Archive for the 'family history' Category

“Tell me a story”

amywink October 14th, 2017

“Tell me a story”

I watched my mother
once swept away
in the riptide
of her mania,
stories of her life
spilling from her
without thematic
without narrative
or any patterned
of oral history
or storytelling.

Desperate, she seemed,
frantic to find
the threads of
meaning and reason
in stories spinning from her,
to do like I was doing
in my own life,
writing and living
my own story.

She kept trying
to create the story
that would carry her
forward into the battles
of her life, like me,
but the distance
between us was
a chasm opening
before me,
wide and deep,
into which we
both might go,
in that same
daring leap
the difference
between diving
and falling.

Forgive and Remember

amywink August 25th, 2017

[Love] does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

1 Corinthians 13: 6-12

Among the artifacts of my grandmother’s life, my mother and I found one of her high school yearbooks, a mid-1920’s collection of youthful Jazz Age faces living in a Texas oil-field town, about as far from West Egg as anyone might imagine. Yet there, in the curated view of her generation, bound in a single book to commemorate the year, my grandmother the flapper seemed to dance out of the pages, the daring girl ready for adventures beyond the dirt and derricks of her surroundings.

From my vantage point almost three-quarters of a century later, I looked through pages and marveled at the styles, thinking of my grandmother in her girlhood, surrounded by classmates, high school activities, the ubiquitous football coverage. Her girlhood culture, illustrated with photos, stories, jokes, and student drawings, a genial and benign book of high school life in the mid-1920’s. And I keep turning the pages until the page is a rudimentary drawing of a hooded boy, on horseback, staring down a hill at a burning cross and I stop on another reality of my grandmother’s girlhood.

“Maybe it is a joke” my mother sighed, half-heartedly. But of course, we both knew it was not a joke. This is not the moment of our awakening. This is not a revelation.

As much a part of my grandmother’s girlhood as the flapper clothing and oil derricks, the unrepentant image of white supremacy bound in the pages of her high school yearbook reminds us again of what we know.

It is moment of reckoning.

It would be easy enough for me to close the book and let the image fade from my consciousness. I could ignore or deny the weight of it, allow nostalgia to gloss my perspective on my grandmother’s life and separate her from the surrounding culture. The drawing of the hooded boy, looking down on a burning cross makes that impossible.

I cannot make this story beautiful.

I could choose to see history dimly, like a mirror hazed by willful ignorance.
But I want to see completely, as sure as Eve chose to understand the knowledge of good and evil.

I cannot make this story beautiful.

A dear friend once said “I don’t know what I’d do if I found out my ancestors had slaves. I’d just be so ashamed.” I wondered how we could look at our ancestry through such rose-colored glasses. Of course, as a descendant of Russian Jews who arrived after Emancipation, she had that privilege, if few others.

I am four generations from the Confederate soldier my grandmother knew as her grandfather just as I am four generations from the Union soldier whose grandson married her. I know the names of my slaveholding ancestors. I have the photographs. I know the plantation was “lost” in Sherman’s March to the Sea. I know there are African-Americans with whom I share more than one ancestral name.

I do not fool myself with the ignorance that keeps rising in every generation, drawing us back into the primordial sea of our nostalgia before we are pushed further onto shore. I wonder when we will desire the land enough to be redeemed from the sea.

Jack Kornfield writes “extending and receiving forgiveness is essential for redemption from our past. To forgive does not mean we condone the misdeeds of another. We can dedicate ourselves to make sure they never happen again.” We also have to know the past, to understand the complexity of history, to know fully what we remember and what we choose to forget, personally and culturally.

In his poem “[the] north [ern] [of] ireland” Pádraig Ó Tuama writes:

And at the end of the day
the reality is
that whether we
or whether we stay
the same

these questions will remain.

Who are we
to be
with one


How are we
to be
with one

I have to ask myself now the same questions. How are we to be with one another? How do I hold this ugliness in memory along with what beautiful? How do I rejoice in this truth?

Ó Tuama’s only answer is present action:

I wake
You wake
She wakes
He wakes
They wake
We wake and take this troubled beauty forward

We wake. We.

We must rejoice in the truth of our waking. We must recognize this troubled beauty of our history. We must reckon with the troubled beauty of our past, dedicated to making sure it never happens again.

John Lewis, interviewed recently by Krista Tippett for said “You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And in the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being. We, from time to time, would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person — years ago, that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? Something go wrong? Did the environment? Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being. And you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.”

