A Line Back Home
by Hilary Remley
“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radially that he remakes it in his image…”
Joan Didion, The White Album
Every Saturday, my husband and I go to The 76 Diner for breakfast. It’s what we consider a real diner because it is open all night, serves breakfast all day, and includes moussaka on the menu. Diners are still a novelty to us, more of a concept than a lived in reality. We’ve been living in Albany, New York for a little over two years and it is both like and unlike how we had imagined it to be. The 76 is exactly as we had imagined it would be, and so we orient ourselves around it. It is our true north.
And when we go we abide by our routine. We sit in our booth and drink our coffee and pretend to not know what we want. I order pancakes, which I declare to be the best pancakes maybe ever, and he orders something on a hard roll.
“Hard rolls,” he says, “are the perfect bread for an egg sandwich.”
I counter, “what about biscuits?”
And so begins our inevitable, unending debate over the cultural superiority of the South. Food is my main point: biscuits, fried chicken, pimento cheese, sweet tea. He says something about bagels, hard rolls, and pizza. Of course, our argument really has nothing to do with food, and eventually the core of the matter comes out. I want to move back home to Georgia, he doesn’t.
“I don’t know,” he says, “I happen to like living here. Don’t you like living here? Don’t you like having something that is just ours?”
I counter that I do like living up here, and I do. I like my life with him. I like what we’ve made. I like that we go to the 76 Diner so often that the waitresses know our names and drink orders. I like that we have two couches and no company, ever. But I insist that one day we should move closer to home.
“It doesn’t have to be now, ” I offer. “But eventually.”
I have some solid reasons, too. Consider the cost of travel. What if we have kids? I want them to see our family. What about my mom? She is sick and shouldn’t live alone. There are reasons to move closer to home that are practical, but none of them are why I want to go.
I want to go back South because I am Southern, and he wants to stay because, despite his also being born and raised in the South, is not. Southerness, in my experience, is a condition from which one can not recover. It is a form of geographic narcissism, and it runs strong in my maternal line.
My parents divorced when I was a little over two years old. I have no recollection of their marriage outside of a few bits of physical debris, some glossy prints and one solitary video tape. As a child, I watched that lone videotape compulsively, parsing through it as if I were a forensic archaeologist going through the stomach contents of a pickled bog man, hoping to piece together some truth worth gleaming through the minutiae.
The video comes in two parts. The first is a short clip from a family gathering at my mom’s parents’ house on Wee Kirk Road, an old tract house built in the mid-fifties that predates the construction of most of Atlanta’s interstate system and stands as a relic of a time when DeKalb was still considered peripheral territory.
Their house, as I remember it, was always too dark. The video clip confirms this impression. Everyone is sitting around the kitchen table, talking about not much at all. I am also at the table, sitting on my mother’s lap. I am a little over one year old. My mom is pregnant with my little sister. My sister will be born soon and a few months after that, while my mom is still recovering from her cesarean and my sister’s head is sprouting the first of a horse shoe of curly Q’s around the circumference of her skull, my mom will file for divorce from my dad. It will be the first in a series of miniature tragedies that will set our lives into a state of indefinite suspension. But in the video everything is intact, seems solid even. I tried, as a child, to trace out some sort of clue, some pulse of discontent, but could not find one.
Possibly the only point of tension I can find is the absence fo my father from the dinner table. He is only shown briefly in the video, sitting in the living room with Frank, a prosthetic family member, in an act of self isolation that I note even then as fitting with his character. I also consider, now, that it is most likely because he will have nothing of value to say if her were to sit with them. Not simply because he is as terse and taciturn as a knotted up pine tree, but because he cannot draw from their well of common knowledge and recycled anecdote.
I was the baby of the family for only a short period of time before my sister, a curly q’d blonde, supplanted my spot as the focal point of conversation. But in this video I am the baby and, by tradition, each person at the table works to draw up some sort of resemblance to ground me solidly in the family.
“She looks just like mama,” one of them says. They mean grandma Doris. My grandma was still alive at this point, but within four years both her and my grandpa Sion, who sits still as a wax doll in the corner of the frame, will be dead.
