"Rebecca McClanahan’s multi-generational memoir artfully weaves together more than a century of family documents, oral history, and historical records. With poetic elegance, McClanahan transforms ordinary life events into meaningful life stories. The Tribal Knot is not only an engaging read, but a literary model for those who yearn to write their own family story." —Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, author of You Can Write Your Family History
The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Changeby Rebecca McClanahan
Are we responsible for, and to, those forces that have formed usour families, friends, and communities? Where do we leave off and others begin? In The Tribal Knot, Rebecca McClanahan looks for answers in the history of her family. Poring over letters, artifacts, and documents that span more than a century, she discovers a tribe of hardscrabble Midwest farmers
Are we responsible for, and to, those forces that have formed usour families, friends, and communities? Where do we leave off and others begin? In The Tribal Knot, Rebecca McClanahan looks for answers in the history of her family. Poring over letters, artifacts, and documents that span more than a century, she discovers a tribe of hardscrabble Midwest farmers, hunters, trappers, and laborers struggling to hold tight to the ties that bind them, through poverty, war, political upheavals, illness and accident, filicide and suicide, economic depressions, personal crises, and global disasters. Like the practitioners of Victorian "hair art" who wove strands of family members' hair into a single design, McClanahan braids her ancestors' stories into a single intimate narrative of her search to understand herself and her place in the family's complex past.
"Rebecca McClanahan has written a magnificent book. The Tribal Knot is a loving portrait of a family across its generations. More than a genealogical trail, this is the story of a distinctly Midwestern family who captured my heart. I fell in love with, quibbled with, and worried over these people as if they were my own. I celebrated their joys, grieved for their losses, and mourned their deaths. McClanahan does such a marvelous job of making her ancestors come alive in this loving reminder of the ties that bind." —Lee Martin, From Our House and Turning Bones
"To enter Rebecca McClanahan's memoir is to truly enter her life—her history, her geography, her tribe. The blending of photographs, letters, and diary entries into McClanahan's intelligent, lyrical and thoughtful prose makes this one of the fullest reading experiences I have had in a very long time." —Ann Hood, Comfort: A Journey through Grief and The Knitting Circle
"Book like no other I’ve read, The Tribal Knot combines genres to become something entirely new. Memoir, novel, genealogy, biography, survivor’s testimony, study of generations of women, love story, catalogue of precious quotidian details, and portrait of Twentieth Century American life, this book takes us where we’ve all been wanting to go but haven’t until now seen how to get there. In this brilliant revitalizing of the oldest narrative we know, Rebecca McClanahan demonstrates how our lives depend on the story of our human family and why we can never get enough of it." —David Huddle, Nothing Can Make Me Do This and Blacksnake at the Family Reunion
"This lovely, unsentimental memoir spins the multiple strands of McClanahan's family past into a living tapestry going back into the nineteenth century Midwest. I have never seen the familial panorama captured as living knowledge in such a moving way. Tragedies lie alongside daily struggles with McClanahan's own formation becoming intuitively known to the reader as she conjures her knot. When her time rolls around we already know her well. This is an unsparing book that is pulled into true by enduring attachment." —Suzannah Lessard, author of The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family
"Far from a disinterested historian, she relishes her role in the family...Her joy is impossible to miss. Her curiosity about long-dead ancestors and her sympathy for the hard-working farm women are equally vivid." —Niche
"Far from a disinterested historian, she relishes her role in the family...Her joy is impossible to miss. Her curiosity about long-dead ancestors and her sympathy for the hard-working farm women are equally vivid." Niche
"Book like no other I’ve read, The Tribal Knot combines genres to become something entirely new. Memoir, novel, genealogy, biography, survivor’s testimony, study of generations of women, love story, catalogue of precious quotidian details, and portrait of Twentieth Century American life, this book takes us where we’ve all been wanting to go but haven’t until now seen how to get there. In this brilliant revitalizing of the oldest narrative we know, Rebecca McClanahan demonstrates how our lives depend on the story of our human family and why we can never get enough of it." David Huddle, Nothing Can Make Me Do This and Blacksnake at the Family Reunion
Read an Excerpt
The Tribal Knot
A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change
By Rebecca McClanahan
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Rebecca McClanahan
All rights reserved.
To read another's diary is to enter a private chamber. When the diarist is a sixteen-year-old girl, the trespass takes on another dimension. And when that sixteen-year-old girl is a long-dead aunt, the world flips on its axis. In the life we lived together, Bessie was seventy years my senior—always, and only, it seemed to me, old. My life stretched before me; hers, I supposed, was already gone. In the diary life we now share, she is nearly young enough to be my own great-niece. Even more disturbing is the time-warp quality of our encounter. Though her words toss me one hundred and ten years into the past, she abides in the pulsing, present-tense now. Sometimes, in the middle of an entry, she disappears for a few hours to attend to ironing or churning, or to answer her younger sister's call, returning to the page as if out of breath or flushed from the weedy garden's heat, or rapturous from a sleigh ride with cousins and friends.
