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The Harris Paver


Marvin and I were walking our dogs by the river when we stumbled, literally, on a brick washed up on the shore. Stamped into it were two words: HARRIS PAVER. It caught my eye because Harris was my maiden name. We dug it out of the mud and took it home.

I don't think my branch of the Harris family ever had a brickworks, but it got me thinking about building blocks, and the foundations that underpin all our lives. We come from families, whether or not we know much about them. In my case, I know the Harrises came from Tennessee, where my grandfather was one of five brothers: Hoot and Buck and Ennis and Sam and Cam, my grandfather. I know more about my grandmother's family, the Demarests, because they're the kind of people who have a genealogy book about them. I have a copy. The man who played Uncle Charlie on "My Three Sons" is in there, a fact which fascinated me as a child.

Places and names are useful handles to get a grip on family history, but more interesting is the baggage one generation hands off to the next, those traits and habits and history that we come to accept as part of ourselves, the building blocks of our lives (I'm aware of mixing metaphors).

Sometimes it's in the form of stories--as a five-year-old, I made my grandmother tell me, over and over, the story of her grandmother's toddler who drowned in the pond behind the house. I'm not sure I have the story straight, just what I remember about it. The baggage isn't always handed down intact. In some ways it's more like that telephone game, where a message is whispered from one ear to another down a line of players. The final player repeats what he heard, usually to find it bears no resemblance to the original.

Often, and less tangibly, we see our heritage in the form of upbringing traits: language tics, manners and mannerisms, beliefs and fears, loves and prejudices. In my family, we exclaim "Been a bear, it'd bit ya!" over a lost item lying in plain sight. I've noticed other families have snakes, not bears. My father would say "You've got an ancestor on your head!" while picking a piece of lint out of my hair. The Demarest family were, one and all, East coast intellectuals; the Harrises were down-South Baptists who didn't get much air time at the dinner table. But I still have the sealskin King James Bible my Grandpa Harris gave me at age eight, (8!), which had an impact on my life I can only classify as monumental.

By disturbing contrast, I'm old enough now to have seen the recurrence of unwanted baggage over a few generations. Alcoholism and suicide crop up like ugly recurring themes over the generations of the Demarests that I'm aware of, culminating in my father's death in 1984. These recurrences are, unlike the telephone game results, uncannily exact.

Last month I was given my dad's journal. It's been hard to handle the memoir of his last two unhappy years after my mom died. Hard to handle, not because of its overt sadness, but because of the lack of it. It seems to me to be full of the intellectual ramblings that were the substitute, in my family, for real conversation. The building block of "intelligence" was, after all, a cornerstone of the Demarests'.

It's less fashionable, less likely to get ink, to tabulate families with positive recurring traits. I enjoy the easy-going but deep sermons of a minister whose heritage boasts five consecutive generations of ministers on his dad's side, four on his mother's. Blessings can accumulate, I do believe.

Like anyone else, I inherited some problem building blocks, but also some strong and serviceable ones. I love my intellectual heritage--I just try not to make life-decisions with it alone. I wrap my arms around the Savior I got to know through my Bible, but not in the same rule-minding, score-keeping way my grandfather did.

I did not always have this balance. For decades, I adopted a Suzy Sunshine approach to the painful parts of family history, the damaged building blocks I'd been handed. My blueprint was simple: ignore them. The walls collapsed when my dad committed suicide. For a few years after that, I scrutinized everything with a magnifying glass, then carefully placed any cracked building blocks (to extend the metaphor) in out-of-the-way life places where I thought they'd never see the light of day. This way lies disaster. Nowadays I get the most strength from admitting my weaknesses--from putting the cracked blocks front-and-center, but always on top of the foundation of Jesus Christ.

I think all kids scrutinize their ancestry looking for traits to identify with. Some decide they will avoid their heritage by being the opposite of their parents, whatever form that takes. Others embrace the good and bad with the kind of pride that goes before a fall. Both these life-strategies are attempts to be our own architect, but I think our vision is never broad enough to allow us to build a lasting structure. No one but the Master Builder knows how to structure a life. I love the Bible's building metaphors, and the belief that Jesus Christ is, after all, the chief cornerstone.

The Harris paver block stirred my thinking.

Hebrews 11:10 ...For he looked for a city that hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.


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