“She even has her brown eyes,” another adds. This is further proof of the house’s poor lighting. I have blue eyes. But I do look like grandma Doris. I’ve spent many hours comparing photographs of us, trying to pinpoint just how precisely our features line up. In the video her face his soft and plain, a little droopy but open and sweet. By the time I got around to watching the video, having dug it out of my mom’s closet during one of her cleaning jags, my memory of her reduced to the specific crepe paper texture of her skin and the fact of her brown eyes.
This portion of the video shuts off with no particular sense of an ending, and no particular sense of missing out. Conversations at these gatherings never end, but loop and quaver in their own peculiar patterns, and could probably be picked up just as easily if dropped into our post-dinner talk on any one of our holiday gatherings.
The second portion of the video is taken on Christmas. It opens on a train set going around in a loop, then cuts to the Christmas tree and the fire place of our house on Elleby Lane, which I do not remember at all. I am holding a Bumble Ball, pressing it to my chest and wrapping my gummy mouth around one of its colorful knobs as it vibrates. My brother asks my dad to help turn on his a small microphone set that he had just received. The news plays in the background. My mom tells my dad not to lose his temper at my brother. I wobble around the living room, entranced by my vibrating ball. My sister will be born in five days time. My mom holds the camera, exhibiting each bit of Christmas that she has set up for us, the train, the swell of gifts, the tree. This is a life that maybe she thought she would never have, with a fireplace and a bedroom for each of her children. It is solidly middle class. It is the kind of house that I dreamed of having as a child, and maybe she did, too, growing up in a two bedroom house with four siblings crammed into a single room. The whole clip feels more like a still life than a home video. No one gathers, or has conversation. Instead, we all bumble about at our own separate tasks. Dad sits at his chair, mom gathers video footage of Christmas decorations, I make laps around the living room, and Tommy tries to get his new toy to work. None of it is particularly happy.
I watched this video at an improbable distance, with the same plastic feeling as when I was marched down the aisle to view Doris’s body, knowing that she was dead only in the vapid sense that a child can grasp. But still sensing a gap of sorts, between the body and the person that had been inside. I tried to gleam some familiarity with that sliver of my life, but could not.
Like so many children of divorce, my life was divided, not only at the point of my parents’ separation, but within the rhythms of everyday life. Week days were spent with my mom and weekends were spent with my dad. He would pick us up at 9:00 am every Saturday and we would gather our things to leave at 5:00 pm every Sunday. On Saturday mornings we would accompany him to the grocery story and each pick out a Lunchable. On Sunday evenings on our way back home he would pack up a cooler and, upon hitting White Road, he would hand us each a bottle of YooHoo. These practices went on with little interruption or narration.
His house, a wood sided ranch in Conyers, Georgia was in a constant state of refurbishment. A pool was added, the siding stained red, floors refinished, carpet changed, carpet removed and wood flooring added, and an addition was put up but never finished. The kitchen was painted yellow and then repainted a color that I cannot presently recall. The bathroom was frog themed and then rose themed. Things changed, mostly depending on what his wife wanted, but those, too, changed without much explanation.
My first step mom liked plush white carpet and dogs, so they had plush white carpet and dogs. The dogs didn’t last long and neither did she. When I asked where she’d gone he said vacation. I think he stopped answering, eventually. I stopped asking, regardless.
His house had a restricted memory. Sometimes fragments stayed, but they were rarely mentioned. Eventually you would forget that they had been there. The house allowed no memory. This is a feature that I attribute primarily to the fact that my dad is, despite having adopted both Georgia and Tennessee as his home, not Southern. The son of two native Iowans, he was raised in no fewer than four states. This sort of rootlessness tends to embed itself in a person, giving them a sense that history can be evaded so long as it is erased.
My mom had no such predilection for erasure. Born in Atlanta and raised up for the entire span of her childhood in the same house on Wee Kirk Road, my mother’s life was deeply rooted in place. She lived inside of her history, and liked keeping it close in a very physical sense. Her current bedroom set is the bedroom set from her marriage to my dad. She keeps her mom’s curio cabinet and her mom’s knick-knacks to boot. There is a stack of tomato crates in her bedroom closet filled with old art projects and the detritus of several generations. In the living room, she still has our old diaper changing station and inside are boxes filled end to end with photos. Her high school year books are kept alongside our Zodiac birthday book which lists my father’s birthday under the soulmate’s category.
