A few months after my father died, after we had moved from Baltimore and settled in our new home in Kentucky, I woke up late one evening in a panic. I thought I was going to die. I was certain of it. I don’t remember if I had a sensation that my heart was failing me, or if I just had a sense of dread.
I was eight years old.
I remember sitting with my mother on her bed as she called the doctor. I don’t recall if I was crying. I expect I was frightened. I know my mother must have felt a sense of panic and helplessness.
Thankfully, our doctor at the time, George Gilbert, was not only a small-town doctor (who later made regular house calls to soothe my troublesome earaches with shots of penicillin), he had also been a classmate of my father’s. He had known both my parents well.
After briefly explaining the situation to him, my mother handed the phone to me. I listened as he tried to reassure me that everything was OK. I don’t think I believed him. But I understood even then that death was inevitable, and if it was my time, it was my time.
This long-repressed scene played out again in my mind as I heard details of the Inspector General’s report relating to the harm done to small children who were separated from their parents upon arriving at our southern border. One child reported, “I can’t feel my heart.” Another said, “every heartbeat hurts.” These were explained as physical manifestations of the emotional pain the separation had caused the children.
One story in particular stuck with me.
“A 7- or 8-year-old boy was separated from his father, without any explanation as to why the separation occurred. The child was under the delusion that his father had been killed and believed that he would also be killed. This child ultimately required emergency psychiatric care to address his mental health distress.”
I suppose it makes sense that young children who identify with their parents might expect that their parent’s fate could be their own. If parents can’t protect themselves from some harm—arrest, separation, death—how can they protect their children from these same terrors?
I am still amazed when I wake up each morning. I have always expected to share my father’s fate. But I’m old now. I’ve outlived him by 16 years. I did not succumb prematurely.
Nonetheless, this is a tiny trauma I have carried throughout my life as a result of losing a parent unexpectedly at a young age—at the same age as the boy separated from his dad. Yet I knew what happened to my father. I had a loving mother who cared for me in a secure home. I cannot imagine the lifelong repercussions and insecurities this young boy might face.
For me, this is a reminder that all this country is doing in the name of “policy” is personal. Our separating families at the border affects all of us. Our denying climate change and rolling back common-sense regulations affects all of us. Our refusal to restrict widespread access to military-style weapons affects all of us. We will feel the pain of the Central American refugees, the residents of low-lying coastal communities, and the families who have had loved ones slaughtered. We all share common humanity. We all respond to loss and fear the same way.
I had promised that I would not revisit my “father loss” theme again so soon, but circumstances keep pushing me back to that well. If that early experience is what connects me to the world at large, then its value—and its pain—is a privilege that I need to share.
I'm thinking it’s time to close the chapter on reminiscences about my dad. Compiling The Last Resort provided a tiny window into his thoughts as he hung out with Bobby and the others at their Salt River camp. By poring over the journal that he kept while working at Harvard Forest, I learned that he struggled with the same sorts of issues we all do as we launch a career. I discovered his sense of humor and his wry take on the world. The project allowed me to presumptuously call strangers and initiate conversations about their own memories of Pud. Amazingly, it prompted others to reach out to me and share their stories. What a journey it has been.
I’m not saying I won’t write about him again, but I worry that this little habit of mine has become outrageously self-indulgent. I recall the first time a reader of The Last Resort approached me and said, “I loved your book. But you know it’s really about a little girl searching for her father.” I was so embarrassed. That was not at all what I had intended. But that was, of course, exactly what I had delivered.
Occasionally, however, a chance comment from a family member or a former colleague of my father’s reveals another truth. Pud’s premature death at age 44 shattered lives.
Of course, we can start with my mother’s. I only knew her as a somewhat withdrawn, perhaps depressed, but deeply intelligent woman who evidently struggled to find her equilibrium after my father’s death. Others, however, tell stories of her being the life of the party. Photos of her as a young adult reveal a gaiety I rarely saw. Like many widows and widowers, she never fully recovered.
