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Into the Briar Patch Sample:

 

Brer Fox has found Brer Rabbit with his head stuck in the tar-baby. Brer Rabbit can’t get loose.

Brer Fox stands right there and says he’s going to fire up a brush pile and barbecue Brer Rabbit this very day, for sure.

Brer Rabbit starts talking like a humble creature.

"I don’t care what you do with me, Brer Fox," says Brer Rabbit. "Roast me if you want. But don’t fling me in that briar patch over there."

Brer Fox replies, "It's so much trouble to make a fire that I reckon I’ll have to hang you."

"Hang me as high as you please," says Brer Rabbit, "but for the Lord's sake, don't fling me in that briar patch."

Brer Fox answers, "Well, I've got no string, so I expect I'll have to drown you."

"Drown me as deep as you please," Brer Rabbit says, "but don't fling me in that briar patch."

Brer Fox says, "There's no water near here. Now I think I'll have to skin you."

"Skin me, Brer Fox!" Brer Rabbit cries. "Snatch out my eyeballs, tear my hair out by the roots, and cut off my legs! But do please, Brer Fox, don't fling me in that briar patch!"

Brer Fox catches Brer rabbit by his back legs and slings him right into the middle of the briar patch.

Brer Rabbit reappears soon, way up the hill, sitting on a dwarf chestnut, combing the pitch (of the tar-baby) out of his head with a wood chip. He calls out boasting to Brer Fox that he knows everything about briar patches:

"Bred and born in a briar patch, Brer Fox—bred and born in a briar patch!" (Harris, 12-13).

As a child, I read in my Golden Books edition of Brer Rabbit stories that Brer Rabbit's cries of terror, as he's tumbling through the air towards the briar patch, change into fits of laughter, something like "OOO!—ah—oo—ha— HA—HAAA—HA!" Thank you kindly, Brer Fox, thank you.

Whenever Mama told me this story, her Brer Rabbit voice was so gleeful that it puzzled me and made me uneasy. How could any creature welcome a briar patch, bristling all over with thorns? How could that briar patch be a home? Was an entire family of rabbits born there? Did they live there? If so, did they elude the briars, or did they keep getting pricked and wounded?

Briars were plentiful in the wild blackberry bushes of my childhood that grew in vacant lots nearby. In May, their white blossoms forecast rich fruit in July. We waited long weeks for the berries to ripen. They began as hard green knots, softened slowly to light red, then turned dark purple and bulged with juice. By the time they were ready, it was hot and the air was still. My sisters and cousins and I would brave the thickets in sticky flannel shirts and sturdy jeans, stomping down the thorny just-picked front branches to expose the ready-to-drop berries in the center of the patch, among the briars. We endured thorns and sweat and flies and bees and wasps and the constant expectation of snakes. Gloves failed us. With gloves, we couldn’t feel the berries. We would fumble and drop them, lose them in the underbrush, and finally have to take off our gloves to hunt for them. So we returned with pots full of berries, our unguarded hands and faces thoroughly scratched and smeared. The ripe blackberries had covered us with red juice indistinguishable from our own trickles of blood.

Yet as the adults told us back then, those blackberries made mighty fine pies. We were persuaded that it might be worth getting all bloodied up for a pie that good.

   Men must endure
   Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
   Ripeness is all.
      King Lear V.ii.3120

When I first read Edgar's speech to his blinded father in King Lear, I associated "ripeness" with the blackberries and thorns of my childhood. Granted, my connection was far-fetched, but a ripe berry and a "ripe" person were both fruits reached by enduring pain, as I saw it.

In my ancestors' families, thorns and fruit came tightly wound together. My maternal grandmother's relatives, the Frasers, were stoics who would attribute emotional pain to an undisciplined mental constitution, yet they could also be tender consolers. My maternal grandfather's relatives, the Kirvens, were spiritual idealists as well as hot-tempered pragmatists. Both families revered those who sacrificed for the family, and any who struck independent paths would be either legends or disgraces by a coin flip of family opinion.

Among Mama's people, kindness, hospitality, and generosity to strangers existed side by side with distrust, indignation, and outrage. They felt obligated to whip their children to make them "do right," although they treasured those children above all else. They scrimped to pay for education, yet took pride in manual labor. They were skilled in sarcasm and in sincerity. They made trouble, played practical jokes, broke rules, held grudges. They forgave easily. They were tough and fragile, bold fighters and hilarious storytellers, adventurous and conventional. They’ve cultivated some inventive rebellious streaks.

The tangle of family traits continues to this day. It is enough of a briar patch for me to identify with Brer Rabbit’s ups and downs. So I say, "Please don't throw me in that briar patch, but then again, please do." My family history is a thought-place where I will always belong, for better and for worse. Fear and anguish are there, but so are whispers of solace and understanding.

In this book I've thrown myself into the briar patch of my family history, to see how the past bears upon the present. I have found fruit and thorns.