Everything has a story attached to it, which she can, by request, recount with a downright livid amount of detail. It’s a family trait, to horde and perform our history, that is perhaps most apparent during family gatherings. It is this trait, too, that best illustrates what I mean when I say that someone either is or is not Southern. Southerners don’t remove history, they sculpt it into a pleasing shape, neutering pain with meaning.
All Herrington family meet ups inevitably take on the same shape around the dinner table. We gather now at my aunt Susie’s house and eat giblet gravy and mayonnaise mashed potatoes in quiet, with one or two quips about the quality of food. After eating, we sit and conversation drifts to one well worn topic or another, usually having to do with a dead or sick high school classmate, or, more often, with one collective trauma from their past that they pass off as comedy.
“Daddy would wake us up,” one would start
“In the middle of the night,” another would add.
“Drive us to a graveyard and make us run out and touch a tombstone,” the other inserts, trying to outpace the others in reciting the story.
“How drunk do you think he was?”
“Damn, back then? He was always drunk. Remember when he rode his VW Bug to the rims?”
And on and on it would go, one anecdote rolling in to another. Our history is more real than anything at the table, even us. And, sitting there, listening to them, gave me the sense that I was living outside of history, that, in order to exist, I must take in these stories and paste them over the blank spots in my memory.
As a child, I repeated these stories to myself like a totem, elevating them to a state of myth. Doing so made me feel less apt to float away, as if I had a definite start, even if my own early life felt fuzzy and undefined, even if people floated in and out of my life without explanation. I flipped through glossy photo prints, keeping only the pictures with myself included. I looked for a familiar nose or smile in the faces of my family members. I rewatched the same video over and over, just to see myself sitting there with them, just to know that I existed.
Herrington Road is not an impressive stretch. Piled up with failed shopping centers and catty cornered gas stations, it is just about as anonymous as the rest of Gwinnett County, Georgia. You might have seen it in a movie, though not likely, but you might as well have. Every stitch of my childhood has been reupholstered for use in a Netflix TV show or budget conscious movie. Think of a scene in a well cropped shopping center or a neighborhood with too many pine trees or a mall all gussied up to look like it’s still 80’s. The fact that they could be anywhere is the point. So Herrington Road could be anywhere, but as it is, it stands about a mile down the road from the apartment where I grew up.
The fact that the road shares a name with my mom is no small fact in my or my mom’s mind.
“That road,” she’d say, as we shuttled from or to one appointment or errand or another “is named after my great uncle.” No name was given to this uncle, she only knew that he had, apparently, owned almost all of Gwinnett County at one point, and had also, at one point, shot his lover’s husband in the face. It seemed to me, even then, to be an abundant amount of information to have about someone who’s name seemed to have been lost or irrelevant.
I’m not entirely sure how my mom figured this story out. It’s possible that she made it up. More likely, it was assembled from stories that she was told by Sion. There was probably some uncle who did one or another of these things. Knowing our temperament, having, as a child, pulped myself into a mess of snot and tears over as little a thing as the amount of Ovaltine in my milk, I could easily see one of us winding up on the giving end of a gun. Other, more technical, aspects of the story didn't quite add up, which seems to be a pretty common factor in all of my family stories. My grandpa Sion, while working for Western Union, was said to have regularly visited Martin Luther King Jr.’s house on Auburn Avenue. He was said to have shared a glass of water with the great man on several occasions. The fact that Dr. King lived, at that time, in Alabama, was not a fact that anyone seemed to think relevant. Our family history existed more as a tapestry of anecdote and concept then as an actual account.We spoke abstractly about the Potato Famine, imagining our ancestors in scrubby dresses, carrying a burlap sack and a hard set jaw across the Atlantic. We imagined ourselves to be put upon by bad fortune. It is what we told ourselves.
