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Autobiography is the only vocation on earth that guarantees a man two lives - the one he lived and the one he thinks he lived.

Dalton Trumbo (via thebronzemedal)

six: forking paths

The original Blackwood Brothers Quartet: Roy, James, R.W., and Doyle, ca. 1937

'At one time, Ts'ui Pên must have said: “I am going into seclusion to write a book,” and at another, “I am retiring to construct a maze.” Everyone assumed these were separate activities. No one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same.'

-Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths, 1941.

When Reverend L. A. Beckman agreed in 1979, at the behest of “a number of Members of the Larger Family (initial capitals are his),” to update his 1950 Thompson genealogy, he justified the new volume’s existence with the observation that “much has occurred since then.” Indeed, among the four generations represented at the William Young Thompson family reunion alone, Beckman records 17 deaths, 56 marriages, and 109 births in the three decades between the first and second editions.

My grandfather would have been 65 at that 1979 reunion, newly retired and easing into the role of patriarch as the older generation slouched (with apologies to Yeats) toward Bethsalem cemetery. And while I don’t have conclusive proof of it, I think a case can be made that James Brice Thompson may have had as much of a hand as anyone in determining the sort of document Beckman would shape out of the surveys and letters of inquiry he mailed out in the following months. In a way, The Book became, in its second and final incarnation, my grandfather’s legacy as much as Beckman’s.

James Brice Thompson, late 70's

My great-grandfather Alec never knew his own grandfather, Alexander William Thompson as, the Reverend tells us, he was mortally wounded in the Civil War battle of Franklin, Tennessee in 1864, when Alec’s father, William Young Thompson, was not yet five years old. William’s mother and A.W. Thompson’s widow, Martha Elizabeth Kennedy, was the daughter of Sarah Catherine Hanna and her first husband, John P. Kennedy, of Boligee, Alabama. After the death of Martha’s father in 1845, when she was eight years old, her mother had moved with her five children to Winston County and taken a second husband, James Ross Kennedy (no relation to the first), with whom she had five more children.

Now, by rights, this is the last we ought to hear of the later progeny of Sarah Catherine Hanna; Beckman calls his book a record of the descendants of Alexander Thompson, so it might strike us as odd that he would proceed to dedicate 42 of the volume’s 375 pages to a narrative digression following the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of James Ross Kennedy- none of whom, apart from an occasional incident of cross-pollination in later generations, have an ounce of Thompson blood. But the Reverend indulges his genealogical curiosity to bring us the following:

One of the daughters from Sarah’s second marriage, Katherine (that would be my great-great-great grandmother Martha’s half sister) married a shape-note singing school teacher named William Alexander Blackwood, known to most as “Dutch.” Kate and Dutch’s eldest, William Emmett Blackwood, had three sons and a daughter of his own; the sons- Roy, Doyle, and James- along with Roy’s oldest son R.W., formed the original Blackwood Brothers Quartet in Choctaw County in 1934.

That's me in the corner.

As far as I can tell- and I’m no geneticist- this makes me a third cousin, twice removed, to R.W. Blackwood, and to James Blackwood, Jr., lead singer of the current lineup of the Blackwood Brothers. Here’s a totally unscientific representation of the genes we share:

There is nothing scientific about this illustration.

My grandfather, James Thompson, and James Blackwood, then, were third cousins, no chaser: they shared a great-great-grandparent (Sarah Catherine Hannah, buried at Bethsalem) but not a great-grandparent. Grandpa may have crossed paths with the members of the quartet in his youth- their farm on the Ackerman road couldn’t have been more than ten miles north of his father’s- but the Blackwoods were Baptists and Pentecostals, not Presbyterians. And by 1937, when the quartet landed a regular Sunday morning gig at a 250-watt Kosciusko radio station, Grandpa was 23 years old and finding his own way out of Choctaw County. Within five years, the world would be at war and James Thompson would be on a Navy ship in the Pacific. He’d return in 1945 to a wife and two sons and a job with the Mississippi Highway Department.

By then the Blackwood Brothers were representing the Stamps-Baxter music publishing company, broadcasting out of 50,000-watt KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa, and releasing 78 rpm records on a small label. In  1950 they returned south to WMPS in Memphis, where they made a life-long fan of a teenaged Elvis Presley and signed a deal with RCA Victor. They made their first national television appearance on the June 12, 1954 broadcast of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, singing “Have You Talked to the Man Upstairs?” 

