Last fall I set about finally putting together my family tree, a task that had been on my list since I first went to the North Carolina Collection four falls earlier. With an axe over my head–that I was to be a teaching assistant for a family history class in the spring–I was anxious to get a tree sketched and rooted in the next two months. Quickly quickly, I thought, I must set out these names and draw these lines. I think my experience of exploring my family was not unlike many people who start researching, knowing that, well, they know something about their families, but lack a holistic view, the full story of how we got from there to here. But I was most impatient to place us, and solidly too, point to a place and say, we are from here. “It is through place,” Eudora Welty wrote and I thought often, “that we put out roots, wherever birth, chance, fate, or our traveling shoes set us down.”
I suppose about a month into spotty doses of research, I realized a new fact: my sisters and I are the first children to be born–on either side of my family–west of Raleigh. More than that, no one past 1750 had been born outside of North Carolina. (About an hour later, I realized this was not true. My father–truly the only exception to this rule–was born in Frederick, Maryland, which is primo-Yankeeland. But he grew up in Rocky Mount, Edgecombe County, quite solidly in eastern North Carolina.) I’m from Chapel Hill, the Piedmont, raised in Boone, the mountains, and Winston-Salem, which I’ll describe gracefully as the Piedmont’s industrial wonder. But I come from this whole long line of people from Down East, and I mean it–Down East is what you call that part of the state when you do not know it, do not feel a part of it. No one, on either side of the family, lives Down East anymore.
Fred Chappell, a mountain man himself, writes, “But N.C. East confuses me. The atmosphere of that part of the state seems that of a mostly vanished plantation culture with which I feel no kinship. When I visit small towns like Pleasant Hill and Comfort, I am never entirely at ease.” I know this unease. But coupled with it is guilt. We drove through Laurinburg, Scotland County, my mother’s hometown, on our way home from Charleston, and I felt uneasy and desolate, my eyes rolling across the sandy front lots of desiccated homes, the brick of the Episcopal Church I was baptized in cracked and breaking apart in the quiet trance of early March, before the daffodils grow in. Rocky Mount, too, though I have not been since burying my grandfather in Pineview, was so thick with the sound of insects crawling and buzzing through the crab grass my teenage mind clouded over in a sensation not unlike the worst kind of drunkenness.
Scotland, Edgecombe, Richmond, Martin, Harnett, Cumberland, Craven, Duplin, Sampson, Beaufort, Halifax, Tyrell, Onslow, Nash, Washington, Wilson, Wayne, New Hanover, Pender, and Chowan. My god, I thought, tallying up all these eastern counties, is there somewhere east of here my family hasn’t lived? (Certainly, yes.) This new knowledge–that we’re just a slew of sandhill tar boilers–was not new. And again, in the revelation becoming obvious, I think I experienced a very normal phenomenon in researching family: the stories you’ve heard your whole life take on a new resonance when you’ve located them in place. A-ha, the rich Morgan cousins I’ve been hearing about, the ones that would never give my mother the time of day in school, of course, we’ve been talking about Mark Morgan, the man who turned on the lights in Richmond County for the first time. Lord, and of course, the great irony: my grandfather, Elmer Fryar, home in Rocky Mount after spending the decade of the Depression in Washington, D.C., where there at least was some job, even if it was making burgers, would come home and marry a Taylor girl from Little Washington, Beaufort County.
It is in this way that I know eastern North Carolina very well, despite all my hesitance and nervousness for the heat, sand, and insects I associate with it. Two weeks ago, my Aunt Donie brought up her granddaughter, six years old, to Chapel Hill to walk and to wonder and to instill some speck of awe in a girl who shares a home in Missouri with a father, his girlfriend, her son, four dogs, two cats, and a giant snake. I am not kidding. My uncle and my father came too, and all these Fryars, current and former, were walking around the town I now consider my home, the place I come from. It was cool, the sky was blue, the breeze was blowing, and we got ice cream not once but twice. Nothing could be as fine as this town, I thought as I walked along with my little cousin. The older generation walked behind us, I heard them talking about their dad, and little sharp snippets of Rocky Mount, something about how my dad would tease my aunt, the youngest, and my uncle, the oldest by over a decade, would come to the rescue. Scattered, all of them, watching their children and grandchildren scatter first across the state, now across the country, and still talking about things that happened once Down East.
I could spend a lifetime trying to know the east, and the ways it still follows my sisters and I. (The three of us, I think if you asked where we were from, would all give different answers.) Similarly, I could trace the ways the mountains of South Carolina, then Buncombe County, have been laced through my partner, a central NC man. And over and over again, substituting different places that are sewn up, across, and down the figures of different people. And then how the outlines of different people shadow the colors of these places–the brown sand of the east and how black that tar, how red the Yadkin can run in the spring, bleeding a stain through the middle of the state, and all the green and gold glory that Thomas Wolfe practically sang about in Altamont.
I finished Amazing Place this morning, which is divided into three sections, of course (of course!) titled: The Mountains, The Piedmont, Down East and the Coast. The first two sections I simply cruised through, thinking and singing, I know this! I know this! I know what it is to walk through old Chapel Hill and fall in love with the oaks and I know what it is to go to a really damn good party down one of those streets off Church Street, get drunk and talk all night long and feel so breathless on the convolution of the sentences from mouths of mesmerizing people. I know what it is to feel the dryness in your eyes when you look around you, searching for a mountain, a hill, something blue and wild to rest your eyes on, and I know what it is to go searching where you are for the highest ground to feel as though you are taller and better than where you are. But how flat the Down East section fell on my eyes, and I could not feel what those writers described and felt, and so I felt guilty for it. I want more than to see the counties my family lived in, but to really know what all that dust and pitch means to people. To draw a line on my family tree if you will, connecting myself finally to all that lies Down East.