During the years I've been actively researching and writing this book, alone or in the company of family members, I've struggled with ethical issues. Mama taught me as a child to "God bless" each of my uncles and aunts and cousins in my nightly prayers. Most were older than me, and we rarely visited them. They were arrayed before my childhood imagination like a pantheon of gods, these Presbyterian and Methodist relatives. As I journeyed through college in the South and graduate school in the North, my ideas about religion became too fluid for any denomination, even the Episcopalian church of my father. You might call me a spiritual agnostic, or a Jesus-loving humanist, still hopeful about humanity. While most of my cousins called themselves conservatives, I was becoming an academic liberal, focusing on the oppressions of class, gender, sexual orientation, and race.

Then in middle age, I was struck by a blinding curiosity. Were my Southern ancestors . . . had they been . . . slaveholders? My family had not spoken of these matters, as far as I recalled. And because no one in my family was ever burdened by wealth, I had never inquired about slaves. Yet slaveholders were indeed in my family, I discovered. My maternal and paternal relatives both owned slaves in South Carolina. My ancestors participated in the crime against humanity that was chattel slavery, following the path shared by many of their neighbors. Ethical issues set up camp in my mind. The family tree became the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

How could I wrap my thoughts around my own family history, then? Gradually, I began to see. In coping with my own life struggles, I had been for many years studying theories of human motivation—all those drives and rationales, those inner and outer forces, that cause people to do what they do. I was inclined towards frank, gentle, semi-optimistic premises about human nature, theories that were both clear-eyed and nonjudgmental. Some of my favorite writers have been Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil; James McBride Dabbs, The Southern Heritage; Alice Miller, Breaking the Wall of Silence; Renato Resaldo, Culture and Truth; and Robert Wright, The Moral Animal. These writers cast an open-minded and capacious net. Instead of attributing blame or praise, they try to understand what we call human good and evil. They helped me fathom my family’s past. Using them and others like them, I’ve been able to develop some concepts to support this memoir.

When I tell my college students that I'm from the South, they share their assumptions that Southerners are racists. They tell me that the Southerners they see on TV are ignorant, narrow-minded, and violent. They ask me whether this is true.

I say to them that Southerners are no more backward or racist than people anywhere—than Northerners, for example. Provocatively, I repeat the rumor that the largest chapter of the national KKK is based in Connecticut. My students would be surprised how alike Northerners and Southerners are. To them I quote Montaigne: "Each man bears the entire condition of human nature."

In this family memoir there is no blame, then, and likewise there is no project of praise. There is a wholehearted effort to understand. Readers looking for blame or praise in these pages will have to bring their own. "The basic paradox here -- the intellectual groundlessness of blame, and the practical need for it -- is something few people seem eager to acknowledge" (Wright 1994, 357). Blame and praise are too easy and too distracting to be adequate approaches to human behavior. It seems wiser to seek perspective, awareness, and acceptance.

I've learned in writing this memoir not to underestimate the past. Some people choose the simple solution: That was then; this is now. I believe it is more nearly true that the past forever inhabits the present, whether we know it or not—the past remains, waiting to be understood.



Chapter One: Hold on Tight and Save the Baby

When my mother was an infant, the family home burned to the ground. It was 1915 and early spring in South Carolina. Nine people were asleep inside the farmhouse when the fire started: the husband Tom, the wife Laura Ann, five sons ranging from seventeen to nine years old, a seven-year-old daughter, and a baby girl. The cause of the fire was unknown—perhaps a single ember had slipped from the fireplace onto the wood floor, or perhaps some malicious person had struck a match in the dark. The family awoke to smoke and flames, yet still in time for everyone to escape alive.

As the flames rose, someone handed the infant Maisie through a first-floor window to her seven-year-old sister, Ansie.

   Ansie. Get a good safe distance away.
   Shield Maisie’s face with this blanket.
   Wait till we come and find you.

Ansie was terrified. Her parents could not help her now, for saving the baby was her task alone. She took the bundled infant and hurried toward the open woods past the garden. As she ran, the voices behind her were unrecognizable, high and frantic over the boiling thunder of the fire.

The whole sky glowed red. In that incandescent light Ansie’s own hands flashed red to her, and the baby's howling face lit up like fire. She bent her face over her sister's, but the baby was not burning. Its skin was cool and smelled like sweet clay. Ansie heard the crack and whine of timber on fire, but she did not turn around to watch the flaming shards explode. She pushed ahead, away from the heat waves in her wake.

She was far from the house now. Had she run clear of the heat? Would she lose her way in the night woods? Ansie saw a huge fallen tree in the red darkness ahead. She stepped around the splintered trunk and crouched behind its mass with the baby. The trunk was as wide as Ansie was tall. The fire couldn’t reach her here, could it?

Yet from her new refuge, Ansie heard a sound she knew well, hooves striking earth, thuds that grew louder, with grunts and snorts and wheezes of animal panic. The mules were headed her way. They would trample her and baby Maisie, for sure. She pressed up against the fallen tree trunk so that its projecting branches would shield her, blocking the mules. Could mules break through thick branches? Strong as a mule. Ansie's chest was the size of a mule’s hoof. She placed the baby in the small cavity where the trunk curved down and inward. She leaned her body hard into the tree. Her ears filled with hooves, as unyielding as the earth they pounded.

