Carol Anne Perini :: Ancestral Stars ::

Creative Non-Fiction

Southern Legitimacy Statement: My maiden name is Totten. My ancestor, Joseph Gilbert Totten was the Chief Civil Engineer who built the Civil War-era Fort Totten as part of the Defenses of Washington, D.C. Though not a true Southerner, his legacy is firmly entrenched in Maryland and Virginia, surrounding Washington, D.C. I have lived south of something most of my life including residing in many southern states: Maryland, North Carolina, and Florida. This, in my simple view, makes me at least a quasi-Southerner. Did I mention I live in Southern California?

Ancestral Stars

Our vehicle glides along Nebraska’s route 80, a storied path previously paved with dust and mud carrying settlers west along the Oregon and Mormon trails. My first born is nestled into my arms, comforted by the hum of the tires on the beaten asphalt, soothed by the lull of my voice and the road. We are on Pawnee land where native people once lived and raised families, not unlike our little tribe. The Pawnee, along with their kinsmen and women, roamed the great plains co-mingling with their fellow tribesmen and women and nature; wild turkey, buffalo, squab, fish, nuts, berries. Theirs was an agreement of sorts. We will respect you and what you give us to maintain our lives and in the giving you will teach us how to live within and upon you. We will live lives of mutual respect. 

My husband and I stop on a byway on the outskirts of a farmer’s field where we set up our camp. Being self-contained we pull out our card table, make our preparations with the water we carry, and after a generous dinner prepared on a propane stove we clean up, shovel and cover our waste, and prepare to bed down for the night. Once the baby is tucked into her travel crib, we fling open-wide the kitchen-like doors on the back end of our step-van, line our pillows along the wide opening and snuggle into one another. Our heads touch as we take in the 180-degree horizon. Each of us are in awe under a cover of stars so dense they are a multitude reaching all horizons east to west, north to south, not a hill or mountain to block our view. Far away from any cities we presume to remember how our ancestors once roamed these great plains, honoring the lands where they lived, they gazing at identical night skies. They were not visitors, like us, intrepid travelers though we might be, we certainly were not residents like the former families we imagined were ours. 

When I was younger my dad was an over-the-road trucker. As a child I traveled with him sitting high above the world or so I thought, in his tractor’s cab, peering at the many new sites not common in the little factory town I grew up in in New Jersey. He drove all over the northeast: Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh, New York City. 

My dad commonly woke about 3 or 4 in the morning, leaving at 5 AM, getting an early start out of traffic, dropping the loads he was pulling at whatever his location of the day. On one particular morning my dad and I were headed to New York City. I hadn’t been there before so I had no understanding of what I was about to experience. 

My dad took route #78, an east west connector between New York and New Jersey leading directly into the Holland Tunnel. For me it was as though we were gliding as we whizzed through the evenly placed pillars holding the waters of the Hudson River high above our heads. As we emerged out of the darkness of the tunnel we were rewarded with the most fantastic sun rising at midlevel over the skyline of New York City. The orange color filled the cab of my father’s truck and as my 10-year-old self turned to look at him, the sun’s magical rays reflected off of his deeply tanned skin literally filling the cab with the reflection of my dad. From my youthful vantage point, he could have been the Messiah. I felt like I was the luckiest kid on earth, captured by the anointed one who showed me the world from the heights of a tractor trailer. I never understood the need for a cotillion when someone such as I was being shown the world through the eyes of the Prophet of the road. 

No sooner had I seen the most spectacular landscape of my youth, I next saw the first harrowing moment of my childhood. A man in tattered and dirty shirtsleeves and threadbare pants was sitting on the concrete sidewalk, leaning up against the outside wall of a tiny NY City diner. It was late fall in New York so the temperatures were quite brisk. The man had one shoe off and one shoe on, the sign above his head was blinking on and off reporting “Coffee 5-cents.” My heart instantly hurt for that man. “Dad, look,” I cried out, pointing my finger at the disheveled man. Driving past him my father laughed a laugh I would later learn was a common chuckle of derision. “He’s nothing but a drunk,” said the Prophet. 

In spite of feeling the bite of compassion seeing that ragged man in the bitter cold, the sunrise remains as the first most spectacular sunrise of my life. Though potentially tainted by my father’s nature, the image and the feeling of that sunrise remains among my most precious and formative. 

I don’t know if the one-shoed man sitting on the freezing concrete with the sign flashing above his head is one of my actual ancestors. The idea of 6-degrees of separation, so popular years ago, suggests that we are closer in relationship than we think. Maybe I am closer to the Pawnee, too.

What I do know is that I cannot see the stars from where I am now, here in Southern California. Human encroachment under the guise of exploration and confiscation, the exalted and revered progress of capitalists, has obliterated the canopy of stars that our ancestors once took for granted. Of course, if it weren’t for capitalistic pursuits I probably wouldn’t have been there to ogle at the nighttime skies. But it also seems that had the drive across what we now call the United States not happened, the majesty of the heavens might not have disappeared.