Echoes from the Holler: Family Memory

Left to right: Micheal “Mitch” Napier (father), French Napier (grandfather), Elias Napier (son), and me, circa 2009. Wayne, WV, Damron Branch Rd.

This past week has been a year in the making.

On July 23, 2022, my extended family would meet again for the first time since my late fathers passing in February of 2017. Like many large families, it seems funerals are about the only thing that still bring folks together. Even weddings aren’t quite as popular nowadays for kin folk.

The gathering would include my aunts, uncles, and several cousins. If all the family had shown up, we would have been over 50 strong, but, given the pull of life, we ended up with half attendance (25 in total). Not too bad for the first officially announced family reunion in over a decade.

July 23 is not a random date; it is the wedding anniversary of my grandparents, who wed 7/23/48, and whom shed their mortal coil in 2012 and 2014.

There are two miracles here.

The first, that 2 people, my late grandparents French and Elizabeth Napier, would be the genesis of so many. Once life is set in motion through love, charity, and a little youthful brashness, it is remarkable the world it can create. It should make us cringe at the weight of our decisions when realizing how the decision of two can create a world of many.

Make wise choices my friends.

From two, there came many: Ex Duobos Multis

Secondly, that even half the family would show up, was an achievement. For those who came, it was worth the drive and energy to share the table once again with those bound by blood, geography, and story.

If grandkids and Ceredo’s world-famous Austin’s ice cream can’t break the iceberg of conversation, then I am afraid even Jesus may tell you you’re out of luck.

Time may lapse, relational threads may be strained, but there is something in the unity of the parts, and the collective memory of the units, that overcome the chasm of time and silence.

As we prepared to drive to Huntington, WV, for the weekend, my 14-year-old son inquired of his mother, “so, why are we going to this again?” His enthralling weekend of staring at a screen was about to be derailed for the archaic practice of “family reunion” and he wanted to know why.

Of course, he didn’t ask me; it’s my family reunion, my side of the family. I only heard of his question via my wife.

The kid is wondering, what exactly is the point? Why go through the trouble?

But indeed, why should he care? He last saw most of these people when his grandfather died 5 years ago. What is the point of seeing persons with whom you do not share regular life, separated as it were by miles, vocations, faith persuasions, and years?

The world is full of arguments against the family, that forlorn and disparaged institution that has become a cultural millstone of antiquity hanging about our necks. So many take a stab at it, yet so few believe in it enough to live it out.

For many, the idea of family is broken, and dis-eased, becoming the seedbed of the unfortunate fortunes of many a psychologist, psychiatrist, or pharmaceutical company.

Yet, culture has protested too much, not due to the failure of the institution, but due to the failure of many to preserve the practices for which the institution was intended. The failure of embodied virtues has led to the degradation of what was once an august institution throughout our culture. Perhaps this is why families make it a point to attend funerals more than weddings; it seems only one of these last forever anymore.

I digress.

The big question he was asking was not “why hang out with these people?” even though that is how it sounded.

The question he was really asking was “why does family matter? Where are the ties that bind?”

He is growing up in a world with weak public and private institutions, cloaked by a culture of failed relationships and non-existent families, and promoting the authenticity of the self as the locus of all meaning, purpose, and authority. The humans of his world spend time losing time in virtual reality instead of making time and history with the time that has been given. It is a narcissistic world, bending toward self-gratification instead of one another.

In this world, why do we need those we do not see?

When the screen is brightly burning in our hands, is there still room for the imagination of oral history and the sounds of children running through the sprinklers and chasing crawdads in the creek?

Given our cultural context, thinking about the extended family seems a worthwhile goal.

There are three reasons this reunion was important for me and necessary to attend. I share these here with you, as I did with my son, the evening before we departed.

First, my father is no longer with us. He was the family conduit: the friend, brother, helper, listener, measured giver of advice. Several aunts and uncles have confessed how much they miss being able to call him, one even saying, “there are times I wake up, sit up out of bed, and say out loud, “man, I miss my brother!”

