John Egerton. Generations: An American Family. University Press of Kentucky, 1983.
By Will D. Campbell
Vol. 6, No. 1, 1984, pp. 23-24
For too long we have cataloged, systematized and categorized the places and ways of learning. And too often we neglect, ignore or fail to see resources near at hand.
I sometimes spy on the Steeples by riding around in one city or another surveying what the outside billboards and electronic marquees are promoting. Aerobic dancing, weight watchers clubs, and Mother’s day out programs have been big the past few years. A few of them, the better ones I suppose, announce that the Koreans also worship there, though at a different time. (I saw one with the words: TEMPORARY WORSHIP CENTER. I guess I knew what it meant but it seemed sort of funny.) The other day I was riding from Fancy Gap, Virginia to Mt. Juliet, Tennessee and asked my friend and driver to get off the big highway and drive through one of the cities between Fancy Gap and Mt. Juliet so I could do my research on the billboards in church yards. “Marriage Enrichment Seminar” was the winner. Two were announcing a series of lectures on Human Sexuality, to be given by someone with several degrees behind his name, the most of which I didn’t recognize. I kept wondering where they got their material, who the experts in those fields are.
I have never been invited to conduct a seminar on marriage enrichment nor give a lecture on human sexuality. It is highly doubtful that I ever will. But if I should I would not begin by researching the materials listed in the latest cataloging of those subjects. I would begin by reading a passage from a book I have just finished. Generations: An American Family, by John Egerton, a man no more known for his expertise in those areas than I. His words I would read are of a passionate love scene. Two lovers are lying in bed, lying close together. It is a balmy Kentucky evening and the room is dark and quiet. Suddenly the woman speaks.
“Burnam, are you awake? I love you.
There was no answer. Addie spoke louder: “Burnam? I said I love you.”
“Huh? What’d you say?”
“You can’t hear thunder! I SAID I LOVE YOU! I never did love anyone but you.”
After a pause, Burnam replied, “I love you too, Addie. I must have loved you right from the first. You’re the only one I ever did ask to marry me.”
I would read those words because this marriage must have been enriched from the beginning or gained enrichment somewhere along the way for it had lasted seventy-nine years. The groom was 106 years old and the bride ninety-eight. And certainly it was not devoid of romance and sexuality. What could be more romantic than a wedding the day after the first flying machine was launched at Kitty Hawk? And by the time their thirteenth child was born one would begin to assume that a healthy and conjunctional sexuality was part of the union.
In the Seminar I would lead the participants back over the years as Egerton does, across peaceful Bluegrass landscapes and hostile mountains and rivers, out of the Yadkin Valley in North Carolina, over the Cumberland Gap and on into Cranks Creek in what is now Harlan County, Kentucky where the marriage began and never ended. For though the clinicians. finally declared one of the lovers dead it is not within their power to say the marriage is over. To Addie, Burnam is still “my husband.” Not “late” nor “departed.” Present Tense. These two knew what it meant to be “married.” John Egerton has written it down and I would use it in my seminar on Marriage Enrichment as genuine, unscientific reality.
Or “Death and Dying.” That’s big these days and appeared on one of the churchyard signs. Discussions groups gather. Theological schools offer courses on it and preachers preach on it.
“Everyone has told me how sick you’ve been, ” I said to him. “I’m glad you’re better. It’s a good sign that you’re able to sit up.”
He shook his head. “Uh-uhm. I’m not going to get well. It’s time for me to go home now, John. I ‘m ready to go. I feel like I’ve done all I can do in this world. I thank God for letting me keep my mind right up to the end, but I don’t want to stay any longer. I ‘m getting out of life now, before I get old and lose my mind.”
A 106-year-old man is grateful that he will never be old, knowing that the mind is the core and compass of age and life itself. John Egerton is not the detached and objective journalist. He has come to love these two as he loves his own flesh and blood. He tries to redirect his friend’s thoughts. They talk of other things, tell funny stories and look at the finished book John has brought him, a book two lives spent more than a century in writing. All that time Burnam has resisted death when it threatened, clinging tenaciously to life and living, missing none of it, winning out over diseases, pestilence, tragedy and misfortune of many kinds. Now a nurse comes into the room, smiling, humoring, trying gently to win his acceptance of the pills she has brought him, pills gladly accepted in other years and times.
“No more medicine! he exclaimed. “I won’t take any more! No more pills! I’m done with pills! They’ve been a curse to me! I’m trying to die and go home! You tell that doctor not to send me any more medicine.”
His tone is neither hostile nor maudlin. But emphatic, final and convincing. He continues to talk to his friend and scribe when the nurse is gone.
“I said to her, ‘Addie, I’m ready to go home, ready to die. Are you ready to go with me?’ She said she wasn’t. So I asked her, ‘If I go on ahead and then call you to join me, will you come?’ And she told me she would. That put my mind at ease. I feel a lot better now, just knowing that she would come if I sent for her.”
That was almost a year ago and Burnam has not yet sell for his beloved Addie. But we know that it won’t be long.
“Death and Dying.” A course offered by Burnam and Addie Ledford. I’m glad I signed up for it Genuine, unscientific reality.
Despite all that, to suggest that Generations is a book about Marriage Enrichment, Human Sexuality or Death and Dying would be to deceive you. It is not. Yet if we have ears to hear and eyes to see all those things are there.
And a lot more. Egerton started out to write a simple story of a little known American family. He has left us with a complex, detailed and compelling history of the nation. While about it he learned that the history of America is not the story of generals and admirals, famous battles in big and little wars, assassinated Presidents, Monroe Doctrines, Louisiana Purchases, invasions of Grenada. It is the stories of the Ledfords of the land.
But more than history. Sociology and Anthropology. Theology and Geography. Conflict Resolution and Inter-group Relations. Civics and Republican Politics. Philosophy and Folk Lore. None of those things show up in the table of contents or index. It is not the kind of book that needs an index. For it is a Romance.
Read it aloud to someone you love if you like to see her laugh. But don’t read it aloud to someone you love if it bothers you to see him cry. There is a lot of both in this good book.
Will D. Campbell live in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. He is the author of Brother to a Dragonfly and The Glad River.