For eight weeks my little boy Francis has been a green police car. He won’t answer to his name, and to lure him to dinner, my wife Vicki and I stand in the kitchen and shriek like sirens. When Francis began nursery school last month, we thought the police car would be parked in the scrapbook along with the thirty or so pictures I took of him in the hospital and the safety pins which held his first diaper together. We were wrong; nursery school sent Francis into overdrive. In the hall outside the playroom at school is a row of coat hooks. Above each hook is a piece of tape with a child’s name written on it. There amid the Meagans, Kevins, Davids, and Deidres in big bold print is GREEN POLICE CAR.
Francis’s behavior arrested the attention of a neighbor, “Identity is important,” she told me; “a person should always know who he is. Don’t you think,” she suggested, “that you should seek professional help for Francis.” The word professional frightens me; everything I do is amateurish, and I am going to let Francis race around until he runs out of gas and then becomes something or someone else. Still, the neighbor’s remarks were unsettling. When it comes to identity I am not so sure about myself. For 20 years I have lived in New England and would like to consider the northeast my home. Unfortunately, I have an accent that rolls like the hills of middle Tennessee. Hardly a day passes without someone’s asking “where are you from?” When I answer “Storrs, Connecticut,” people become irritated, thinking I am trying to make them appear ridiculous. If I say “Tennessee,” I am uncomfortable because Southerners no longer recognize me as one of them.
Not long ago I flew to Birmingham. People like to talk to me on buses and airplanes, and I never have a quiet trip. I suppose I have heard more about “major surgery” than most interns. On this flight the stewardess must have heard me chatting with the man next to me, and just before the plane landed, she came up and as she checked my seatbelt asked, “Have you ever been in our country before?” Not wanting to embarrass her, I answered “no.” “Well,” she said, “the South is wonderful. It’s the best part, and you’ll enjoy it.” She was right; I enjoyed my stay. The only thing that bothered me was that many people behaved like the stewardess and treated me like a tourist from a foreign country.
“Just one of Alabama’s peculiarities,” I concluded and forgot all about it until I spent Christmas with my parents in Nashville. On New Year’s morning the furnace stopped, and when the gas man came to repair it, I went down to the basement with him in hopes of learning what to do if it shut down again. I squatted down next to him and studying the furnace tried to follow his work. Almost immediately I got lost among the switches and dials, and soon we began to talk, first about the weather, then the holidays and football, and finally raising hogs. I felt at ease and to tell the truth just a little proud that after 15 year of college teaching I could still speak the language of plain folks. Or at least I felt that way until the gas man finished working. Then he stood up and said, “I sure have enjoyed talking to you. You know an awful lot about pigs. I didn’t know you people raised them in Australia. I thought there was mostly sheep out there.” I was startled and when I didn’t answer right away, he asked, “Is this your first trip to the United States?” My first trip, I thought; the basement was a scrapbook, cluttered with things from my past. Leaning against a cabinet crowded with paint brushes, fruit jars, and buckets of brown, dried wax was a splintered baseball bat. I cracked it in practice in high school, and the coach let me keep it. Behind the furnace was a rusting set of barbells. They were a Christmas present from my grandmother. For two and a half years I had weighed 118 pounds; after eight months with the barbells I weighed 145 and began to play football. From a hole in the foundation above the washing machine, I had once pulled out a big king snake. Stuffing him down my shirt, I ran upstairs and called mother. “Momma,” I cried when she came; “I have a pain in my stomach. Would you feel this,” I added as I unbuttoned my shirt and the snake wriggled loose.
For years my J. C. Higgins bicycle had been propped against the furnace. Although my father had long since given it to the yardman for his son, I could still see it: the sagging balloon tires, the chipped and scraped paint—marks of countless crashes and cut arms and torn trousers—and the squirrel tail hanging from the handlebars. I traded for that tail, giving a new pocket knife to a neighbor who scavenged roadsides, skinning and chopping and salvaging pieces of animals. “Yes,” I answered abruptly, “this is my first trip.” “Well,” he said, “I know you will have a good time; people here will make you feel right at home.” “Thank you,” I said, as we walked upstairs together.
After the gas man left, I thought about our conversation and wondered if the basement were still part of my life. It seemed to me that someone else had ridden the bicycle, caught the king snake, and played baseball and football. If my past was so removed from the present, what, I wondered, defined me. “You are a teacher,” my friend Neil said when I talked to him later; “that string of degrees after your name gives you an identity.” If that is true, I thought, I have an odd identity. Eighteen years ago I completed the requirements for my master’s degree in English. Princeton charged 15 dollars to process the degree. Since I was going to get a Ph. D., I did not pay the 15 dollars and instead put the money in a party fund. In 1970 I received the Ph.D. and went my way. For some reason this past fall, though, the master’s came to mind, and I called Princeton to see if I were still eligible. I was; the price had not gone up, and I sent the university the money. My master’s is dated 1985, 15 years after the Ph.D. This appeals to me and to the woman in charge of degrees. “Most people,” she wrote, “argue with me about the dating of the diploma when they are applying so late, so it was a real pleasure to eventually find someone who didn’t care.” The letter pleased me, and when I received it, I took it home, showed it to Vicki, and told her about the degree. Her reaction was different from mine. “Why do such a thing,” she asked; “it makes you look foolish. You work hard and just when people begin to take you seriously, you do something silly like this.”