His is the sort of absence that is a presence. He’s not here and you know it, you feel it.  

He was not easily provoked nor judgmental. When his family had difficulty speaking to one another, they could always speak to him, and in a family so large (8 living brothers and sisters when he was alive) there is always sure to be misunderstanding and miscommunication. But my father was steady.

When his father was close to passing way, and still had his faculties, he had one request of my dad, “Mick, keep the family together.” My father rehearsed these lines in the eulogy he gave over his father lying in state.

My grandfather passed in 2014 and I know my dad took that injunction to heart.

Unfortunately, my father would pass away just 3 years after his own father at 65 years young. What he believed would be decades away, happened in a mere 30 months, and suddenly.

Now, I am the remainder of my father, his leftovers for the world.

As his son, when people that knew him see me, they also see him. I am no longer my own; I am what is left of him even as I am myself. If he were living, he would be in Huntington, WV, on July 23, 2022, and he would do so in anticipation and with thanksgiving. Because I am his son I was there. I am not my father, and surely no one would mistake us, but I am his son and that’s certainly not nothing. I will do my part to help keep together what time, space, and culture seek to sunder.

Secondly, I have lived with this group of people. I know them; they know me. We have a love for one another that goes deeper then acts of service or the typical commodification of relationships. We do not love one another because of what we get out of the family tree, but because we share the same roots. The love we have for one another is a gift; it is grace, preceding all of us and earned by none.

Time would fail me to write of all we have shared or the giant vin diagram that would be needed to illustrate how we overlap, and yet are distinct, within the same story.

If I told you where my grandparents lived, you’d never believe it.

In a quaint holler, down what was once an old dirt road, at the end of a mountain path with turns you can kiss yourself on, they lived in a flat between two mountains. As you pulled in the dirt driveway, you had to be careful to drive to one side of the road, as the wrong side had a rut that would reach up and grab your car if you let it. They used a wood burning stove and pumped their water from the limestone under their feet, which ironically had the smell of sulfur. When I was younger, this romantic scene seemed a little like an uncivilized hell. The only light outside in the evening was the light on the telephone pole and the stars at night. There was a working toilet, but I have been there when even that could not be taken for granted.

To this place, my family, these people, would gather and tell stories on the front porch, share holidays, hunting seasons, and even a few family fights. We would play cards, eat hamburgers grandma made us at 10pm after a long day of travel, and wake up to the sound of my grandfather stomping around the house at 6 am as if we all weren’t visiting company. The legend of grandma’s milk gravy and biscuits lives on in all of our lives. What I wouldn’t give for one more breakfast made by those hands.

We all shared the same big fish stories of the catfish in the pond on the hill, the buck that got away, the chiggers we brought home from the hill while picking fresh blackberries for grandmas pies, and grandpa’s tales of discipline that seemed like a perverse civilian version of Marine bootcamp.

We have laughed, cried, and doubted one another.

We have buried loved ones and married them off.

We have shared the tales of divorce, heartache, and prison sentences.

We have shared the joys of bocci ball, wiffle ball, four-wheeling, gardening, farming, and watching grandad skin a deer on the kitchen table without sanitizing anything.

And don’t even ask about grandpa’s famous “joggin juice”

What we share is so unbelievable most people would call us liars, but as one cousin said this weekend, “it’s all true.”

We come from Scottish stock that migrated to these mountains from the Chesapeake Bay and became Appalachian people, and we have the oral history to prove it (not to mention a lot of documentation as well). While we may not always get along, we share more than what pulls us apart, and sometimes that makes us angry, but it’s the truth; we can neither deny it, nor forget it. This is the essence of family.

And the thing is, I don’t share these stories with anyone but these people.

I can share them with you, but I can never make them yours. These are our stories. Not a person on the planet knows them, remembers them, or cares about them, as much as the people that gathered in Huntington, WV, this past weekend for our branch of a Napier family reunion.

