When I was a girl, my siblings and I spent time each summer with our grandparents. Grandma used to give my sister, cousin and me perms in her kitchen. The green box promised NO AMMONIA SMELL, which is how I learned early on that beauty products lie. It’s also when I learned from Grandma Dot as she yanked my hair with a steel handled comb one of the greatest truths I will ever know:
Beauty is painful, my darling.
She said this with a smile in her voice, as she plied an end paper to my wet hair and rolled the curler tight.
After our heads had been tortured into Annie-like curls, and we had run wild in the yard, after sno-cones from the ice cream truck and reading the comic strips on the back stoop, some time in the late afternoon dullness when the heat sent us indoors and the sweat dried on our skin, Grandpa would get out his maps.
He loved looking at maps, and I loved looking at them with his. His tan hands, freckled by the sun and age, blue veins ridged from heat, callouses from work spread out the paper on the flecked formica table,a map of his life and work and love. He liked to trace the routes from his house to ours, 2 hours south. He liked to slide his pointer finger along the winding line of 79 South, which promised to deliver him to us. And then, he would continue southward, into the mountains of West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina. He never stopped, not through South Carolina or Georgia. Grandpa marked his invisible route to the beach in Florida, where it was always sunny, and he could be forever barefoot and tan.
I don’t know know why he enjoyed it so much, but my mom also loves maps. She’s probably the only person I know who still gets TripTiks from AAA when she travels. She loves to know the history of a place, and where the best off the beaten path places to visit are. She likes to see if her route will take her over mountain and valley.
I suppose this makes me a third generation map lover. Pulling out a map with its neat and purposeful folds means adventure. It means we’re going to see something new. It means discovering and distance and perspective.
Today, I opened not a stiff paper map but a map nevertheless. I wanted to see what major industries were in my new home, and I wanted to familiarize myself with this place. Maps help me see how it fits together. As I zoomed in on a particular area, I wanted to locate a business with its proximity to where I run. I click click clicked through several links, finally landing on a website for a museum situated on the river, by which I run frequently.
I click click clicked some more and read the history. The building is a clapboard, plantation style home built in the early 1800s by Major Ridge. As a member of the Cherokee Nation, according to this website, he made an agreement to sell Cherokee land to Georgians, so as to avoid having it forcibly removed from them. They had been promised land in Oklahoma as a “reward.” Of course, deals like this never make anyone happy, and Major Ridge and his family, along with thousands of other Cherokee were forced off their land anyway, and embarked on the Trail of Tears.
The Trail of Tears carried this group of exiles through one of the harshest winters, and into Oklahoma. Here, Major Ridge and other members of his family were killed for making a deal with the U.S. government.
The map in my mind expanded and contracted. A major part of American history happened in my old and new backyards. I run now where Cherokee had endeavored to succeed. I can still follow the map in my mind that brought us here in July: curving and arcing and racing and crawling up and down and around mountains, through Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas. Oh, Arkansas with its treacherous mountains and dazzling vistas and incredibly girth will rip your heart out. And only to land in the brown, vast, unsettled, unforgiving flatness of Oklahoma.
What stops me most, in light of the current state of political discourse in our country, is that our cruelty knows no beginning. It is, our human compunction to establish dominion, part of our genesis. We can create a map of our history with the blood of our ancestors, in the violence we do to each other.
Perhaps maps take the sting out of the past, since they take us modern day people to our busy important people life destinations. Maps are for the living. For the now. But it seems, to me at least, that they still represent what used to be, and why it mattered.