“Well,” Neil said, “if degrees don’t define you, then your writings do. If anything, you are a writer.” People mistake me for many things, but no one aside from Neil, who is a pharmacist, thinks I am a writer. Every weekend Vicki and I take Francis and his little brother Edward to the university farm. I usually wear my favorite clothes: moccasins, torn jeans, a running shirt, and a 22-year-old corduroy coat with no buttons. Last month while I was rooting about at the piggery for some good stones for a boar to roll in his mouth, a nicely dressed man came up and asked directions to the sheep barn. Unlike me Vicki is a bit of a high-flyer; she wears khaki shirts, madras skirts, and loafers. While I was giving the man directions, she walked over with the children and slipped her arm through mine. The man stopped listening and then looking a bit puzzled said hesitatingly, “is this your wife?” “Yes,” I answered, “we bring our children here on weekends.” “Then you don’t work here,” he said, adding “I am sorry. I thought you did.” The man should not have been apologetic; I am more comfortable around animals than I am around writers. A few years ago the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury offered me a scholarship, but I turned it down, saying I wanted to stay home and mow the grass. Although I did have a new lawn mower, and a new baby, and was eager to learn how they both worked, I wasn’t entirely honest. I stayed home because I knew I wasn’t a writer.
Even now after publishing a bit more, I find it impossible to think of myself as a writer. Whenever I begin to do so, a reader douses my illusions. Not long ago, after an article of mine on running appeared, an old girlfriend sent me a package. Although I had not heard from her in years, I recognized her handwriting. “Gosh,” I thought as I opened the package, “she still carries a torch for me. I wonder what she sent.” Whatever it was, I decided, I would not show it to Vicki. At least that is what I thought until I opened the package. Inside was a note and a book. “Saw your article,” the note read, “and thought this might be a nice addition to your bookshelf. Best Wishes—Beth.” The book was Stress and Fish edited by A. D. Pickering. The chapters focused on subjects such as “The Pituitary-Interrenal Axis as an Indicator of Stress in Fish” and “The Swelling of Erythrocytes in Relation to the Oxygen Affinity of the Blood of the Rainbow Trout, Salmo gairdneri Richardson.” I did not know what to make of the book, and I examined it carefully, thinking Beth might have hidden an intimate message deep in the text. I could not find anything, and that evening I showed the book to Vicki and asked her what she thought. “Oh, you poor dear,” she said, “Beth thinks about you like you think about all that stuff in the basement in Nashville, fondly and sentimentally but long gone from her life.” “Didn’t my article,” I said, “stir her and awaken old passion?” “No,” Vicki answered, “it just made her laugh. After all you are not really a writer.”
An energetic and disciplined person might be able to shape an identity. I have tried but have always failed. Periodically I become ambitious and apply for administrative posts in big universities. Often I make the running and while going through the interviews imagine being “somebody.” Then evening comes with the weary return to the motel. As I sit on the edge of the bed, watching television, ambition flows out of me, and I think about moving. I own many prints: Gould birds, Hogarths, David Roberts’ sketches of Jerusalem, and pictures of my old Cambridge college, St. Catharine’s. When we moved from an apartment into our house, Vicki and I quarreled about the prints. She likes symmetry and order and clean lines while I prefer imbalance and clutter. For six months our walls were bare; then when Vicki went to the hospital to have Edward I hung half the prints, I hung them in my study and dark halls, rooms not seen by the casual visitor. When Vicki came home, she hung the others in the public parts of the house, the living room, dining room, and guest rooms. Invariably the thought of hanging prints in a new house defeats me, and I reject all offers and return home, momentarily content to rake leaves and plant daffodils.
Each year I plant a lot of daffodils, and in the spring when the new grass is up and the flowers are blooming, Neil says my yard reminds him of a graveyard, a long quiet field of green broken by clumps of bright yellow. When I explained that writing did not give me an identity, my yard must have been on Neil’s mind because he responded, perhaps with a touch of irritation, “if nothing in this life defines you, death will. Once in the ground, your identity won’t change.” Neil may be right, but I am not sure. When Mollie, his first wife, died, my great-grandfather Pickering buried her in the upper right portion of the family plot. Mollie was gentle and kind, and great-grandfather loved her dearly. At his death he asked to be buried next to her. The request did not please Cousin Eta, his second wife, and instead of heeding his wishes, she buried him away from Mollie in the upper left corner of the plot. There was plenty of room in the plot and to insure that death would not join those whom she wanted asunder, Cousin Eta made relatives promise to bury her between Mollie and great-grandfather.
