Luisa Kay Reyes: Closets (Memoir)
And here’s my Southern Legitimacy Statement: Luisa was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Roll Tide! On her Mother’s side her family has been in Alabama since before Alabama became a state. Her Mother was actually living in Mexico City when she was expecting, but she made sure she returned to Alabama when she gave birth. That way she made sure her children would be Southern born and Southern bred.
When a very fine and genteel Virginia Southern gentleman who was sitting in his stuffed chair after a long morning of discussing family history suddenly asked us “Can I show you my closet?” Needless to say, we all paused for a moment. You see, we were on one of our many journeys throughout the country while my mother, our family genealogist, collected the oral history of our bygone folks. While several of the family genealogists were experts at scouring the dusty recesses of the various libraries throughout our home state of Alabama and pouring over old census records and military records, my mama’s specialty was interviewing all the elderly members of our kith and kin.
And through her interviewing of our elderly kinfolk, who sometimes lived out in the woods past where the paved road ended, we came upon the tale about how the gap in the two front teeth comes from the Kornegay side of the family and is a sign of generosity. Which helped explain the gap in my mother’s own two front teeth. Then, when some of the elderly ladies decided to let things finally be known before their time was up, we discovered the tale about how if the “truth were known, we’d all be Harrises and not Clements.” A tale which some people would have preferred my mother hadn’t stumbled upon. However, once their tongues were loosened, we learned from these same lovely ladies about how the headstrong women in the Ward branch of our family defied their parents and eloped to marry their true loves. One of them even leaving her daddy’s plantation home to start married life in a brush arbor in order to do so. Admittedly, we did sometimes find ourselves wondering if their parents’ objections to their choice of beaux wasn’t without some substance. But, we could always console ourselves with the notion that if they hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t be here. Then, a few times, we even got some war stories.
One of these war stories being how our ancestors who surrendered with Lee at Appomatox described it as one long day “it was a terrible time to remember.” Which led to my born and bred Ohioan grandfather boasting that he didn’t have any ancestors who fought in The War, as they were Amish and Mennonite and therefore conscientious objectors. As my proud grandfather put it, due to their devout religious beliefs, they had “better sense” than to partake in such a bloody conflict. Adding further insult to injury, we later found out, much to the chagrin of our Southern half of the family, that one of my grandfather’s ancestors actually voted for Mr. Lincoln during his mid-war Presidential re-election campaign. But, I digress.
This particular morning, we found ourselves in Fauquier County, Virginia where some of our ancestors helped found Broad Run Baptist Church. A Church which we would learn is tied with another Baptist Church as being the oldest Baptist Church in the state of Virginia in continuous operation, due in large part to the ladies of the congregation working hard to keep its doors open during the War Between The States. One of the present day members of that Church, was the very cultured Southern gentleman who at the moment was inviting us to see his closet. We were puzzled. It wasn’t entirely unusual for the elderly ladies and gentlemen my mother interviewed to treat us to a little bit of show and tell at times. For in previous interviews we’d seen big old-fashioned trunks and letters that were now brittle and beige and written in ink that was fading into very fine imperceptible lines. Sometimes during these interviews, if we were really fortunate, we were even treated to some tintypes that featured some of our serious looking relatives of yore. Tintypes, which in true Southern fashion, were always accompanied by a tale which would invariably turn out to be true. However, a closet? Well now, that was a first for us.
Finally, after failing to ascertain the proper way of turning down this pleasant gentleman’s polite request, my mama simply acquiesced. Not quite sure what was to happen next. However, as soon as he was given the permission to do so, our elegant host defied his age and promptly got up and opened his closet . . . revealing to us the finest full length Confederate uniform we’ve ever seen hanging from the inside of his closet’s door. It was complete with a gleaming sword, firearms, and all the elegant trimmings one would expect of someone who had ridden with John Singleton Mosby, the famous “Gray Ghost” of the Confederacy. For it turned out, our host’s ancestor had ridden with Mosby and his closet was full of the relics from his ancestor’s Confederate Cavalry past. As well as some historical relics that our host had found while a child, playing on the War Between the States’ battlefields before they forbade such historical relic hunting. Why would our elegant host seek our permission first before revealing to us such an historical treasure trove? Well, in true Southern storytelling fashion, after a full morning discussing family history, we were then treated to a nice afternoon of show and tell with his closet that lengthened our stay by a full hour or two. And nowadays, as I look into my closet full of empty clothes hangers, some half-folded clothes that I’m convincing myself don’t really need ironing, and some mismatched socks lying here and there-I think of our day in Fauquier County, Virginia. And how that was the most interesting closet, I have ever seen.