The family of my father’s sister, twelve years his senior and his legal guardian for a time after his own father’s death when he was 10, tell me how she grieved his death almost like she had lost her own child. My father’s older brother, with whom he was very close, rallied to my family’s aid immediately after my father’s death. Then my uncle went into a dark spiral, taking his large family on a heart-wrenching journey before his own death six short years later.
Not having any sons of his own, my dad was particularly fond of his nephews. We have evidence of that. Pud writes letters to Davy after being drafted into the Army. He takes numerous photos of Davy and Sandy as toddlers. He takes Mac and Charley under his wing. He beams with pride as Bob’s music career takes off. He invites any who will join him to Camp Last Resort.
Just recently, at Harvard Forest, we were shown a handsome “Memorial Album” of photos that his Harvard Forest colleagues compiled after his unexpected death in 1967. He was respected as a scientist and cherished as a friend.
Before stopping by Harvard Forest, I attended the memorial service for Ann Denny, the wife of one of my father’s good friends and regular collaborators, Charlie Denny. The Dennys’ three daughters were particularly fond of both my parents, having spent a summer with them in Coudersport, Penn., as the botanist and the geologist conducted their first collaborative research. Their stories of my father’s role in their lives and in their parents’ lives are precious to me.
In 2006, I visited Reds Wolman, the man who had finally snagged my father from Harvard Forest and lured him to Johns Hopkins, where Reds would become a legendary professor. Nearly 40 years after my father’s death, Reds’ face was stricken when he declared that my father’s untimely demise had robbed him of his best friend.
I am, of course, leaving out dozens of others whose lives were affected by my father’s death. His graduate students, who were depending on him to guide them to a doctorate. His childhood friends like George McWilliams, Lin Morgan Mountjoy, and Bobby Cole. His extensive clan of cousins. Our neighbors in Baltimore.
If you’re like I am, you don’t expect to leave much of a ripple behind. You don’t think you’ve done anything extraordinary. But take just a moment to consider the repercussions of this one life that began in a small town in rural Kentucky. Although it was a life cut short, take heed of the ripples emanating from that weighted hook cast endlessly into the slow-moving river.
In loving memory of Dr. William S. Bryant (November 9, 1943 - August 5, 2019).
The Last Resort never would have been published without Bill Bryant.
Shortly after his article about John C. Goodlett appeared in the Kentucky Journal of the Academy of Science in 2006, Billy—as I had always heard him called—got word to me that he would be talking about the paper at a meeting of the Anderson County Historical Society. Since I was working in Lexington at the time, I contacted Bobby Cole, my dad’s good friend and fellow architect of Camp Last Resort, and offered to take him to the meeting.
When we arrived, I saw that at least one more of my dad’s Lawrenceburg High School classmates was there: W. J. Smith. It was a remarkable evening of two generations sharing stories and reminiscences. I was astonished that, more than 40 years after his death, my dad’s contributions to the scientific community had prompted both Bill’s article and this hometown gathering.
They’re all gone now—Bobby, W. J., George Jr., Lin Morgan, Rinky, John Allen, Jody—and now Bill Bryant is gone, too.
Before the article was published, I had had no idea that Bill was working on it, no idea that he had been talking to my dad’s old colleagues (Reds Wolman, Alan Strahler, and Sherry Olson, for example). I now understand that Bill had discovered the very correspondence between my father and his Harvard Forest mentor, Hugh Raup, that I reviewed in detail just last month.
In short, I had no idea that there was still any interest in my father or his work. But what I learned was that Bill knew more about my father than I did.
Twice he led me out to my dad’s old camp on Salt River. I had never been there before. It had evidently never occurred to anyone else in those 40 years that I might like to see the place that was so special—almost sacred—to my father.
A few years later, as I worked on the book, Bill patiently reviewed various sections for accuracy. He encouraged me. He believed what I was doing had value.
He also nudged me to include more about my mother in the book. I remember Bill visiting our home in the 1970s, talking with my mother, going over materials related to my dad’s work. I didn’t fully understand then what his interest was. But he was obviously taken with my mother’s intelligence, her courage, and her struggles to raise two daughters alone.