The Blackwood Brothers performing in Gulfport, MS on June 29, 1954

A month earlier, Bill Haley and his Comets had released “Rock Around the Clock” as a B-side, to little fanfare. In July, Presley would record “That’s All Right, Mama” at Sun Studios in Memphis. And in Clarksdale, an hour and a half down the road, as the Blackwoods shot to national attention and the music that was to become rock and roll was still- for the moment- the province of the darker side of town, my grandfather was pulling together the Thompson Brothers Gospel Quartet.

Just eighteen days after Godfrey’s show (and four and a half years before a similar incident would rock the world of popular music), R.W. Blackwood, bass singer Bill Lyles, and Johnny Ogden, the son of a concert promoter, were killed when their Beechcraft airplane crashed in Clanton, Alabama before a gospel festival they were to co-headline with the Statesmen.*

That summer, the ink was still wet on the 1950 edition of the Thompson family history; with the Blackwood Brothers in far off Iowa for much of the ‘40s and little of their music finding its way back to Choctaw County, I doubt they would have merited a mention in Beckman’s book. But by the publication of the second volume in 1981- the year James Blackwood, as lead singer of The Masters V, won a Grammy for Best Traditional Gospel Performance- my family of would-be gospel superstars would have been remiss in not devoting a 42-page dogleg to the line of James NoRelation Kennedy. 

Comic book folks call this kind of revisionism retcon, short for “retroactive continuity”: DC requires a stable of new, but identifiable, characters, so they fudge the timeline of the destruction of Krypton to make room for more survivors than Kal-El, the child who’ll grow up to become Superman. The cast is expanded to include supervillain General Zod; a cousin, Supergirl; and even the family dog, Krypto. 

Krypto

Maybe a more apropos illustration can be found in the first seventeen verses of the New Testament, Matthew’s catalog of 42 generations of Jews connecting a child in a manger with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ruth, David, and other heroes of the Hebrew scriptures; giving Jesus (or his adoptive father, at least) such a pedigree establishes his significance- his place in the world- even before his arrival.

If you're not wasting productive hours making pretty word pictures on wordle.net, I don't even know you anymore.

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, Bible publishers invited home audiences to play along with Matthew by including family record pages- with designated spaces for births, deaths, and marriages- between the Old and New Testaments. In the two centuries before ancestry.com turned genealogy into a series of clicks and small credit card payments, the stock-in-trade of an amateur historian was often a well-kept family Bible.

Who knows what sources the gospel writer used to track down Christ’s lineage- particularly the fourteen dark generations between the Babylonian exile and the year zero. L.A. Beckman had only to look three generations back to encounter the link between my grandfather and gospel music royalty. Being related to royalty is kind of the same as being royalty, if I understand it correctly: if Sarah Catherine Hanna were the Queen of Winston and Choctaw Counties, then it stands to reason that her great-great-grandson James would be somewhere in the line of succession- fifteenth in line, maybe twentieth. Perhaps he would have a duchy or a viscountcy.**

In an alternate universe- another trope of comic books and speculative fiction (not to mention quantum mechanics)- a young James Brice Thompson might have gotten a wild hair and enrolled in a singing school with his Baptist cousins up the Ackerman road. Perhaps he picked up the tenor or baritone spot in their evolving lineup, and strode into a Kosciusko radio station and sold the owner on the idea of broadcasting a program of four-part Gospel Music across the countryside. He and his boys might have gotten their names and pictures on paperback songbooks, to be distributed wherever singing conventions sprouted up.

Grandpa may have rocketed to fame and earned the respect of his peers, and his name would have been spoken with weighty reverence in Gospel circles long after he’d sung his last note. In that alternate universe, elderly southern men at desktop computers are learning to upload videos onto youtube, so that other elderly southern men might have a place to tap out sad sincere love letters to James Thompson’s gorgeous vocals on a number performed on a long-forgotten television program some sixty years ago. 

In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the sinologist Stephen Albert posits an early theory of alternate universes- it’s worth noting that Borges’s fictional account predates the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum physics by sixteen years. "When a man is faced with alternatives," Albert tells the story’s narrator, "he chooses one at the expense of the others. In the almost unfathomable Ts’ui Pên, he chooses- simultaneously- all of them. He thus creates various futures, various times which start others that will in their turn branch out and bifurcate in other times.”

