The Monkey Tells the Truth

They say history is written by the winner. But writing the history is also a way of winning. If you tell the story, you lay claim to it.

From Monkey and Man, by Paul Zelavansky, New York City, 1992

The whole thing of reparational genealogy is to retell family history without leaving out the yuckiest parts, like a background full of profiting from rigged racial power dynamics. The invisible enslaved people who did all the work for free were actual people with names and families. Choosing to not record that was part of the effort to hide them from history and establish them as not worthy of mention. In the mid 1800’s when white settlers wrote their self-congratulatory county books that included biographies of the citizens who paid to be included, it was an assertation of ownership, ownership of history,

Carolynn Ni Lochlainn, who coined the term “reparational genealogy,” says that the documents and records are all there, right where they’ve always been and it is our job now to use them to tell the truth. (http://ancestorsalivegenealogy.com/ look her up!)

yrmama floundered somewhat aimlessly about in the kiddie pool of genealogy until she found out that there are other people interested in exposing the deets of their enslaving ancestors. Tea and crumpets genealogy, the goal of which is to link oneself to genuine English royalty, and mint juleps genealogy, the aim of which is to marvel at one’s proximity to hoop skirts and pretty, restored plantation houses is fine. (To which you, sensing my tone, might say, “But yrmama, don’t you like mint juleps?” To which I’d growl in reply, “I ain’t never had one.”) But scraping the white-out (ooo, good analogy) off the rest of the story gives my new obsession a purpose and helps make valuable information available to descendants of enslaved people who have a right to family history like everyone else.

yrmama may be beating a dead horse and looking it in the mouth all at the same time, by which I mean writing about this excessively and over and over, but she’s still trying to figure out which side of her bread is buttered so she can lie down on it by which I mean get back to work.

Barn Kittens

yrmama is not a cat person but I have two new, very wild barn kittens. Four eyes peer down warily from the rafters as I faithfully pour out the kitten chow day after day. The larger gray one, William Clopton, now meows at me when I first come in and I don’t know what that means.

Any child who ever tells you they will take full responsibility for an animal doesn’t know what they are talking about and should not be believed. That animal will ALWAYS become yours. yrmama is really allergic to cats so it was one of my thirty two daughters who decided to bring the kittens here. yrmama is no dummy and knew giving permission made for a 93% chance that they would be her barn kittens, and now, since that daughter is completely AWOL from the barn, they are entirely mine. They are destined to remain wild too because yrmama’s already busy (thanks C19!) respiratory and immune systems don’t allow much time with them. But the kitten’s wildness is part of their appeal. This is what it would be like to be luring fox kits, or baby skunks in to eat. (If there is a de-stunk baby skunk that needs a barn to eat cat chow in – call me.)

humanesociety.org
See how nice they are?

I have been trying to position the food bowl so that I can see their little butts when they eat, but it doesn’t work so I don’t know their sexes. And it doesn’t matter, since I’m going to trap them one of these days and take them to be neutered rendering kitty gender a completely moot point.

In the meantime I have bestowed genderless names on the kittens in honor of my ancestors who believed that as many people as possible should be named William Clopton in order to bamboozle future genealogists. The big gray one is William Clopton. It’s eyes are a bit too close together which creates a resemblance to Rod Blagojevich. The smaller kitten has front paws that were put on at the wrong angle and has slightly shortened front legs, maybe a form of kittie dwarfism. Consequently, it sits back on it’s haunches with it’s front paws crossed over it’s chest, like a rabbit. Or a kangaroo. Or a T-Rex. My ancestor’s second favorite name was Robert Clopton. This cat’s additional degree of cuteness led me to cute-ify “Robert” a bit, so I call it Bobert Clopton. Bobert might not be able to hunt as well as William Clopton but gets around just fine.

The Pose

Dorothy, my maternal grandmother, knew what to do when someone was taking her picture. This was not due to the Gladwellian 10,000 hours of practice put in by modern girls, but because her uncle was a professional photographer. There are lovely portraits of her from the time she could stand where she’s popping out some version of this: face the camera, line your left heel up with the instep of your right foot, tip your head just a hair towards the outstretched toe, then find an arm position and facial expression to match the occasion. Here, that being some boy about to give her a corsage. The bob! The shoes! The gorgeous dresses they got to wear in the 1920s!

