Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Kissing Kin 2


And so, a stranger came to town.

If you consult a map of Virginia, you will note that it has a boot-like profile. In the west, along the shoelace line, the Blue Ridge Mountains run in long vertical folds. Roanoke, where the Sisters of Charity once ran an orphanage now a shuttered shell, and Blacksburg, home of the Hokies, are eyelets dotting the foothills. But high up in a mountain holler, down a weathered asphalt shoelace of a road, is Titusville.

Titusville: home of Kay Titus and her son and grandson and their DNA. Kay did want to connect with Aaron Moore. After a flurry of messages, they had arranged to meet up in Titusville, Kay’s ancestral home, to see if a more concrete genealogy could be established. Kay wanted to find paternal ancestors, but given her genetics and birthdate and Aaron’s virtuous youth, the only way they could be connected was through Aaron’s mother or maternal grandparents.

“I couldn’t be her father,” he’d muttered to Mom, consulting the jumble of statistics on his account. “The DNA just doesn’t add up.”

“Dad, look at her birthday. You ought to know whether you were sleeping around at 16.”

“I was not,” said Grandpa indignantly.

My mother was out of patience with it all. “Then why would you even go there? Look, your percentage of shared DNA suggests first cousin once removed or great-great-uncle or something.”

“But what is a first cousin once removed?”

Quarreling had always been their love language. I paid them no heed as I looked at the mapped out the route to Titusville. The satellite’s-eye view showed a flyspeck hamlet in in a vast verdant sea of leaves. I had an intoxicating vision of driving through flaming foliage opening onto rolling mountainscapes and distant fields, maybe wood smoke rising from remote cabins.

“Let’s go up there,” I said. “Let’s go this weekend.”

Grandpa could not be rushed. “I haven’t done enough research. I haven’t checked any archives. I need some more time.”

“Exactly how much time do you think you have left, Dad?” said Mom bracingly.

“You don’t have to let Kay know,” I wheedled. “There’s no law against driving in the mountains.”

But Grandpa was not the sort of person who could show up unannounced. He and Kay made plans to meet on Saturday. Their schedule grew: first the local diner, then the mission fall festival, then a corn maze which was the chief Halloween attraction of three counties. My main role in this homecoming was supposed to be to drive him, because when you’re 85 you don’t get around so well, and when you’ve raised your daughter to be a strong, independent educated woman, sometimes she thinks it’s silly that you should want to wallow in the past rather than celebrate what you’ve made of yourself.

“It’s how I raised her,” Grandpa said. And then he added, more to himself than me, “Maybe I raised her wrong.”

If I had put an iota of thought into suggesting an immediate visit, I might have predicted the outcome: by Saturday morning, after all the anticipation, Grandpa's nerve, not as cast iron as it used to be, failed him. When I pulled up to his house, he refused to come out.

“I can’t breathe,” he said, clutching the arms of his recliner. “My heart is pounding. I’m going to faint. Your mother was right. Maybe this is it. I can’t go. It might kill me.”

“Nothing will ever kill you, Grandpa,” I said. “Get up out of that chair, young man. Your family is waiting for you.”

“You go,” he said, and his eyes were the eyes of a man who knows that he is old. “You just check them out. You tell me if they look like me.”

“They don’t want to see me,” I said with all the heartiness I could muster. “They want to see Aaron Moore, the long lost son-uncle-first cousin once removed.”

“You’re Erin Moore,” he said, and he would not budge.

“Erin Moore Ramirez,” I said. But I was longing to see the mountains in autumn, so I went to Titusville, doubly a stranger: a stranger in the stead of the stranger who was meant to be there.

A light drizzle was beginning to fall as I got in my trusty Steed (that’s the name of my beater car — Mom hates it) and drove out of town, past the outlying housing developments, the horse farms, and the ever-present barbed wire fencing, our first line of defense against cows. The patches of forest became deeper, the light grayer. Steed began to whine as the gentle twists of the country road tightened into the hairpin ascents of the mountain pass. And then the trees opened up and the road straightened out, and I looked out over the Blue Ridge Mountains to discover that I’d driven into a cloud. Perhaps there was a glory of fall leaves to be observed on the slopes, but I was staring into a wall of mist.

After an hour of headlight driving, I entered the glowering environs of Titusville. I was able to see some wood houses, some fields, a water treatment plant. A stone tower loomed up to mark the old downtown. In the main square, the lights of the festival glistened through in the fog. The place was not abandoned; children darted about from booth to booth and there were lines for the rides despite the rain. The diner where Kay would be waiting for me looked like a place that knew how to sling a mean hash and serve a hot cup of joe. I’d arrived early, however, on a mission.

Specifically, the mission parish of the Sacred Hearts, two hearts for the price on one. A fieldstone church outside the old town limits, mission when it was built in the 20s and mission still, which, Google informed me, had an All Souls Mass today. The mission priest was a black man in black vestments who chanted the mass in a melodious Nigerian accent. I’d felt the familiar tension of being the darkest face in the congregation, but Father moved through the liturgy with majestic serenity, unencumbered by the earthly fear of being a stranger.