My grandmother was a human being, flawed and wonderful, petty and generous, frightened and brave. She loved and feared. It is my recognition of her complexity, acceptance of her humanity, remembrance of her whole life that allows me to see her face to face, to put away the childish delusion of wistful nostalgia that she might be less complex but also less human, the childish hope that she not contain the “and.” She went into the world and grew. She did not remain bound with the hooded boy looking at the burning cross. She put an end to childish ways. She loved. She opened her life with love, welcoming black, white, gay, straight, Buddhist, Christian into her family. For all her human foibles, she never closed her heart. She never gave up on her own divine spark.

“You are amazing. You are great. You are cool.”

amywink July 29th, 2017

This weekend marks one year since I lost my best friend, Stacey. We, as a culture, are not very good at acknowledging grief, recognizing it as part of a complex human experience, but we are better at recognizing the grief that is shared through familial relationships. There is precious little written about the lost of a long-time and deep friendship. Searching the blog posts on What’s Your Grief leads to one article: When Your Best Friend Dies. At least it’s a very good article.

When your best friend dies, many people don’t notice. When your best friend dies, you have to tell them if you want them to know–and when you tell them, they might forget you’re grieving. When your best friend dies, people don’t perceive that you might be the right age to have lost someone close. When your best friend dies, some people don’t even understand the concept of best friendships.

It is a kind of solitary, singular loss.

But grief is not a competition but a frame through which we, changed, now see the world, like Emily Dickinson wrote “I measure every Grief I meet With narrow, probing, eyes – I wonder if It weighs like Mine – Or has an Easier size.”

I am very lucky, both to have known Stacey, and also to have more than a single best friend (which as an adult, is not longer the hierarchical term we use in childhood, the Number 1 friend, but a description of the kind of friend a person is, the best kind). Those friends closed ranks and carried me through the worst of the loss, some old friends stepped up to the plate, some new friends stepped forward. But when Stacey died, a chasm opened and into it fell our shared memories, our collective experience, the tangential connections I had to her husband, her family, her friends. Suddenly, the bridge to her whole life vanished. At the same time, a few of those connections became stronger as we also became closer to share our grief, her husband, her best friend from college. What had been tangential has become central, like healing around a collective wound, a web across the chasm we were left with. But the chasm is still there and every time I think “Stacey would have loved this” or “Stacey would have said….” or “I’d have asked Stacey about this” or a thousand other small thoughts that drift through my days, there is only a deep and reverberating echo for an answer.

Stacey was born into a religious tradition in which the only afterlife was in the continual remembering of the person. While she happily left most of that religion behind, she did believe, and I believe, that the active remembering of a person, her life, her relationships, her stories, keeps that person among the living. I remember her. I am writing her into the fabric of my life, and in contemporary parlance, weaving her into the Web so she will never be forgotten. She didn’t want to be discussed on social media but she can’t stop me from making her presence known and her memory valuable. (Sorry, Stacey, I’m breaking your rules, but I think you knew I would because, well, you knew I was a writer.)

I wrote the following piece for her memorial service, though I did not attend (which I explain in The Difficulty of Blue, if you’re curious). And I still think of this as my favorite memory of our friendship, an allegorical story about the meaning of best friendship.


I met Stacey in graduate school at Texas A&M. We had circled each other but our gravities had
not yet achieved the closeness required to pull us together permanently until one day she asked
a fateful question “How are you?” And I answered truthfully “I am having the worst day of my

It’s a good thing Stacey didn’t scare easily. In fact, Stacey didn’t scare. And I was so lucky
she accepted my truthful response and chose not to run but instead to bring herself closer and
offer her friendship even though it would have been easy to walk away.

But Stacey was a First Responder at heart and she walked directly into my disaster and worked to pull me through.

And eventually, I did the same for her.

Because that’s what friends do.

Despite her chronic delusion that she was “just a normal person” she was most extraordinary, a
person who became a best friend to me through the some of the most difficult years of my life
but also my writing partner, who helped me be as creative, helped me flesh out ideas in
conversation and correspondence, helped me articulate the insights we searched for together.
She helped polish my work for publication and the many conference papers I wrote as I tried to
make an academic career. Our twenty year daily email correspondence– “our sharing thoughts
in writing”–was an amazing work of art between the two of us, a living conversation.

Our best work together, a presentation of our family history title City Ancestor/Country Ancestor” traced
the amazing stories we both had of our families. Blending her prose with my poetry, illustrated
with family photographs from both our family archives, we presented together at a Popular
Culture Association conference in San Antonio.

