Great-grandfather High stands in the bright slanting light of a covered porch; it does not look like the porch of a home, with its meat locker-like doors but it also doesn’t appear to be a business as one might imagine, even back then. I believe this photograph was taken in the early 20th century, possibly in Shenandoah, Iowa, where the High family had settled (English/Irish/Scotch/Welsh immigrants) in the mid-to-late 19th century and the city in which my mother was born.
What I don’t know about the High family is a vast, roiling ocean of deep troughs and titanic waves. My grandmother, Bessie High Burleson Holmes (twice married, three children) would, at my insistence, sit for hours and pore over the family photo albums and tell me this story and that one, but when we would do that I was a very young boy and much of what she told me has faded from my memory. What I do remember is that they were merchants; middle class and educated—my grandmother had been to a women’s college as had her sister.
I do not know what made them give up this life of relative comfort and head west to Wyoming to homestead in the northeastern counties in the early teens of the 20th century. There must have been the promise of a better life, of riches untold, of open land, and adventure, of greener pastures (I am not immune to the occasional over-used phrase), of a life lived large.
The fading memory is due in part to the fact that I gave away the majority of old photographs in two albums for my cousins once removed (the daughters of one of my 4 cousins with whom I share Bessie as a grandmother and whose father was my mother’s half brother), when one married and the other graduated from college. And those photographs were the sparks that ignited my memory of what my grandmother shared with me. Now, it’s a painting that has been re-worked and re-imagined with its faint pentimento of a past life.
Here I sit in Tabor, Iowa, in a photograph taken by my mother while we were waiting for our car to be repaired, sometime in the summer of 1979. Tabor is the town that a favorite author of mine, Marilynn Robinson, fictionalized in her second novel, Gilead and it was not only one of the towns that John Brown based his operations out of in the 19th century, but it also was a stop on the underground railroad during that part of our embarrassing shared history.
It is a rich history for a small town. We stopped here, because A., the car broke down, but also B., because we were on the hunt for dead relatives, as Tabor is not more than a few miles from Shenandoah. I don’t recall that we were successful in our search of the local cemetery, but I could be mistaken as I was busy nursing a failed relationship and dead relatives were far from my mind.
None of these people are my blood relatives, but they are, in their way, my history (I have three/four/five/six histories, one of which I have written about here.) The more I write about them—the High’s, the Burleson’s, the Holmes’, the Patrick’s, and the Heinz’s—the more I feel like a I still have a family. There are cousins, of course, but geographic distance has always kept us apart. Except for the one who I grew up close to (geographically) and who thinks I should burn in hell because I am ___. Do you like fill in the blanks? And truth be told, blood is thicker than water [this trope I learned is true when my step-father passed away.])
That connection to a past seems to me to be an important aspect of our character and our future. I can’t recall ever not caring about where someone I know has come from. What made you the person you are today? It can’t be all blood, but also circumstance, the nurture, not the nature that has shaped your character, your personality, and your family— regardless of how your family has come to be.
Grandfather High, then, with his spectral image shining in the strong light of day, his square, bearded jaw, braces taut with his hands in pockets, facing the camera straight on, taunting me with his history.