Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Discovering Charles Springfield by Remembering Thomas Springfield

By Charles Dion Springfield

The news tore into me like a slow bullet. My breath shortened and my knees became weak. Without realizing it, I found myself seeking support on my telephone cabinet after the familiar voice over the telephone informed me that my grandfather, Thomas Springfield Sr., had died. After hanging up the telephone, I sat in my apartment – prepared for bed in my flannel pajamas – stunned. I didn’t sleep a wink that night. The feeling that ensued was somewhat strange. I was saddened that he had suffered a slow, painful death at age 75. But I was more dispirited for what would happen to me as a result of his death.

I once heard a historian say that when an elderly person dies, it’s like the equivalent of a library being burned down; all of that history disappears forever. Well, my eldest library was irreconcilably destroyed. A major link to my family heritage and history was gone forever and I was distraught that I hadn’t taken advantage of it while I had a chance.

No one person is to blame for that. We had not been extremely close, my grandfather and me. As a matter of fact, I can only remember seeing him twice in my life before I reached adulthood: once when my grandmother, Lillian Springfield, was alive and once immediately after she died. I unconsciously harbored ill feelings toward him as a child, as I had for my own father. They were both disappearing acts who managed to reappear with about the same frequency, leaving me with missing pieces to the puzzle of whom I was; pieces that I am desperately trying to assemble.

Things were different between my grandfather and me, however, once I become an adult. I was physically closer to him after I moved from Wisconsin to Mississippi to attend college. He resided in Tennessee after leaving Wisconsin some years ago. Therefore, our encounters became more frequent. After 20 years from our first encounter, I finally got to witness first-hand where I got my long, skinny fingers from; where I inherited my serious – sometimes – intimidating looking – stare; and partially where I got my sharp-tongued mean streak from (but I have to attribute part of that to my grandmother’s side of the family).

However, that was only barely peeling back the surface in my quest for self-discovery. I wanted to know what made him tick to better understand what makes me tick. I wanted to get to the meat of the matter. Now that he was gone, I would never know what he felt when he fell in love with my grandmother or if it was love at all. I would never experience the pain or anger in his voice as he described being treated inhumanely because of the color of his skin while serving in World War II. Those stories would only come secondhand. His deep, husky voice could not describe to me the joy or fear of bringing his first child into the world, or his eleventh child. And I would never hear the explanation for what made him drink so much, ultimately leave his house full of children and forever break my grandmother’s heart. All of these things remain a mystery to me.

I eventually came to the conclusion that since I could never understand parts of his life and personality make up, there would be part of myself that I would never understand. There was no way for me to accurately draw parallels between our lives; why we love who we love, dislike certain circumstances, take a stand on some matters or run from others. All of this threw a serious wrench into my plans, a long-term journey of trying to veritably discover who Charles Springfield is an African-American, a man, and as a human being. An enormous chunk of my history was lost…so I thought.

Several months after his death in Tennessee, I found myself on the No. 2 train heading to the 96th Street stop in Manhattan from a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. I was going to spend the day with my deceased grandmother’s first cousin, her husband and her childhood friend, whom I never knew existed until a few weeks before I arrived in the Big City. As I walked a few blocks from the subway station to their Upper West Side brownstone, all kinds of thoughts ran through my mind:

“I hope they like me”

“I hope I like them.”

“I hope we get along.”

“I hope I get to meet my great grandmother’s sister.”

“I wonder what she’s like.”

I was greeted with hugs, kindness, attention and a kind of nurturing that was very familiar. There was no denying that my cousin was family. She looked like family and had a similar personality to one of my aunts. She also had similar traits to my mother: being allergic to shellfish, not being able to ride in the back seat of a car because of claustrophobia and being very endearing to her loved ones. Not long after our initial chit chat, my cousin pulled out old photo albums with pictures dating back to the early 1900s. I saw pictures of my grandmother as a young mother, pictures of both my grandmother and grandfather as a young couple, and pictures of other family members in New York and Pennsylvania whom I have never met.

This overwhelming feeling came over me and my lips, eyes and heart smiled. It was like I had made some rare finding on an archeological dig in Africa. I had not discovered the Arch of the Covenant, but it was a very big deal to me. I had not only discovered a family library, I discovered a rare family museum. And in the midst of looking at pictures and listening to stories, I stumbled on a few more missing pieces to my yet unsolved puzzle.

Life is a constant journey of self-discovery. We are all seeking insight into ourselves and our lives, trying to ascertain what makes us who we are, what is my role in the world, what makes us unique and what makes us intrinsically the same. But if we really want to begin to understand ourselves, we must first open ourselves up to the journey. We must prepare to experience the joy and experience the pain, but hopefully – and most importantly – experience our true selves.

My grandfather was buried in October 2000. That library was becoming dilapidated and sooner or later it was bound to shut down. I was fortunate enough to help lay it to rest. All is not lost, though. I got what I could from it. And it inspired me to start exploring the lives of other family members – especially my beloved mother – and continue walking the path in hopes of locating my unadulterated self.

1 comment:

  1. Charles: This is beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.