I have a family of my own, a wife of two decades, and four children, but many of these stories pre-exist them. These are stories of life lived long ago, rehearsed around campfires, abandoned towns and creeks, front porches, kitchen tables, and creaky living room floors.

I went to West Virginia this past weekend to live once again with these people who re-member what I re-member; out of many stories, one family: E Pluribus Unum.

Lastly, this means that family matters because inside the auspices of family is shared collective memory. In a shattered world, devoid of purpose and identity, collective memory has never been more important.

The world is full of people who are disconnected from others, and for a myriad of reasons.

This post cannot diagnose the ills that plague society, or how they emerged, but a consequence of the integration of modernity and technology has been the deconstruction of loci of identity in persons and in communities. This has led to a rash of loneliness, despair, and lack of purpose. Many live in a world in which they are nameless, and therefore, homeless (literally and metaphorically).

The world needs persons that are connected to a local sense of belonging and shared life that fosters the virtues of empathy, charity, forbearance, patience, self-control, faithfulness, and good-hearted conversation.

People need a present, but also a past, that can tell them where they came from, who they are, and where they may be going.

Collective memory matters because it places us; as persons, we are defined by our positions: our places, our spaces, and those with whom we interact within them.

Apart from place-ment we are not sure where we are, and where we are often goes to the heart of who we are. And I don’t mean geographically.

Collective memory acts as a relational GPS, if you will, to provide a bearing on the seas of life and the ever-changing gust of emotions and cultural mood. We are not alone in framing it thusly, as even Jesus would position his life in relation to where he came from (See the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John).

This does not mean our identity is identical with our origins. But it does mean who we are cannot shirk what was. Past events work harmoniously with our present life to mold us. Even if we refuse the placement of the collective memory, its shared history, and values, we do so against it, not apart from it, and therefore, are reliant upon it for our independence.

The danger lies not in forsaking the collective memory of family, but in denying it.

It follows, then, that collective memory can guide us into the future because it is connected to a past. A future without a past is like a ship without a rudder; it will sail, but it may do so in circles.

My father would collectivize the memories of his father into general ethics that guided him: always tell the truth, don’t steal, work hard, look out for family, be a person of faith. The example my grandparents provided of being married for over 60 years is an inspiration to their children and grandchildren. The sacrifices my grandmother made raising 9 children is the stuff of mythology, enough for any one of us to aspire to be like her in love and self-sacrifice.

Of course, my grandparents weren’t perfect. Plenty of sin to go around. Yet shared life reminds us that even man’s best friend can have a few fleas.

A sense of where we come from, who we are, and whose we are, act as guides into an unknown future.

Sitting around picnic tables, gathering again this collective memory, identifies us and reminds us of our place in the story. Even when we feel nameless, we have a name, and these people call us by it.

Like all stories, characters exit and enter, plots thicken and wane, new details emerge, and others are forgotten, but the story continues to be written in its telling, hardening the memory to ensure its continuation and its efficacy. Like holy writ, its inspiration lies in the repetition of its telling and its continued application.

This sense of family is like Faith: the shared history/collective memory of resurrection community, and anticipated new creation, tells us where we come from, who we are, and where we are going. The family is the local embodiment of the heavenly order that spills into town, city, state, geography, and nation. As goes the institution of the family, nuclear and extended, so goes our various politics, ecclesiastical and secular.

As goes our collective memory, so goes our future. This starts, and is sustained, in the family.

A prologue without a past is a strange thing to behold.

I tell my son, we are going to this family reunion because we share a collective memory that identifies us, names us, adopts us, and guides us. We are in the world, but our being in the world is from out of this story.

So on July 23, 2022, we went to tell again what has been told before. We went to tell new things. We went to collect one another.

We are the story; the story is us.

We gathered in those hollers to gather up the collected memory, and we stared at the hills, from which their echoes roll. And even though we have left, we can still hear them rustling through the tops of those mountain oaks.

Extended Napier Family, Huntington, WV, Ritter Park, July 23, 2022

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