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Claim the Disappearing: 4

(I invite you to enjoy this free New Orleans novel, courtesy of the wonder that is the internet, unrolled a teensy bit at a time. If you are just joining us, feel free to return to THE BEGINNING and work your way through.)

My ancestor Tip-Top was Cherokee. Please be clear about this. I might be a gentrifying jerk who steals atmosphere for her stories, but I am not claiming I’m Cherokee. I was raised a white-bread child of two alcoholic parents whose one act of kindness was farming me out to my various grandmothers for care. I went to Tippy’s farm in the winter, because she would see that I got to school, and to my grandmother and great-grandmother’s falling-down Jackson mansion for the summers. I am poor white trash. Poor enough to enjoy commodity cheese. Trashy enough to sweat on Tippy’s upholstered couch on the front porch. White enough to have my crazy Jackson grandmothers called ‘eccentric.’ This fact is central to the story. I am white. 

Tip-Top was Tippy’s grandmother. She was born in Georgia in 1783, the year the Revolutionary War ended. When Tip-Top was fifteen, she migrated with her mother, Dancing Water, to Look Out Mountain, Alabama. Sounds romantic, but think of it this way: Look out! 

The white man who accompanied Dancing Water was in the army. What army? A remnant of the Revolutionary Army? Or the army that was running Dancing Water’s Cherokee tribe out of the new state of Georgia so white settlers could steal the tribe’s gold and their women? These type of details get lost when a story is boiled down to its essence: Tip-Top was the child of Dancing Water who left Georgia with a white army man. The make-shift family entered Alabama the day the land was named as the Mississippi Territory. That’s why, Tippy would declare as she brushed her silvery hair until it sparked, you have always been from Mississippi. She overlooks the Georgia part. Tippy had life beginning and ending where she wanted it.

Here’s the tricky part. The migration put Tip-Top, a young Cherokee woman with no discernible father, right smack on the disputed border between Cherokee and white man’s territory. Borders are agitated places. I don’t know exactly what happened next, and Tippy would never elaborate to a youngster like me, but I gathered Tip-Top had too many “suitors.” Ill-suited suitors. Aggressive suitors. The family decided to keep moving west. Quickly. They loaded their possessions into an oxcart and trundled from northeast Alabama to the black dirt of the Mississippi Delta. 

Except apparently my sense of direction was present even back then. The tiny family drifted off-course. Wound up in the southwest section of the southwest territory of Mississippi. Not the fertile Delta, but the poor hill country of the Piney Woods. Pine away, you ain’t gonna get rich in the Piney Woods. The Native Americans living there were Choctaw, and Tippy said therein lay the confusion in our family tree: we were of Cherokee heritage, but the memory got cross-hatched with the real presence of the Choctaws in the land where Tip-Top survived the Civil War, lost her right foot to a bear trap, and birthed nine children to a man named—I kid you not—Smith. 

I’m sure Smith was a criminal absconding to Mississippi to escape prosecution. Hence his alias: John Smith. I swear to God. John fucking Smith. 

 It doesn’t matter (but surely you can see why I needed Etoile? I mean, how embarrassing). The point is, nothing about me is connected to the males in my heritage. All of me—along that strand—goes back to the woman called Tip-Top who arrived in Mississippi in a mad dash. Before long, Tip-Top would set the tone for every female that would come down her line, including me. She killed. Once in self-defense. Once accidentally. And once, back in Look Out! solely because the son of a bitch deserved killing. Or as Tippy would whisper when the sag in the mattress rolled me next to her until I awoke nearly suffocating from my mouth pressed against her nightgowned shoulder, gasping for air like an ill-equipped sucker fish, “Killing is sometimes the only option left a woman.”

Tip-Top was the ancestor standing at the foot of the left rising staircase, protecting one path to the endangered Dauphine.

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