Monday, November 3, 2008

The puzzle (& other ramblings)

I had a dream. No, this is not a re-make of Dr. King's famous speech. This was a dream I had many years ago in my youth. In the following passage of time, I've had that same dream (or a close variation) over and over again. I'm always sitting at a huge wooden table in what appears to be a very stately meeting room or perhaps a library hall. Everything is wooden, dimly lit, dark and massive. In front of me on the table is a beautifully ornate mahogany jigsaw puzzle. This is strange for me, because I hate all types of board games, especially those that require thinking. Like the old saying, "Sometimes I sit and think, but most times I just sit." Anyway, the game is always the same. I'm enjoying myself but occasionally one of the pieces will slide off the table and onto the floor. No problem, right? Wrong. The rug on the floor is some type of long silky shag the exact color of the puzzle pieces and I can't find a single one of them. They're gone and I can't get them back, no matter what I do. This is where I always wake up. Frustrated, upset, searching, and yeah, a little sad.

I can't begin to tell you how many hours I spent over the years trying to figure this out. It just made absolutely no sense. Then about two years ago, I woke up one morning and I understood it perfectly. No sudden revelation, no instant enlightenment--I think I just became old enough to understand what I was too young (or maybe too stupid) to comprehend before. It was right there in front of me all along. The puzzle was my life. The missing puzzle pieces were the people, experiences, places and points in time that were gone out of my life and weren't coming back. Simple. Kind of painful, but simple.

Just think about our Hubbertville puzzle for a few minutes. We've lost a lot of our pieces in the past few years. Puzzle pieces that were very different but all loved just the same. Long-time cherished friends (Jackie and Mary Ellen Turner), young friends who fell off the board way too soon (Jeremy Peoples), and friends who had no ties to the Hub, but adopted us and loved us like a native (George Wages). How do you replace pieces like this on your puzzle board? You don't. It simply can't be done. Yes, we can and will find and make new friends but they'll never replace the original missing pieces. But it's not a total lost cause. The Old Puzzlemaster has provided us a wonderful method of making those lost pieces live again. It's called a memory.

Memories are a wonderful thing. Without them we would probably all wind up crazy. I'm not talking about the one where Uncle Leander got a snoot-full and fell off the bleachers at the homecoming game back in '76. No, I'm talking about the ones that come to you at 3:30 in the morning when you can't sleep and everybody else in the house is snoozing. That's when the ghosts walk. My favorite author, Rick Bragg, says these memories are like little pieces of jagged glass left in your abdomen after a car wreck. After a few years, you adapt to them and rarely think about them. But every once in a while, you turn or move a particular way and it all comes flooding back. Those are the ones I'm talking about. They're the ones worth keeping with you. Make your missing pieces live again.

It's really important that you pass your memories on down the line, especially to your kids. I'm one of those people who believes that it's hard to know where you're going if you don't know where you've been. Tell them everything you remember. Tell it all. It's a part of who they are. Tell them about how great-great granddaddy Walter served 20 years in jail for stealing a horse. Tell them how all 3 of his sons were so mortified they became preachers. Tell them how the old homeplace burned to the ground but how Uncle Rafe and the boys and neighbors had it built back in a week. Tell them how their people struggled. Tell them how they survived and flourished. Tell them. Don't let your pieces be forgotten.

Sometimes missing pieces pop up in amazing ways. Some of my oldest memories surround my maternal grandmother Bishop. She was a wonderful woman on every level. I can remember her telling me about how her grandmother Aldridge would sit and cry for hours over a mysterious person named Richard. Apparently, Richard had marched off to the Civil War and was never heard from again. That's where I came in. When the genealogy craze first came onto the scene, I remembered the stories about "Richard" and dived in. Even after 115 years, it only took me a couple of months to unravel the mystery. I obtained a few forms and filled them out, then sent them off to the military records division of the national archives. Their reply left me absolutely stunned. Inside were copies of his enlistment papers, equipment receipts, regimental orders and an ominous copy of a document that contained the following: Richard Aldridge - age 17 - 43rd Alabama Volunteer Infantry - KIA in an engagement around Knoxville, Tennessee, Dec. 14, 1862. KIA means killed in action. Mystery solved. On one hand I was thrilled to find the missing pieces of such an old puzzle but I was more sad than anything else. I had found my great-great uncle and seemingly lost him all in the same day. And he was just a kid. His life was over before it ever really began. But at least he's back on the board.

I've got a theory about being dead. To me, you're not totally dead as long as at least one live person remembers that you once lived. That's how guys like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln live on in our consciousness many years after their passing. I believe the little guys, the common folks--they live on, too. Oh, before I forget, Happy 163rd birthday, Richard. Not bad for a 17 year old from rural Alabama. Rest easy, buddy. Somebody remembers. Somebody still cares.

The Old Gray Lion

ps - Move over, Oprah. Recommended reading: "All Over But the Shoutin'" by Rick Bragg. This is the only book I've ever read that will make you laugh, cry, and literally jump out of your seat and fist pump like the winning touchdown in the Iron Bowl. If you never read another book, read this one. As one Pulitzer Prize winning author's review stated, "this book does the impossible, it breathes." Read it. It may change your life.