Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.



I wonder if my ancestors are guiding me in some way and what it is they would want for me if they were guiding me. 

"Rivers are made of tributaries and innumerable careful quiet springs … The river always finds the right way." 

I read this William Stafford quote on its polished rock on the Stafford Walkway along the Willamette River. I look at the back of my hand, my own river in the form of blood vessels, and wonder, "Is this river finding the right way? Are my tributaries and springs feeding me in some way?" By that, I mean my ancestors.

Some cultures believe ancestors are always with us, guiding us. Each time I read of those cultures, I wonder if my ancestors are guiding me in some way and what it is they would want for me if they were guiding me. 

As an adult I learned about my father's tributary. He was raised African-American and passed as white. Not even my mother knew his history. His family were proud blacks with light skin on both sides of the family. Their grandparents were slaves but the light skin tells me there were white slave owner ancestors also. When I visited my father's then-uninhabited childhood home, I found bookshelves of classics and poetry. I felt a kindred spirit and wondered if my longing for knowledge and poetry were a legacy from these people. I never knew them and felt the loss.

I did know my mother's tributary. They were German, no-nonsense farmers, who settled a town of 300 people in Missouri, cutting down timber, and taming the wild. They represented frugality, inventiveness, and a strong work ethic. My beloved German grandmother, who believed I could do no wrong, is the ancestor who first comes to mind when I think of guides. I identified strongly with this German "get it done" philosophy. But they could be provincial and I wondered if they would have accepted this man among them whom they loved, my father, if they had known his story.

Sometimes I can feel these two narratives warring inside me, that of a self righteous hard-working person who wonders if others work as hard as her vs. my father's people who learned to keep striving no matter what anyone said about them, holding fast to religion and community to maintain their self-respect. I don't know if those arguments being played in my brain are the quiet springs of ancestors guiding me or a result of my own experiences of life.

I have tried to look more closely at both narratives. I studied the history of my German town, walked the streets, visited the cemeteries and finally wrote a book about a girl growing up in the town in 1905. I had to become her to root myself in the dream these settlers tried to realize in the town. I shared this with others in town so we could have discussions about how those values are influencing the present day town.

I have steeped myself in African-American culture cultivating close friendships with blacks, reading countless black authors and studying my father's genealogy. I wrote a novel that pits the wariness of a white small town to outsiders (especially blacks) against the facts of African-American life and the shared values that unite the two groups. For me, becoming a character in a book I am writing flexes the muscle of my imagination so that I am forced to step outside of the box of the usual assumptions that comfort me.

I do know I have EVERYBODY in my ancestors: perpetrators, victims, the self-righteous, the patient and loving, rednecks, progressives … everybody.

They are me. I want to be able to encompass these different lifestyles and opinions and not sit in judgment. "The river always finds the right way," Stafford says. I look at the back of my hand and pray that he is right.

Cherie Dupuis is a member of the Jottings Group at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.

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