Family Baggage, Lost & Found Ben Adair
A family roadtrip drives through their past.
Family Baggage, Lost and Found
by Benjamin Adair 12/14/2001
Sometimes the knife is like a surgeon's scalpel. It opens you up and it hurts like hell, but it cuts out all the bad parts, and eventually you do heal and you're better than you were before.
My mom will tell you that her life has been split in threelike car tracks cut a flooded Mississippi highway. First, there she was ... then, on a cold morning 5 years ago, my dad came downstairs and left her. After that, Mom played solitaire on the computer for a really long time. Then last April, her mom died.
And death is sad. I don't have to tell you that, it's really, really hard. But when grandma died, it was like that surgeon's knife came and repaired what had happened to my mom.
So one morning last May, she woke up. She went downstairs and didn't turn on the computer. Instead, she went biking. She went out on a date. She started planning this trip we're taking down South. She decided to get to know her mom a little better.
Mom:Okay, this is what the downtown looks like -- what I remember. See how the sidewalks are a few steps up? There was a movie theater in here. See how old it looks?
Grandma was born Bessie Grace McMullan. And in southern Mississippi, McMullans are like kudzu. There's McMullan Motors in Hattiesburg. There are McMullan doctors and McMullan architects in Jackson. There's the J. Elliot McMullan library in Newton, Mississippi.
Mom:That's my house. I think so. Is that right? I'm surprised my house still exists. It was so tiny.
Right now, Mom and I are just arriving in West Point, Mississippi, where she spent ages four through 10. It's where she remembers her family the happiest. Actually, it's where she remembers her mother the happiest. Her dad fell between jobs in West Pointworking in a hatchery and then for a meat packer. He missed his own family in east-central Georgia, and he didn't really like that Grandma's was so near. He was never very popular with her folks and after they eloped, my grandparents, Grandma's family, still liked to voice disapproval. Great granddad McMullan once sold Granddaddy's car right out from under him -- at a loss.
Ben: you don't want to look anymore?
Mom:We'll come back in the daylight.
You do a lot of talking on road trips -- sitting in the car, sitting in motels. And on a trip like thison a trip with my momthere's not a lot of small talk.
Ben: After your mom died, did you get really sad?
Mom: Yeah, of course. I miss her. One of the things I thought about when I was writing the eulogy, was the fact that she was the only person in the world I speak sign language with. So it's like being the last person in the world that speaks my language when she died. When I sign it's a connection with my hands to heart, my whole body's involved. That feels like home. I don't use that language anymore. I miss that. And I dreamed about my mother before we made this trip, and I woke up crying. We all have regrets about parents, and when they're dead, you can't go back and make up for that. You can only be sorry that those things happened. And you can be glad for the good times. And try to remember those more than other times.
Ben: It's always easier to remember things you're sorry about.
Mom: Yeah. They stick in your head.
On Sunday we drive a couple hours south to a tiny town called Newton, Mississippi. This is where Grandma grew up. Well, I say that, but really she was just born here. There were four deaf kids in the family and each one was sent to boarding school in Jackson, at the Mississippi School for the Deaf.
Today, only my great uncle Elliot and his wife Ruth live in Newton. Elliot's the youngest of my grandma's brothers. He was mayor of Newton for 20 years.
Mom and I arrive in Newton late in the afternoon. Immediately, we start feeling a little strange. I mean, it sounds silly, but we were expecting to be treated all "long and lost." Instead, we get sitting in the sitting room. We get up-and-down glances and awkward silence. The birds in the backyard are the only ones comfortable with my microphones.
At lunch the next day, Mom's in a mood to reminisce, but Elliot's forward-thinkinghe doesn't like to look to the past. My cousin-once-removed Janice is absolutely giddy. She wants to go to the Indian casino. Great aunt Ruth -- well, she's a great host. She serves us butter beans, black eyed peas, chicken casserole and that funny salad with a piece of lettuce, a canned pear and a dollop of mayonnaise on top. She serves on the good china.
Eventually, Mom and me, we catch on. We're companynot family. Mom starts to wonder -- "Maybe we should go to Jackson early? Cut our visit short. We're not feeling as welcome as we'd hoped."
After lunch, Elliot and Janice take us on a tour of Newton. They show us downtown, the city hall. They tell us about the feud in the Baptist church that turned neighbor upon neighbor for a short time.
Elliot takes us to the graveyard.
Elliot: I'm the only one to look after it now.
And that's where something happened. Elliot was showing us his parents' -- my great grandparents' -- graves. He was saying how he was the only one who would come down here and keep the fire ants from crawling around, make sure the grass has enough water. I bend down and brush the leaves off the base of the headstone.
Elliot: If any of y'all want to be buried here, we'll put you right in there. Right there.
Mom: Well, the McMullan plot is pretty big.
Elliot: Yes it is. You could be buried with me.
Janice: Where's your spot daddy?
Elliot: Right there.
It's funny how something little can touch you. There was a battle in Newton during the Civil War. Benjamin Grierson attacked the rail lines at Newton, burning two locomotives, 25 freight cars. His men heated the rails and twisted them around trees. My cousin Janice was explaining this "great defeat," and my mom said, laughing, "A great defeat for who?"
Janice looked at Mom sideways -- I looked at mom sideways. But uncle Elliot just laughed. He told Janice to get the car so he could show us the library.
Mom:There's mother and Ena, but no Evelyn. So there were three of them in 1923.