Each page of a diary fills only with now. So, Bessie's diary of 1897 muscles along, day by calendar day, an inchworm making its blind progress with little care for what has gone before and no knowledge of what lies ahead, beyond a girl's vague landscape of hopes and dreams. I cannot reach through the pages and take her hand, warn her of what is to come. And if I could, would it change her course of action? The global things, of course, will be out of her control: the four wars she will live through, the bread lines, foreclosures and riots, the 1920s march of the Klan through Indiana towns, the assassination of a beloved president. But there are choices closer to home that she might make, roads diverging. If she knew in advance how the lives of those she loves would play out, would she choose not to grow so close to them? Not to visit the doomed family in Wisconsin or take in the smells of her mother's kitchen or toss the wedding rice over her cousin's shoulders as she leaps with her groom onto the train platform? Would foreknowledge of her brother's fate change her actions—her absence at the hard end, the regret she would carry to her death? And if she knew that one day a great-niece would sift through the diary and through stacks of letters and documents that open the closed doors of the family's past, would she have firmly closed that door? Locked up the evidence and thrown away the key? Or would she have given it all, gladly, into my hand?
* * *
Half a century later, I'm still not sure why, on our family's summer visits to Tippecanoe County, Indiana, I chose to spend much of my time at Briarwood, the falling-down cabin stuffed with stray cats, dusty Mason jars, and stacks of outdated National Geographic. Maybe I wanted to be special, to be the only child of someone, even if that someone was Great-aunt Bessie. Not that I hadn't already had plenty of alone time with Bessie on and off throughout my earliest years. Childless, widowed, at times annoyingly eccentric, my grandmother's older sister had "traveling feet" as she used to say. Briarwood might have been "the old home place" and Bessie its last remaining resident, but she kept her suitcase packed at all times, joining our family wherever my Marine Corps father's orders happened to take us.
None of my siblings stayed at Briarwood longer than a few hours. They couldn't wait to get back to our grandparents' farm, to the creek and barn and chickens and horses, to Grandma Sylvia's cherry pies and rides in Grandpa Arthur's hand-built sulky cart. Plus, by then the Circle S farm had running water and a television that, if you positioned the rabbit ears just so, could get three stations. Briarwood was another story altogether. Arriving there was like climbing into the cartoon WABAC machine with Mr. Peabody and Sherman and going back, way back, in time. The only downstairs bedroom was so small that it barely contained the creaky iron bed and the dresser with its pitcher and wash basin. Bessie and I shared the bed, which was fitted with a feather mattress and several handmade quilts. On the floor beside the bed—careful where you stepped!—she'd stationed a white-enameled slop jar, though Bessie preferred the term "chamber pot." On nights when I was too scared or lazy to make my way to the outhouse, I would crouch beside the bed and "do my business," another phrase Bessie preferred to the cruder expressions my Indiana cousins used.
The outhouse sat at the far end of what had once been, according to Aunt Bessie, my great-grandfather's raised garden beds. I hated outhouses, but over the years I'd learned to deal with them. Like the outhouse at my grandparents' farm, this was a two-seater, built for company on lizard nights. At Circle S I could usually convince Mother or one of my sisters to accompany me, to stand outside and guard the door (from what, I'm still not sure) or, if circumstances demanded, to share a seat beside me. I never actually sat. There was too much life crawling beneath the hole cut in the wooden bench, and I was not about to spread myself over such dangerous and unseen territory. I would squat on my haunches until my thighs trembled, but I would not sit.
Much of my time with Bessie was spent in the kitchen, an open room with an oak table, a high cabinet stacked with books and magazines, and a daybed that served as a sofa. Near the window, at the end of a long porcelain sink, a hand pump sprouted, attached to a cistern that had never worked and never would. First thing in the morning, the favorite time of day for both of us, Bessie would climb out of bed, button a sweater over her nightgown, lace up her low-heeled black shoes, and make her way out the kitchen door, across a covered porch, and down fifteen steep steps that led to the well house. This cold, dark space, located beneath a tiny outdoor kitchen, had been carved from the slope of a hill leading to a branch of Wildcat Creek. By the time Bessie made it back up the steps, bucket in hand, I was rummaging in the cabinets for Cheerios or Wheaties. Outside the screen door, a posse of wild barn cats had gathered, yowling for breakfast. But before she fed them, Bessie filled the percolator basket with coffee she'd ground the night before in a hand-cranked grinder. Within a few minutes, the cats were fed and the glass bubble on the top of the percolator had commenced its Maxwell House dance. Aunt Bessie drank her coffee black, in a chipped cup with a saucer to catch any spills should a cat startle her by leaping onto her lap or onto the table where I tried, usually without success, to guard my bowl of cereal.
