Marks on the Land

A few months ago I drove to two towns in far South Texas. Harlingen is where we lived when I was in middle school, and Corpus Christi when I was in high school. I hadn’t been to Corpus in years; my family moved away, and I don’t like the beach. And I hadn’t been to Harlingen since the day my mother, Mary Ann, told me and my sister, Stacy, “Kids, pack your stuff; we’re leaving your stepfather. Right now.”[1] That was in late summer, 1975, when I was 14.

I moved 18 times by the time I graduated from Richard King H.S. in Corpus; maybe that’s part of why I got interested in ancestry research. My ancestors, too, moved. They were pioneers, refugees, explorers, who left Ireland and England and Scotland and Wales, sailed across the Atlantic, stepped into unfamiliar territory in Pennsylvania and Boston and South Carolina, and some of them kept moving. To Tennessee, and Kentucky, and Mississippi, and Louisiana, and Arkansas, and Indian Territory, and The Republic of Texas, and the State of Texas.

(And from among those many thousands of wanderers, two of them – Mary Ann, a daughter of the Smith/Bells who grew up in a little town in Central Texas, and Richard, a son of the Diamond/Roaches who grew up in a nearby little town in Central Texas – left home after high school, and went to college, and met each other, and had sex, and got pregnant, and got married and, to quote David Copperfield,[2] I am born.)

That much wandering … why do people move? Why do they leave? What are they looking for? I keep wondering that about my ancestors, and about my family, and about myself.

I was headed to South Texas with the data I had: The houses and apartments we lived in (homes 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18); the churches we attended; the schools we went to; the parks or landmarks I remembered. But other data too, which can’t be found on a map or GPS.

Rick at age 13 – whom I call Rick 13, just as I call my 10-year-old self Rick 10, and Rick 17 is me in Corpus in 11th and 12th grades when I was 17, and so on – where would he have left a mark? A sign for someone to find later? Would I find branches bent or icons scratched into the bark of trees that Rick 13 would’ve left to mark key moments, important turns or places on the map? The breadcrumbs on the ground, the rock that doesn’t belong in that corner or in that stone wall? The memorial – “This happened here”?

For decades I’ve journaled and written and gone to therapy and done men’s work and emotional intelligence work, and here’s a huge lesson in that for me: the important markers which Rick 13, Rick 17, Rick 6, Rick 20 and all the other Ricks have left? They don’t have to be searched for. They show themselves to me, and others, all the time. Those landmarks show up in how I conduct a meeting, or play a board game, or tell someone bad news, or confess my sins, or face disappointment, or find courage.

When I travel to this landscape of my memories and reflexes and thoughts and behaviors, I flinch where frightened Rick 6 left a “danger here” warning sign. And I feel the mixed joy and shame that Rick 13 felt, one evening at our farm, looking at his stepfather’s Playboy magazine stash and wondering, “Am I a bad person?” And my heart beats as I come across the exultant “You’re not a baby!” which terrified-of-the-dark Rick 11 claimed when he managed to hit another scout with the bag-of-flour weapon during the nighttime game of Capture The Flag at Boy Scout camp. And I smile when I come up on Rick 12, cackling at some stupid joke with his buddy Robbie Anderson, and scribbling on the map of his own heart and therefore mine: “It’s good to have a friend.”

So, the drive south wasn’t really about discovering anything I didn’t know already; I’ve done lots of mapping the territory. I just wanted to smell the humid air again, and look at my high school, and see if the Palmetto Inn was still on W Jackson St.; if it was, I’d have the enchilada plate for the first time in 41 years.[3]

[1] My drum set, for all I know, is still sitting in the entry hall of that house; it wouldn’t fit into the station wagon in which Mary Ann and my sister and I drove away that night, and we never went back. I’m not bitter.
[2] The hero of the novel by Dickens, not the Vegas magician.
[3] It’s closed.

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