(This was written in reference to the Sunday and Monday of this past Labor Day weekend.)
I mentioned awhile back that I was going to write a book about my mother’s side of the family. This past weekend, well Sunday and Monday, I started it. The research.
Growing up our family would go on what my parents called vacation, but was anything but relaxing. We would drive around North Carolina in a beat-up Plymouth Voyager with fake wood paneling around the side and visit my mother’s relatives. I am the youngest of the children in my immediate family and extended family, so visiting was never something I looked forward to, as it meant that I would probably be in the way, be bored and only have dogs to play with. All of my relatives have dogs. Sure, we would have a couple days at the beach, but mostly not.
So, understandably over the years I’ve developed this negative feeling towards North Carolina, except for the beach. And there are two types of North Carolinians, Beach and Mountains. My mother comes from a long line of beach-goers. And her hometown of Kinston is only about an hour, maybe two, from the beach.
Kinston used to be an industrial city. They had cotton, tobacco, Pepsi and Coca-Cola plants, a t-shirt factory and were surrounded by farms. Today it’s a collection of tattered, wood boxes that are this close to falling over, drugs and gangs. But among all of the ugly you can see what used to be. All the tobacco warehouses are still intact, but with broken panes and graffiti, the theaters now house other businesses or are closed, the old high school that my mother attended is now an assisted living home and the people that do live there don’t give a damn about making it nice. Among all of this are larger homes that resemble doll houses that once belonged to the wealthy, but like everything else the paint is peeling and many remain vacant or condemned.
My mother has two older brothers, one of which she has asked to write their family’s history, or at least their personal story of the three being raised by their aunt and grandmother. He, like me was a journalism major and later earned a master’s degree in English and was one semester away from receiving his PhD in English Literature. He doesn’t want to do it. So, I am.
My mother has relayed stories of her childhood to me and my siblings over and over for as long as I can remember. And earlier this year her oldest brother was visiting in Northern Virginia and I stayed up until about two in the morning listening to them reminisce about their childhoods. All of it. The good, the bad, and the parts that they would probably like to forget. It was then that I decided to do it. I’m not sure exactly why, but it’s something that I’ve felt I’ve needed to do since then.
And this is coming from someone who up until six months ago saw no reason to go to North Carolina unless there was a birth, marriage or death in the family.
And let me tell you, my mother’s side is all about those three things. This weekend proved that more than ever. The Mills’ liked having babies - my great-grandmother had nine of them, they liked getting married and in most cases divorced and then remarried, sometimes a few times, and they were obsessed with dying. I found a life insurance policy that my grandfather and his two sister bought when he was twelve. TWELVE. Twelve years old. And it only cost ten cents a month for a $1000 policy. And then there were the pictures of dead people and pictures of all the flowers that were sent to the funeral – apparently this is a status thing. I don’t really get it. But I’m trying to.
I made my first stop my first-cousin-once-removed (my mother’s first cousin) Robert Earl’s house. He and his wife, Judy, have known each other since she was fifteen and have been married forever. I have never really had the chance to get to know them. Robert Earl is several years older than my mom and so they were never close. But because they’re family they have invited us to everything and we have done the same. I went to their daughter’s wedding when I was about nine, and I’m pretty sure I had never met any of them before. However, Robert Earl’s mother, (pay close attention, things are about to get confusing) Evelyn, I have very early memories of. She is one of those old relatives we used to visit all the time. Her house was awful. She had lived in it forever and instead of moving along with all the other’s to the non-black parts of town she stayed and bolted her windows shut. And didn’t have air conditioning and didn’t let her animals outside. And it all smelled so awful and we weren’t allowed to touch anything, nothing, except for of course that dry rotted couches that she had for forty years.
Robert Earl need a lot of encouragement and seemed very hesitant about giving me too much information. I get it, he doesn’t know me, and my immediate family has a reputation among our relatives as “the Yankees” given we’re from the DC suburbs and don’t know how to operate a tractor. So, he started off listing all these places he had lived. It was an incredibly long list, and I finally had to stop him because I don’t care about that, I care about what happened while he was living in those places, what made them memorable. He started to open up some, but Judy was willing to divulge more information than he was. Thank God.
I had made plans to stay with a friend in Greensboro, but then decided it would be easier to drive to Grifton rather than drive the next morning. I still got lost, but it was nice being done that night. I had picked up a bunch of stuff at Robert Earl’s including a trunk that belonged to my other cousin-once-removed-Marie’s father, my great-uncle Hubert.
I never knew Hubert. My grandfather was the youngest of the nine kids and Evelyn, was number eight. (If this does become a book, I should probably not worry about names and just number everyone.) Hubert is the one that has the most going on as of right now. I’m not so sure Marie was as excited about finding all this dirt on her dad, but we know that he had lots of lovers before and after he got married, had at least one illegitimate child, and was an alcoholic.
One of this first things Marie said to me was, “you don’t come from money. You know that, right?” Of course I know that. My mother has spent her entire life making sure that we all had everything that she never did. Mills’ were tobacco and cotton farmers from Ireland and Scotland; all the men were alcoholics and most were in the KKK and the women sobered them up and pretended not to notice when they were off fucking everyone.
It’s making out to be a pretty good story. And my mom grew up with it.
*Mom, before you email me berating me for not saying “nice” things and using the F word, please be aware that I am doing exactly what I told you I would to – telling the truth. And it’s not always pretty.