On a winter day in the early part of the twentieth century, my great-grandfather Casey walked carefully and quietly through the Pennsylvania woods. An avid hunter his entire life, on this day his quarry was deer. Not long into his hunt he saw something he’d never seen in his life. He froze, raised his rifle, pulled the trigger. The deer bounded briefly away, and then dropped. When my great-grandfather, still a young man on this day, spotted the deer again, he moved toward it until he felt that he could come no closer. He could do nothing but stare. What he observed at that moment was what had only seconds before been a perfect—and perfectly alive—albino doe. He then did what he’d always done; gutted it where it lay, skillfully tearing into its ivory hide with his hunting knife, leaving the entrails where they landed. When he’d finished dressing out his kill, the story goes, he could see nothing save patches of dark red blood on the deer and in the suddenly too white snow. The rest of it—sky and trees, ground and mountains, weapons and woods—fell away. Now all he witnessed was red death where there had been white life. He regretted the kill for the remainder of his days. For me the deer became a familial symbol. I believe on that day in the mountains of western Pennsylvania our genetic code shifted to accommodate the ugly truth that one of us had annihilated beauty.
Perhaps his kill nearly a century ago is the reason I’m becoming a believer in epigenetics, a theory espousing the idea that genes have memories and that the daily lives of our ancestors affect us today in myriad ways. Some psychologists even say we carry ancestral experiences within us, somewhere in our evolutionary subconscious. French psychologist Anne Ancelin Schutzenberger has written of what she calls the “ancestor syndrome.” She believes we often have to acknowledge the suffering of our ancestors because we’ve been affected by it in our genetic memory. Just as our appearance and propensity for certain diseases have been passed down to us from ancestors we’ve never met, perhaps so too can experience, including suffering, for instance, and fear.
Some theorists on the fringe have gone so far as to suggest that if a person has an ostensibly irrational fear of wolves even while living in a fourth-floor walk-up in New York City, the ancestor syndrome is at work. Perhaps a distant ancestor was attacked by a pack of wolves as she gathered raspberries from the back forty, while daydreaming about attending a dance in town later that night where she could show off her new calico dress.
Although the science is certainly dubious, I like believing it could be true. For the last few years, I’ve felt pulled by the past, as if long-dead ancestors are attempting to tell me something, to warn me of impending danger, to offer me lessons on the longevity and fragility of love. Perhaps this ancestral memory works the way stories of our childhood do. We swear we remember the experience of crawling out of our crib and turning on the television, because we’ve heard of it so often in family stories.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been a disciple and devotee of deer. I need to see them. I imagine them in deep woods and on the sides of hills. I search for them eating in a field or drinking from a stream. I assume there’s a lesson I’m supposed to learn from them. I call my wife the moment I spot one, as if I’ve just spied an ivory-billed woodpecker thought to be extinct. On the final day of the twentieth century as the world prepared for the disaster that was to be Y2K, I felt secure in the passing of a century because that afternoon I had witnessed fourteen deer, two bucks and twelve does, walking through a field with a simple grace and a timeless endurance, doing what these animals have always done in the blue cold of a late December day.
Two other deer from the past haunt my psyche. My dad killed a buck while also hunting in western Pennsylvania. In a black and white photo, the only deer my dad ever killed lies roped to the hood of his two-year-old 1955 Chevy in a picture he sent to my mother just before they married. A few days before the kill, he’d sent my mom a postcard. It read, in full: “Hi, dear. No deer. Bye, dear.” But in the photo an eight-point buck with a perfectly symmetrical rack covers the hood of the Chevy. For years the mounted head and upturned hooves hung in the basement of my childhood home. When I was a small boy, alone in our dank and dark basement, I feared the glass-eyed gaze of my father’s trophy. I usually broke the spell of fear by rushing up the stairs screaming “I didn’t kill you. You’re dead and I’m not. You’re dead and I’m not.”
A few years ago my father—who hasn’t hunted in over three decades—was about to trash the mount because it had deteriorated so badly. Its ears hung loosely, ready to fall, and much of its fur appeared leprous. For no reason I can understand, I could not let him discard the deer that had been dead a year longer than I’ve been alive. I needed to save it. I decided to take it to a taxidermist for repair, choosing one in western Pennsylvania, the place of the deer’s death, although there are taxidermies all around my home in rural Ohio. When I was a kid and we’d visit the Pennsylvania relatives and landscape I loved, I knew we were closing in on our destination when we passed Kitzmiller’s Taxidermy. I understood where I had to take the deer. I felt that to do it right, I must make the eight-hour round trip to have the mount repaired and a few months later, the eight-hour round trip to pick it up. When my wife asked why on earth I insisted on taking it to another state and spending two days driving, I could not give her a completely satisfactory answer. ‘I’m pretty sure there’s something wrong with me’ was about the best explanation I could offer, which she seemed to accept. What I didn’t tell her is that I talked to Buck (we were on a first-name basis before we’d reached the Ohio line) most of the way there, at one point moving him to the front seat and affixing a baseball hat to his antlers, which I believe bestowed on me, on us really, the right to drive in the High Occupancy Vehicle lane.