Once Cousin Eta was in the ground, great-grandfather’s identity changed, and what he wanted to be an emblem of his first, young love became a sign of petty jealousy. Like old loves and out-of-date university degrees, death does not define a person but often leads to foolishness and laughter. My grandmother wanted to be buried in Virginia, and when she died in Nashville, the family arranged for her to be flown to Richmond. A local undertaker picked her up at the airport, and by the time my mother and I arrived in Richmond, he had her laid out in a coffin under a huge acrylic painting of Jesus standing open-armed on the edge of a shining gold and purple sea. The woman who had washed and set my grandmother’s hair for years in Nashville had insisted upon preparing her for the funeral, and when grandmother left Tennessee, every hair was in place. There in Richmond a few strands had fallen loose, tumbling across grandmother’s forehead and right cheekbone. Seeing them, mother strode over to the casket and brushing the hair back, turned to us and said, “It must have been a rough flight.” With that she slammed the lid of the coffin, and we left the funeral home.
For someone nearing 45 like me, thoughts about identity may be beside the point. I know that conclusions I reach about myself will not influence my life. I have no illusions about being the master of my fate; instead I pray just to be able to cope for a few more years with what life gives me. And actually I have not spent much time thinking about who I am. Teaching, writing, getting Francis to dinner, and taking care of the yard fill days and leave little free time. Still, I enjoyed those moments when I thought about my identity and I was the center of my attention. To continue the pleasure they brought I gave myself an ink blot test. Not the kind of ink blots that psychiatrists use and which look like private parts or butterflies but the sort I found in a box in my great aunt’s attic. The box held some two hundred letters written for the most part during the years 1858—1878. Most were written to and by girls and boys, then men and women, who lived on farms outside the small towns of middle Tennessee: Columbia, Franklin, White Bluff, and Bellevue. Many of the correspondents had been schoolmates and had attended small boarding schools together, places named Bethany or Minerva College. There were letters to Santa Claus, school commencement exercises, calling cards, invitations to funerals, and accounts of quilting parties, dances, chicken fights, candy pullings, pet lambs, murders, and war. As I looked at the letters, ignoring some while pausing over others, I wondered if my reactions defined me. If I could discover why certain letters appealed to me, perhaps, I thought, I could come close to discovering an identity.
The first letters I looked at were written during the Civil War. I was attracted to them initially, I suppose, by prurient curiosity, the sort of thing that in the fourth grade drew me to pictorial accounts of the Second World War—books filled with pictures of bodies dragging back and forth in the wash of breaking waves. In these letters, though, there was, little violence; instead, with wonderful innocence, they celebrated the ordinary. Early in the summer of 1861, Innis Brown wrote Mary, his sister, from Camp Cheatham. “If there is any fighting to be done,” he declared, “I want to get at it as I think we can fatigue them very easy if we get afoul of them while the weather is warm.” After mentioning the “fine times” he had recently enjoyed with some “ladie visitors from Franklin,” he turned to important matters in a postscript. “I forgot to tell you,” he said, “to take care of my dogs. If you have not got them, I want you to get them.” By December Innis was in Virginia. “On account of sickness,” he had been away from his regiment for a month. On recovering, he wrote, he had had “a fine time fox hunting.” “There is a fellow that lives about a mile from here that has a pack of dogs and he comes up for us,” he recounted, “every time he goes a hunting.”
Daily life with dogs and hunting took precedence over war. “There was fighting at Bowling Green yesterday and the day before,” a classmate from Minerva wrote to Nannie Brown, my great-grandmother. “My most ardent wish is that the Southrons may be victorious, if the Linkhouners were to gain a battle there I would almost despair, for they would never stop till they were south of me or had drive us from our homes, but God will aid the side of justice, if any justice there be in war.” The war was only part of what was on the girl’s mind, and she did not write much about it. She was more interested in love. “Wars nor any thing else,” she wrote happily, “can stop this thing of marrying. We had three weddings in one day not long since.” “I presume,” she added gaily, “you are not yet wed, as you believe in sending all sweethearts to battle. If it pleases you to answer this, write me a long, long letter, tell me something about your favorites.” Accounts of sweethearts and favorites filled the letters, making them green with happiness and hope. “We have had great times, corresponding with Captains Gilbert and Ellis,” Sallie wrote from Nashville in 1864. “The latter,” she said, “wanted me to open a correspondence with a friend of his, Lt. Victor Olivier. Isn’t that name pretty enough to keep a schoolgirl in a perfect fever of excitement for a whole week? I only lost one night’s sleep by it, and eat as hearty a breakfast next day, as usual.” “I declined corresponding with him,” Sallie continued, “though Capt. Ellis says that he is young, handsome, accomplished and in short, a gentleman by birth and education. He was wealthy before the war, and belongs to one of the best Creole families in Louisiana. He is related to Genl. Beauregard both by blood and marriage. Still I declined a correspondence with him. Do you think me a simpleton or a prude?”
