On one of our first visits, my birth-grandmother, Skippy, brought out a box of photos and clippings and settled in to tell me the history of my family. I had waited more than twenty years to hear what she was saying. A natural storyteller, her candor and straightforward style taught me how to one day tell my own extension of the story. She took her role of history-teller seriously, as if she understood how important every detail would be to one who had been denied access to it for so long.
Sitting across from Grandma that day I heard about our forebears, who came from Germany and Massachusetts and other places, to finally settle in the Deep South in the mid 1800s. Some were even famous, such as Robert Louis Stevenson. I pored over photocopies of 1938 newspaper advertisements for Dr. Blosser’s Medicinal Cigarettes for the treatment of asthma, a family-wide malady. They made the family a lot of money until it was discovered they didn’t work. My favorite story was of brothers William and Ellsworth Woodward, who helped establish the schools of Art, Architecture and the Newcomb School of Pottery at Tulane University.
The word ‘surreal’ doesn’t even begin to cover how this experience felt to me. I was so stunned that I actually had to come back and learn most of the facts later, from Rob. I still pick up new details now, almost thirty years later, if he happens to tell our newer friends the story. He remembers it because he wasn’t fighting the emotions that hijacked my brain as Grandma talked that day. At some point I just zoned out and tried my best to pretend I could still follow the story line. Several hours later, she reached the bottom of the box and the family history lesson came to a close.
I did manage to absorb one fact that day, however: suddenly, I existed in context. The fibers that formed my fabric no longer began at the frayed edge of my swatch. The threads of art, asthma, music, addiction, writing, humor, depression, allergies, and intelligence had interwoven in established patterns long before they manifested in an orphaned baby in 1969. Now I knew why I could draw anything I looked at. The asthma and the lazy eye? Blame these folks. Traits like dishwater hair, a good singing voice, lumpy breasts, and the ability to tell a story, were now attributed to their proper sources. For better or for worse, these familiar strangers explained me better than I had ever been able to by myself.
photo credit: www.mpfconservation.com