Voices

June 17, 2009

My parents were married 18 years before I was born, and Iím an only child.
†† Dad always said he didnít want children. He is reputed to have told my mother, when she announced she was expecting, ďI knew I should have divorced you a long time ago!Ē This might have been family urban legend, except for the other story that makes it more believable, in which he told her repeatedly over those 18 years that ďwe arenít smart enough to raise kids.Ē Throughout my life, anytime I did anything stupid, heíd look over at her and say, ďSee?Ē
†† But along I came, and I had great parents, my fatherís misgivings over fatherhood notwithstanding. Being born so late, though, all my cousins the same generation as me are older. I called most of them ďauntĒ and ďuncleĒ as a kid, because thatís how I saw them.
†† There naturally wasnít a whole lot of common ground between us. In many other families, this might have led to a lifetime of estrangement.
†† My fatherís only sibling, my Uncle Ray, died far too young, at 51, in 1977. He was the man who started me reading science fiction. He had one son, Jim Ray, and two daughters.
†† I guess it was five or six years ago that Jim made a fateful Ė in a positive sense Ė trip to the Rez. That branch of the family lives in the Ft. Worth area, which in fact is where Dad was raised too. In the old days we saw each other at least twice a year, as one branch or the other would make the sojourn to see their distant kin. Life, and the passing of so many of the family, curtailed much of that until such reunions were years and years apart.
†† But Jim came, and true to the nature of the Stouff men, we went fishing in Dadís old wooden boat that he built in 1962. And probably due to my maturing over the years in between, we made a connection that has grown stronger each year, despite the 17 years between us.
†† Jim and his wife, Cindy, were here last weekend, and brought a terrific gift: a DVD of old 8mm movies they made in the 1970s. We all sat down Sunday afternoon to watch.
†† As the clips rolled, long-sleeping memories awakened, stretched and moved to the front of my recollections. First it was the locations: I suddenly remembered Uncle Rayís backyard, the inside of the house, the garden and the flowers. Then it was the people.
†† There was my Uncle Ray, and though the old 8mm footage had no sound, I could hear his voice as clearly as if the last time I heard it were yesterday, when in fact 32 years have gone by. He was young and hale, long before he got sick, clowning with the family dog and a chew toy, and if there had been a sound track, Iím sure he would have been laughing.
†† There were the cousins, and my aunt, and later, a few minutes of the 50th anniversary party they threw for my grandparents in Ft. Worth.
†† And so there they were. My grandfather, Emile Anatole Stouff, as big as life on film as he was in reality, a powerful presence in any room. He was so dark he faded into the shadows unless the camera was right on him in good light, the brown of his Indian skin a monotone red-brown in 8mmís dulled colors. And there she was, Faye Rogers Stouff, stately, elegant and lithe, immaculately dressed and hair in a tight bun behind her head.
†† There was no sound, but the voices rang in my ears, hers, his, theirs. I hadnít heard his since 1978, and hers since 1997. But there were as crisp and clear as sudden truth, words not so much associated with the films, but with the moments that have collected in jumbled piles in the corners of my consciousness, needing organizing, waiting for me to dust them off and put them on shelves:
†† This is where God lives, he said from a patch of river cane somewhere near St. Martinville as we took a break from cutting the long stalks for basket weaving.
†† A little brown bird that could talk to the Chitimacha, warn them of rain, enemies, friends, fortune, even death, she said from the kitchen table in the old house, a cup of coffee steaming in her hand.
†† Donít cut your finger with it, my Uncle Ray said, as he handed me my very first pocketknife. I didnít.
†† What a thoughtful and important gift. And it got me to thinking of the other things I have, the metaphorical boxes I havenít had the courage to open.
†† My spirit hasnít been right yet. I have a bunch of VHS tapes of my father, recorded by news reporters, historians and the like over many, many years, some while he was the chief, some while he was the chairman, many during his years as tribal historian. Heís been gone nearly 10 years now, and youíd think I would have plugged one of them in by now, but no, other than a brief couple of minutes to introduce him to Suzie. Why? I donít know. My spirit hasnít been ready, I guess. Maybe itís getting nearer, now, after watching Jimís old movies.
†† Even more: I have audio CDs that are copies of the recordings made on old wax cylinders in 19-aught-something by Morris Swadesh, a linguist who collected the Chitimacha language. On those recordings is my great-grandmother, Delphine, speaking in Chitimacha and English.
†† Youíll likely marvel that I have never listened to them. Delphine left this world in 1940, more than 20 years before I was born.
†† By electronic magic, technological sorcery, her voice will float across the span of nearly a hundred years and vibrate the membranes in my ear to be resurrected. Have you a notion of how powerful that experience will be? I long for it and fear it, all at once.
†† What do I fear? I donít know. Perhaps that opening the unopened box will leave a void of its own. Maybe that I canít bear the timbre and pitch of what Iíll hear, or color and tone of what Iíll see on the tapes, and fall to pieces. I expect there will be power in Delphineís words, the last medicine woman of the nation, and perhaps I fear Iíll swoon under it, collapse and awaken transformed into an animal, or a green, glowing light.
†† I donít know. But the time is getting near to look and listen.
††