Borges in Paris, 1969

In the universe in which my grandfather follows the Blackwood Brothers’ fork, there’s little chance that I exist. Even if we eliminate every variable but the most dominant- who a person chooses to make a family with- the odds against my existence grow exponentially with each generation; if James Thompson created two diverging futures when he joined his life to Futrelle McClain’s, then each of those futures bifurcated when the next generation paired off, so that in two generations there exist four parallel futures, only one of which includes the possibility of me. Go back to Alec, and the number of universes doubles again. Go back to Sarah Catherine Hanna and I have only a one in 64 chance of existing. 

Now think about that passage of begats in Matthew: punch two to the power of 42 into a calculator and, if the screen is wide enough, it provides this number:

which I can only pronounce when I spell it out: four trillion, three hundred ninety-eight billion, forty-six million, five hundred eleven thousand, one hundred and four. This means that if every male in the line of Abraham was faced with a choice between two wives-one of whom would be the ancestor of Joseph, Mary’s husband- then that string of decisions would create four trillion, three hundred ninety-eight billion, forty-six million, five hundred eleven thousand, one hundred and three futures that don’t include baby Jesus lying in a manger (heck, three quarters of them miss out on the nation of Israel).

Forgive me- I may or may not have done the math correctly.

French Camp Academy graduating class of 1930: Futrelle McClain 3rd from left

My grandmother used to rattle off the sweethearts she’d had as a young woman in French Camp, Mississippi; she’d point to sepia-toned photographs featuring slick-haired high school boys and she would cast sidelong glances at Grandpa in his leather recliner, insinuating that the present state of affairs was the result of a temporary lapse in judgment. 

Grandpa never seemed to notice those looks, or to let his mind be troubled by the existence of dozens of alternate realities in which some other farmer’s son successfully wooed Futrelle McClain. Maybe he took comfort in the idea that he had various selves of his own throughout the multiverse- some finishing college; some singing or taking pictures professionally; some, to be sure, dying in the war. I’ve got a special fondness for the universe in which he joins the Highway Department and marries my grandmother and has three sons.

I may be biased.

But I suspect that he and Futrelle came to appreciate its good points as well. The second edition of the Thompson genealogy, arriving as it did in James Thompson’s 65th year, managed to both tenuously connect him with the biggest name in Southern Gospel and quite literally close the book on the could-haves and would-haves that gnawed at him. In the end, his written legacy came down to three rather meek paragraphs in Beckman’s volume:

James Brice Thompson Mrd. Futrelle (Trelle) McClain, Dec 23, 1939. She was B. Apr 4, 1913, near French Camp, Miss., the dau. of Dr. James Robert McClain & wife, Lila Wiggins.

They have lived in Clarksdale, Miss. for a number of years. In the beginning he worked with the Miss. State Highway Dept. for several years. For many years he was Field Representative for the Graeber Brothers, Inc., selling Gas and Oil to the farmers around Clarksdale.

James has now retired. He loves Photography, and is very capable in that Art. Each year he takes pictures of our W.Y. Thompson Family Reunion, which is held on the first Saturday before the frist [sic] Sunday in Aug. He has gotten many calls to do photo work at weddings, and other gatherings. He served for a number of years as Choir Director of the First Presby. Ch., Clarksdale.

*Anything I might have to say about the Blackwoods would be at best incomplete and at worst plagiarized from more knowledgable sources.

If you’d like to know what the big deal was about the Blackwood Brothers (and it’s a pretty darn compelling story), I urge you to go here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for gospel music historian John Crenshaw’s exhaustive Grand Ole Gospel Reunion write-ups (fair warning: these pages were created in ‘06, but look more like ‘99; I’ve linked the entries separately because there is no internal navigation).

Then, if you’re still thirsty for more about Southern gospel as a whole, check out Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel, by James R. Goff Jr.

**Incidentally, 1981 was also the year a scion of the Blackwood line married Miss America 1980, Cheryl Prewitt. I like to think of it as the Choctaw County version of The Royal Wedding.

"Hey, guys- we’re gon’ watch a movie?"

From “Another Evening with the Statler Brothers,” in which our protagonists manage to book the gospel supergroup The Masters V for a performance and collaboration. The staged prologue is worth the price of admission.

