The View from Oman

Through the window of my hotel in Muscat, Oman, I see the Gulf of Oman, which leads to the Arabian (or Persian, depending on your politics) Gulf. Off in the mists of the horizon sit a trio of oil tankers. They’ve been docked offshore for the duration of my visit here—four days and counting.

I’ve been thinking a lot about journeys—this one, which I didn’t particularly want—and journeys in general. My two grandmothers, maternal and paternal, both set their sights on the wider world, and for women born in the last years of the 19th century showed surprising travel mettle. One took tours to South America and Spain in her older age. The other moved with her engineer husband to the Caribbean in the early 1920s and spent the next 30 years there, raising kids on a sisal plantation in Haiti, battling who knows what illnesses and fears. I’ve inherited their wanderlust but not, it seems to me increasingly as I age, their apparently singleminded devotion to its pursuit.

I find it harder and harder to leave home.

I find the thrill of travel more and more elusive. My curiosity—that faithful driver deep inside the reptilian human brain—is waning.

So why go? In this instance, because the trip was more or less thrust on me. I said yes before I knew what I was doing, and here I am, in Oman, for a conference about cancer, which is its own unwelcome journey, of course, to use what’s both a cliché and a reality for the dozens of people I’ve met here—women, mostly, whose nobility in the face of their unwanted travels I find humbling. I’m here to talk about how stories can empower those who have cancer and those whose job it is to report on the disease, but it’s the stories I’m hearing that are teaching me.

As my flight took off four+ days ago, I thought of that term “liftoff.” You lift off from the earth and plunge like a needle through the clouds, and with luck into the clarity of a blue sky or a starpocked night. Maybe that’s what still impels me to say yes to these less-and-less welcome embarkations—the chance to lift off the mind’s clutter, shed the routines and rituals I take for granted, see those oil tankers on the horizon and know that we’re connected. To meet the intrepid women at this conference, voyagers who in so many ways remind me of my grandmothers: their passports stamped with the record of their travels and their travails, open still, ready for the next page.

Exposures

This odd photo has come down to me along with reams of other documents from my grandmother. I never paid much attention to it until a few weeks ago, when I was rummaging through the family scrapbooks again in search of some detail about my Scarlett ancestors.

The picture—or pictures, for it’s a beguiling double exposure—dates from around 1899. My grandmother (the infant in the wicker baby carriage) was born in 1898. The house under construction behind her is the replacement for the family manse, which burned to the ground in 1897. The setting is Brunswick, Georgia, specifically a tract of acreage called Oak Grove, once the center of my great-great-great grandfather’s cotton empire, worked by hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children.

My grandmother had always told me how poor she was growing up in Brunswick in the first years of the 20th century, in the aftermath of the Civil War and its lingering privations. She belonged to the same generation as Margaret Mitchell, and like Mitchell, she imbibed the stories of the lost South at the knees of grandparents and great-uncles and aunts who had lived the thing. The lessons stuck. “It still makes me mad at those Yankees stripping the Southern families,” my grandmother wrote to her son in the 1970s.

The photograph suggests otherwise. It’s all there: the fire, the ruin, the loss. But there, also, is this baby in a wicker carriage, being tended, as of old, by a black woman. Forty years after the war, my ancestors were re-creating the life their ancestors had known. In the background, I can make out the silhouettes of men—possibly black—building the new Scarlett homestead (which, incidentally, looks a lot like the house of Margaret Mitchell’s grandparents in Clayton County, Georgia).

This is not a poverty-stricken family: the women wear wasp-waisted dresses, mutton-chop sleeves, little straw boating hats, stockings. Renoir could have painted the scene. My grandmother’s carriage sits on enormous bicycle wheels. Her nurse, a woman named Mattie, wears a starched white apron over a dark underdress. They are peering into a new century—one that will claim them all, claim the house under construction, yet still not free the people building it from the attitudes and prejudices of the past.

Here is the double exposure of family I’m trying to untangle: the story behind the story, the second image, the one that accidentally slipped into the portrait my grandmother so carefully composed, the only one she wanted me to see.

Artifacts

“To be astonished is one of the surest ways of not growing old too quickly.” —Colette

 

In late January, on an unexpectedly frigid day, and despite a sore throat, I spent four hours inside Mexico City’s great anthropology museum. I’d been there once before, when I was 13, on a visit with my grandmother and brother. The museum was then four years old. It’s held up beautifully: still that bold stone exterior, at once hard and undulating; that astonishing umbrella-like roof shading its massive interior courtyard.

The day was overcast and damp, and the museum unheated. I’d worn nothing warmer than a summer raincoat. A cold day made worse by the raging wound at the back of my throat.

But the galleries held me. One after another, they told their stories. Mostly in stone and clay; occasionally in wood, fabric or paint. Figures two, three, four-thousand years old engaged in the stuff of everyday life. They watch, they crouch, they harvest and prepare food, they stare down from impossible heights, they give birth. They are noseless, faceless, dead, bleeding, about to kill, grinning. They’re being devoured by a snake, a jaguar, another being as powerful as they.

I lurched between admiration and horror. In each gallery, something whimsical called out: a squatting rabbit, a cat, a man cuddling a dog to his chest. In each gallery, something appalled: the sacrificial altar or slab where hearts were offered to the bloodthirsty sun. A display case holding the deformed and decorated skulls of child slaves who’d been purchased at the market for sacrificial slaughter.

I lingered for some time over the last of these, grateful to the archaeologists who’d excavated these artifacts and deciphered the grisly story they represent. Unnerved by that story.

a2

Reconstructed Slave Cabin, Kingsley Plantation, Jacksonville, Florida

Why unearth the past? A man at the gym asked me the other day why I’m digging up the story of my slaveholding ancestors. I gave the obvious answers: because it’s important, because we need to confront the truth, because this country has done so little to acknowledge the brute realities of our history—slavery and Native American genocide, twin foundations of so much that we regard as American progress. 

Those are easy answers. The tougher one is how are we perpetuating this history in the present? I’ve often wondered how my ancestors could live their relatively comfortable lives within sight of the slave cabins. (How those ancient Mexican civilizations could carry on with business after murdering enslaved children …) But then I ask myself: what are the slave cabins of our era? The inequities on which my comfort depends? The shorn mountaintops of West Virginia? Detroit’s failing public schools? Chicago’s impoverished neighborhoods?

Each generation solves and complicates. We leave behind marvels of beauty, artifacts rich with story, actions and attitudes too callous to explain.