I stood in the parking area of the Dry Branch Farms packing house as workers loaded 160 pounds of the sweetest onions in the world into my nephew’s Chevy Silverado. I gazed around looking for a cousin, an uncle or an aunt from my mother’s side of the family. I was about to give up when a truck pulled up beside us.
“Hey stranger,” Uncle Wallace said, easing around in his seat. “Have you found that snake in your house yet?”
And then he laughed — one of those big ol’ authentic belly laughs that make his entire body convulse.
“No,” I replied. “We still haven’t found the snake. Can you believe it?” I asked about his family and listened as he reported on everyone in the Jarriel clan. Toward the end of our conversation, he dropped a bomb on me. I don’t even recall what we were talking about that prompted him to say it.
“Your daddy flew to Michigan one year and bought an Oldsmobile and drove it all the way home to Georgia,” he mentioned.
I must have had a blank look on my face, because he tilted his head to the side, squinted his eyes and added, “What? You didn’t know your daddy did that?”
I shook my head back and forth. “No, I’ve never heard that story,” I said, my mind racing. I suddenly remembered seeing a black and white photo of my father from the early 1960s. He stood outside a shiny new car with whitewall tires on the road in front of my family’s Warner Robins home — young, handsome Herman Lanier, beaming with pride. I had seen the photo dozens of times, but I had never heard the story behind that faded photograph.
Fifteen minutes later, I walked into my mother and stepfather’s home in Ohoopee. It was the first thing out of my mouth.
“Mom, Uncle Wallace said Daddy went to Michigan one year, bought a car at the factory, and drove it all the way home.” She stared at me. “Yeah,” she said, a smile emerging on her face as the memory crept in. “He did. You didn’t know that?”
“No,” I said. “Tell me
more.” “There’s not a lot to tell,” she said. “He thought he could save a little money, so he went up there and bought that Oldsmobile himself. I guess that was 1959 or 1960 — before you kids were born. Then he drove it home. That was a long trip.” Hearing the story made me happy, and at the same time, the story continued from page
made me feel like burying my face in a pillow and screaming for an hour.
There are literally thousands of stories I’ve never heard about my father. He died in 1992. He’s been gone a long time. His name almost never comes up in conversation any more, which breaks my heart. And when his name is mentioned, it is usually regarding something I already know. Hearing the story about the trip to Michigan hit home the fact that there is so much about him I don’t know — and will never know — and time is running out for me to gather up the stories.
Sometimes when I visit my father’s sister (Sybol Toole, now in her nineties) or his brother (Lamar Lanier, now in his eighties), I ask each of them to share a memory of my father with me. I knew him as a father. They knew him as a sibling.
I’m thirsty to hear the stories. Like water from a hose, I want to gulp them down until I can drink no more. I am reminded of something Carmen Deedy shared with me last year. She said, “If the heirloom we pass down to our children is a story, it is a mighty thing . . . A story is indestructible — almost. Its very existence relies on one immutable necessity. A story must be told.”
I will continue to ask people to tell me about the man who helped bring me into this world, the man who helped raise me, the man who flew to Michigan, bought a new car, and drove it 1,000 miles home to Georgia in a time before Garmin navigation systems, Google maps, credit cards and cell phones. One by one, I’ll collect the stories and connect all the pieces. Stories bring him back to life for me, if only for a few minutes here and there, and I need that.