I’ve been thinking a lot about patterns, mostly family patterns. Last Sunday, David’s brother Phil Gulley, a Quaker minister, preached at our church. Phil is also an author. One of his books, If Grace is True, which he wrote with James Mullholland is a meditation on God’s mercy that jellified my worldview a few years back in a way that both comforted and disturbed me.
His ideas must have affected him in a similar way, because his sermon focused on how some people, including him, are not called to rest in the “good enough” place of comfortable ideas.
During his talk Phil threw out a phrase that I meant to write down. I didn’t, so I’m remembering it now as “family habits.”
He was speaking metaphorically, but the reference to family set my mind spinning. I started to wonder how I ever ended up living 500 miles away from my parents; me, who cried when my parents left me in my freshman dorm room for the first time.
My mom’s sister, her kids and grandkids, have never left the town where she and my mom were raised. They are all settled within 20 miles of each other and are a part of one another’s daily lives. But my mom married a man, eventually my dad, who traveled to find work. Soon they settled an hour away from her home, not far by today’s measures, but a world away for an Arkansas farm girl in the early 60s.
My mom married when she was 18 and for the first several months of their life together she made my dad drive her to my grandparent’s house every weekend until he finally had enough and said she could go on her own, which she did.
My mom’s family put down deep roots in the Ozark foothills, while my dad’s family moved around quite a bit, mostly for practical reasons. Sometimes I wonder if my willingness to move and its marriage to a perpetual low-grade wistfulness for home is a fusion of those two types of connection to place. I also wonder if Southerners aren’t just cursed, or blessed, depending on your perspective, with an addiction to the humid history that makes up their family’s most prized possession—it’s uniquely grand story, the setting of which is often the star of the show. Moving away means unraveling your personal thread from that tapestry, in my case to the point that I sometimes feel as if I am dangling so loosely that God’s scissors will trim me and work me into another fabric.
Historically, even my mom’s family has uprooted itself. If you ever stop by the tiny community of Pangburn, AR you are likely to run into someone related to me. The remains of our common ancestors can be found beneath a grove of large Oak trees along with a historical marker that tells the story of a 19th century family that ventured as a clan from Appalachia to the Ozarks and birthed this small town. My Aunt Judy tells me they settled by the Little Red River first, but the bugs became too much for them so they headed for the thinner air of the hills where mountain music echoes better anyway.
While the hassle of air travel today makes going by covered wagon seem posh in comparison, it is true that modern technology has changed how frequently we move and how far away. I wonder though how different our reasons for doing so are. Aren’t we still interested in doing better by our family or finding places where we fit better and are not as disenfranchised because we are different? Then there is the almost religious sense of calling to destiny that has kept the world’s population in motion for at least as long as recorded history.
But how to keep that family fabric from unraveling? For me, that’s the tricky part.