I barely knew my grandmothers. I was just a pup out of diapers when my maternal grandmother died and hardly more than one when my paternal grandmother went to her grave. I never met my paternal Czech immigrant grandfather and have no recollection in my earliest memories of my maternal grandfather. Both of these men made their way to South Alabama to scratch out their livings as hardscrabble farmers.
My dad was the youngest child born to Alois and Emily. He came to life in this world in Minnesota. The rest of his siblings were born in Europe. His oldest sister, already married, remained in Czechoslovakia when the rest of the family immigrated to the United States in the early part of the Twentieth Century. Tracing this lineage beyond the point of their immigration is not an impossible task. It is, however, a rather difficult one considering the language obstacle.
If there is one thing I regret about my Czech ancestry it is that my dad felt no necessity in teaching us the primary language that filled his family home. On the occasions when his siblings gathered together, their conversations were carried on predominately in the Czech language, interspersed briefly with English.
His mother learned only a very few words of the English language. Though she lived out her “old age” years in a little house built by my dad on our small farm, I was never able to carry on anything that resembled an intelligent conversation with her. I often walked over to visit grandma but suffice it to say that our conversations were carried on through a lot of primitive trial and error pointing and grunting. Without knowing the Czech language there are rivers without bridge crossings.
It is, however, in discovering and uncovering the long and very interesting American history of my mother’s paternal and maternal lines that I find my attention predominately arrested. It is a history that grows more detailed, interesting, and meaningful with each unfolding of the historical pages that have, until this point in time, been lost to my own awareness.
The awakening awareness of my own living personal heritage can be likened to finally waking from something of an induced coma of ancestral sleep, one that was imposed upon me in my formative infancy. This description, as good as it is, is still inadequate to describe this process that I’m discovering to be life-altering.
PHOTO: My maternal grandparents, John and Vada Harbison
It is hard for most people to imagine, especially in these modern times, life as it was three or four or five generations ago. Life was, in many regards, much simpler and far less harried despite the lack of comfortable conveniences and technological advances that we know in our times. That, anyway, is my impression.
I have always been given to the desire to go back in time, to step out of the craziness that forms the character of the time-generation that I have inherited by virtue of birth. There is a part of me that has learned to content itself with the tools of our times. I haven’t yet had to trim the hooves on that fancy gas powered tiller and I don’t have to keep a crib full of oats and a loft full of hay to feed it when it’s not in use.
The desire to return, where I am concerned, to before-generations has some to do with the simplification of tools and lifestyles. It has, however, more to do with knowing and understanding the lives of the very real men and women whose character and nature has tricked down over the generations to inevitably and unavoidably find reposit in this modern day passer through time and in his progeny.
I think one of the greatest tragedies of these modern times, at least where my own passage through life is concerned, is the sense of generational unknowing that has, until these more recent times, held me captive within something of a time-suspension capsule. I knew there was more to my own personal reality, dimensions that I could not see, dimensions that I was incapable of rationally naming and understanding.
It has only been of late that recognizable images have begun to appear in the darkness outside this gelatin shell, names, people, and circumstances that I did not know. I am finding it more than interesting, more than a mere gathering of historical genealogical data. These are names, people, and circumstances that are becoming real to me, giving definition to my own inherent personal identity.
I can’t recall its name and probably couldn’t pronounce it if I could. I was born with it, learned to live with it, and was close to thirty when an optometrist in Houston told me the name of the predicament. His only advice was that I shouldn’t take up flying. I wouldn’t have any difficulty taking off or staying in the air. The problem would occur in landing. Touching down would tend to be a little bumpy.
The predicament is that I don’t look through both eyes at the same time. It’s not something that’s obvious to people. As a child, however, I spent a lot of time with one eye closed, usually my right eye. Some folks thought I had a lazy eye. Kids in grade school made fun of me. I gradually trained myself to keep both eyes open essentially to avoid lessening the social rejection and abuse that I received in school.
I go about my life and live in the world with both eyes open but the truth of the matter is that, despite appearances, I’m only looking at it with one eye at a time. Corrective lenses address other vision issues. This particular predicament does not lend itself to correction. There’s really nothing to correct. It is a matter that is just the way it is.
Perhaps the matter is something genetic. I am not an authority on that but it is interesting to consider, especially in light of the discoveries related to the mass of genealogical archaeology of late regarding my mother’s maternal and paternal lines.