Not all was happy, and on the last page of the letter Sallie wrote, “I expect Aunt Mary will have to take some Yankee boarders in order to get coal. I will not be introduced. We will use the front stairs and they the others, and I will come to the second table. I don’t know one, nor do I intend to.” Sallie and her correspondents were all about 18 years old in 1864, and despite the war were able to dream. “Sweet friend,” a girl wrote from “Laurel Hill” in November 1864; “t’ was a beautiful moonlight night; while seated alone by an open window with a halo of moonshine around me, and the breeze playing with my neglected tresses, and holding in my hand a letter I had just finished reading, that the thought very naturally arose, if Nannie was only here I could tell her of my joys and sorrows.” Despite the moonshine and the breezes, life at Laurel Hill was stormy and far from romantic. In the middle of the letter a paragraph stood out darkly in a noonday sun of realism. “The federals are very troublesome out here now,” the girl wrote; “there has been a band of robbers going about through the country. Our house has been robbed twice. The last time they were here they presented a pistol at Pa’s head and told him they would blow his brains out if he did not give them what gold and silver he had. They also threatened burning our house and made such wicked threats about me I thought very seriously about leaving the country.” Perhaps because dreaming is more difficult for me as I grow older, I was happy, even envious when the girl ended the letter romantically. She had been to Columbia, she said, visiting a friend who was “full of music.” When the friend “would warble in a rich sweet voice, why do summer roses fade, it reminded me,” Nannie’s correspondent wrote, “of the blest days of yore when we were as two souls with but a single thought and two hearts that beat as one.”
On 4 November 1864 as General John B. Hood led the Army of Tennessee out of Georgia towards middle Tennessee in a desperate and forlorn attempt to draw Sherman out of Atlanta, Alice W. sent a letter from Nashville to Franklin to Mary Brown, Nannie’s cousin. “Oh! Mary,” she exclaimed, “I expect you will soon see some sweet Rebels, how I will envy you then, you may expect a visit from me.” It is unlikely that Alice had the chance to flirt with many rebels at Franklin. Twenty-six days after her letter Hood arrived in Franklin with his mind on things other than courting. At three o’clock that afternoon he attacked the Union forces under General John Schofield. When the Battle of Franklin ended at nine that night, six Confederate generals were dead or dying, and more than six thousand men, over a fifth of Hood’s soldiers were casualties. In 1861 Innis Brown wrote Mary that he did not know where the regiment was going. “Some think to Manassa, some to Winchester, but for my part,” he said, “I don’t care where it goes so they get out of Virginia.” By the Battle of Franklin, most of the Browns were back in Tennessee. Some of the young girls did not approve, and in a letter to Mary, Jennie Brown wrote, “I suppose you have heard that Cousin Joe Brown, has come home and taken the oath, nearly all the first Redgment has come home. Shame on them, Tennessee is disgracing her selfe.” Disgrace seems too strong to me. When a cause is lost, the sensible man goes home and tends to farming, rakes leaves, or maybe, as in the case of my family, has a drink. If the Browns were not disgraced by taking the oath not to fight again, drink was leading them to misbehave. “Innis,” Jennie wrote, “has ruined his fortune, he went to town that cool weather and took too much and went by Old Davis’s, and commenct maken love to Miss Dora before the old Folks.” “He has not been there since,” Jennie concluded, “I am going there friday and smooth it all over for him.” Jennie must not have been successful because Innis never married.
Most of the men in the letters fared better with their sweethearts than Innis did with Miss Dora, “Oh why were you not at the “Pic Nic” yesterday,” William Bailey asked Mary Brown in May 1865. Although he enjoyed the afternoon, Bailey told Mary that he “would rather live in your company one hour and breath the same air with you, than to live over a dozen such days.” Later that month, he cut two lines of poetry from a newspaper and sent it to her, saying “Please accept this “Music” from one who, owes to you, the happiest moments of his life, And who loves you dearer, than all else the world contains.” “Oh! never woman charmed like thee, / And never man yet loved like me,” the lines read. Bailey’s letters were gentle and poetic, and that summer he and Mary were wed. Unfortunately he lived in her company for just a year. Soon after marriage, he was stricken with tuberculosis. Perhaps he caught it at Camp Morton in Indianapolis, Indiana. Some of the Browns and their neighbors from Franklin had been prisoners of war there. “Well as regards the pleasure here at this place,” Tom Brown wrote Mary in 1964, “tis useless to speak of, as you have some idea as to what a prison life is, having seen the prison at Nashville.”