This mirror selfie approximation of the pose took about 30 tries and I’m not even kidding. It’s the best I could do. Grandmother’s foot trick is subtle, brilliant and surprisingly hard to not over play. Turns out the rest of it requires standing up very straight and then relaxing your shoulders and neck so that your head just sits there. Who knew. Today’s fashion statement involves second hand, black Old Navy jeans, the same brown belt I wear every day, a scoop-neck Patagonia t shirt and a DIY cardigan. If you have a tightly knit sweater you are tired of, or that makes you sweat too much, you can find a pair of scissors, slice it up the front and voila; a cardigan. No, it does not unravel into a big mess. I’ve committed this wanton act of creativity many times and your should too.

yrmama’s New Leaf

In the photo above, taken in the late 1960’s perhaps by my father, we have the adorable baby yrmama surrounded by her grandma, mother, brother and grandpa. Grandma was a figure larger than life – affectionate, bossy, and very hardworking. No one in this photo is very comfortable in front of a camera except, it appears, Grandpa. Baby yrmama doesn’t care much either way about the camera but hates the way her mother and brother are holding on to her lest she bust out in unruliness. Ha. Little did they know about who they were dealing with, literally.

In the photo to the right we have full-grown yrmama. Today’s hairstyle was achieved with a big old handful of mousse and a nice long wall squat under the hand drier in the pool locker room. yrmama was blessed with teflon hair that rarely needs combing and I’m not even kidding. A secondhand magenta madras shirt is layered under a rust sweater that yrmama actually bought off the rack at Target when she went to a genealogy conference and found she had not packed warm enough clothes for scouring the nearby graveyards for familiar names. That strategic clashing creates a nice glow, don’t you think?

I’m now more or less the same age Grandma was in the first photo and I think I look something like her. My life is very different than Grandma’s but like her I am very hard-working and very bossy. I’d like to say I’m as affectionate as she was but I’m not sure it’s true.

I have three daughters who always look terrific in photos whereas I usually look apologetic. I remember a time when I could not stand to look in a mirror with someone. I just didn’t have the confidence to see what I looked like while someone else was looking at me too. My daughters all spent a good portion of their adolesences practicing what to do when a camera shows up. They can effortlessly “find their light,” strike the pose, flip the hair, tilt the head, jut the hip, tip the chin and exude confidence.

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I don’t really know what I look like. I’m always surprised by mirrors and photos and unpredictable reflections. Photos confuse me because I look like I’m trapped inside an unfamiliar voluptuous mound of flesh. That effect is especially highlighted if I’m caught sitting in a chair, trying desperately to look tall, thin and blond and perhaps not even there. My son, who was born looking like a super model and never even had to practice, recently took a brilliant photo of himself on the beach with me in my bikini, sitting in one of those painful cloth folding chairs. Good God. In some photos my face sags, like a gravity burst is sucking the joy out of me. I look like one of those droopy-eyed dogs. Sometimes I look like my mother. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the photo is of me or my oldest daughter.

In the past few years illness has messed dramatically with my size, from normal (the way I’ve always been, the size and shape I was from high school through my late 40’s) to way too skinny, to normal again and then shooting past that to mildly plump. Every time my clothes don’t fit I give them away and restock in my new size at Crowded Closet and Goodwill. Resultingly, there’s hardly anything I’ve worn for years like I think most people have, clothes in which I might feel nostalgia, or like my same old self. I pull a hanger from the stuffed rack at Goodwill and think, “omg, that’s huge,” when it’s actually my size. When I was too skinny the shorts my size seemed impossible so I tried to make slightly larger, reasonable sizes, work and they literally fell off my narrow butt.

So, I’m practicing. Maybe I’ll watch some instructional videos on how to look like myself in a photo. Meanwhile, I’m becoming very clear on the fact that this corporeal form of energy pressed into matter that is my vehicle through this lifetime is just that. It’s doing a fine job of helping me hurtle through space and time. I like it! Now, if I can just learn to see myself in it as the molecules get switched out for new ones and the pattern continues to break down (aka aging) I will have won.

You’re welcome.

