Whether he had it in mind all along, or happened upon an impulse, I am not sure anyone ever knew. The day began innocently enough. My great grandmother, not much more than a child herself, had taken on the responsibility of raising the younger siblings of her young husband. In the course of a morning of mending, she found herself in need of a spool of thread. It was young Mack, eleven years old at the time, that she sent to the store to obtain it. A few hours later a freight train roared by on the tracks near the house, and a spool of thread was tossed from the open
door of one boxcar, and straight into the open hands of my great grandmother. I can imagine her open-mouthed astonishment as she watched the train thunder on down the tracks, Mack holding on with one hand and waving good-bye with the other. It was fifty more years before the family knew what had become of Mack. He turned up, older, wiser, and ready to return to the family that had never forgotten him. The boy had "hobo-ed" his way to California, finished raising himself, and then a family of his own. He had done well, and one day his roots called him home. His family was waiting.
I have often imagined my great grandmother through the years, worrying over what might have befallen the young boy, and asking herself, "What if I had not sent him to the store that day for a spool of thread?" And I have
just as often imagined the dapper distinguished gentleman of the photographs beginning more and more often to find that the rolling hills of Tennessee were on his mind, the faces of loved ones frozen in time and engraved upon his memory. I have imagined how it finally was that some "homing instinct" led him at last to be able to do nothing but return, and what mixed emotions must have been his when he gazed upon faces he remembered as youthful now
aged and lined with the cares of time. How bittersweet to clasp hands and receive hugs from those whose joy told him they had never forgotten, and how painful to realize how many he remembered were now gone. How infinitely precious what years there were left would seem to be now, and what a strange realization would descend as he realized that nothing "had stayed frozen in time" except for his own memory!
I do not profess to know what kept Mack from home so long. Perhaps he was having so many youthful adventures that home was the furthest thing from his boyish mind. In fact, I suspect he did have a good many adventures! Perhaps he had not the means for a very long time to return home, and perhaps he worried for a time what his reception would be if he did. Perhaps he had too much pride to return until he could do so armed with success. Perhaps he felt guilty. And perhaps, after a while, it simply seemed preferable to always think of the place and the family "as it was", forever "frozen" as he had last known it all, no tearful good-byes, no pleading, simply a clean break with one world, a step into another, and memories held like photographs in a scrapbook to be looked at now and again, then shelved. That part of the story never came to me, and I know only its beginning and its ending. The beginning is one that can be guessed at and partially understood, for many young ones it was of that time that took up the life of a "hobo". Well it would have appealed to an adventurous young boy who had not a parent. I do not fully know the reasons for the beginning, but the ending is one I understand very well.
I find meaning in, and identify strongly with those feelings Mack had late in life, and I suspect, so do many of you. There is a time in our life when nothing is more fascinating than the adventures of the present, and the possibilities of tomorrow. The past, we believe, is far away and nothing to waste energy upon when there is so much before our eyes in the today. Then comes a time in our life, when we may still enjoy our adventures and our possibilities, but somehow we have also come to terms with a good many of them, and our roots begin to call us home. More and
more, in skimming the chapters of our lives, we find comfort in its beginnings, and we begin to look for a thread that led us to our present. In the desire to truly understand a life's theme, we begin to wish to bring it all to a satisfying resolution. More and more we find ourselves taking out that "scrapbook" of memories, bits and pieces, gazing at them and thinking of them, sometimes with tears, sometimes with laughter, and always with longing to remember more than we possibly can.
The day Mack left home, he tossed the thread of his life into the open hands of my astonished great-grandmother. He waved good-bye, but fifty years later came back to pick up the thread of his life. That, I believe, is what most of us are doing. Perhaps we are doing it in less dramatic terms, but picking up the thread of our lives is indeed what we are doing every day that we pour over old records, search lists for cousins, write down our findings and our memories. When it comes down to it, it is all for the thread.
Just a thought,
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