I wanted it to be true, the story of my nameless uncle, our supposed immigration from Ireland, because it made me feel like I had some ownership over an otherwise indifferent place, and because it gave me a clear line of origin. I believe my mom did, too, seeing as we were living at that time, further from Atlanta than she had ever been. Until the 1980s, Gwinnett County was not much more than farmland. But it has since swollen beyond capacity, tracking strip malls and housing complexes in its wake. It was another point in the outward spiral of Atlanta’s growth, which tends towards suburban sprawl, feeding on booms and retreats. Our move to Gwinnett in the mid 1990s was necessitated by its abundance in housing and good public schools. It was practical, but it also wasn’t Atlanta. It was safe, it was suburbs: a commuter town set safely off the freeway, free of character and abundant in convenience.
Our apartment walls stayed painted white because when we moved out we would have to repaint them. We received flyers in the mail for other apartment complexes, catalogues of fresh real estate, pamphlets on moving companies, and storage facilities. Our place here, as permanent as it wound up being, was explicitly not a home. And yet it was all I had, and all I knew. That small bit of road that bore our name made us feel a small sense of ownership over the place, even if it was only in story.
Living in the South, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the kudzu vine for the curling finger of Death itself. Its tendency to smother all that it covers is evocative of a great number of things. Its potential for metaphor is so well worn as to make kudzu in its mere presence, an omen of doom. What makes kudzu such an apt monster is its indiscriminate, amoral spread over Southern landscapes. The legend passed down to one gullible child after another was that one day kudzu would smother the whole world. Glancing a kudzu monster would only confirm this impression. It knitted itself over whole swaths of trees, houses, and even cars if they were left unattended long enough.
The South, as a whole, has embraced this sense of decay as an integral part of its own identity, easily parsed with implication and blame, and ripe for narration. The South, more than any other American region, clings to narrative as an integral part of its identity. Southern storytelling is a peculiar art form, tending towards hyperbole and rich with metaphor. Landscape takes on the tensions of its inhabitants. Often, these stories are familial. People talk of an uncle or grandparents, the historical aspects are entwined with the personal, and this connection is key.
Narrative has always served as a means of grappling with history, of twisting it into an easier shape. The South did not invent the family legend, but it is particularly compatible with the practice. The tropes associated with most Southern narratives are particularly vernacular in their presentations. There is a grotesque fixation on decay, on the lived in nature of poverty. Everything in the South is personal or, at least, is given the attributes of personhood. The kudzu devours. The land itself gains a level of sentience, and the buildings as well are enlivened by their decrepit state. This fixation with decrepitude is an anxiety felt not just in Southern literature, but extends to Southern identity as a whole. In the South, the past is not dead. Instead, it takes the form of a vining plant that covers over anything, so long as it stands still.
It is impossible, then, to escape what is meant when anyone in the South refers to “the past”. The past ends at around 1865, to be exact, though really the dividing line between the “new” and “old” South is just about as flimsy as our idea of what constitutes the “past”. Whatever it is, the past seems to hold a level of symbolic importance to high that it casts a shadow over just about anything that came after.
Like a fair amount little Southern girls, I grew up watching Gone with the Wind on a not infrequent basis. I was first introduced to the movie at my aunt’s house, which was dotted with Gone with the Wind memorabilia and references from a Scarlett O’Hara cardboard cut out to porcelain figurines playing out key movie scenes such as the Twelve Oaks barbeque and velvet curtain dress scene. She even had a dog named Scarlett, after the heroine, who embodied Miss O’Hara’s fierce need for recognition but who also loved belly rubs and oreo cookies. I watched the movie with about the same attentiveness as I paid anything as a child, being very little. I was always shocked and disappointed when she married Charles Hamilton, frustrated that she didn’t want to be with Rhett, and furiously sad when little Bonnie Blue was tossed from her pony. But mainly the plot was beside the point. I watched it simply for its ambience. The movie always went, steadily along, with several dramatic plot points but really just a whole lot of costumes and dramatic talk, and I bobbed along with it, taking mostly only what was pretty.