You are all that

Falling Safely – AARP

Do you remember the feeling of falling? There is a moment when you’re running downhill gleefully, thrilled at the sensation of your feel moving faster than you ever expected yet keeping everything balanced over them. Then a falter, either your feet can no longer keep up and don’t lift in time to match the momentum of your body, or the crystals of your inner ear are sloshing so hard that they can’t tell you where you are in space anymore. There’s a moment when when a voice that sounds like yours says, “I’m going down,” and then you surrender and fall and it feels just like falling in a dream.

Gravity is incredible. Your body, which normally teeters giddily upright meets the ground with incredible force. You and the earth that you are normally dancing lightly atop, slam together, like monster magnets.

How to not fall: Sit very very still in a bomb-proof chair. Do not bend over and then straighten back up. Do not lean back casually against anything solid-seeming, like a bookcase. Do not think about what you will be doing a few seconds from now or how to answer a companion’s question – STAY IN THE MOMENT! Sit on the top step and bump your way slowly down on your butt. If you must leave the house hang on tight to your friend’s arm until you are back to the bomb-proof chair. Meanwhile, undertake a precise, strenuous program of corrective exercise and DO NOT STOP until you are in peak physical form. Simultaneously and systematically optimize your balance and coordination. Get your act together! Meditate more. Regulate your emotions. Modulate your blood pressure and liver enzymes with Brain Power. I know you can do it. You can succeed. You are all that. And More.

The Fathomless Depths That Beckon Cruelly

What do you do when unfathomable, meaningless sadness, lands on you; a sagging, wet weight on your chest? As though one of those giant slabs of old snow slides down from a steep roof in a way that knocks you off your feet and pins you there on the salty sidewalk. Or if you have dragged yourself into town to run some errands and while you are waiting for permission to cross the intersection a delivery truck drops a tire into the huge pothole of black slush that has nowhere to go because the storm drains are clogged with ice and the vomit of undergrads, and it drenches you from neck to knees.

Move to Arizona and cry near a sunny golf course? Go see your therapist so you can whimper without dignity in that big puffy chair? Go about your business, stumbling and weepy and when kind people ask if you are okay you whisper, “no?” Do you remember that alcohol with ultimately make you sadder (but will it?) and is comprised of ruinous but otherwise empty calories, but you drink a little too much anyway? Do you take up smoking? Or maybe you are the type who can express yourself through your artwork. Geez. Go for a run? Again, geez. If that works for you, fine.

Tell the truth.

Outlaws

Tom Robbins taught me to love outlaws. If you haven’t read Still Life With Woodpecker you should now. It might be painfully dated, since I last read it in the 80’s, but there’s only one way to find out. Outlaws are very American.

A year or two ago while I was hopped up on post-surgical pain killers I read American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin, “The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.” I remember seeing the grainy, iconic bank security-footage photo of her with the giant gun that shocked everybody, including my mother, on tv. Patty’s kidnappers were outlaws and temporarily turned her into one too. The early 1970’s were nuts! Counterculture outlaws were routinely making bombs in their bathrooms and detonating them in places that would either disable or at least disturb The Man. Even though Patty’s experience with the Symbionese Liberation Army was a lot darker than a Tom Robbins novel, some of the 70’s-ish motives were the same.

This morning I figured out Donald’s appeal and the reason for our confusion. He’s just another outlaw! He’s all about sticking it to The Man, no matter who the man is. (That’s where his amorality comes in handy.) Some of his supporters are like Patty joining the Symbionese Liberation Army. She wasn’t exactly happy before they kidnapped her, and definitely not in control of her own life. She didn’t know exactly what the problem was but they told her. They told her over and over and over what reality was (well, with some rape and starvation and LSD) until she was convinced it was in her best interest to be a soldier for their cause.

So we’ve got an outlaw (Donald, in case you aren’t paying attention), who by definition does not operate within normal boundaries, and he’s hell-bent on destroying the way things normally work around here. The confusing thing is that we, the lefties who used to be the counterculture, are now The Man, deserving of all the homemade bombs (ummm, NRA, guns and more guns, domestic terrorism etc.) he can get his soldiers to stockpile and detonate.

I’m at a loss for advice on this so you’ll have to just digest the insight raw.

What To Read: Slavery in the Clover Bottoms by John McCline

The Hoggatt plantation at Clover Bottom, in Nashville, Tennessee was home to one of my slave-owning cousins, Anthony Clopton and his family, and to John McCline. John McCline was born there as part of the enslaved workforce. You should read his book even if he never met your long-ago cousin.