A stranger, like me, come to town to pray for the dead. All Saints Day may be the holy day of obligation, for the Aaron Moores and Linda Ramirezs of the world who thrive on obligation, but I prefer All Souls Day. It’s for the schlubs like me, who are probably going to get into Purgatory by the skin of their teeth and then spend forever there because no one will pray for them. At All Souls Mass at Sacred Hearts mission in Titusville, I prayed for Aaron Moore’s parents, the Scots-Irish mother and the African father. There didn’t seem to be many other people left to pray for them, and they probably needed it. They abandoned a tiny infant, left him to be raised to work by the nuns, left him to raise his own child as strictly as he’d been reared, left her to raise her own child to expect to work for a mother’s praise and affection. With the Moores, nothing is a gift.

I blinked, and mass was over, and I’d squandered this holy time chewing on my own frustrations.

Father shook my hand at the church door. “It’s good to see a visitor here.”

“Do I stand out that much?”

He smiled. “I know my sheep.”

I felt compelled to explain my presence. “I do have family here.” The strange words sat oddly on my tongue. “My grandfather’s relatives live here. The Tituses. Do you know them?”

“There are many Tituses in Titusville,” said Father, “but no Titus has ever been Catholic, that I am aware of.”

“Grandpa is also half black,” I said, clutching at a different straw. “African-American. Half African-American. Perhaps you have ties to the local African-American community. Could you point me to anyone who could help me with ancestry?”

“I am the local African community." Father said. "It is even more unusual to be black here than to be Catholic.”

As I waited in the crowded diner, I pondered these words in my heart. Where, then, had Grandpa come from? That he still had family in this area, family from an apparently long-established line, seemed to indicate that he must have a connection to Titusville through his mother. But how did his father enter the picture? How had his parents met, mated?

And where was Kay Titus? It was past time for the rendezvous, but no one in the diner seemed to be a 69-year-old woman waiting to meet someone. I wondered if she would look anything like Grandpa. And might she recognize in my features something she’d seen in her own face her whole life? In a town full of Tituses, perhaps there was a whole clan waiting to meet the brother they’d never known, the uncle they’d only heard about. I wished Grandpa was here with me, so that we could discover together whether this was the place where he might finally feel at home.

The diner was hopping, all right, but nobody seemed to be yearning for the prodigal son to return. The harried hostess promised to call me when a place opened up, and then went outside to take hungry pulls at a cigarette. I languished on the bench by the door. The locals were there and they were hungry, and everyone on staff, from the petite waitress in training to the manager in his tie, was running orders. When I finally took the initiative and sniped a newly-deserted seat at the counter, no one seemed to realize that I hadn’t been helped, and no one seemed to see my tentative wave for service, and no one seemed to be Kay. Even if I was the wrong person, I was in the right place at the right time. The thought of my grandfather being stood up, after waiting 85 years to meet his family, began to simmer at the edges of my patience.

The woman methodically turning burgers at the grill behind the counter was in no rush to catch my eye, but at last she could pretend no longer that I was not beckoning her.

“You ready for your check?” she asked, showing her first sign of animation at the prospect of one less customer.

“I haven’t been served yet,” I said, not giving her the thousand-yard stare because I was brought up not to be rude. “I’m waiting to meet someone.”

“Aren’t we all, honey,” she sighed, turning back to the grill.

A large party began to vacate seats. As the door jostled and jingled with their exit, a man in a paramedic uniform squeezed past them and assessed the room. He nodded briefly to people he knew, but when he came to me, he stared openly for a moment. Again I was acutely aware of being the different face in the crowd, and my already fraying patience unraveled further. Someone with hair that shade of red had no call to stare at anyone else.

But he took the vacant seat next to me at the counter, the better to keep me under surveillance. I did not care for that. I don’t know much about the various gradations of people who wear a uniform, but I have cousins who’ve had less than cordial encounters with the constabulary, and I had no desire to find out anything about their hicksville compatriots. All I knew was, an ambulance comes when you call 911, and so do the police, and I didn’t want the attention of one or the other. I quietly gathered my purse to myself.

“Getcha, Vin?” the waitress asked, finally materializing for a man in uniform.

“Just coffee,” he said. And as I rose to go, he looked up and said, “Excuse me.”

“Yes?” I said, tightly.

He had the air of someone who was going to do his duty if it killed him. “This may be out of line, but I’m looking for Aaron Moore. Are you associated with him?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I’m supposed to meet him here, and you’re the only person in the place that I don’t know.”

“You are not Kay Titus,” I said, a statement of fact and not a question.

“And you are not Aaron Moore.”

“I am,” I said. “I’m just not the particular Aaron Moore you’re looking for. But I would like to know who wants to know.”

“Kay is my grandmother,” he said, and tapped his phone to pull up a photo. “My name is Vincent Titus. Kay can’t come today. That is, she wanted to come, but at the last minute she texted me at work and said was sick. But she wasn’t really sick. I only just got off shift, and I was worried that Aaron Moore would leave without knowing what happened.”

I sat back down. “She was scared too.”

“Just like Aaron Moore?” he asked.

“Yes." I allowed myself be disarmed by his smile. "They have that in common, at least.”

The photo on the screen was of Vincent, laughing, with his arm around a rouged woman whose artificially flaming hair had been tinted to echo his more youthful red. I magnified it and studied her eyes, her nose, the set of her chin, any feature that might connect her to Aaron Moore. I recognized nothing.

“They don’t look anything alike." To my mortification, my voice had the quaver of a disappointed child.


1 comment:

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Thumbs up on the "cute meet."