Chasing Ghosts: “It’s like he knew it was coming.”

My dad could barely carry the big Stor-All box from his car up the driveway to my house, and he had not told me he was bringing it. He was coming over to visit; I was sitting on the porch, waiting on him. When I saw him pull up at the curb in his dark red 1990s Oldsmobile sedan with the US Marine Corps plate on the front, he got out and first went around to the back seat and was getting something out. I figured it was something he had gotten for the kids.

Walking up the driveway, leaned back against the weight of a big white Stor-All box, his face showed the strain, so I walked out and met him halfway to take it from him. My dad was a small man, only about five-foot-seven with a small frame, but he had gained a lot of weight in his latter years and by this point in his life, in his early 60s, was kind of round with skinny legs and no neck. He wore glasses and had taken to having his hair cut in a close-cropped flat-top. The older that he got, the more pride he took in his manhood, and carrying this box up to the house was part of that. In recent years, he had begun wearing Marine Corps t-shirts more and more often, and he was also carrying a loaded .38 pistol everywhere he went.

Despite his best efforts at getting that box up to my house by himself, I knew that Dad needed help. A few years earlier, he had helped us move into an apartment we occupied while the 1920s-era house we bought was being renovated. My wife and I had bought the second fixer-upper of our marriage, and had to move ourselves and two very small children into this apartment while the contractor took five months to do his three-month job. On top of that inconvenience, the erratic woman in the rental office of the upscale complex assigned us to a second-floor apartment, after she had shown us a first-floor apartment when we toured. So that meant carrying the heavy furniture from our recently sold 1890s Victorian up the stairs— and in August at that. Dad had gotten so red-faced and had begun wheezing so severely that my brother and I made him stop carrying things from the truck and stay in the air-conditioned apartment to unpack boxes; I can still remember his mixture of slight embarrassment but also relief, as he watched his two sons coming up the stairs time and time again that day with load after load. He had tried so hard to keep up with our pace, but clearly he couldn’t anymore.

I can’t remember the exact day that he brought the Stor-All box to the house, but he made a pretty big deal that day of wanting me to have it. He said it was time to pass it on. I carried the box up the stairs to my little office in the converted attic of our now-renovated house – the apartment was only an unpleasant memory by that point – and Dad and I began to go through what he had.

My dad had begun compiling our family history back in the 1980s, when I was a kid. I can remember him pouring over this stuff, having it spread out all over the kitchen table, writing and receiving letters, and sometimes trying to show us aspects that he was excited about. He was roughly the age that I am now, and my brother and I were just a little older than my kids are today. Looking back, I remember that we didn’t really care what he was doing and that we shrugged him off most of the time, which I know now probably hurt his feelings. However, what he accomplished is really astonishing, in a time before the Internet, before e-mail, before digitized records and searches. The box he was bringing me contained all that stuff.

I have to tell you what is even more astonishing, though. Not long after he brought that Stor-All box to the house, Dad had a massive heart attack and died very suddenly one Friday afternoon in February 2011. The phone rang right at dinnertime, and it was my stepsister, who I rarely talk to though we have always gotten along well. I can still remember her trying to convince me that it was true; I kept asking over and over,” Where is he?” and “Are you sure he’s dead?” I wanted to believe that he was just in bad shape in a hospital somewhere. No, she assured me, he was gone, since earlier that afternoon— My wife later said, speaking of him bringing me the family history stuff that day, “It’s like he knew it was coming.”

And now I have this big Stor-All box full of family history stuff, organized into four basic categories: The Dicksons and Stradfords, who are my dad’s people, and the Fosters and Taylors, who are my mother’s people. Most of them are Alabama folks, but not all. Their lives carried them here to Alabama from all over the South: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia . . .

So, I’m chasing ghosts now. The barely retained facts of my family have come to me in two ways: either through vague anecdotes that were only told once, or through the contents of that big white Stor-All box. I have known some members of my extended family, but not many, and not well. I do know where some of them live, if they’re still alive. I’ve told people before that one main tradition in my family is leaving, rarely to be seen or heard from again. And what I’ve found in chasing ghosts is plenty of evidence of that long-standing tradition.

The story of my family weaves through the topmost wrungs of the Southern aristocracy, through dirt-poor farming communities and through many cultural briarpatches in between. One family story documented in a red leather-bound book at the Alabama Department of Archives & History claims that my forebears are the basis for the main characters in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, as the Dickson family plantation was the nearest one to Mitchell’s own family home where she grew up in Georgia. (Of course, that can’t be substantiated, but those Dicksons would have been the local big-wigs that she would have known.) Other more verifiable points of interest (and of pride, maybe) show that my first Dickson ancestor coming to America from Ireland, prospering in North Carolina, fighting in the Revolutionary War, and settling into his comfortable golden years in South Carolina; his descendants trickled slowly into Georgia and then Alabama . . . which is where my family line comes into the picture.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have forebears whose lives would have very much resembled the ones depicted in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Rural, isolated people who subsistence-farmed, moved often, and sometimes got completely lost in the records. These men and women never show up in voting records or tax records because they owned no land. Many of them left home as teenagers, married young and sometimes often, and migrated when opportunity arose or when circumstances required.

In between those two extremes, my people worked in all sorts of professions over generations and branches of my family tree: hotels, restaurants, banking, sales, accounting, communications. As I have perused the smatterings of documentation, I have seen that their rides up and down the socio-economic ladder have been staggering.

The posts in this series, “Chasing Ghosts,” will discuss my findings as I explore my Southern heritage— a phrase I’m using in its best sense, not in the often-applied sense of attempting to use semantics to justify neo-Confederate thought. My Southern heritage begins in the early 1700s, and yes, it does include slave-holding plantation owners, a fact that I choose to acknowledge but not celebrate.  My people were among the Southerners that forged what a Southerner is. They ran the gamut from landed gentry to poor white trash, living out their lives in places all over the region.

[To be continued . . .]

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