In the end, though, I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate more of her story into The Last Resort. I promised Bill I had another project dedicated to her. It pains me that he’ll never get to read the novel I wrote about her father. Bill loved reading fiction and he loved history. I think he would have been interested in my telling of this Kentucky tale.
I feel, in a way, that I’ve lost another family member—yet one more of the few remaining connections to my father. Just as I wrote recently that I wish I could have walked the woods with Pud and gleaned a thing or two from all that he knew about its inhabitants, so I wish I could have walked the woods one more time with Bill.
When I was 15, I attended a boarding school in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. How I ended up there is a long story, and I won’t bore you with that. But I was attracted to the school largely because its beautiful old building—originally a Queen Anne style wood-shingled resort hotel--was butted up against a mountain. In addition, one of the school’s most renowned features was its equestrian program, which prepared well-heeled young ladies for the pageantry and horsemanship of local fox hunts.
Like most girls my age, I was a horse enthusiast. I had attended summer camps where I learned to ride and care for horses. I had even tried a little “hunt seat equitation,” learning to coax those thousand-pound athletes over a variety of fences. I was tiny, however, and although very little scared me, that did. So, after arriving at boarding school, I quickly realized the riders there were out of my league, in more ways than one.
I was more drawn to the mountains anyway. I signed up for every canoe outing, every hike. I rode my bike over to Staunton. I played a lot of tennis on the school’s courts, partially to soak in the view of the mountain at the edge of campus. I reveled in the heavy snowfalls in the winter.
It was year-round camp, with a healthy dose of academics on the side.
Since then, I have harbored an affinity for mountains that is hard for me to explain. I was born in a city, spent my early years in another East coast city, and came to maturity in a small town in central Kentucky, far from any mighty peaks. But I crave spending time in the mountains. I heave a deep sign of contentment the minute I see the mountains looming as we drive east toward the Appalachians.
In the novel I just completed, I describe how Effie Mae feels as she leaves the looming mountains of Bell County for the first time. To capture her thoughts, I relied on the visceral sadness I experience when we drive home toward the Bluegrass.
While in New England recently, we made a short side trip to Mt. Greylock, the tallest mountain in Massachusetts at nearly 3,500 feet. From its summit, you can see mountain ranges in at least four states. That, indeed, is heaven for me. We had time to hike a rugged loop trail part-way down the mountain and back up, briefly segueing with the Appalachian Trail. I was happy.
I don’t know if you can inherit a love of the outdoors or a near-physical need to be in the woods. But after recently reviewing scores of photos of my dad in the field mapping the trees of our eastern forests, I have to believe it’s possible. How I regret never being able to walk the woods with him, learning a tiny portion of what he knew. How fortunate I am to have this time in my life—that he never did—to leisurely explore the quiet majesty of those mountains, before human indifference threatens their very existence.
After visiting Mt. Greylock, Henry David Thoreau wrote the following (which is engraved in a stone on the mountain’s summit):
"As the light increased
I discovered around me an ocean of mist,
which by chance reached up to exactly the base of the tower,
and shut out every vestige of the earth,
while I was left floating on this fragment
of the wreck of the world."
Last week Joe Ford in his piece Big Fierce Animals mentioned how publishing The Last Resort and maintaining this blog have helped me reconnect with my extended family and with the families of the boys who visited the Salt River camp. The project also allowed me to reach out to my father’s former colleagues and students and their families. I have written numerous times about these happy consequences. (Branching Out is one example.)
This theme may be wearing thin for some of you, but I want to revisit it one more time. As an acknowledged introvert and occasional misanthrope, I can’t overstate the joy I have derived from the communications, the conversations, and the interactions that have occurred only because David Hoefer and I were able to put this peculiar little book into the hands of an unusual amalgamation of people.
So if you’ll indulge me, I want to share one more story about a truly serendipitous outcome of this project. A little over a year ago, someone I had known in my youth posted a comment on the blog entry For the Love of Books. That precipitated a robust friendship that has evolved into a mentoring relationship as I worked closely with him to finish the novel about my maternal grandfather. I have made several trips to his home in Minnesota to pore over the writing I was doing. During those trips, I also developed a close relationship with his mother, who is in a nursing home suffering from Parkinson’s related dementia, and with his cousins who assist with her care.
