I let this poor old blog — and Emmett — go for one week, last week, while I was on Thanksgiving break. That’s the longest time I’ve taken off from the research since I started this project over two years ago.
This morning, it’s hard getting back into the swing of the project, which is what I was afraid of, and why I haven’t taken more than a few days here and there off from the research: I’m feeling lost and a little desperate from being disconnected from Emmett.
The break was much needed, though: I had stopped in the middle of a chapter that was getting tedious, and I was noticing that I was starting to dread working on Emmett’s chapters.
Also: I was headed to Mississippi for our family’s annual gathering of 30 at my in-law’s house. It is a rollicking, loud, athletic, boisterous group, where privacy and a chance to simply sit, think, and write for more than five minutes are rare commodities. Even getting up at 4 am doesn’t work; several of my brothers-in-law are also awake, as that is the prime time for hunting.
I took a long break like this once before (one month), from my dissertation. That was too long, as I remember how panicked I was from being away from the project. I got back into it by simply reading what I had written, and going into the project via editing and proofreading. Today, I plan to organize my notes on this chapter, and pick up where I left off.
When I did manage to get off by myself, I read this excellent book, which was given to me by a neighbor familiar with Emmett’s project:
Edmund DeWaal is a ceramicist who, like me, discovered a family mystery, and decided to spend a few years tracking it down. DeWaal feels the presence of his ancestors as he works to unravel the story behind an odd netsuke collection that has been in his family for several generations.
DeWaal had to do a lot of what I am doing even now: Visiting archives, examining by hand, page-by-page, anything and everything that may give a clue or provide a piece to the puzzle that is Emmett Wilson’s life.
What’s more: DeWaal eloquently expresses the angst I feel at times when I write about Emmett:
Despite the fact that Emmett and his friends are long gone, I, too, have the clammy feeling that I shouldn’t be peering into these people’s lives without their knowledge. I see things that make me uncomfortable; if, perhaps, they knew that someone would be looking this closely into their personal and professional lives 100 years hence, imagine their discomfort.
Like DeWaal, I am certain that there are memories that Emmett’s family had about him that they didn’t wish to share with others. Once Emmett was gone, the memories could be buried safely away with him. Even Emmett’s hometown paper said nothing about his death, likely out of deference to his family. Emmett was their U.S. Congressman for four years. Certainly that would have merited at least a two-line mention of his passing; even The Tampa Tribune carried a brief blurb about his death.
Several of Emmett’s family members have told me that no one spoke of him after his death; several current family members were, in fact, surprised to know about him. The things tangible from his life, letters, documents he touched or signed, are few. Hardly anything exists of Emmett today that is personal. Knowing what I know about him, I can understand why and how some of his family members chose to forget about him once he died. I can see them, perhaps, burning his letters, discarding his possessions — there weren’t many at the end — letting his memory go.
On my last visit to Chipley this past October, I remember one of the local historians I’ve been working with over the past two years asking me about the progress of the book. I told him that it was coming along, slowly; also, that it wasn’t a happy story, and sometimes, I have to step away from it so that I’m not overwhelmed by what I’m reading.
He said, “Well, maybe the story isn’t meant to be told.”
I said, “No. There’s a message in there, and it needs to be relayed carefully, compassionately.” I truly believe I would not have been able to come this far if I didn’t feel that way about Emmett’s story. I believe in this story. And like DeWaal’s experiences with his research, more will be revealed in the findings. He had to stick with it to see it through, which is what I will do, too.
Perhaps some of Emmett’s letters escaped the trash barrel, or the flames. I’m hoping some friends or family members wanted to keep his memory alive for whatever reason; that they believed his life was worthwhile, regardless of how it turned out, and so, they saved his letters. Let’s hope.