Bailey fought for his life. Among the letters was the card of “Drs. R.& J. Hunter, of New York, Physicians for the Diseases of the THROAT, LUNGS, and HEART.” The doctors wrote long letters to Bailey, telling him how to use the inhaling instrument and advising him on the preparation of embrocations, gargles, and pills. Every week Bailey was to report his progress to Dr. Roscoe at the City Hotel in Nashville or write the Hunters directly in Cincinnati. Among a group of prescriptions was the statement written after Bailey’s initial examination. He was 23 years old and made his living as a merchant. His right lung was infected; and he had lost weight and suffered from coughs, “Hemorhage,” night sweats, and shortness of breath. His liver was torpid, his bowels “costive at times,” and his throat and nostrils inflamed. By spring 1866 Bailey knew he was dying and he wrote his sister urging her to come and see him. “I don’t think I have long to live in this world,” he wrote, “and it pains me very much to think of leaving Mary. Come-—Sister and see us for I will never be able to visit you at home.” That same month he sent 20 dollars to his cousin Molie Cravens in Gainesville, Alabama. “I do hope, dear Cousin,” she replied, “that you are mistaken with regard to your health. Cheer up, if there is any hope in the world, and come down and stay with us, and see if a change will not help you. If, however, your fears are reality,” she continued, “I do trust and pray that you are a Christian, and wait only on God’s will. Life at best is but a span of vanity (Save when employed in God’s Service it is vanity) and if we can only be prepared, it matters little when we go.” That summer Bailey died; five years later his wife Mary died of tuberculosis; later that decade Innis caught the disease and died.
Amid the disease and death, as in the war years, life with its courtships and weddings went brightly on. One of the wonders, maybe bounties, of life is that no matter what the folly or sadness, cheerful youth seems undiminished. In 1859 Tom Brown wrote a letter to his “Sweet Little Cousin” Nannie in which he described “EUDORA SOWELL,” his “Goddess of love and the Queen of beauty.” “She has a beautiful figure, a clear white complexion with two rosey cheeks, red pouting lips, large bright eyes of a deep violet, and a profusion of light brown hair as soft as silk. Her face is oval of that pure Southern type which fascinates many a boy and leads him to the Asylum. Her mischievous looking head is placed upon a swan-like neck, and inclines towards one of the prettiest shoulders you ever looked at. It is as white as alabaster. Her voice is as soft as the first stirrings of an infants dream, her footsteps as light as the sylvan footed zephyr which first faned with the wing of perfume the gable end of new born paradise.” Young Tom did not think he could do justice to Eudora, and after informing Nannie that he had studied himself into a toothache, that Innis had “quit playing the fiddle,” and that “a young chap here by the name of Bailey” had written two or three letters to “a Young Lady” and had not received an answer, he returned to his favorite subject, writing, “Nannie, I would that my pen were dipt in the dyes of the rain bow plucked from the wings of an angel, that I might expect to paint to you the charming girl.” Eleven years later Charlotte Morton wrote Nannie from White Bluff. Charlotte’s letters were as gossipy and teasing as Tom Brown’s was romantic. Sadness had yet to touch her, and life lay flirtingly before her full of promise and intrigue. “Is Hugh Barry better looking than he was last winter,” she wrote; “poor fellow, his looks will never carry him through the world. Tell Innis,” she continued, “to look his best, I am coming up there soon to see him, if he will not come to see me. I know he will say that I must think I am something great. If Colie gets any better looking I know I will fall in love with him. I have a great many secrets to tell you when I see you.” “That evening I left your house,” she added hurriedly, “I made a certain young man angry. I had no idea how jealous he was. I told him that evening he was over to your house that my heart was buried; but he would not believe me.”
At the end of a letter Charlotte asked Nannie, “please look over all my mistakes as you know I am not a good scholar, and by no means show it to any one.” Because Nannie was older, Charlotte knew that Nannie’s experiences were greater than hers. Sensing that Nannie viewed life differently than she did, she apologized, probably not so much for grammar as for tone. Having done so, she relaxed and concluded with the schoolgirlish request that Nannie keep the letter confidential. In 1860 Mary Brown ended a letter to Nannie similarly, writing, “Please please don’t let any one see this goose letter.” Although youth is always present, those individuals that are young change, and by 1868, Mary was a widow and sounded differently. “You ask if I ever feel merry as we used to,” she wrote Nannie; “I can truthfully answer I do not. In many respects I feel like a different mortal, have learned that “life is earnest, life is real.” Amid the changes tis comforting to know the love of true and faithful friends remains unchanged. There does’nt seem to be the same gaiety and life any place there was before the war.”