When I was six, I wore a Southern Belle Halloween costume complete with crinkly lace gloves and a foldable, frisbee-like hat. What it meant to be a Southern Belle, I didn’t know. I only knew that it was code for Scarlett O’Hara, such was her status as an icon.When I was in the third grade, we were each given small wooden Christmas tree ornaments to paint in whatever way we liked. I chose to paint mine white with a dark green design on top in the fashion of Scarlett’s Twelve Oaks barbeque dress. This was what I noticed: the dancing, the costumes, the romance. People were heroes because they gave speeches about honor and dignity. Women were good because they helped “the cause”. I had only the vaguest idea as to what the cause was. I knew that it had to do with The Civil War and slavery, but those two concepts were still fuzzy in my mind, not really approached in any effective way at that point. Of course, we were taught that slavery was bad and that Lincoln was good. But, when explaining the reasons for the Civil War, teachers tended to pitter on about abstract complexities that really, to my mind, couldn’t be reconciled with the truth at hand. I knew that slavery was bad. I knew that the Confederates were traitors, and yet I still rooted for Ashley to win a battle, and snarled my lip when a carpetbagger came to claim Tara from the O’Haras. I knew that slavery was bad, and yet Mammy seemed so happy to take care of Scarlett.
The dissonance between the official and emotional narratives of the South’s racist past that I was fed was jarring, and were never put upon to reconcile. These split narratives are ubiquitous in the South.
For whatever reason, Stone Mountain was a popular spot to take a gaggle or bored, irritable, and overheated kids on a summer field trip. The mountain itself was never climbed on these trips, too many legal liabilities, instead we took the gondola up to the top and then back down, ambled through the old timey fake town of Crossroads that sat at its base, and ate lunch on the lawn in front of the memorial carving that took up a small smudge of the mountains face. The memorial itself was a boring enough attraction to warrant my chaperones to boast that it was the biggest something somewhere for some reason. The carving consisted of three men riding on horseback with their hats pressed to their chests. I was either told that these men were Revolutionary War heroes or I assumed it. The term “founding father” was certainly used, regardless.
In fact, these men were not Revolutionary War heroes, but leaders of the Confederacy: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. I knew all of their names. It’s impossible to get around in Georgia without turning on or off of a road named after one or another Confederate leader. If there is a statue standing in a town square, it can be assumed that are a Civil War veteran. It was difficult for me, then, to align these monuments with any of the basic facts of the matter.That these men broke from the United States in order to perpetuate a system of oppression so heinous as to necessitate the alignment of their entire cultural identity around the fact of it, to, in fact, twist this heinous act into its moral center, and are presented as heroes, turned into monuments so grand as to exude of forgone romance simply is impossible syncretize into a cohesive whole. I may know the facts of their actions, that they perpetuated an essential evil, but the stone carvings and poetry effuse a narrative that is simply impossible to resist on an emotional level.
But this, I suppose, is the point. In the South, the past is an invention. It is a tool to sharpen at whatever edge is convenient, to infuse with whatever narrative serves their purpose. It would be a lie to say that the past is alive in the South, it is not. The past is, instead, performed, revised, and turned into a fiction so beguiling in its shape as to suffuse into the culture itself, serving as a template for cultural identity, an Avalon from which we’ve been exiled.
As a child I had thought that Gone with the Wind to be some sort of authentic document of a foregone time. I was surprised to find that the book was published in 1936, by a woman born two generations out from the war itself. Margaret Mitchell was open in the inspirations that guided her to write her novel, basing it on the recollections of her grandmother who had lived through both the war and Reconstruction. It thus serves as a piece of second-hand nostalgia, the reminiscence of a past through narrative that served to pin herself in the context of history and, in a way, to reframe it. Growing up, Mitchell admitted to being shocked at the news that the Confederates lost the war, and though I grew up fully aware of the facts of the matter, I felt a similar shock at the reconciliation of the rhetoric surrounding The Confederacy within the context of history. She, too, grew up in a family that valued stories. In an interview with Medora Perkerson from The Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine, she stated that when visiting relatives she was “...forgotten...while the gathering spiritedly refought the Civil War.” Both of us, as children, sat quiet at family gatherings, taking in our family legends as the groundings of a rudimentary self.
These legends and stories served to form the entire basis of my sense of reality. I held personally the legends that were passed down to me. I still recoil to walk in grass, afraid that a kudzu vine might wrap around it and pull me under. Along with this fear, I carry a peculiar sense of ownership, that only I know what kudzu really means. The kudzu monsters that I came across as a child still hold shape in my memory. Kudzu is the plant that is eating the South. Everybody knows this.
