Those People on the Wall
I know what my ancestors looked like because their portraits hung on the wall. This is something I’ve always taken for granted. The portraits hang at what we call “505” (the house has a real name under the National Register of Historic Places—the Joseph Henry Morris House—but no one calls it anything but 505.)
This man, the first Morris to live in Mississippi, was also the first Morris to live on the 505 site.
He died suddenly. His wife saved the house from greedy creditors (f you’ve been reading Claim the Disappearing, you might recognize this storyline.) She had her own portrait painted. It hangs next to her husband’s.
Her son—my great-grandfather—tore the house down and built the current house. Construction took two years, from 1891-1893. To me, he doesn’t look much like his dad. Or his mother.
My grandfather grew up in the house, but he died when I was young, and I knew the house mostly as my grandmother’s house. Some might say I’m probably seeing the idealized version of my ancestors. But I knew my Bigmama. She lived to be 102. I was a grown woman when she left this earth. Bigmama’s portrait perfectly captures the grandmother I knew. So I’m betting the other portraits are pretty accurate too.
What does it matter that my genealogical research hangs on the walls of the house? I think it matters in ways I never considered before my recent stay at the house.
I have always known where I came from. I could literally look up and see the line of people on the wall, these people who dressed in black and had their portraits painted (I guess Bigmama didn’t get the “wear black” memo.) I never had to wonder where I fit in the universe. Knowing who I came after meant I had a background against which I could be whatever I wanted to be. A stage upon which I could twirl into my very own self. The line had already been established. I had no duty or responsibility in that regard.
This might strike you as a weird take. More usual would be a burden to be the same type of person—or better—that those people had been. I guess no one ever suggested such a thing to me. I figure this was because, until about 18 months ago when my uncle began researching, the family history had only been told from the viewpoint of the men, and thus for the men. For example, when I was going to law school, no one told me I had a great-grandfather who graduated #1 in his law school class. Us female children had no shoes to fill, no expectations to meet (other than knowing how to curtsey). Sometimes I wonder if I would have excelled more if a few burdens had been laid on me.
More likely, I got the best of both worlds. I had a sense of people coming before me, but they didn’t crimp who I might turn out to be. Of course, I only received this Goldilocks gift because I was part of a family that could—for generations—afford to hire portrait painters.
That’s the thing about coming from privilege. You can be totally blind to it. For some of us, life is forever defined by undeserved, unearned gifts, for which we need to be aware enough to give thanks.