The third deer that looms over me appeared in my life on the long-ago morning I walked out of my home and away from my first marriage, leaving my wife crying in the kitchen and my two-year-old son waving goodbye from behind the screen door. Sobbing to the point of actual stomach pain, I pulled onto the highway not a mile from the marriage and life I’d just pushed into the past, when I noticed a fawn, frightened and alone, clearly only a few weeks old, terrified and trapped between a forbidding fence and a dangerous highway. The symbolism of my son waving from behind the screen door and of the trapped fawn has haunted me for over thirty years, even though my ex-wife and I are friends and my son and I have a close and loving relationship. Still, and in particular when I’m with my son, his wife and their two tiny daughters, when laughter, love and joy pierce the skin of the day, this image of my son and the fawn creeps out of the mist of memory and I feel the wound that comes with destroying a variant of beauty.
My ancestors not only hunted deer. They laid brick and made bread and delivered milk and mined coal. I’m obsessed with coal mines to the point of having dreams where I wake up with an aching back, squinting awake into shards of sun my window shades let in, as if it’s the daylight my coal-mining paternal grandfather saw only on Sundays. I must also confess to a dumb love of mules, because my nine-year-old grandfather’s job was to lead the creatures into and out of the bowels of the mine. I want to own a mule or two just to have around my yard. I’d never make my mules work; I’d just let them hang, eat, drink, live life above ground. Some of my ancestors must have been ranchers, because I’d love to have a few longhorn steers, not to raise and harvest, but just to be able to look at through my kitchen window—and maybe to keep the mules company.
Why do I love the image of snow falling past gaslights on a street corner? The only reason I can think of stems from the story I heard about my maternal grandmother and her mother, standing beneath a streetlight reading a marriage license. My grandmother had been banished from the house because her abusive father hated that his Irish-light daughter married a dark-skinned Italian. Even though it pains me, I still adore the image of these two women under a gaslight in the snow of a New York City night, the young girl exhilarated and anxious; her mother worried and maybe a little jealous, wondering if her daughter had discovered the love all the talk was about.
Lately, I also have an unexplainable urge to begin canning fruits and vegetables the way my paternal grandmother did. I’m committed to making my own marmalade. On particular fall mornings I feel the itch to sew Halloween costumes for my granddaughters, the way my marmalade-making grandmother did for me. The cruel truth that I lack the skill to repair a hole in a sock does not deter me.
Sometimes I worry about my obsession with the past. It goes back as far as I can remember. The past seemed to me the place all story lived. Once upon a time that is not now. Then, not now. Stories of the past always had a beginning, middle and end. I don’t recall when it happened, but I know it became a kind of felt truth that the past was more important, more meaningful, more lived, more narrative, more literary, more full of life and of what really mattered than the present could ever be, to say nothing of the future. The past was, somehow, more true.
When I was in childhood, my imagination seemed to jar loose and float back to the forties, the World War II years, known to me primarily through family stories (all of my maternal uncles had served in the war), as well as movies and music. Although my musical roots stretch deep and hard into rock ‘n roll, I listened to music of the forties when I was alone, allowing myself to be seduced by melancholy, homesick for a time in which I’d never lived. On rainy afternoons alone in my room, I’d listen to the love songs of war and come to believe it was I who had fought in the French countryside, I who had made great war buddies from places like Enid, Oklahoma, and Tupelo, Mississippi, I who mourned the girl I left at home who read my letters while sitting beneath a skinny sycamore tree. What got to me more than anything were the songs about lovers being apart. Could love survive war and distance? Could love outlive death? My adolescent sentimentality was fathomless. In my teens, the fifties took over. Too young to drive, my friends and I walked ten miles round trip to see American Graffiti fifteen days in a row, always longing to live in a bygone age, loving the music, the romance, the restrained danger, the covert break from conformity. One night after returning from the movie, I broke from my friends and started a wild sprint through traffic-heavy Hauserman Road. As my friends looked on dumbfounded, I ran in and out of station wagons and pick-up trucks, screaming nonsense, my head down, oblivious of brakes or horns or anything but my desire to see if I could trick my mind—or trick the mind of time—into permitting me access to 1950s America. Although this was certainly nearly all stunt and teenage exhibitionism, something happened that at first delighted and then scared the hell out of me. For a single moment on that crazed sprint, it felt as if I had literally transcended the temporal. I no longer ran down a street in a suburb of Cleveland in 1973. I was, simply and somehow, elsewhere. I heard no cars or horns or cheers or laughs. I felt no night air on my skin. I had not run far enough or long enough to unleash endorphins. I simply became time mad, mad for the malleability or permeability of time. When I collapsed by the curb and felt the grass of my childhood summer, I looked around, surprised I was where I was, fully expecting to wake up in a counter-clockwise world. My best friend said afterward that my face looked distorted; I became a friend he didn’t recognize, a person he no longer knew. I often wonder if for that moment I’d slipped the temporal boundaries of the present, entered the relativity of time, if only viscerally, if only that once, as, perhaps, only an imaginative and puberty-pummeled kid can. I’m in love with what Charles Wright called “yesterday’s noise.” “How sweet the past is, no matter how wrong, or how sad,” Wright wrote, “How sweet is yesterday’s noise.”