Sometime in the early 1950s, power lines had been run to Briarwood, but Bessie did not splurge. Yes for the icebox, and yes for the overhead light in the main room, and of course yes for the radio she kept on the kitchen counter. She switched it on each morning to check the weather report from the Purdue station, a habit from her farming days. Bessie still owned forty acres (several miles from Briarwood) that a neighbor, Eldon Zink, worked for her. He stopped by every few days to see if she needed anything from town. Short, with a pronounced hump on his back, Eldon resembled a fairy tale dwarf, but he had a soft, soothing voice and his face verged on handsome. He and his brother lived with their mother a few miles down the road. To my knowledge, neither son had ever married. Eldon was young in Bessie years, perhaps twenty years her junior. Still, he seemed old to me, too old to be living with his mother. Sometimes I imagined he might "fancy" Bessie. "Fancy?" Good grief, I'd been around her so long, I was starting to imagine in her language.
Where our days at Briarwood went, I'm not sure. They went, though, more quickly in memory than while I was living them. Aunt Bessie took her time: coffee, radio, outhouse, stove, sink, wash basin, bureau, closet. This is not to say that she was lazy. Every waking moment was filled with activity, each action purposeful and deliberate. Bessie Denton Mounts Cosby did not lounge. Unlike some women of her age who live alone, she did not pass her days in housecoat and slippers. She dressed for the day: white underwear, white brassiere, full slip with adjustable straps, cotton blouse, skirt and belt. Girdle and stockings, she saved for town or for visits to neighbors; on cabin days, she wore socks with her walking shoes.
After breakfast, we hiked to nearby woods, stopping to pick berries and wildflowers or, on occasion, apron loads of mushrooms that Bessie would later slice to cook in butter. The dandelion greens she craved grew along the roadside, and we'd carry baskets to collect them in. Once, we walked all the way along the creek road to Salem Cemetery, a small, well-kept graveyard surrounded by leafy trees that cast shadows across the grass. Bessie's parents were buried there. Her husband, too, and one of Bessie's brothers. I'd never known Uncle Dale, but Bessie talked about him a lot, much more than she talked about her other brothers—maybe, I imagined, because Dale was dead and my other great-uncles weren't. That made him more special, I guessed.
Afternoons, Bessie puttered in the garden, which by that time was mostly weeds. Mosquitoes and bees swarmed around her head, but she never got bit or stung. I stayed inside, swabbing mosquito and chigger bites with alcohol-dipped cotton balls and trying not to scratch the reddened welts. Some days I'd read a Nancy Drew book, or cut Betsy McCall paper dolls from magazines that Aunt Barbara had given me, or rummage in the bureau where Bessie kept old books inscribed with names of people I'd never known. One afternoon, after falling asleep over an unfinished crossword puzzle, I woke on the daybed with a strong urge to use the toilet. Hoping to make short work of this, I grabbed a roll of toilet paper from the cabinet near the screen door and headed out across the porch and down the weedy path to the outhouse. I lifted the latch and opened the door.
There sat Aunt Bessie, her skirt arranged around her like the pleats of an open fan, her black walking shoes dangling inches from the floor. She was holding a book close to her eyes and leaning toward a crack between two boards where a sliver of sunlight leaked through. She looked up from the book and smiled. "Welcome to my library," she said. I mumbled a hurried "excuse me" and turned to leave. It was one thing to share the two-seater with Mother, Jenny, Claudia, or, in emergencies, Grandma Sylvia. But Great-aunt Bessie?
"Have a seat. I won't bite," she said. "Did you finish the crossword?" I shook my head no. I was rocking back and forth, certain now that I would never make it to the bushes. Wishing I had a fan of skirts to cover myself with, I pulled down my shorts and fixed my gaze straight ahead. When I was finished I reached for the toilet paper, made a covert swipe, pulled up my shorts, and left, hurrying out the door without a word.
* * *
Nights, after the thrill of lightning bugs subsided, after the last cat was fed and shooed out the screen door, after I'd soaked my chigger-bitten ankles in the washtub water sprinkled with baking soda, I'd climb up onto the daybed to read. Usually, Bessie was already there with a National Geographic open on her lap, lost in some Aztec ruin or snowy Himalayan peak. Sometimes she would put her magazine down, turn to me, and out of nowhere, start telling stories. Made-up stories, mostly, patched together from bits of the books she'd read when she was young, with plots that featured orphaned girls who pull themselves up "by their own bootstraps" as she liked to say, to become well-bred ladies who travel "hither and yon" among "the finest people."