In 1859 Nannie gave the valedictory address at Minerva College. Entitling her speech “Life’s Morning Hour,” she talked about the future. “In its morning hour,” she said, “life is beautiful indeed and glorious as the dawn; but the moments,” she warned, “are flying ever.” “How,” she asked, “shall we be ready for the fierce glare of noon and the cool and shaded eve and the gloom of that final night.” “Above us,” she said, “bend the deep, deep skies of June. In robe of green and decked with coronal of pink and white and blue the queen month of Summer makes rich melodies in passing. After her attendant train has passed, however, will be heard the leaden footfalls of the Autumn, tho’ hushed for a time as the Indian Summer glides with angel beauty.” Life was not only real and earnest, as Mary Brown quoted, but it was often short, and by the later 1860s, many of Nannie’s friends were certain they heard the heavy approach of Autumn. To be unmarried and forever dependent was dreadful, and those who thought themselves bound to tread the long “single road of blessedness” often wrote sad, despondent letters. “The last young lady of my age in the neighborhood,” a friend wrote Nannie from Nashville in 1870, “will marry within three or four months. I shall feel like “one who treads alone.” Those who seem like children to me, are marrying every four weeks. You wish to know something of my future prospects. I have none. I am nothing more than loose lumber thrown about unfit for any laudable purpose. My love scrapes are nothing romantic or novel. I visit so little that I have but four gentlemen acquaintances and if one should chance to come along green enough to propose, I feel and know I am not qualified mentally or physically to fill the place of wife.” If men did propose to her, she wrote, she would be frightened out of her wits for a few minutes; then, she said, she would “reply in the negative and let them float. I know they lose nothing.”
Near the end of “Life’s Morning Hour,” Nannie addressed her classmates directly. “Let us profit wisely by the acquisitions made here, that we may not disappoint the loved ones who watch our progress fondly. Soon,” she said, “the last words will be spoken that we may ever speak together here-— let them be words of kindness and love and our memories will be held in dear esteem while blessings will still be asked for us from many true and faithful hearts. This sad hour, too quickly here, will leave from its very tears a rich deposit for affection.” For me the letters themselves rapidly became a rich deposit of the past enhancing, as Nannie put it, “the loveliness that borders our pathway in life.” I came to like Innis, Tom, Mary and William, and even poor unschooled Charlotte Morton. For Nannie, though, I felt real affection. Not only could she write but she was my great-grandmother, and I thought I saw something of me in her progress. Until I read the letters I believed I was the first member of my family to teach. For years I had been defensive about teaching, in part because I concluded that I became a teacher only to avoid long hours and hard work. Lately as many of my old school friends achieved success, either becoming wellknown or making much money, I grew envious and even resentful. Sitting in my study, writing articles that I hoped would bring a hundred or two hundred dollars, I worried about earning enough money to have the house painted or, more importantly, to have the dead oak trees in the yard cut down before a winter storm tumbled one across the house. At such times I questioned my occupation, seeing myself not simply as a failure but a weakling who taught because he wasn’t strong enough for the world of business. At least I felt that way until I read the letters carefully and learned that after the war Nannie had started her own school. Among the letters I found a teacher’s certificate for the “Tennessee Public Schools.” Scoring nine out of a possible ten points on all her examinations, Nannie was certified to teach orthography, reading, writing, mental arithmetic, written arithmetic, grammar, geography, and U.S. history in the public schools of Williamson County in 1874. Teaching then was not something that I had done to avoid real work; it was in the blood, and I decided that I was drawn to it naturally.
“It is an open path that we all are travelling though it closes in the gloom of a forest,” Nannie said in her commencement speech; “to all it is more or less agreeable but the forest and the scenes we may there encounter will occasion us to pause. Happy the one who looking forward with hope and inward assurance sees glimpses beyond of green fields opening in the sunlight.” By 1870 Nannie rarely wrote about sweethearts; life’s morning hour was over and far along the “single road” she seemed to be approaching the gloom of spinsterhood. For some time she had had a serious suitor from Mississippi, but his letters were dull and probably appealed little to the woman who had once urged schoolmates to be active in life and “possess the goodly land and gather into the storehouse of the soul true wealth, before the noons intensity pours forth its wearying fervor.” Replying to a letter from him in which he stated that he heard she was going to be married, she wrote in 1874 that she doubted she would ever marry, reminding him that several years earlier she told him that although “I respected and esteemed you we never could marry.” “I always expect to entertain for you,” she added, “feelings of friendship,” assuring him that “no one outside of your relations would rejoice more over your settling and success in life than myself.”