Tim and his extended family have become precious to me. Like so many of the other family members and friends I have connected with recently—in some way because of the publication of The Last Resort—they have enriched my life.
Last week I was in Minnesota working with Tim to finalize the novel. (OK, perhaps I was also there to attend the NCAA Final Four men’s basketball tournament.) In the midst of an incipient celebration of the book’s completion (since we were unable to celebrate the University of Kentucky’s appearance in the Final Four), we learned that Tim’s uncle—one of Tim’s mother’s most devoted visitors—had suffered a serious medical incident. We rushed to the hospital in a town about 45 minutes away and spent the next three days trying to help his immediate family through an emotionally wrenching crisis.
Tim’s uncle died without gaining consciousness. Throughout those three days, the most I could do was take care of two large dogs (so much like my Lucy) while the family members were preoccupied with the emergency. Nonetheless, the family folded me into its midst, allowing me to offer whatever sympathy and assistance I could. I was grateful to help in any small way. But I was overwhelmed by the love they were able to extend to me in the midst of their suffering.
My new extended family—my Minnesota family—has already given me more than I can put into words. I cherish their friendship. I wish them peace as they navigate the difficult days ahead. And I am reminded, again, of the unexpected benefits I have reaped from sharing my dad’s journal with readers near and far.
John Allen Moore would have turned 94 on March 20. This was the first year his family had to celebrate his birthday without him.
John Allen was my father’s first cousin and one of the boys who hung out with Pud at Camp Last Resort. The two were fast friends. John Allen’s remarkable memory of my father and of our shared family lore was a primary impetus for the publication of The Last Resort. I dedicated the book to him.
This week, my cousins Bob and Sandy Goodlett and I made what has become an annual trek to Atlanta to see our Moore cousins. By happy serendipity, our visit coincided with John Allen’s birthday. We were able to celebrate with his widow, Jane Chappell, and two of his four children, Deborah Costenbader, from Austin, and Cindy Caravas, from Virginia Beach. We also spent time with John Allen’s brother, Joe, and his wife, Jean.
Upon our return to Kentucky, we learned that another of the Last Resort boys, “Rinky” Routt, had died in February, soon after celebrating his 98th birthday. We were saddened to get that news and to recognize that not one of my father’s Salt River companions is left to tell their stories.
Our lives are cyclical, of course. We all walk the same inevitable path. But as I mourn those we have lost, I’m finding great joy in reaching out to others whose lives intersected theirs either tangentially or prominently. Getting to know John Allen’s children may promise as much joy as getting to know him late in his life. Reconnecting with my father’s friends, students, and colleagues—as well as my older cousins who knew him well—has augmented my understanding of him and of myself. My life is better because of these emerging relationships.
If you have questions about your own family history, I hope you will find the courage to ask questions of those who may have answers. You may be surprised at what you learn. Perhaps more consequentially, you may develop friendships that will continue to exhilarate you. Time is short. Don't wait.
Several individuals associated with The Last Resort have died since its publication in August 2017. I’d like to honor them here.
To those who are mentioned in the pages of The Last Resort:
And to those who patiently endured my questions about my father or his Lawrenceburg ties:
Pud’s mother died two months after he did, in June 1967 at age 81. Her health, both physical and mental, had been failing, so the family tried to keep from her the fact that her youngest son had died unexpectedly. Whether we were successful or not, we’ll never know.
Because I had lived in Baltimore until my father died, I never really knew my grandmother. I’m sure I was around her as a young child, but I have no recollection of having a conversation with her. I don’t remember her voice, her mannerisms, her interests.
I do recall how surprised I was not too long ago when my cousin Mac described sitting with our grandmother and listening to baseball games on the radio. Evidently she was an avid fan. I had no idea. I don’t think I had ever really thought of her as a person with hobbies or passions or opinions. She was simply my grandmother, an abstract that I had shown little curiosity about fleshing out.
Last week another cousin, Vince, sent us a copy of a note our grandmother had written to him in 1953. With just a few phrases, she came alive for me for the first time.