Only it isn’t true. Kudzu, though an invasive species of vine, is not the existential threat that it is often seen as being. It is all a matter of framing. As it happens, kudzu is a relatively new Southern resident. Used as a method of reinvigorating soil during the 1930s and 1940s, the planting of kudzu fell out of favor shortly after, and the plant continued to thrive in the sockets of land in which it was planted. As it happens, kudzu tends to grow best just off of roadsides, giving the effect of total cover. But this is an illusion. Kudzu does not grow deep into the woods, but sprawls the edge. All of this is true, and yet it does little to detract from the story. It feels true, and so it is.
It didn’t take much more than an online genealogy service subscription for my mom to suss out the most flagrant bits of bullshit that had been planted in our family history. To start, the Herringtons weren’t even the slightest bit Irish. And, as it turns out, we’d been in Georgia since the eighteenth century. This was true for pretty much every spoke in my maternal line-- each ancestor trailing down from the Chesapeake colonies or the Carolinas into Georgia one way or another.
And, as it turns out, Herrington Road was in all likelihood named after a distant relative, an uncle, though that uncle was not, in fact the one involved in a violent confrontation with his lover’s husband. That would be, according to my mom’s research, Grandpa Sion’s own father, Sion Massey Herrington. I can find no records to corroborate her findings.
The origins of this deception aren’t particularly clear but, like most family legends, our fabricated Irish roots were probably the product of a simple lie that, through constant retelling, had been raised to the level of fact through sheer power of narrative. Behind the lie, an obstruction that smudged our family history to an indiscernible point that lies just off this side of the Atlantic, was a catalogue of simple truths: names, dates, headstones, and household inventories that implicates our family, by its sheer existence in time and place, in a great number of atrocities. Further research by my mom yielded more uncomfortable truths, that a portion of our family had been given land freshly ripped out of the hands of the Creek people , that at least some of our family had owned slaves in some capacity, and that our family had fought in the Civil War on the Confederate side.
I had, at the time of these revelations, during my senior year of high school, completely exculpated myself from the uglier aspects of American history because, I reasoned, I wasn’t there. My family wasn’t there. I had vague, primordial memories of the Potato Famine, or crossing the Atlantic. Owning this identity gave me some sense of victimhood which was, like the myth of the Old South, no more than a framing device used to manipulate the narrative of my own identity.
Still, even knowing the flat truth of the matter, a part of me still carries my family stories as a separate truth. They have been spoken into reality, welded to the core of my self. These stories have etched themselves onto the surface of every interaction with Atlanta. This road is named after my homicidal uncle, my grandfather was born here on Ponce, stole silverware from the downtown Four Seasons, and drank from a glass in Martin Luther King Jr.’s house right there on Auburn Avenue. These connections make me feel important, more important than any centuries old headstone of an ancestor could. I come to Atlanta with an overweight sense of self importance, the heiress of every family legend that was ever told.
Martin Swift came to America in 1848, with his brother and sisters in tow, from County Galway, Ireland. It was in the middle of what I vaguely understand to be the Potato Famine. Martin lived in Albany, and other areas in upstate New York for either the first eight or sixteen years of his life in America. He married Mary Gavin, a fellow Irish immigrant, in Troy, New York, in 1856. From New York, he moved first to Illinois and then to Iowa, where he settled with his wife, children, and siblings. He died in 1907, the owner of a large a large portion of land.
His life hits all of the beats of my maternal line’s fabricated roots. I can see him, sack in hand, standing at the bow of The Cushlamachree, dreaming of something vague like the idea of America. It was the story that I imagined when history teachers talked about the American Dream. The idea that my ancestors came to America as a form of reincarnation, in pursuit of life and cultural identity, was infinitely appealing to me. I imagined their courage at moving to a new place, rootless, and making themselves a part of it. The idea of walking into a place and being nobody gives you the opportunity to be anybody. It was an idea that I liked, and held close to my own perception of myself.
