I know I'll meet William Andrew Jackson someday -- I'm fully confident of this. I know that I'll be brim-full of questions and will probably spend about ten thousand years just catching up (assuming that the tendency toward lengthy conversation is a genetic trait). But, in the meantime, I have this peculiar ability to sit down at a PC and imagine: What was great-great-great-granddad like? Did he have the personality of my granddad, Herman William Jackson? Was he a likable guy? Did he laugh?...
...It is late July and I'm walking down a hazy dirt road. Trees line the road; the slightly rolling fields hold a stand of yellowing alfalfa. Rows of corn occupy sections, dotted by patches of staked tomato vines. Occasionally, I see a cow grazing. The sun is still high over the western horizon, and cicadas and crickets make the music of a mid-summer's late afternoon. Mosquitoes swarm, the road dips and I ford a trickle of a creek that has taken over the road. As I come up the road from the ford, I see a small, unpainted frame house with a barn standing nearby -- a crudely built barn, made of rough timbers.
I climb over a split-rail fence and move toward the tiny house. A large mutt bounds toward me, barking and jumping.
"Git down there, Trailer!", shouts the lean, bearded man who strides toward me from the door. He moves swiftly, as if the act of walking is some sort of annoyance that one must deal with in order to get from here to there. His face and hands are darkly tanned. He might be about my age, but he looks older. Standing in the doorway is a tiny woman, holding a baby. Her little daughter stands near her, clutching her mother's dress. In a moment, boys and girls seem to emerge from everywhere: An older girl and boy and two teenage girls find their way out onto the stoop as three teenage boys in ragged work clothes come around from the far side of the house.
The man doesn't show exuberance at my arrival, but greets me like an old friend. "We'uns thought you'd never find the place. Better git on in here. We'uns was just a-fixin' to take supper". There is something familiar about his voice, but I can't define it. It is gruff and brusque, yet has a paternal, authoritative quality.
I make my way to the stoop (even in 1857, I have a bum foot), patting the overly-joyous Trailer as I go. "Where's..." I cut myself off before saying "Sarah" -- it will be three years until she is born. I stop to look at the baby.
"Looky here -- this 'uns your great-great-granddaddy, Hugh". Catherine,
in her bonnet, holds open the bundle for my inspection. Her angular face
is lined; she has dark eyes that sparkle, giving her a sprightly appearance.
She can't be more than five feet tall and is so slight that I wonder how
she can manage to hold the baby. She speaks in a soft-toned Ozarkian brogue.
"You just git out back and wash up. Me and Maggie got supper all set. You
must be a-starvin', after such a trip".
Wesley, who is about nine, races ahead of me to the well and proudly demonstrates how he can handle the pump. He doesn't say much, but he studies me, as if every adult he meets is a potential mentor. The cold water on my face and hands is bracing.
Andrew, Catherine, Margaret, Ev, Lizzy, Jake, Tom, Wesley, Livvy and I sit on planks around the large, rough table. We all bow and Andy offers thanks for the food. Mary Isabell, in the cane-bottom rocking chair, holds the baby. There is a pot of steaming greens and boiled potatoes and a platter of fried rabbit with plenty of gravy to ladle over the fist-sized biscuits. Another platter, piled high with green onions and sliced tomatoes, and a bowl of salt are passed around. Catherine offers me a tin cup of hot sassafras tea. We eat, talk, and laugh as Ev vents his frustration over a contrary mule. I tell him a story of how his grand-nephew -- my grandfather, who will be born in forty-six years -- will deal with such recalcitrant critters.
Andrew, who says a lot with very few words, wants to know what life is like here, one hundred-forty-two years later. I describe things like cars, modems, DVDs, Medicaid, civil rights, the Internet, MIR, Pentium, the U.N. and The Simpsons. The children all stare at me, awestruck.
Andrew wonders how we can do all this and still tend crops and livestock. I respond with an oral dissertation on technological and chemical advances in agriculture and the high productivity of the farmer of 2000. I tell them about high-yield corn and disease-resistant beans and how, like it or not, a very few farmers now feed a nation. A brief, uncomprehending silence. "Well, Paul, what do you do back there?"
I take a deep breath and, after a short explanation of my chosen career, look around at the blank expressions. I give it one more shot; then, frustrated, shake my head and tell them that the functions of a corporate film and video producer are so esoteric that I can't explain them to people of my own generation. A little frustrated, I find myself telling of my extensive travels and meeting famous people, of my awards and accomplishments.
"We know. We're right proud of you, son". Catherine pats me on the hand. I feel a sense that none of my achievements would make any difference; I am one of her children. Checked back into the reality of the moment, I feel humbled and honored at the same time.
At the door, as I give Catherine a hug, she kisses me softly on the cheek. I open the blanket to look at little Hugh T. Jackson one more time. "Now, ain't he just as purty as a new calf?"
Andrew silently walks me to the fence, filling his pipe in the final rays of the Missouri sunset. We stop while he takes a long moment to light the old pipe, then looks up at me. "Well, great-great-great-grand-young'un Paul Jackson", he puffs, "why, on this here blamed earth, did you want to find us?"
I hold my words with the restraint of a concrete dam, not wanting to reveal the pain of the years ahead; the devastating war that will come in four years, Andrew's untimely death; Hugh's short life and its violent end, and the poverty and hardships endured by his offspring. I want to tell him how the faith, determination and stubborn tenacity of the Jacksons has kept me going through the worst of times. Andrew seems to read my mind. He draws on the pipe and opens the rickety gate; the lines on his weathered face crinkle. "Now, son", he says firmly, "just remember who you are!".
It is a command that echoes like a clap of thunder throughout the Jackson generations. I hear myself saying the same words to my teenage son, while my father tells me, while his father tells him. As Andrew, the house and the small farm fade away into the dusk, the words are ringing, as if to be seeking a moment in eternity to affix themselves. I find myself back at my computer on a cold November evening, looking at these words on the screen, and a fact stuns me: Nothing -- time, disease, famine, war, politics, destitution, nor even death -- has overpowered Jackson blood.
Sometimes I look at the picture of Catherine with four of her grown children. My mind drifts and I see that ford in the road and the little farmhouse that sits way back behind the split-rail fence, with Trailer barking and the small children running after him. Andrew, the boys and the mule are hard at pulling up a stump. The summer scent of fried rabbit, cooking polk greens and green onions wafts from the kitchen lean-to. A baby cries and I hear a young woman singing. And a silent voice beckons me: "This is where you came from. And this is where you will come home".