As I child I believed there were two kinds of people in the world. Those who—if time travel were possible—would propel themselves into the future, and those, like me, who would want to spiral into the past.
As of late I’ve been asking other questions. How much do we carry of those who have gone before us? How much do we pass on? What is our responsibility to those who are no longer here? What responsibility to live right and to remember well do we owe the children and grandchildren we leave behind?
Nearly a decade ago now, my brother and I attended our cousin’s wedding, again in western Pennsylvania, so we stopped over to see our aunt Mary, who was too ailing to attend. I don’t remember much of what we talked about that afternoon. Perhaps she fed us sugar cookies and cocoa. She’s no longer around to ask. But I remember this. As we were leaving her house that day, she said, “Now don’t forget me.” My brother and I assured her we would not. I can only guess why she said this. She had to have been in her late eighties then, and perhaps she could hear the train whistle in the distance growing louder—or fainter? I have no idea. I do know that I’ve not been able to forget it.
What I remember most about Aunt Mary was the way she consoled a grieving nine-year-old boy at his grandfather’s funeral. I can recall her fingers running through my hair and down my wet cheeks. I have no idea what consoling words she offered, but I know on a visceral level she made me feel somehow better about the death of my grandfather, if only for a few minutes. Although I didn’t know it at nine, Aunt Mary was an expert on death. When her daughter Annie was five years old, a dress she wore caught the flame of the gas stove as she passed by. Within minutes Annie was dead, burned to death because her pretty dress billowed into flame. Beauty annihilated.
Of course, I want to be alive and sensitive about what time and stories of the past are trying to teach me. And yet, I know above all things, that the present is where life ought to be lived. The certainty of this knowledge goes marrow deep. A few years ago, my wife and I had just returned from a trip riding horses in Utah’s magnificent Monument Valley. We were still flush with the afterglow of a great vacation, on which we rode horses and let the rest of the world spin without us. But we hadn’t seen our granddaughters in almost a week. Usually we can’t go two or three days without a fix. When my oldest daughter brought the girls over that day, we burst out of the house to meet them in the driveway, racing to see who would reach them first. Soon we were doling our souvenirs and telling stories of our trip. Hugs and kisses everywhere. Little explosions of joy wherever we looked. We played with the girls at numerous toy stations in our house. When the two-year-old, Cassie, needed a nap, she went home, and Ellie, two years older, stayed “for a little while longer,” as she always desires. She wanted to watch a movie and so we watched it together, she snuggling with us at any scene she found even mildly scary, even searching her shelves for a book to read, in case too many images were of dark rooms or dangerous storms. “I don’t like twisters,” she told us. And I know this as much as I know anything: that in these moments resides all of life. Love shared over an afternoon. Nothing glamorous or earth changing, just being with those we love and who love us. The stuff of an afternoon. The stuff of forever. But by tomorrow it will be yesterday, and lately, the rate at which the present produces the past overwhelms me.
The older I get the more the past seems poised to devour the present, pulling at me, wanting me to pay attention, demanding I tell certain stories, making sure I don’t forget who and what have gone before, forcing me to keep the blood of my ancestors flowing. However, an ostensibly equal pull comes from my granddaughters, reminding me of the wonder of the present and the hope for the future.
Separately and simultaneously this twin pull of past and future holds me suspended over the present, as if over a river rimmed with rock canyons, the water beneath roiling with love and suffering, pain and joy.
I’d like to one day visit the mountain of my great-grandfather’s kill. I’d take my granddaughters with me. We’d climb through the snow and the hushed hills, and we’d search for an ever-elusive white deer. We might never see one, but we’d know, somehow, that it was out there. We’d descend the mountain on which we’d been elevated and surrounded by wonder, and then we’d go home, get warm, watch the steam rise from our hot chocolate, and tell the true and present story of all the beauty we’d encountered, all the beauty that survives.
Joe Mackall is the co-founder and -editor of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative and of the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Prize in partnership with the University of New Mexico Press. He’s the author of the Book-of-the-Month Club selection Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish, and of the memoir The Last Street Before Cleveland. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, Brevity, The Washington Post, and on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” He directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Ashland University. He’s currently working on the memoir “Grandparents in Paradise: Life in the Face of the Fall.”