3 years ago

"He Bought My Soul at Calvary," as sung by the ‘51 line-up of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet (left to right): Dan Huskey (tenor), James Blackwood (lead), R.W. Blackwood (baritone) and Bill Lyles (bass). Except for Huskey, who would be replaced by Bill Shaw (and who, I think we can all agree, gets a bit ridiculous around 3:10), this is the line-up that appeared on "Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts" in 1954. 

3 years ago - 2

"Just a Little Talk With Jesus," as performed by the Masters V in the early ’80s: Hovie Lister (piano), Rosie Rozell (tenor), James Blackwood (lead), Jake Hess (baritone), and J.D. Sumner (bass).

3 years ago

"The Second Coming"

-William Butler Yeats

five: the sound of music

Futrelle McClain Thompson

She knew “good days,” and occasionally they accumulated into weeks, months, but even on the best of the good days, those days when she was otherwise her “old self,” the affectionate and charming Bonnie her friends cherished, she could not summon the social vitality her husband’s pyramiding activities required. He was a “joiner,” a “born leader”; she was not and stopped attempting to be. 

-Truman Capote, In Cold Blood, 1965.  

Most Thanksgivings the Vanagon took us from wherever we were to Clarksdale, Mississippi, where Dad’s parents lived. Within an hour or two of our arrival, my uncles Jimmy and Joe would pull into the wheel-rut driveway on the corner of School Street and Smith with their own families, driving in from Memphis or Columbus, or from only a few blocks away.

At some point in the hours that followed, my grandfather and his three boys would gravitate toward the upright piano that was the focal point of the living room. Someone would fish a hymnal or songbook from under the seat of the piano bench, open it to a familiar page, and play the notes of a starting chord. They would hum the parts, testing the waters- Grandpa on bass, Dad on alto, Joe and Jimmy taking turns on tenor and lead- and, after a false start or two, the rust would flake off and they would sing.

Thompson Quartet, 1964: Jimmy, Joe, Kirk and James Thompson, Sr.

Grandma, who occasionally accompanied the the men on piano (usually still in her kitchen apron) never let more than one or two selections go by without filling us in on the origin story of the Thompson Brothers Gospel Quartet: Grandpa used to lead songs at weeklong revivals and camp meetings in the rural communities that dotted the Mississippi Delta, and one year- Dad says he was six, so it must have been 1954- he was at a church conference for most of a week. While he was gone, Grandma gathered her boys- Joe would have been nine or ten; Jimmy, assuming it was summertime, would’ve been thirteen- in the living room to learn vocal parts. They spent the week rehearsing, and when Grandpa returned she presented him with the new trio.

Dreamy Christopher Plummer

In my mind, this always played a bit like the moment in The Sound of Music when Captain Von Trapp walks in on his children performing the title song for Baroness Schrader, spontaneously joins in, and thanks Fräulein Maria for bringing music back into his home. In the Thompson family version of the scene, my grandfather snatched the boys up, ran with the idea of forming his own quartet, and summarily dismissed Grandma’s accompaniment as too plodding; they were soon, and for the rest of Dad’s childhood, performing as an a cappella gospel quartet all over the region, at revivals and funerals and for homebound souls in Clarksdale and the surrounding area.

Grandma’s telling of the story, like a Christmas Eve reading of the second chapter of Luke, was as much a part of the ritual as the singing itself. I don’t remember a time when it was new to me, just as I can’t recall having to learn the nativity narrative. I do remember the last time I heard the story reprised- not by her, but in her presence; it was 1999, and her three sons- two standing, one in a wheelchair- were arranged beside her husband’s coffin in front of the altar rail at First Presbyterian Church. The minister introduced my father and his brothers, and gave a short rendition of the tale.

And then, after a false start or two, the rust flaked off, and they sang. A bottomless tune. 

There was a ripple of welcome laughter in the sanctuary when the minister told the story, as there always was during the telling. I looked at my 86-year-old grandmother, who was weakly smiling and nodding, with a hint of the old injury in her eyes. It’s likely that she heard nothing of what the preacher said- by then her hearing was too far gone to attend church regularly (when she’d turn up her hearing aid until it screamed feedback, she’d joke that the angels were singing to her), and her mind often wandered- but I imagine that, even before anything was said, the image of the men in her life, together one last time on the chancel steps, had brought back to her mind the foggy recollection of that week 45 years earlier. I sometimes wonder if it was the one memory that never left. 

