My grandfather, Surry Parker, was more of a myth than a man. I never met him, since he died before I was born—even before my parents got married—so my only knowledge of him was from the stories people told. And there were tons of stories—about, for instance, how he sped into Washington, NC in his Model A Ford, in the very earliest days of cars on the road and speed limits, and got stopped by a policeman, who said he would have to pay a fine for driving too fast. My grandfather handed the policeman double the required amount and told him to keep the change because “I’ll be going out the same way I came in.” Or there’s the one about the one or two times when my mother’s date might have stayed a little too long in the parlor, inspiring my grandfather to throw his shoes down the stairs, yelling, “Janie, tell that young rooster to go home!” Or there’s the much earlier one about how he made my mother, five years old at the time, stand in the middle of a pile of dead-but-still-wriggling snakes in the Great Dismal Swamp (where the family lived in the early years of my mother’s life), so that he could get her picture, since he loved to take pictures. My mother never questioned him; she did as she was told, but she remembered those snakes with terror to the day she died. I was always proud to have Surry Parker as my grandfather, and all those stories played a useful role for me. Whenever I was afraid of doing something bold and daring, or even just slightly out of the ordinary, I would think of one of those stories, and that would give me the courage to move forward.
But there was also a problem with the stories, in that people in my family got so caught up in talking about Surry Parker that they never really talked about his wife, my grandmother, lovingly called “Dovie,” except to say that she was basically one of the best people that ever lived—and that she loved Surry Parker! But I would like to have known her better. I would like to be able to get a picture in my head of the real Dovie, not just the one on the tombstone with the engraving, “Her children shall rise up and call her blessed.” Don’t get me wrong: I loved those words, and I desperately wanted to be the kind of mother who would inspire that kind of saying on her grave. But I also wanted to know more about my real grandmother. I wanted to know what kinds of things excited her or irritated her or made her happy or sad. I wanted to know what her vices were—she had to have at least one, didn’t she?
I’m thinking that kids nowadays are lucky because they have at least a decent shot of having videos of people who have died before them. I would give a lot to have a video of my grandmother—one that included sound! We do actually have one movie of her, since my grandfather also had one of the first movie cameras in his area (he loved technology!), but it’s a very jerky, very badly lighted 16 mm film, and it has no sound. So, the only impression I have of her is of someone walking around like Charlie Chaplin and turning her face away from the camera.
Which makes me think this: you should be careful to tell your children stories about the people who went before them, even the ones who weren’t extroverted or dramatic. And you should take real pictures of people, real videos, of them doing the ordinary things that make up their lives, like cooking or telling a story or laughing. You shouldn’t only take pictures of them on special occasions, all dressed up and stiff. You should capture them in their natural habitat! What I wouldn’t give to have a video of Surry Parker and Dovie not just looking good for the camera but having a real conversation together, maybe arguing about the wisdom of making their five-year-old daughter stand in the middle of a pile of snakes just to get a good picture!