Nannie was closer to marriage than she revealed or perhaps even thought. For three years she had been courted by D.F. Griffin, known to his friends as Grif and to his family in Calhoun, Georgia, as Bud. Much about Griffin is lost in the past. When I asked my father about him, he said that all he had heard was that “during the war, he had been an officer and a martinet.” Whatever Griffin was, the course of his love did not run formal as did that of the man from Mississippi. In 1871, someone sent Nannie a letter warning her against him. “A terable hush has taken posesion of my whole nature,” Griffin wrote her when he learned about it. “I cant think that you doubt my love and devotion,” he declared, “but when I remember that you have some of the most serious and disgraceful charges against me, unless I can vindicate myself most perfectly, of these charges and establish myself a man of honor how can you respect me.” Griffin suspected a doctor in Calhoun of writing Nannie, but without “positive proof,” he said, he could not accuse him. The matter eventually passed; in business in Franklin, Griffin did not have the time to discover who wrote the letter. Truth, however, may have lurked behind the accusations, whatever they were, for Griffin’s life in Georgia had not been placid. In July 1872, he visited Calhoun and wrote Nannie. “Have seen every body,” he wrote, “believe that I have got some friends here, am told so, at least as well as enemies, have seen to the man that shot me, he was working with a thrasher when he saw me, he left his work and has’nt been heard of since, though I sent word to his family that I was too well pleased with Tenn—or anticipated too happy a life to ruin it by shooting him unless he was too conspicuous, but the temptation was almost too great—had it not been for you I would have shot him six times when I saw him.” A strain of aggressive pride runs through Griffin’s letters, and he probably told the truth when he said he almost succumbed to the temptation to shoot the man. In 1873 he wrote Nannie asking where he stood in her affections. Instead of pleading his love, he argued it. Always conscious of honor, he wrote, “it is unnecessary and out of place in this to make any protestation or assertion of my declared and known attachment because that could be construed into an entreaty or supplication.”
In 1868 Mary Bailey wrote Nannie and laughingly referred to one of Nannie’s suitors. “Why did’nt you tell me who your sweetheart is with whom you had the quarrel,” she asked; “I think that is a good sign for the course is never straight. If he is not a good, true and noble character I shall not give my consent.” By the time Griffin began courting Nannie, Mary Bailey was dead. If she had been alive, I wonder if she would have consented to the marriage. Bud Griffin was not scholarly, and he was difficult and quarrelsome, but I think he was true, and at his death, one of his few friends wrote Nannie, saying “he was the noblest man I ever saw.” Be this as it may, however, when Griffin asked Nannie to marry him, she was no longer young and probably would not have had many more sweethearts. Moreover he loved her and was colorful. In a way he was life’s purple equivalent of the rich prose that ran through her writings.
Like their courtship, the course of Nannie and Bud’s marriage did not run straight. Griffin seems to have been at odds with people in Franklin. In 1876, Nannie’s friends were writing her, assuring her about Bud and saying things like, “I cannot keep my tears back when I think of his troubles. I do not see how they can prove that he is a desperate man.” By 1877 Bud had left for Texas to make a new life for Nannie and himself and their little baby Mamie. He liked Texas, and in writing Nannie who had remained in Franklin with Mamie until he could earn money enough to support them, said he “would do any thing in the world but leave Texas to see you and our baby.” “Dont let my being among strangers trouble you,” he wrote, “because I see a great many men here to like and none to dislike, that is a great advantage that I have here over Franklin and to tell you the truth it was about to get the best of me, my feeling towards some men there.” “It soured my whole nature,” he continued, “and made me so ill that I did’nt care who I insulted, but I am out of all that now and I hope to heaven I will stay out of it.”
Griffin’s spirits picked up in Texas, and he enjoyed writing Nannie about “the wildest country I ever saw” and planning a future raising cattle. His letters became tough and healthy. When his jaw got infected, he wrote hardily, “I intend to have the whole of the bone taken out if I have to get a carpenter to do it.” He was at home in the man’s world where adventure seemed just a day’s ride off. I understood Griffin’s happiness; occasionally I become despondent amid the leaves, and dropping my rake, flop down and dream of places far away from family and little responsibilities, places where a man can really live. Vicki understands my longings, and four years ago for my birthday, she gave me the National Geographic Atlas. I keep it in my study and look at it at least twice a week and think about where I want to go but never will: the Sudan, northern Iraq, Mongolia, Kashmir, Oman. My trips with the Atlas are therapeutic, and when I close it, I am once again ready for leaves and diapers, toilets and ear infections. Still, deep within me lingers resentment at my family, and though I know it is both foolish and wrong-headed, I sometimes blame them for my having become a dull man. In Griffin such resentment was nearer the surface. In answer to a letter in which Nannie had chided him for neglecting Mamie’s birthday and in which she had said how much she missed him, he wrote angrily, “it seems to me that I am having too much anxiety from you, intend to try to not have so much hereafter—Yes I know when the babies birthday came, am not so hard as to forget that yet.”