Near the start of his six-hour conversation with Joseph Campbell, broadcast on PBS in 1988 as The Power of Myth, journalist Bill Moyers describes mythology as “music so deeply embedded in our collective unconscious that we dance to it even when we can’t name the tune.” Moyers and Campbell’s discussion is mostly concerned with the kind of large-scale myths that captivate whole societies and cultures: Gilgamesh and the Odyssey and the Synoptic Gospels and the Upanishads. But the statement holds just as true, I think, for these smaller familial folktales that we hear even before we’re listening, and that some of us spend the rest of our lives dancing to.

James and Futrelle Thompson with Jimmy Jr., 1942

James Brice Thompson Sr. was in many ways a good man, and well-loved: a self-styled choir director, organist, music teacher, photographer, gardener, golfer, and fitness enthusiast; he was able to talk, like Barbara Walters, to practically anyone about practically anything. But by the time I came around, it seemed he’d already had most of the conversations he was going to have (and some of them more than once) with Futrelle McClain Thompson, my grandmother.

For her part, Trelle held on stubbornly to the quartet story, as something like the defining parable of her life with James: it stood for itself and for a great many other betrayals and ingratitudes; it was a cautionary fable to those of us who might give of ourselves and expect recognition in return, an admonishment to those of us who would undervalue the gifts of others. It ought to have also shown us how powerful a story could be, how the myth-making in which we all take part can lock us into roles that we never liked to begin with, but which become comfortable and familiar with studied repetition. 

Jimmy, Joe, Futrelle, Kirk, and James Thompson, Sr., ca. 1957

My grandparents were married for just short of sixty years; my wife Liana and I are approaching eight. In the eighth year of James and Futrelle’s marriage- two days before their anniversary, in fact- Grandma gave birth to my father, Kirk, the last of their three children. And I wonder how much of what I saw in the waning two decades of their marriage might have been visible then, when the small cast of characters was only just finalized, or even earlier.

There are moments in my marriage when I catch myself dancing my grandparents’ dance: the choreography of an eye-roll or a years-old wrong recalled with photographic clarity. I dance James’s part and Trelle’s with equal skill; I am an oaf and and a china doll, a persecutor and a martyr. And it’s only when I become conscious of this- when I recognize the tune- that I am able to move outside the footprints chalked on the floor, and come up with my own routine- or, even better, no routine at all.

Consider this a challenge: try not to choke up when Liesl stops strumming the guitar.

3 years ago - 2

look:

It’s a little USA Today, but sometimes a pie graph does the trick. I don’t have a chart for today- the numbers I’d be dealing with for three more generations of Thompsons would be exponentially greater. Assuming, conservatively, that this generation had an average of two children, and their children and grandchildren did the same, I would be dealing with 1,352 pins on a U.S. map.

But my feeling, from what I can see from my corner of the expanding universe, is that the blue pie wedges- those that represent family members living more than a day’s drive from Bethsalem- still make up less than a quarter of the chart. The rest of the pie likely leans more heavily on the yellow and green wedges, with more and more Thompsons drawn to the major metropolitan centers of the South- Memphis and New Orleans and Atlanta, but there is a remnant within the orange segments in much smaller towns- sometimes little more than crossroads- named French Camp and Weir and Ethel and McCool and Sturgis and Louisville; they farm the same land they’ve farmed since 1847, and perform the same liturgies they’ve performed since much further back.

four: people of the book

Bethsalem Presbyterian Church, Louisville, Mississippi

Kircum McClain (Kirk) Thompson Mrd. Marilyn Kay Johns, Dec 28, 1974. She was B. May 1, 1949, in Elyria, Ohio, the dau. of Kenneth Vincent Johns & wife, Bernice Della Clinesmith.

Kirk is making a career in the U.S. Army. So you might say: he lives here today, and somewhere else tomorrow.. He is a Captain in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He is now stationed at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. 

Their children,
both B. in Savannah, Ga.:
1- Jennifer Melissa Thompson,
B. Aug 29, 1976
2- John McClain Thompson,
B. May 14, 1978

-from Alexander Thompson
of Fairfield District, South Carolina
by Rev. L. A. Beckman, Jr.

