From Whence?

January 24, 2011

Now and then I think about my grandfather's birth and death dates. He was born in 1878.

I have a general impression, from what my father told me, from my own memory, and from some of my grandfather's letters, that James Roland Turner was not the kind of father I would now admire. Yet he was cherished by his own children, more than cherished, actually. He was considered to be a great man. My father would say from time to time that his father had been a "gorgeous" man. That was not the type vocabulary my father generally used. Certainly, I would not say that about him.

Why do I say my grandfather was not admirable? Because he was a tyrant. But I should remember that a style of tyranny was expected of men of his generation, that is men who were respectable. My grandfather, to the extent I have ever heard, was extremely respectable.

We say -- or at least we used to say -- that the child is father of the man. I have no right to make any sort of judgment of my grandfather because I know nothing about his boyhood. I met his father, that is, my great grandfather, several times when I was a child of about eight. I remember him fairly well. I recall vividly some of the stories he told me about the Civil War. He was about my age when Sherman's army swept through northern Georgia. He regarded the Union soldiers as vulgar, vicious vandals. They stole his mother's hog, which was about the only food they had to get them through the winter of 1864. He hated all the Yankees the rest of his life, and he told me I should hate them too. In fact, he made me pledge to hate them. It's pledge I have since broken, only one of many infidelities of my life. But in a way I didn't so much break it as extend it beyond the Yankees to much of the human race. When I read Nietzsche's admonition, "Too long the earth has been a madhouse," I thought of Leonard Turner.

These are things I know from my own experience about my great grandfather. But I know nothing about what kind of father he was and, therefore, nothing about the fate James Roland experienced at his hands.

I have wondered, what was it like for James Roland to be twelve years old in 1890? The United States in that year, according to the Census, had a population of 62, 947, 714. People were disappointed when the figure was released. They expected more. They wanted more. More was better. I wonder what they would say if we were able to tell them that now we have about 312 million and that we wish we had fewer. Would they think we had become perverse?

I don't know how James Roland spent the days of 1890. I guess he spent them in the way of most farm children, but I don't know. I don't know what books he read. I don't know where he went to school. I know absolutely nothing about the intellect of his teachers. Something must have happened because he became a great reader. By the time I came to know anything about him, he possessed more books than anyone else in Floyd County, Georgia, and was modestly famous for having them. It wasn't a great number by modern standards, maybe eight hundred, or so. But that was a big thing when I was a little boy. I have a few of them now, but not as many as I could have had.

My grandfather made me promise that when I got older I would read certain books (the Turners were big on making little boys promise to do things). Some of them I have read and some of them I haven't. My sense is that my grandfather had generally middlebrow tastes, though, perhaps, rising above that level with respect to history. I can see his books in my mind's eye, placed carefully in built-in cases along one wall of the main hall in his house in Armuchee, Georgia. They weren't bad, or cheap, books, but neither were they particularly profound.  I don't recall there being any Plato, or Aristotle there.

One of the novels I promised him I would read, and have not, was Lloyd C. Douglas's The Robe. It is still in print and has eighty-seven customer reviews posted on Amazon, most of them wildly favorable.  Perhaps I should force myself to read it some day, in honor of J. Roland. But I doubt I would be as impressed by it as he was.

In any case, there he is, looming above me, tall in my memory. I can hear the tone of his voice. But what do I really know? Not very much.

I relate these few stories not as a claim that they are anything distinctive. Actually they are distressingly common. Most of us know little about our grandparents -- what they thought, what they hoped, what the richness, or poverty, of their inner lives was. We came gushing out of them, flushed into a world we couldn't begin to understand, thrashing towards the future, lost in the sea of life -- to use overwrought metaphors.

It might be healthy to know our ancestors better than we do. I hope my grandchildren will know me more fully that I know J. Roland. That's one of the reasons I write things like this.

And I hope too, for some reason I don't fully understand, that J. Roland had a more joyous life than I sometimes think he did.

©John R. Turner

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