It is true that we possess the potential to make ourselves into anything that we choose and put our energies to. It is also true that, despite what we are able to make of ourselves, or, for that matter, fail to make of ourselves, we are still inherently the product of our genetic chemistry.
One eye at a time. Perhaps the matter is integrally related to the irony inherent in my own divided historical Northern Alabama maternal lineage, a heritage that has, where I am concerned, for too long been buried in neglected cemeteries and shallow unmarked graves.
The ancient proverb teaches to “incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding.” For all my efforts to learn and to do, for all my successful and failed efforts at carving out a life in this world, I think I’m finally beginning to discover and understand something of the ancestral human spirit residing within and motivating this human carriage.
I never gave the business much thought or consideration, until these more recent years. For meaningful and useful purposes, knowledge of my ancestral roots was limited to the generation represented by my mother and father, their immediate siblings, and a small league of first-cousins.
Most of my life has been lived in the proverbial here and now with a mindset that was essentially carried along by the concerns and currents, by the winds and waves, of contemporary life in these present times. Little of the oral history regarding my ancestry had been passed down to me. My genealogical roots were therefore necessarily short and shallow. That mindset began to take on something of a different nature a few years ago when Shirli started the long and arduous process of digging and unearthing the genealogical artifacts of my ancestral Southern lineage.
While it would be something of a truthful expression, to say that the fruit of her efforts have been interesting and historically revelatory would not adequately express the effects that her research and discoveries have begun to have on me. No. Their import is of much larger significance.
Their effects are life changing. They are reconnecting me with my own ancestral history, giving insight into the substance of my own animated human character, providing answers to many of the gnawing and haunting unanswered questions that have ever been integrally embedded deep within the fabric of my being, questions that I did not know how to ask. I will ever be in her debt for her inquisitive love of history, for her love for the hunt that compels her to invest multiplied long hours digging, searching for, and finding the real bones from whence my own genes derive.
Its inevitability is unavoidable. One of these days mortality will overtake me. I’ll be dead and gone. That inevitable crossing, one that makes me seriously ponder the worth of life and the manner in which so much of life in modernity reflects an orphaned nature, grows closer with each passing day. I’ll do my best to hold it at bay as long as I can but I must admit that the years seem to be stacking up faster. The time that we have in this world is a precious gift, one that pleads for wise investment.
An urgent question is raised in our Christian Scriptures. “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” It seems rather obvious to me that the proprietary impetus of this modern society is to treat our historic foundations of faith, honor, and loyalty with contempt, garnering in their place other obvious results. We have largely, as a society in these rapidly changing and uncertain times, become a society of wandering orphans.
I do not, for the sake of my progeny and for other interested souls, want to pass from this world without leaving behind something of an accurately reconstructed record of our personal historical Southern legacy, one that brings us to this particular and peculiar 21st Century juncture in time. I consider this record, one of garnered factual data necessarily interspersed with the most educated and intelligent surmise that we can possible assemble, to be the most valuable gift that I can possibly procure and lay on the table before them.
The smell is obvious. At times, when the southerly breezes kick up, it permeates the dense humid atmosphere that is so much a familiar part of life close to the coast during the summer. It smells like crude oil. No. It doesn’t have any rotten egg smell. It’s been aerating long enough for the smell of hydrogen sulfide to dissipate. It just smells like oil.
The full reality of this manmade catastrophe, something that looms on the horizon, is yet to be seen. We know it’s out there. We’ve seen bits and bands of it. We’ve already seen the effects of their small scale assaults on local economies and coastal wildlife. These showings, however, have only been teases. They’ve only been small sorties.
The bulk of the multiplied millions of gallons of crude oil that have belched from the belly of the earth into the Gulf over these past several weeks is still waiting for the right combination of conditions to make any kind of major claim or exact a most horrific toll.
The waiting is wearying, soul wearying. More so now that we’ve entered the time of year when the tropics are capable of producing the tropical storms and hurricanes that make life along the coast interesting enough. It’s like knowing an unstoppable invading hoard has amassed just over the hill and there’s no place to run to for safety, no Little David with a sling and a few smooth round stones to take it on.
Adding to the strength of this Goliath is the reality that nothing done to stop it dead in its tracks has worked. Dispersants have only exacerbated and complicated the problem. Despite this latest attempt to plug the hole, and despite the statements by the responsible agent that the latest attempt has slowed the blow by ½, oil is still gushing faster than skimmers on the water and crews on the beaches can clean it up.