It starts out, “Dear Vincy, Awfully sorry you didn’t get to come down Sunday. You must take your medicine real good and hustle yourself down before it gets too cold to play out.”
She continues, “Mac has gone nuts over baseball and football. As cold as it was Sunday, he had his daddy out back playing ball with him. The little black pig has a room in the barn now right next door to the big pig. Kenneth’s big white rabbit is living in a coop nailed to the wall in the coal house. All fixed up for winter.
“Mac had a jaw tooth filled yesterday. Didn’t whoop and holler nary a bit. Love, Mamoo”
In that brief note, I learned how she spoke, what and whom she cared about, and what events preoccupied her thoughts, as well as a bit about the world she inhabited.
As I hunker down to finish the novel about my maternal grandfather—a man who remained a mystery to everyone in my family until recent research unearthed the outlines of his remarkable life—I recognize even more urgently the importance of perfecting each character’s voice. A few words, an idiomatic usage, a turn-of-phrase paints a better portrait of the individual than countless overdone descriptions. What a character chooses to say, and how he mutters it, reveals his values, his circumstances, his background, and how he views himself and others in his world.
Trying to bring my long-gone ancestors to life is a daunting undertaking. I make decisions daily about their language and their actions that may in no way reflect the reality of who they were. That is why I am writing fiction.
But, this week, I learned a great deal from reading one brief note casually penned by another ancestor. Not only did I learn about her, but I learned how to be a better writer.
I can almost feel my mother rolling over in her grave.
On October 11, 1991, exactly one month before she died, I remember finding her in the recliner positioned next to her bed, riveted to the television. She was watching Anita Hill testify before the Senate about the sexual harassment she had endured while working for Clarence Thomas.
My mother was a political junkie. She had watched endless hours of the Watergate hearings in the 1970s. According to the journal my father kept in the 1950s, they had both closely followed the Joseph McCarthy hearings. So I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me to see her following every detail of the shocking testimony.
But my mother was also in a losing battle with cancer, and I remember thinking it felt like a sad way to spend your final days. Her cancer had made this articulate, intelligent woman nearly mute, so it wasn’t possible for her to tell me what she thought about the spectacle. But it was discouraging for me to think that this might be her last image of the country her husband, already dead 24 years, had fought to defend.
My mother had worked in male-dominated businesses. She had been a chemist at two different Seagram’s distilleries. She had worked for the Navy in Hawaii during World War II. She had worked at a large university. She had worked for state government. I have to imagine that she had suffered sexual harassment at some point in her life. I can only hope it was not as degrading as what Hill so bravely described.
Of course, my mother had never mentioned any incidents of harassment to me. Nor had I ever told her about the sexual assaults I had experienced as a young woman. It never occurred to me to tell her—or anyone else, for that matter. I was fortunate in that my experiences did not seem to haunt me. Like so many, I felt I had somehow been at fault, although deep down I knew that was not true. I suppose I found the incidents embarrassing, a sign of my own weakness or naïveté. So I simply buried my memory of them and moved on.
Until I watched candidate Donald Trump brag about his penchant for sexually assaulting women. That moment brought everything back. To regain control over my own stories, I seethed in an op-ed about the presidential candidate’s behavior.
I’m in the majority, of course. In a January 2018 online survey sponsored by the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment and reported by NPR, 51 percent of women stated that they had been victims of unwelcome sexual touching. I’ll admit that number seems low to me. The survey also found that “81 percent of women and 43 percent of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime.”
In part because of the Anita Hill hearings, managers in workplaces across the country now receive regular training on how to handle accusations of sexual harassment. Most of us recognize that it is a pervasive problem that we are still struggling to address. Most of us understand that it is most commonly an abuse of power and has very little to do with sexual titillation.
Recently, we have all watched as women, spurred by the #MeToo movement, have found their voices and started naming the men who have victimized them. There has been a wave of courage, of provocative charges against people known and unknown in positions of power. In the last few days, a new movement, #WhyIDidntReport, has emerged in response to one of President Trump’s tweets.
