Homegrown Hollywood: Searching for family in all the wrong places
Last week I was in North Carolina, crawling on my hands and knees, covered in briar scratches, trying to find my grandma.
I don't mean actually find her. I know where she is. She's buried in North Dakota in a shady cemetery next to my grandfather. But I was looking for the woman who had lived.
Grandma Lottie Mae was born and raised in rural North Carolina. She met my grandfather during the war, and he swept her away to North Dakota where she traded collard greens for Jell-O salad. She died young, just a year before I was born.
As a kid, I would try on Grandma's fancy hats, now gathering dust in the corner of my grandpa's attic. I would pour over photos of her, longing for a connection. Grandma Lottie Mae had been a legend in my tiny town with her thick southern drawl, her fried chicken and her warm smile; I wished so badly that I had known her.
Over the last few years I've been working on a family history of her side of the family. After a few dead ends, I decided I needed to go to North Carolina.
With my dad and aunt in tow, I headed down south, hoping that by touching the graves of Grandma's parents, or standing in front of the house she grew up in, I would somehow feel a little closer to the woman I've been chasing for 33 years.
Grandma's hometown of Dunn, N.C., is a tiny community with a lot of fried chicken and a church on every corner. Across the street from our hotel was a Hardee's with a sign that boasted Tuesdays were "10% Off Christian night."
I was definitely not in L.A. anymore.
Every day we drove around looking for abandoned gravesites and taking photos in front of old houses — on a quest to get my hands on as much tangible evidence of my grandma as I could.
When I told one of my grandma's last surviving nieces I was looking for stories about Lottie Mae, she smiled and said she knew exactly where to take me.
We drove through the backcountry of North Carolina, a place riddled with bogs and trees so thick you couldn't see through them, until we got to the house of Shelvie Jean — Grandma's other surviving niece. She welcomed us with a warm drawl and a tight hug. We sat on her couch as she told us stories and pulled out pictures. The longer we stayed, the happier I felt and something calmed inside of me.
The next day we picked up Shelvie Jean as we searched for more history. She laughed as I tore through briar patches looking for headstones, telling me I was just like my grandma. I felt that same calm as the night before, spreading deeper into my heart.
That night my phone rang. It was Shelvie Jean. We were leaving the next day, and she wanted to say goodbye.
"Let me tell you, honey," she drawled in her thick accent. "I was nervous about meeting ya'll, but as soon as I saw you I thought, 'now there is blood kin.' And then everything was different."
She was right. Everything was different.
I had been trying to reach my grandma through gravestones and houses and hats I'd put on in a dusty old attic.
But where I'd actually found her was in people like Shelvie Jean. People she had known and loved. People who loved me too.
And I didn't need a photo to tell me that.
Jessica Runck, who grew up in Wimbledon, N.D., and graduated from Concordia College, is a writer living in Los Angeles. Visit www.jessicarunck.com for more information.