Author Karen White of The Beach Trees on Remembering the Past

6 years ago

My earliest memories from my childhood involve family vacations spent squished between my two older brothers in the middle of the back seat of the family sedan, my legs sticking to the vinyl seat cushions as I studiously avoiding colliding with the blows from my brothers’ fists as their constant fighting didn’t pause even during long car trips.The whole experience calls to mind the tag line from that Robin Williams’ movie, RV: “On a family vacation, no one can hear you scream.”


My father worked in Manhattan for four years, and we lived in northern New Jersey. This meant that every summer we would pile in the car and head south to visit family in Mississippi and Florida. Being a product of the Great Depression, my father wasn’t one to squander a single penny. This meant not turning on the air conditioning in the car because it used too much gas (really??). My youngest brother, when he came along, got the prime position of lying down on the shelf behind the back seat under the window or up front between my parents. Yes, the good old days before baby seats and seat belts!


Dad was a huge history buff, which meant cramming in as many detours as possible to historic sites he thought we should see. Family slides reveal the five of us (my dad was always behind the camera and rarely in front of it) at places like Mammoth Cave, Rock City, an assortment of state parks, various decommissioned battleships from ports along the coast, Washington DC and all its monuments, Valley Forge (with me poised in front of a cannon while one of my brothers is on the other end as if aiming at me), and the Gettysburg battlefield. I don’t know what possessed my father to purchase one Union and one Confederate cap for my brothers during that particular detour. What I remember most was the battle re-enactment in the back seat, with me in the middle acting as the front line.


In his own way, my dad was an historian, documenting our family’s lives on his thirty-five millimeter camera then carefully organizing the photos in boxes he kept labeled and in date order. Maybe he was trying to record our childhoods because his hadn’t been. There are only a handful of photos of him and his brother growing up very poor in rural Mississippi in the '30s and '40s. Each photo has a story, some of them painful to hear. But they’re a part of my history, and I cherish them.


In addition to ensuring that there were photographic records of my most unfortunate hairstyle choices and fashion fads, my dad also managed to instill in me an appreciation of the past -— both our country’s collective history and our own family history. He made me marvel at how the past constantly intrudes on the present and how the past is always waiting to be rediscovered.

When I was twelve, my father’s job took our family to London, England. We lived in a Victorian building in Regent’s Park, with soaring ceilings, leaded glass transom windows, and thick mahogany doors. All of the bedrooms except for mine had beautiful bay windows. My dad explained that during the Blitz in World War II the windows on my side of the building had been shattered. Wow. The window I looked out each day shared a big part of world history, and I was now somehow included.


Maybe because I was older, or maybe because I was living in London -- where you can’t escape history -- I became a history nerd with my dad, reading Winston Churchill’s memoirs and memorizing the British monarchy’s family tree. Every Saturday morning, we’d head out to the flea markets, where my father would search for Roman coins, Penny Black stamps, and other historical rarities. He once found a Confederate soldier’s diary, complete with sketches of camp life, and bought it for me. He told me that it’s a piece of history I can hold in my hand, and it remains one of my greatest treasures.


I’d always been an avid reader, a lover of books of all kinds, and being in London, surrounded by centuries of stories, the writer in me was born. Despite eventually heading to college to pursue a degree in business, I think the die had been cast and my forays into the world of business were simply necessary detours on my way to figuring out what I was really meant to be doing for the rest of my life.

I’m the family historian now, and I have a dedicated room in my house where I store the labeled and date-organized photos and scrapbook albums that I’ve been keeping since my first child was born nineteen years ago. I am my father’s daughter, after all.


On a recent trip home, I mentioned to my dad that I’d like to make a digital album of my late maternal grandmother’s life to share with all of my cousins. With a gleam in his eye, he handed me three suitcases full of old photographs and newspaper clippings. My grandmother had been the keeper of her family history. Nothing was put in albums, but each photograph had her looping handwriting on the back identifying the people and the date. Her photographs are a piece of my history I can hold in my hand.


It will take me a while to get it together, and first I have to finish the albums of my family’s recent trips to Scotland and Rock City, Tennessee. Some family traditions are worth hanging on to -— albeit with some alterations: the A/C is always allowed in my car, regardless of how much gas it uses.

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