And now, amid this backdrop, 27 years after Anita Hill attempted to educate the largely white male U.S. Senate about sexual harassment and its ramifications, we are once again watching a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court deny allegations of sexual assault. The accuser is once again female, educated, professional. I had hoped that the process for investigating the allegation might be handled with more sensitivity and more honesty than we have witnessed so far. It seems we’re hearing the same old excuses. The powerful men have not relinquished control. The kid gloves that they initially so carefully displayed have now come off and it appears to be fair game to attack or bully or belittle the accuser.
Why does it feel like nothing has changed?
I think of my mother staring intently as our Congressional leaders exposed their vile inhumanity and their naked self-interest, and I am once again ashamed.
The first time I recall encountering a snake in the wild was at Girl Scout camp. I was 7 years old.
My father had died about three months before and, at my uncle’s urging, my mother had moved what was left of our family from Baltimore to central Kentucky, closer to relatives. While staying at the rambling farm house of my aunt and uncle awaiting our move into a new home, my father’s mother—my only grandparent—died. My mother’s aunt and closest confidante suffered a stroke. There seemed to be no end to the calamity.
I loved staying with my cousins at their farm. But I was unmoored from all that I knew. My father’s absence seemed to confuse me less than the prospect of starting life over in a new town. I hated leaving my friends. On the other hand, my dad—a professor during the academic year and a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey during the summers—hadn’t been around much anyway. Did I miss him? I wasn’t sure yet.
As summer arrived, my cousins were preparing to go to camp. My mother and aunt (Charleen, the boys’ ready rescuer at The Last Resort) evidently thought it would be a good idea to send my sister and me, too, perhaps so we could be around children our age in a more normal environment, or perhaps to allow my mother a little privacy to grieve.
I was technically too young to attend the two-week camp, but the administrators had given me special permission. Everyone kept a watchful eye on me. I was not only the youngest camper; I was most certainly the tiniest.
But no one needed to worry. I loved every minute of it. I loved being deep in the woods of Morgan County. I loved sleeping outdoors in a tent modeled after a Conestoga wagon. I loved swimming in the brownish green water of the lake. And I particularly loved the hikes along the mountain trails.
So when one of our counselors first pointed out “Blackie,” the camp’s “pet” black racer, I was mesmerized. He was enormous—at least five or six feet long in my memory. It was a lighthearted moment. The 8- and 9-year-old veteran campers around me ooohed and ahhhhhed and called to him affectionately. Blackie took all the commotion in stride.
I was smitten. I became that child who always volunteered to handle snakes that were brought into the classroom. At home, I gently shooed the garter snakes out of the way of the lawn mower or the hedge clippers.
I can’t remember if we saw any other snakes that particular summer, although I encountered several over the succeeding years. (The image of the heavy rat snake coiled around the top of the latrine just above the seat is burned in my memory.) And I was fully aware that during every hike at least two counselors carried “snake sticks” and hatchets in case we came across a less companionable snake that needed to be disposed of for everyone’s safety.
All of these memories came to my mind recently after having yet another conversation about snakes with two friends who share a sincere fear of the reptiles. A large corner of their consciousness seems to be devoted to their phobia. During our conversation, I wondered aloud way I reacted so differently. After brief reflection, I’m sure it’s because snakes were first introduced to me as friends, family even. Important wildlife that we should not disturb. That we should respect.
During a recent paddle around our small lake, I experienced yet another flashback to Camp Judy Layne. I tucked my lightweight canoe into a cove deep in the woods, and the heavy vegetation and woodland smells transported me to my favorite childhood camp. After a dreadfully long stretch of dark and dreary days here in the Bluegrass, brilliant sunlight illumined the black oak leaves and the purple ironweed.
As I paddled out of the cove, I could see bluegill swimming just beneath the surface as if they, too, had been longing for the warmth of the sun. Several Great Blue Heron swooped and cackled at me, warning me away from their supper. Dinner-plate sized turtles didn’t bother to leave their posts on downed logs, daring me to disturb their sunbathing.
