or grow yourself.
Dad wished that I could see his and my mother’s family weren’t that far removed from living off the land, meaning that they were closer to understanding what our ancestors were like than I, having grown up in the comfortable surroundings of suburbia.
He didn’t know what my kids would be like but he wanted me to know that I would probably have a conversation like this with my children and feel frustrated sometimes that a generation gap is not just a catchy phrase in mass media but also a real difference of opinion and priorities between parents and their offspring.
I have few regrets in life, this being one of them: after Dad finished talking, he asked if I had any questions. I really wanted to know more about the ancestors he’d described but, for some reason, my teenage self felt the question was stupid because I knew that he and I were tired and had to get up in the morning for a long drive to our next stop, my feeling like an adult making me choose the responsible adult path of saying “Naw. I’m getting tired,” and turning Dad off from any more discussion of this type for the rest of the trip; another regret is not asking Dad’s father (or stepfather, really — Lee Bruce Hill; Dad’s biological father was named James Horace Capps) about his adventures during 29 years in the U.S. Navy between 1929 and 1959.
Knowing what I know now, that my father is no longer here to be asked questions, I might have made a different decision or many of them.
I might have chosen to have kids so that I and them could ask Dad more questions.
But it didn’t happen that way.
So, here I am, again, writing to you, the invisible reader, closely related to the eternal nature, the omniscient, able-to-do-anything god figure unable to be described or pinned down.
These words are my children, my gifts to the world I give freely, unconditionally.
I have given more hugs and kissy-face time to our cats than to people but that has been changing lately as I learn to let go of old habits, good and bad, and allow myself to learn what actual human interaction is like, good and bad, opening myself up to falling in love with people again, exposing my emotions to the joys and sorrows of daily life.
It is good to discover I can love people without feeling that I have to owe them anything.
It is even better to discover that people love me back without expecting anything in return, willing to learn from me despite my internally-magnified flaws that come out as odd behaviour.
It was good to jog out to the greenway bridge over the Flint River tonight, looking at the stars in the darkness, surrounded by the sounds of nature and spark the memory of a trip with Dad sometime in the early 1980s.
I am not just a biological product of my father, which is weird enough in itself when men my father’s age who haven’t seen him in a while and don’t know he’s dead mistake me for my father. I am also a product of our ancestral history — it’s up to me to keep our history alive, uncensored, readily-available to our living descendants, relatives and friends.
The words and images of my novels, short stories, poems, journals, blog entries and online videos are all I’ve got to record the history.
It’s also reflected in my view of the future, detailed in short stories or chapters of the ongoing saga of Martian colonisation taking place in this blog.