The deported Jews, you’ll remember, occupied themselves over six decades in the stranger’s land with the compiling and editing of the Torah; as the Temple in Jerusalem receded in memory, they made the first tentative steps away from B’nei Yisrael- Children of Israel, and toward Am Ha Sefer- People of the Book. Most never returned to Judah, now the Persian province of Yehud; those who did venture back from Babylon were a good three generations removed. Their understanding of where they came from and what that meant must have been largely assembled from redaction and mythology.

As a child, possessed as I was by a sense of displacement, I fixated on the subject of my parents’ own self-imposed exiles. Mom and Dad had both left their rural communities- hers in Ohio and his in Mississippi- as soon as they could, first for college and then for the U.S. Army; they’d met while stationed in Hawaii and married in ’74 when Dad was transferred to Savannah. My sister Jennifer and I were born in ’76 and ’78, respectively, and the vagabonding recommenced in earnest shortly thereafter (my brother James came around in ’81, while we were in New Mexico). Most of our family vacation time over the next two decades was spent in a Volkswagen Vanagon the color of a file folder, on cross-country pilgrimages to one ancestral homeland or the other.

Vanagon ad from and April 1981 Time Magazine commemorating the space shuttle

In between holidays my siblings and I absorbed the lore and handled the relics of these curious places. Mom told stories of snowstorms and the periodic flooding of the Black River, garden fresh vegetables at the dinner table, county agricultural fairs and the inoperative cars her factory worker father brought home regularly because he couldn’t turn down a deal. Dad spoke of solo Greyhound bus trips to the orthodontist in Memphis, where he’d watch the ducks in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel; he played cassettes of gospel quartet music on Sunday mornings and could always be counted on to have a pocketknife on him, whether he was wearing jeans or a Sunday suit, in the backyard or the office.

And there was The Book: On a shelf in my father’s study, sandwiched between photo albums and assorted three-ring binders, was a thick, yellowing, marbled-paper folio whose spine read:

ALEXANDER THOMPSON
OF FAIRFIELD DISTRICT,
SOUTH CAROLINA

THE GENEALOGICAL RECORD
OF HIS DESCENDANTS

Compiled by
Rev. L. A. Beckman, Jr.

Rev. L.A. Beckman, Jr. and Wife, Velma Agnes Thompson, October 1974

Alexander Thompson of Fairfield District, South Carolina (or simply, The Book) adheres for the most part to the purpose stated in its subtitle; it is, by and large, an Abrahamic catalog of an Irishman’s lineage: the Presbyterian ministers, farmers, millers, and occasional soldiers who continuously inhabited a patch of Mississippi woodland along the Natchez Trace during the century, give or take, between Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act and America’s entry into the second World War. A great many of these men and women are buried in the cemetery of Bethsalem Church in Winston County, where, for a time in the 1920’s, the Reverend Beckman served as pastor. He also married a local girl, my great-great aunt Velma Agnes Thompson.

William Alexander "Alec" Thompson

Aunt Velma and her brother, my great-grandfather Alec, were members of the fourth generation of Thompsons to be born in the United States. When Beckman published the first edition of The Book in 1950, there were by his count 169 living great-great-grandchildren of Alexander Thompson, most of whom- more than two thirds of them- still resided within a 200-mile radius of Louisville, Mississippi; 73 of them lived less than 50 miles away.

Reverend Beckman was asked in August of 1979, at the annual William Young Thompson family reunion at Choctaw Lake, if he’d bring the genealogy up to date. He consented and, at 82 years old, went to work on the new edition. “I think this will be my finale,” he wrote of the book, “and hope it will be good.” The Reverend sent out questionnaires to the Thompsons and Turnipseeds and Elkins and Kennedys of the diaspora that now radiated outward like an expanding universe from Bethsalem Churchyard. After two years of effort, his 375-page typewritten manuscript found its way to a small press in Starkville and was churned out in time for the 1981 reunion.

The “Up-Dated Edition” was the one that stood between the work binders in my dad’s office, the one that I sought out as soon as I could shape meaning from the words. It was an odd sort of comfort to see my name in print, as if Alexander Thompson of Fairfield District, South Carolina was the Book of Life, and my inclusion in it meant that I would be in that number. I gathered my mythology second- and thirdhand from the Reverend L.A. Beckman’s questionnaires, from a redacted account of an old home that I can’t verify ever existed.