And it was true. Martin Swift is my third great grandfather. He, like most of my paternal line, was an Irish immigrant who spilled westward and landed somewhere in the great, flat span of Iowa. Growing up, I was at least passively aware of this portion of my paternal line’s history. My maiden name, Wheelan, is particularly Irish. An aunt had worked at developing a concise and accurate family tree, but I was unaware as to its exact contours. I only learned, through second hand recitation, the basic facts of the matter. Most of the findings had been worn down to sepia. We were Irish, we were German, we were Dutch. The story came down to vague movements and repeating names.
Over this past summer, I’ve been willfully unemployed, wearilly minding the gap between the end of a temp assignment and the beginning of graduate school. I spend most days on a beige sectional. Sometimes I go to the grocery story, but not often. I spend most of my time reading or letting one passing obsession or another fester until bursting. One of these passing obsessions happened to be making a family tree. What I wanted to do was fill in some blank spaces, particularly in my dad’s side. I found Martin Swift with very little effort. The tracks had already been put down ahead of me. As for what I was looking for, I suppose I was looking for whatever anyone who studies genealogy is looking for, a fragment of themselves in a bunch of dead strangers. I looked at whatever pictures I could get ahold of, hoping to find my nose or cheekbones or some adjective that vaguely applied to me.
Martin Swift Came to Albany, New York shortly after arriving in America. It was his gateway to the country, the first chapter in his new life. The revelation, if you can call it that, of a connection, as tenuous as it was, to my newly adopted home was taken in with no small sense of importance. It was as if I glanced in him a snaggle tooth the same shape and angle as my own.
I came to Albany in 2017, alone, with very little to carry, and only the promise of my husband’s presence at the gate to anchor me. He had relocated to New York two and a half months prior in order to start his job. I, coming to the end of my undergraduate career with no job prospects and very little idea of what I wanted to be other than a student, had very little to lose, and so I decided to join him without the least bit of hesitation.
I, like Martin Swift, landed on Albany as a starting point. To me, moving to Albany felt like a daring leap. These are similarities that I find easy to transpose, and when I glanced at the skeleton of Martin Swift’s biography that is available online, I couldn’t help but draw a connection, that our lives had intersected in even a small way seemed significant, and it made me feel some kinship with my adopted home.
Only unlike Martin Swift, I’m not daring to make a new life. I do not want to move on, expunge myself of context, paint my life a new color. It feels too close to erasure. Leaving home means abandoning every aspect of myself that I have coiled around my sense of place. I tell people that I am from Georgia, as if it means anything to them. It is the central fact of my life and yet whenever I find occasion to mention it it comes off as a non sequitur, a small bit of trivia equal in importance to my favorite color or preferred member of The Beatles. It rarely fits into conversation, and yet I ache to mention it, as if talking about it makes it closer to being real.
At least when I first moved to Albany, my being from Georgia seemed to be an interesting bit of trivia. But I find that as time goes on my origins seem to feel more remote, less pertinent to my everyday life. I am getting used to this place. I can tell when someone is local or not just based on the inflection of their voice. I have an opinion on people from Massechussetts. But when I trace out the contours of this place, it is at a distance. I observe local habits, like dipping mozzarella stick in raspberry jam, but feel no connection to them. I have no desire to adopt local customs or tastes, but instead find myself measuring them against those of my home state.
And when we go to Atlanta, two or three times a year, I am more and more unaccustomed to the heat. Kudzu monsters are being toppled over and turned into apartment complexes. Things are changing, my familiarity waning. I forget the exact route to my dad’s house. I turn into the entrance of my old apartment complex and register the distance between who I was when I lived there and who I am now.
I am losing grasp on this place, the stories I’ve been told become more remote. I thought that what I wanted was a clean slate. But what I’m forgetting is that I am, in fact, Southern. I have narrated my way into a fixed point, believing that a story, if told with enough belief, can become true.
I walk around Albany Rural Cemetery, looking for a familiar last name. There is a batch of Herringtons right up the hill from the first entrance. I’ve tried to find some connection to my own line, but haven’t.
I guess what I really want, in some pathological way, is to own the place. I want to look out my window and have a story, and I want to draw a line that leads directly back to me.
About the Author
Hilary Wheelan Remley was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. She is currently a PhD student at SUNY Albany.