One of the few things Elliot told us about growing up is how much his father cared for his deaf children. He said that when his dad took the eldest daughter, Grandma's sister Ena, to the Mississippi School for the Deaf, they were both so broken up. She cried and cried and he stayed with Ena until she fell asleep that night. Then he sneaked out. It broke his heart.
Mom: So this is 1929 to '31. And Brooks Monahan -- that's the guy mother thought she was in love with."
The school doesn't have many records going back to the 1920s, when the McMullan kids first enrolled. Those are kept at the Mississippi state archives. We go there and find biannual reports -- mentions of the dilapidated buildings, the fires, the teachers' frustrations. We find grandma's name on the student rosters and later, in the 30s, on the teachers lists. That's when she met my granddad who was working in the diary.
Mom: That Deaf Mississippian was put out by the printing class.
Ben: So what is it?
Mom: It's like a school newspaper.
The lithography shop put out these beautiful booklets every two weeks, called The Deaf Mississippian. Inside are stories written by the students, words of wisdom from people like Plato and Jefferson Davis. They also have excerpts from the diaries the students kept.
Mom: Okay, so here's something from the primary department. This issue is 10/15/23. Elizabeth Bryson got a pretty sweater from home. "My poppa came to see me yesterday, I was glad to see him. He gave me bubble gum. I thanked him. He went home last night. Bessie McMullan." The next issue, November 21: "The girls went to town, I bought a cake. I paid 5 cents for them. Bessie McMullan."
Ben: That's pretty funny.
I could never really talk with Grandma. I know a few signs. We'd sit next to each other and pass notes, but mostly we just watched TV. In these tiny excerpts -- approved by teachers and printed in big books for parents -- there's a person I never knew. Grandma was cute. She taught the other kids to play baseball. She missed her parents terribly. She rebelled by falling in love.
We read every issue they have. That night, we get in our car and drive south to Hattiesburg.
My great uncle Elliot is the John Wayne of relatives -- all square-jawed and silent. His brother, grandma's brother Victor is more ... Michael Keaton. Victor's friendly, with this funny energy about him. He cusses a little bit and wags his finger when he says something important.
In Hattiesburg, Victor and his wife Retha have arranged a huge luncheon for us, and family come from all over to meet the long lost cousins from up north. Almost a dozen people, on a Thursday afternoon.
Victor: I tell you what, he had great sympathy for his deaf children.
Victor likes to talk about the past, so after lunch, he, my cousin-once-removed Cecil, mom, and me, we all sit around and shoot the breeze -- talk about what it was like for Grandma and Victor as kids, how great-granddad McMullan made everybody learn sign language so they could communicate.
Victor: Everybody learned to sign. That's right. I guess Elliot, you said Elliot learned to sign before he could talk? I expect that's pretty true. Same for me.
It's ea¿sy to get sad again, but mostly we talk about the good times. About when Grandma and Granddad got married, how they came to see Victor right afterwards. We talk about Cecil's mom Ena, Grandma's oldest sister, and how she worked in a tire factory in Akron. How she heard deaf people could get jobs up there.
In the morning, Victor has some things to do, so we go to visit a few more relatives, and then we hit the road.
We drive for two days, from Mississippi up to Michigan. Mom wants me to see Grandpa before I go. The weather's beautiful and we listen to Lyle Lovett while curving our way through the Kentucky mountains.
Ben: I'm here with my G¯randpa. Anything you want to say into this microphone?
Grandpa: Nope. I don't like to talk to dummies.
Mom wants to use the excuse of the trip to ask Granddad about Grandma, but she doesn't think she'll get a truthful answer. She says, he's been romanticizing their relationship a lot since she died and he doesn't have a good grasp on the facts.
Mom: How long did you date before you got married?
Grandpa: I don't know.
Mom: You got married in '41?
Grandpa: I don't know that either. I think that's when it was. Momma was a beauty. Nobody compared to her.
Mom: Why'd she go out with you?
Grandpa: Maybe others didn't ask her. I don't know how I did.
It's hard for my mom because their family life was always very complicated. For a long time, mom's sister wouldn't come and visit granddad. She was that mad. If I wanted to, I could tell you things that would make your fists clench and your heart break.
But, you know, I'm not going to tell you those things because, as we're sitting and talking, Granddad's sweet. He misses Grandma so much.
Grandpa: It wasn't too long before Bessie's dad come to school. When he found me and Bessie we were in an apartment.
And even though I'm sitting right next to him, I miss my granddad right now. I miss grandma too.
Mom: Were you married already?
Eventually Mom wants to go. We take some pictures. Granddad tells me I need a shave. We get in the car and start the short drive back to Chicago, where this road trip started.
Ben: When we started the trip, you said one of the reasons you wanted to go was to find out why your dad would want to be with your mom. Is that really why you wanted to go?
Mom:Not the only reason. ...
We were both looking for something. A sense that even after Grandma died, there was still a lot of her still around -- in Mississippi, and in us.
Mom:No one said, 'You haven't been here for 22 years, why'd you come back?' Not that at all."
And we found that. Mom found that.
I said before that when Grandma died, it was like Mom had this wound that finally started to heal. And healing is a slow process. It doesn't happen all at once.
But driving back to Chicago, we didn't mention the sad things anymore. Instead, there was how Grandma wore her emotions on her face, and how Mom does that too, how important it is to express yourself and how, unbelievably, we were still getting along.
One thing I know is that when you're healing, you sleep a lot. I've been sleeping a lot on this trip and I'm still really tired. I'm looking forward to getting back to Los Angeles, where my bed is waiting for me. Where, even though my family isn't right there they're around.
This is Benjamin Adair, heading home, for the Savvy Traveler.