Seeing the generations that have come and gone with barely a trace, studying gravestones and birth records and yellowed marriage certificates, imagining all the struggles in each of those lives, stripped me of illusions in a most jarring way.
Unless we're Michelangelo or Winston Churchill or Jonas Salk, all we really leave is our posterity, our blood.
I hoped against my innate skepticism that Ricky was right about that "blood covenant" — which, to me, signified a connection to immortality, to our ancestors, to an African man who found himself in America so long ago.
That was the part of my family's story that had been swiped from our consciousness, the missing piece of my identity. It was there, entwined in the DNA. I just needed to feel it.
In Indiana, my fourth cousin, Bud Mozingo, 74, was talking about his brother Stan's goats. We were coming back from a mule ride at Stan's ranch. Bud couldn't remember what culture drank goat blood.
"People in New York," he finally said. "That's where they all move."
We passed silos and farmhouses with porch lights on and fireflies blinking in the fields. We talked late over the tenderloin at Trax diner and met again in the morning.
My other fourth cousin, Amy Osting, 78, told me about the time her grandmother went out to the barn to find a young man having his way with her cow. She chased him off, but found him there again a couple of hours later. She screamed, and her son-in-law raised his rifle and winged him.
"Why did he shoot him?" I asked.
"He was screwing the cow!" Amy rasped. "This isn't California!"
I laughed. Amy was definitely my relative. So was Bud.
I was going home the next day. My baby girl was due in three weeks.
A few of us walked down through the forest behind Rodney Baptist Church to the creek where people have been baptized for 150 years. Amy sang a hymn.
"Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod?"
The creek ran through a deep hollow, flowing over shelves of bedrock, falling off steps into ponds where water bugs scrambled between the bubbles on the surface. The current had carved and polished the stone. Pebbles spun in the eddies.
After my relatives left, I floated under a 3-foot cascade in the cool, tannic water, watching the world. The creek came warm and shallow off the shelf, heated by the sun over the rock.
I lay on my back, inhaling to stay afloat, exhaling quickly and drawing the air back in before my face went under. The water below gurgled like the plumbing in an old hotel. The maple leaves above glimmered with the ripples of sunlight reflected off the pond.
These creeks were immortal.
I closed my eyes and saw the orange light glowing through the blood in my eyelids, content that it was my turn, and my children were just beginning.