Minutes passed. The hoofbeats diminished. The mules must have run off toward the swamp. Ansie peered over the log. Buckets of water were being handed forward near the house. Were those the neighbors from down the road? She looked around and saw that the barn door had swung open. The boys must have let the mules out to save them from being burned alive in the locked barn. Yet the barn and outbuildings were untouched.

The sky was the same, an urgent red, when Ansie heard another sound that was not hooves. She realized it was Maisie, wailing as if her baby heart would break. Ansie placed Maisie across her shoulder, as her mother would have done, and jiggled the baby up and down.

"Hush now, hush now," she soothed. "It's all right now."

Ansie was comforting herself as well. She felt safer because Maisie was safe. She remembered her mother’s tuneful voice calling, Hold on tight, now, and don't let go. She said that whenever some precious goodness was at stake.

The house roared and crumbled for a good while that night. Ansie stayed where she was until the water-bearers gave up hope and the flames died down on their own. When the grownups called her back to the house, Ansie returned with a saved baby.

As a child, I heard Mama's version of this story, which was sweet and simple: someone had handed her out the window of a burning house, and then it was all right. Mama told her stories as if through white gauze, purifying them of conflict. Her favorite anecdote was of herself at nine months old being comforted on her mother’s shoulder, enveloped by peace and well-being. The more robust version of Ansie’s escape from the fire and the mules was told to me years later by Ansie’s daughter, Diane....



This story of saving the baby from a house on fire could be a parable of our family's efforts to take care of one another. This parable may hold true for most families.

Everyone can empathize with the urgent impulse to save a baby. It's an entrenched need we each know in our gut. People often perceive babies as if they were life itself and all that makes life worth living. An unharmed and innocent baby is a mystery of rejuvenated life, a creation that is "germinated out of the invisible" and "animated by invisible forces" (Becker 1975, 21). In ancient societies, ancestors re-entered the world through babies, and today we all see our dead relatives in the baby's face, alive once more in the particular sparkle of the baby's eye.

Even when no actual babies are involved, even in the absence of physical danger, people can be hit by this same visceral feeling, this sense of emergency that something precious must be saved, and fast. Saving the baby is a story for everyone, if we extend our concept of Baby to whatever may be just as dear to someone as three-month-old Maisie was to her family. A conceptual, symbolic Baby can carry a world of meanings. Any perceived good that validates the family’s life and all life—that's a symbolic Baby.

A divine Baby inhabits the world's religions as a sign of promised life and ineffable truth. To us, our beliefs and causes are fragile Babies, which we leap to protect. These Babies are always on our minds, and Saving the Baby is always an emergency. Babies are the eternity we mortals cannot imagine living without. Who is not compelled to Save the Baby, and hold on tight? Here is my uncle Marion as an infant, standing in for the Baby that we each need to save. By contemporary custom, he's dressed as a girl with a bow. This little wide-eyed boy-girl looks to me like the fundamental goodness in human nature, like our intuition of what we most cherish, like that fragile Hope at the bottom of Pandora's box.

This symbolic Baby is a fundamental concept that religion shares with other disciplines. Some psychologists believe this Baby is in essence a caring relationship, two beings in one, deep in the memory. "The vital spark has to be conferred on [the newborn] through exchanges with another human being, a partner" (Spitz 1965, 95). Infants deprived of this necessary spark will die by failing to thrive, despite enough food and physical care. The "vital spark," this absolutely protected state of identification with a loving parent, is preserved as a deep longing within all adults. Their rooted sense of self is a "basic good self-object constellation" (Kernberg 1976, 60). That is, the Baby is the central tube of our adult tree, the innermost ring of each person's concentric circles. An evolutionary psychologist argues that the "basic mechanism by which our genes control us is the deep, often unspoken (even unthought) conviction that our happiness is special" (Wright, 336), no doubt as special as the bond between infant and loving parent. In this sense, to Save the Baby is to save ourselves.

At the same time, a symbolic Baby is our connection with a felt source of immortality in others. "From the very beginning, the child experiences the awesomeness of life and his problems of survival and well-being in other people." This link provides the foundation of a social contract. Our reciprocal-altruism genes are designed to save both our Baby and the Babies of others, in fellow-feeling. People project their needs "in the form of intense mana onto certain figures to [whom] they then defer. They follow these figures with passion and with a trembling heart" (Becker 47, 51). To one cultural anthropologist, "the force of intense emotions" spurs us to "cultural expectations and social norms" upon which we improvise through our "crucial relationships" (Rosaldo 1958, 92). We confer urgent value upon this self-and-other Baby, this magical well-loved child that lives within us all.

From the late 1940s through the 1950s, half a lifetime after Maisie was pulled from the fire, I made some visits as an unhappy child to the rebuilt family home. The new site was not far down the road, with all the crop fields laid out behind it, five miles east of Sumter, South Carolina....