Saturday, March 17, 2012

I remember the instant that I discovered that Bill had been a soldier. I was wandering through the cemetery at Mount Bethel, randomly photographing stones with family surnames. I had not been tracing our ancestry for long, and so I did not know who to look for.

My father resolutely refuses to talk about the past. He says he never thinks about it, and consequently does not remember it. Or maybe it was vice versa. It doesn't matter. Either way, there never were family stories told around the dinner table. My grandmother died before I knew the importance of asking.

I figured I'd shoot them all now, and sort them out later, so to speak. It was too hot to do anything else.

I wandered among the stones, not even stooping to compose, focus, and shoot. I had a little point-and-shoot digital camera then, and I just hung my arm down by my side, aimed in the general direction of, pressed the button halfway, listened for the beep, and fired. No dramatic vista shots.

And then I came to Bill's grave. Someone had put a new stone up. The etching was stark and clear:


I was stunned. I had no idea that any of our family in that branch had been in the war. I didn't know then what I know now, which is that there was a universal draft in the South, and that nearly every adult male in that branch of our tree--indeed, in the county--had fought. Unlike other relatives of mine who'd exaggerated their lineage (and in some cases fabricated it), Grandmother Sutton never bragged about her ancestry. In fact, she never talked about it at all.

My father says this was because her father, Bill's oldest, was illegitimate, and that had been a source of deep shame for the family.

So I read Bill's footstone, so proudly announcing his fight for--what? the glorious Lost Cause? the perpetuation of slavery? I did the math, counting back nine months on my fingers. Sgt. Griffin must have seduced some innocent local maiden while he was home on furlough, I thought, and then left her high and dry. The mental image that formed as I read the stones was of the dashing cavalryman in his handsome uniform, cantering down the road on a spirited horse, which all combined would of course have simply charmed the drawers right off any girl with eyes, right?

Since then I have learned so much more about both of them. I have come to see Bill as a responsible man who would have tried at least to Do the Right Thing. And I have come to see Fannie as an independent young woman who seems to have gone her own way on her own hook. I have also learned that by then Bill would have been more dirty than dashing, his uniform ragged and worn, his mount more likely hungry, tired, and dispirited. And that Bill and Fannie would have both been in Petersburg at the time.

Fannie is buried on the grounds of the old state hospital in Morganton where she lived out her last years and died at 57 of "cerebral softening", presumably as the result of a stroke. I have never visited her grave. I would like to, though, and when I do I would like to take the time to sit and talk with her. And I would like to visit Bill again, to sit a spell with him, too.

I still have so many questions, and so much to tell them both.
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