On occasion, Aunt Bessie would talk about her family's early years here at Briarwood, when her youngest brothers were still schoolboys. Things were "altogether different than they are now," she'd say, going on to describe the swimming hole where neighbors gathered on Sundays, the summer kitchen, smokehouse, open-sided milking stable, the family's pet albino squirrel and cookie-grabbing raccoon. I'd glance around the dark, musty room, unable to conjure the lively home she recalled, with the tiny alcove housing Great-grandpa Mounts's reading chair and Great-grandma's sewing machine and flower boxes.
My favorite stories were about Sylvia, Bessie's younger sister. I'd seen photos of my grandmother when she was a young woman—holding a long stringer of fish, stretched out in a "bathing costume" on the banks of Ottawa Beach, perched up high in the branch of a tree or on a woodpile—so I was able to imagine her when Bessie told the runaway pony story. I could see Sylvia's long, black hair, and her strong chin and pretty face with the slightly upturned nose.
"Back then, traffic wasn't like it is now," Bessie began. "You didn't see much out on our little road. We had a little dun pony then. I didn't ride him but Sylvia did, you know your grandmother always loved horses. But she was just a girl then, maybe ten or eleven. One day—it was a hot summer day—the front door was open so we could catch a breeze. We'd let the pony out of the stable and he was feeding in the pasture near the road. Brother was sitting in the living room." ("Brother," I knew, referred to Bessie's brother Dale). "Back from one of his trips I guess, and I'd come in to tell him something, when suddenly we heard a loud noise and Dale jumped up from his chair—'What in the dickens?'—and both of us hurried to the door just in time to see that pony galloping right past us, too close to the road, then making a turn like he was heading back to the stable and then he was gone. And the next thing we knew, here he came again, and there she was, Sylvia, on the back of that pony, and she hadn't a thing to hold on to but a bit of his mane. She was riding that pony! Not a thing to hold on to but his mane!
"Now, that's something I couldn't do," Bessie said, shaking her head side to side. "That's what I said later, after everything calmed down and Sylvia led the pony back to the stable. Something I could never do.
"Of course, we didn't always live here," she continued. "We lived in Clinton County for a while. And before that, we lived down in Switzerland County." Bessie took a deep breath and leaned forward on the daybed. Oh no, I thought, another history lesson: the Mounts ancestors, the Mead ancestors. Rising Sun, Indiana.
"You were born in Switzerland County," I offered, dredging up the one detail I was able to keep straight. "Near a river."
Bessie nodded. "The Ohio. Dale was born there too. And of course our parents were too, a long time ago."
To a child of ten or eleven, at least to the child I was, nothing was more boring than hearing about relatives you'd never met. Dead relatives. Dead for years, decades. Forever. But the stories seemed so important to Bessie, the least I could do was pretend to listen. Again. So, I learned that Bessie's mother—I had trouble remembering her name—had been born during the Civil War. She lived alone with her mother, and they were very poor. Sometimes they went hungry. Later, the little girl's mother got married again, so the little girl had a baby sister, and a baby brother too. But the mother died when the girl was eleven.
My age, I thought, my interest perking up.
After the mother died, the children had to live apart, with different families. Hattie didn't see her siblings for a long time. As Bessie spoke, I thought about my own brothers and sisters, how it would feel to live apart from them. I liked it when they went away to sleepovers or to camp—I got more of Mom's attention. But to never see them? Especially our baby sister Lana, who'd only recently arrived on the scene? As for a mother dying, I couldn't let myself think about that. Just a few days after Dad had brought Lana and Mom home, Mom was rushed back to the hospital at Fort Belvoir. "Complications" was the word we heard. She was gone for days, all of us pitching in to take care of the new baby while Dad drove back and forth between hospital and home. It was weeks before we learned how close we had come to losing our mother.
"Who lived there, again?" I asked, resurfacing from my daydream. "In the house by the river?"
"My mother, Hattie, after her mother died. Her grandfather took care of her."
"The Mississippi River, right?"
"The Ohio," Bessie answered, shaking her head. I was a hopeless case.
"Sorry," I said. "Tell me one more time."
Bessie would take a deep breath, pause, and begin again. The lesson went something like this: "We'll start at the beginning, one generation at a time. Starting with you. Your mother's name is ..."
Excerpted from The Tribal Knot by Rebecca McClanahan. Copyright © 2013 Rebecca McClanahan. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Rebecca McClanahan, the author of nine previous books, including The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, which won the Glasgow award in nonfiction, is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the Wood Prize from Poetry, and fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council.
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