This memoir covers John’s earliest memories of life at Clover Bottoms and his years as a young teenager in the Union army. I’ve never read anything like it before.

One day young John was on horseback, watching the Union army march past the plantation on Lebanon Pike, admiring the men, their uniforms, the horses and vehicles, the whole spectacle. One of the soldiers called out to him, “Come on, Johnny, and go with us up North, and we will set you free.” He was amazed that the Yankee soldier knew his name (he didn’t know they called all southern boys Johnny, like Johnny Rebel). He slid off his horse and into the crowd of soldiers. He travelled and worked with that regiment from Michigan for the rest of the war and they took good care of him. He returned to Michigan with them after the war, got a couple of years of schooling in, worked in fancy hotels in St. Louis, Chicago and Indianapolis and eventually ran the household of the governor of New Mexico, Herbert Hagerman, in Santa Fe. He got married for the first time when he was 85. Never once does John expect the reader to feel sorry for him or his plight. He’s very matter of fact about everything and eager to recount his memories of a remarkable period in his life. John McCline reminds me of Laura Ingalls Wilder with his engaging, detailed, visual descriptions of how otherwise mundane things worked which in turn reminds me of my own grandfather, except for the slavery part.

Now that I’ve compared John McCline favorably to Laura Ingalls Wilder you might veer into the tempting weeds and say, “Gee, yrmama, American slavery wasn’t so bad then, was it. And if it was so easy for him to run away why didn’t they all just walk off into the sunset?”

To which I would say, “Shut the fuck up up and read the book. Mr. McCline is very clear and detailed about the vast evil he was raised to endure, the traumas he and everyone he loved faced, beatings, murders, deprivation, cruelty and outright theft of monstrous amounts of human labor. yrmama is grappling with the knowledge that her ancestors on both sides were slave owners and trying to acknowledge the ill-gotten privileges she has certainly inherited. I may say the wrong thing from time to time, inadvertently, but we are certainly not going to move through this as a society if we don’t talk about it openly. So there.”

https://nikolehannahjones.com/
  • If you have not yet begun listening to 1619, a podcast from the New York Times, you need to get busy with it immediately. It is hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones who grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, where I lived as an infant, and we both are very smart.

Confederates in the Attic

Confederates in the Attic : Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War was a bit hard to pay attention to clear to the end no matter how much I liked the idea of it and the specific things I learned from it. The bulk of the action is Tony traveling around the south checking out the culture of Civil War reenactment by participating. It is really interesting to see a bit into the way southern culture was shaped by history and how the Civil War persists. Sounds obvious, I know, but I am very northern so it’s all new.

The back cover blurb from the Washington Post says, “Hilariously funny.” Not true! At all! By the end I felt a bit like Tony Horwitz was losing himself like Jim Carrey did impersonating Andy Kauffman making Man in the Moon. Published in 1998 it also manages to feel dated. We’re less naive about racism now. Thanks Donald.

Should you read it? Maybe probably, but feel free to power-skim.

*Those who recall yrmama’s reading recommendations from years past will recall they were mostly about works of fiction. Now you’ll soon recall they mostly aren’t. I can’t recall a way to explain. It’s a sense of nausea and creeping dread deep in the gut that for five years I have recalled and consistently avoided.

Clover Bottom

In Nashville I paid a quick visit to Clover Bottom Mansion, associated with my dear cousin, Anthony Clopton (1770-1848). He came from a Clopton plantation in Goochland, Virginia and married wealthy Rhoady Hoggatt in 1804. He and Andrew Jackson, a Hoggatt neighbor and close friend, were central members of the Clover Bottom Jockey Club before Andrew moved to the White House. Apparently everyone had a sparkling social life. A Hoggatt of the next generation had this mansion built in 1859 as the centerpiece of the 1,500 acre plantation. Out back there was pretty much an entire village of 60 enslaved people living in little cabins.

I know being impressed by this (impressed is not necessarily good) exposes my clueless Yankee core, but there you have it.

yrmama at Clover Bottom Mansion, now housing the Tennessee Historical Commission, the State Historic Preservation Office
remaining slave cabins at Clover Bottom