It was a fantastic performance piece. We were a hit and we were so pleased and proud of our own brilliance. Late, late, late in our hotel room, neither of us asleep but soaring alone on our triumph until one of us spoke:

” I can’t sleep.”

“Neither can I”

And we flipped on the lights to celebrate

“That was so great! ”

“We were so great!

“We were amazing!”

“We were so cool”

And we were great. We were amazing. We were cool.

I will miss writing with her every day. And I will miss her every day but like I told her in the last
weeks of her life, she will always be with me. I’ll always be hearing her say “You are great, You are amazing,
You are cool.”


amywink March 30th, 2017


May 17, 2004

On Good Friday,
I kneel in the dim
antique store light
reading the titles
0n a bookshelf tucked
beneath shadows, searching
the scuff-edged spines,
hoping for undiscovered treasure.

This day, I find Jane Eyre,
Soft and battered leather,
with bible paper leaves,
And a tender message
Maidie Spencer,
From Mama
Christmas 1920

in a left-hand tilted script.

I covet.

At home, I unwrap the
swaddled volume,
packaged like a breakable.
opening the covers to absorb
my small extravagance.

In this new light, beneath
the ink inscription, a pale
and broken-pencil line reveals
This is the last book Maidie read.

In the daze of revelation
now ascending, I comprehend
anew this gift of providence,
this perfect Easter token,
a holy spirit rising,
the final offering for a
remembered life.


After writing this poem in 2004, I recently revisited it after looking at my book collection again and my cousin tracked down this information:

Maidie Spencer’s grave.

Maidie Spencer’s death certificate:


The Heart of Things

amywink March 3rd, 2017


“The Heart of Things”

“I need my stacks,” my mother said, after I told her I was going to clean her room for when she came home from the hospital. “I need my stacks.” I agreed but knew I’d need to do something more than leave them if she came home. In the fifteen years I lived with my parents, we had steadily cleaned and cleared and removed the bulk of her hoarded things, making room for life out from under the weight of my grandmother’s belongings, the leftovers of a teaching career, the reminders of sadness and loss, to make a way for a better living. We had renovated each room, made changes, some small, some dramatic, to our home, opening walls and windows, pulling light into the house. We’d renovated with an eye for my father’s increasing handicaps, and made the house accessible. And yet there still were stacks, ever rising stacks of papers, on the kitchen table, on her shelves, on her desk, two large file cabinets of “important papers” that might as well have been made of stone. I had steadfastly refused to clean her room, because it was her own space and what she needed was not what I needed. The threshold of her room was a boundary I did not usually cross, unless necessity required it. And then, necessity required it.

In the time between her heart attack and her death, I cleaned, making way for her to walk when she came home, organizing the stacks and filing things away as best I could, using my anxiety on the most immediate problem, making a difference how I could. But when she died, my reasons for cleaning evaporated. In the days and months after her death, I began instead to clear.

It would have been tempting to pile everything in a dumpster and have it hauled away but in the clearing, the sublime erupts suddenly from what seems a pile of trash, a numinous object, alive with meaning, reaching through time to touch the tender heart of human truth. The journey through the ephemera of a life is not an exercise in efficiency, but a process of understanding and insight, a method of grieving. One does not get there and back again in the blink of an eye.

And so, I started slowly, reminding myself there was no hurry. I still lived here. I would still live here and I was allowed to take my journey slowly. Her bedroom, her desk, the surfaces — those places last to be covered were easiest to be cleared. Then the closets and her dressers, mostly insignificant, until suddenly artifacts appeared, a note in my great-grandmother’s handwriting, an embarrassing photograph from her childhood, baby booties from her infancy and then my own tiny knitted creamy gold gloves connected with a string to run through my coat sleeves, pom-pom balls on the wrist ties and the wash of memory of wearing them in the chilly days when I was three. These familiar things I keep for myself.

But in the boxes crammed in closets, I came across a small envelope, with a name I recognized as one of her students, a boy who had fled Vietnam in a boat, who had heard the gunfire over his head, a boy who, in my mother’s art class, had painted a beautiful mural of his families’ escape with an Chinese dragon flying over his family at sea. His letter folded like origami to fit in the tiny envelope, the elaborate Chữ Nôm characters of his name drawn carefully in one corner, he wrote so politely to his art teacher of pleasantries in his new home in Dallas ending his note, “There is no art here. Please write back soon.” And I feel my mother’s heart breaking, my heart breaking, for that little boy in the letter. I know she would have written back. I fold that origami letter carefully again, place it back into the envelope, returned to safekeeping. This thing I keep to carry the truth of her kind and tender heart with me.

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