Perhaps, at some unconscious level, I learned at a tender age that the woods welcome us when our spirit has been wounded. That escaping into the woods can soothe the soul. The abundance of life there somehow gives back just what we need. Our personal afflictions can’t alter nature’s rhythms and cycles.
Even the snakes have a role and a certain majesty. And somehow that comforts me rather than frightening me.
Tim Cooper of Oakdale, Minn., responds to the recent post Whistling Past the Graveyard. If you would like to share your thoughts on Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
T. S. Eliot once wrote, “Great works of art always mean more than they are capable of expressing.” Whenever I return to Pud Goodlett’s journals in The Last Resort and reread his thoughts as a young man, I am reminded of Eliot’s quote, of how even something as apparently straightforward and unencumbered as a camp logbook can resonate with unexpected intent and purpose. I am particularly cognizant of Goodlett’s love of place and family, and how scholarly success never weakened his ties to Kentucky.
When I read Sallie Showalter’s recent blog—which mirrors this attachment to family and place—I realized there must be a mystical connection between people and location that sometimes transcends all else.
As I was growing up, my family moved a dozen times to a dozen different states while my parents pursued graduate degrees and visiting professorships. I learned early not to form an attachment to a place. I am also the only child of an only child, and I can count my remaining relatives on one hand. I am watching my mother die from Parkinson’s disease. So I use the term “mystical” deliberately when thinking of those who experience this ineffable pull of family and place. As a young man, I was unaware of its power. As I contemplate the latter phases of my life, as I extricate myself from the shackles of my career, I yearn for those ties to a constant place and to people who knew me way back when.
That, in a roundabout way, brings me to Pud’s wife, Mary Marrs, and my brief encounters with her when I was young. I recall her as a woman of unassailable beauty and grace. She, too, served her country during WWII by leaving her small-town home in central Kentucky and going to work for the Navy in Hawaii. (A tough gig, that.) Like many of the more fortunate members of her generation, she returned to her roots when the conflict concluded.
I must have been 15 years old, a friend of her older daughter, when I met her. She always treated me with the utmost kindness. One story will suffice: I’m not sure where her two daughters were, but she and I found ourselves in her kitchen, drinking coffee early one morning. We must have talked for an hour, and while I don’t remember the thread of our conversation, I do recall that she took me—a 15-year-old boy and all that that entails—seriously. I also recall her discussing her deceased husband and telling me how I would have liked him.
It was only years later, after the death of my own father at an absurdly young age, that I recognized in the eyes of my mother the look on Mrs. Goodlett’s face during that talk: a look of bereavement, confusion, controlled anger, and a sadness that cannot be articulated.
And just as Mary Marrs had returned to Lawrenceburg from her home in Maryland after Dr. Goodlett’s passing, so my own mother left Kentucky and returned to her family in Minnesota after my father’s death. The pull of place, of family, of familiarity surmounted the grip of artificial roots. And while we could argue whether these two women made the right decision, who can argue with the gravitational pull that lured them home?
Camus wrote: “There are places where the mind dies so that a truth which is its very denial can be born.” The human condition is absurd: we plan, we strive, we rely on rational, systematic thought to live. And yet, our mortality tells us that our existence is provisional and transitory; it is irrational. We carve out careers, and they crumble into insignificance when we visit the gravesites of our relatives; we remember our deceased loved ones in their vibrant youth, and yet we somehow live longer than they; we live in exciting locales among interesting friends, and yet our profound meaning comes from our place of origin.
It is, indeed, when we delve into and accept the irrational—the “dying of the mind”—that we find our true selves, our “truth.” And for those, like me, who do not have roots, who do not have a family or place which circles the wagons and protects us, this irrational absurdity compels us to act, to rebel, to define ourselves by our actions, by our choices.
Pud Goodlett, writing home about what he witnessed at the Nuremburg war crimes trials, wonders if his brother Vincent, an attorney who had served his country in England, would have found the events interesting. And his widow, talking about her deceased husband to a teen-age boy as though this untamed youth were the most important person she had ever met, perhaps unwittingly reveals the most profound truth she knows: family and place are what bind us to this earth, and to each other.