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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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