Friday, September 9, 2011

A Daughter’s Story

Shadows, like the ones that splatter a sidewalk in the late afternoon, trigger memories for me. I study them as I walk alone to the beach each day down Main Street in Southampton. Beneath the tall privet hedges that protect the estates from walkers, the shadows are warm. They pull you into their darkness. They make you feel younger. When I walk into the shadows, I am six or seven years old. Perhaps it is the height of the hedge that makes me feel dwarfed like a child. Perhaps it is because I have seen these shadows before.
I spent my summers with my grandparents in Lake City, Florida. I loved being there as a child. Like Southampton, the sidewalks were washed with sand and dappled with light. I would walk by myself to my summer friend’s house and play on her screened porch for hours. Walking alone as a child is exciting- an adult-like activity that makes you large. I would walk alone to the movie theater on Saturday mornings, purchase a ticket for myself, and settle in for a Buck Rogers film. I could pick up the only telephone in my grandparent’s home and call my grandfather at work without any assistance. The lone phone sat on the corner table in the front entrance hall. It had no buttons, no numbers, or even a dial. By picking up the receiver, the town operator would greet me with a bright, “Hello.” I would state, in my most adult voice, “I want to speak to Poppa Andy, please.”  And with no fuss, his voice would laugh from the other end of the line. Life was easy and fun, and I could not wait to step off the train in Jacksonville each summer, into the hefty hugs of Poppa Andy, and into a shower of kisses from my grandmother, Tutu, for whom I was named.
When my mother was diagnosed with cancer and could no longer travel, she longed for me to go back to Lake City and photograph the graves of her mother and father. I did. I went back to northern Florida to take pictures of my mother’s past, the last gift she had requested. I rented a car in Jacksonville and drove to Stetson University where she graduated Summa Cum Laude, before fleeing Florida to marry my father. I snapped photos of the campus for her to see. It was late in the day when I drove into Lake City. The shadows stretched across the flat highway. When I asked for directions to the old town cemetery, my faded southern drawl felt as awkward as a Yankee accent.  I had forgotten that there is not much difference between being in northern Florida and being in southern Georgia. I had forgotten that I was in the Deep South.
I drove down the sandy road that was the entrance to the cemetery, where the gravestones listed and ancient live oaks pointed their arthritic fingers to the ground. Mossy sea hag hair dripped from the fingertips of the branches and cast long shadows over the graves. I remember that the air that day was still, so still. There was no breeze to relieve the humidity of a Florida summer’s afternoon. I tried to ignore the hot air that stalled in my throat.
A low fence bordered the family plot. I snapped a photograph. “Williamson.” To the left was Andrew. To the right was Tula. Tutu and Poppa Andy. I snapped another picture. I was sweating from the heat and the oppressive stillness. There, behind my grandparents, was Mable, my mother’s estranged sister. Another photograph. I had no idea that she had died, nor her daughter, my cousin Julie, who lay there as well in the sandy soil. Spanish moss hung from their marble markers. Family secrets lying in the open. Another photograph.
I stood in the black shadow of that oak and remembered a story my mother had told many years before. As far as she could recall, there had been only one lynching in that town. When she was a child, an Armenian man had hung like drying laundry in the square across from my grandfather’s restaurant. It had happened just after Tutu and Poppa Andy had arrived from Greece, just after they had opened their restaurant in Lake City. Perhaps that is why they never spoke Greek. Perhaps that is why they served pot roast and steaks to diners, instead of Souvlaki or Baklava. Perhaps this is why I know so little of my family’s past.
Amid the cemetery shadows, moss dripping like rain on the sand beneath the oak, I snapped one last photograph, a photograph of the tree, my gift to my mother. I drove my rental car back to Jacksonville and never returned to Lake City. I never will.
And as I walked through Southampton, I quickened my pace to reach the end of Main Street, where I turned to the right and followed the beach road to the ocean. A cool breeze blew the shadows away.

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