While reading the letters, I fell in love with Mary Bailey, Eudora Sowell, and my own great-grandmother, much as I had fallen in love with Vicki. And although I sometimes dream of trekking through the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, I know that for me a world without women and family would be as dry as the desert. Griffin appears to have felt the same way. Despite writing about going further west, his letters are full of affection for Nannie and their baby. They also contain references to the sexual doings of the local populace, something that Griffin not only thought about but that also drew him to Nannie. “Slept last night in a house and next room to a couple that married yesterday,” he wrote, “will tell you something funny when we meet, only a thin partition between us.” “Well there is one thing I will say for San Saba,” he wrote on another occasion, “there is not a woman in the county of bad caracter that I have heard of and am told by every body that there is not one and there was never but one bastard child born in it and that woman dont live here now.” “So,” he concluded, “you need not be writing to me to be good and behave for you see I have to, but I ought not write this way to you and wont any more, only wish to tell you that, so your heart may be easy.”
Nannie’s letters to Griffin were filled with longing. “Honey please dont neglect to write to me for you know I cant bear suspense and trouble,” she wrote after not hearing from Texas for a fortnight; “to have the blues a week nearly kills poor me. I do want to see you so bad yes so bad.” “If you have not gotten into business I want you to come back,” she wrote in almost every letter. To lure him home she described Mamie. “There is not a day nor scarcely an hour passes that I do not wish for you to see her. She is so smart and cute,” she wrote; “whenever she wants Emma or I to do anything for her she opens her little mouth and holds it up for a kiss.” Mamie could say “several words, mammy, dad, daddy, kittie, tow (cow), cat and answers when we call her.” Nannie’s letters did not bring Griffin home, and eventually she and Mamie went to Texas. One of the Browns probably gave her the money for the trip. Griffin does not seem to have been successful in Texas, or in Tennessee for that matter. Shortly after he left, one of Nannie’s acquaintances accused him of leaving Franklin without paying a debt to her father. From Texas Griffin importuned Nannie to borrow money from her relatives and send it to him so he could purchase cattle. In being improvident, Bud may not have been deeply at fault; the inability to make money seems to have run in the Griffin family. In 1883 Gerald, Bud’s brother, wrote Nannie from Cartersville, Georgia on his business stationary. At that time he was an agent for the Continental Insurance Company of New York; two years later his stationary said he was “Dealer in “Aultman Taylor” Threshers, Horse Powers, and Engines. And Other First Class Agricultural Implements.” In 1887 he had yet another stationary and was agent for the Etiwan Phosphate Company.
Aside from some few letters written during the 1880s, the box of letters contained almost nothing more about Nannie and Bud. Once I had owned a second box of letters, but one evening my father behaved like Innis in the presence of Miss Dora’s folks. After taking too much, he found the letters in my closet and thinking them rubbish threw them into the garbage. When I was 17, I had read the letters, but all I can recall now is that Bud and Nannie eventually returned to Franklin. They had two more children, one of whom was my grandmother, and then in 1881 Bud died. I know this because among Nannie’s papers was a receipt dated March 9, 1881 and made out from Samuel Henderson to Dr. Enoch Brown. On February 3, Henderson had provided D.F. Griffin’s funeral clothes. Bud’s suit and shroud cost 27 dollars and 50 cents; his slippers, one dollar and 50 cents; his shirt and collar, two dollars; his undershirt, a dollar and 25 cents; and his drawers, a dollar. His socks cost 25 cents as did his cravat. Two collar buttons cost ten cents; his studs, 40 cents; and his sleeve buttons, 30 cents. The total was 34 dollars and 55 cents.
I was glad that Bud died and the letters ended. I didn’t really like him, probably because I saw some of him within myself—a kind of Griffin state of mind, self-centered and unsatisfied. I preferred the earlier letters written during life’s morning hour when, as Nannie the schoolgirl put it, “the sun cometh forth from the shining chambers of the East” and “life for pleasure ripples as it runs.” The ink blots had spread too far and were darkening life close to home. I longed for the Green Police Car to crash into my study and break my mood. Eventually the Police Car appeared towing his little brother, and I put the letters away, not sure what to make out of them or me. Writing to Mary early in the war, Innis described an evening of sentry duty. “I had a trial of standing guard last Wednesday night,” he wrote; “but as it happened, I had a good night for the business. There was but one man came to my post, and I halted him, and asked him for the countersign. Then he put his hand in his pocket and drew out a bottle. I touched it slightly and told him to pass on.” Maybe there is no identity, and the best a person can do is to touch life slightly and hope it warms his lonely nights.