By STEVEN E.F. BROWN
The United States government named my grandfather. He was born in 1920 in a rickety roadside
shack in "Grubtown," a tiny hamlet in rural Arkansas that no longer
exists. I've been there in both summer and winter, trying to get a feel for the
land he grew up on rolling green fields cleared out of the surrounding pine
and hardwood forests along the Little Red River. I've hiked down to where, as a
boy, he strung fishing lines between trees across that river, suspending six or
seven hooks in the water and checking them all night by boat. I've looked down from a bridge where he and
other barefoot boys dangled their feet and watched baptisms. As an adult, he, too, was baptized in that
dark green, fast flowing stream. I've
walked in meadows he crossed going to school a mile or two away in Pangburn, the
nearest town, population six hundred something a collection of a few stores,
churches, houses, a high school, and a senior citizens center.
In nearby Henderson Cemetery
you can learn that some of his stillborn siblings weren't even named at all,
or, like Paul Dean, were only named posthumously.
My grandfather was called
"R.C." after his grandfather, Richard Clinton Doss. In his teens,
when he first applied for a job through a New Deal work program for high school
students, he bumped up against the government, which told him initials weren't
enough. Government forms required names.
"Who you named for?"
the man in the application office asked.
"Well, what was his
my grandfather told him, and the man wrote on his forms. But when the documents came back from
Washington they said Robert instead of Richard. Rather than fight it, he became
Robert Clinton McCourt, and has used that name for nearly seventy years.
His grandmother, too, was
renamed by the U.S. government. Her name
was Maggie Joyce, and that's what everyone called her all her life. Family members knew Maggie was short for
Magdalene. But county records in
Arkansas list her as Margaret Joyce, because a clerk somewhere assumed that's
what Maggie must be short for.
My grandfather, now
eighty-two, has undertaken the task of marking all our family's graves,
replacing the simple rocks that mark most plots in humble country cemeteries
with engraved headstones. On several hot and humid afternoons ("It ain't
gonna rain today," he says, sniffing. "It ain't sultry
enough.") he has me drive him around White and Cleburne counties in his
enormous Buick, directing me with a sunburnt arm and fingers gnarled like tree
branches through crossroad hamlets like Joy and Romance and Rose Bud to
clearings in the forest where farm families buried their dead. He wants the memory of these people to
endure after he and his generation have passed on.
But in his quest, he has sometimes
been stymied by names.
Most members of my great great
grandmother Maggie's generation were barely literate or completely
unlettered. It didn't take much reading
and writing to scratch a living from the red Arkansas dirt. Maggie's gravestone spells her name
Magalene, without the D, because that's how people in the family spelled it on
the rare occasions when they wrote it, and my grandfather chose to honor that
Maggie's brother, Alexander
Joyce, for many years the jailer and custodian of the White County Courthouse
in Searcy, was known all his life as A.Z. Joyce, the two initials coming not from the spelling of his name, but
from its sound Alex-zander.
Maggie's second husband was
Wiley Hines McCourt. His gravestone
reads Wylie, because my grandfather couldn't find out which way his name was
spelled. Now, he tells me, sitting one
day over a three-dollar lunch in Bobby's Family Restaurant, a fifty-year-old
diner across the street from the
courthouse in Searcy where A.Z. worked, he thinks "Wiley" is the
correct spelling. But that's just the
point. There is no correct
spelling. Before ubiquitous literacy, a
name was just a sound, and no one bothered about how to spell it. But modern
memory is written, which is why I spend so much time trying
to learn and write my grandfather's myriad memory stories. Unless those names are transformed into
written language, they and the people they identified will be lost, like the
names of tiny towns I pass on winding rural roads with my grandfather when I
visit, towns never named on any map, known only to the farmers who came in to
the country store or to the church there. Places like Grubtown and Lickskillet don't exist anymore they are just
overgrown cemeteries in the lush Ozark forest, quiet communities of headstones
serenaded by trilling cicadas and warbling katydids. On the stones there you can read the fading names of the people
who built these towns, good Arkansas names like Earl and Audley, Lowell and
Carthel, Phen and Ollie, Leona and Arbie.
Around them in the dappled
sunlight falling through the trees are the graves of those whom memory has
eluded, marked only with rocks. Their
names were only sounds, unsaved by the magic of writing, which slipped away on
the wind. vvv
The author teaches high school English at Drew
College Preparatory School in San Francisco.