My Inheritance: A Quilt I Must Stitch

Yvette J. Green
  • This hybrid memoir/narrative essay mines the site of my father's death and burial and how the experience impacted me in different ways over the course of fifteen years.
13 min read

“I’m sorry for your loss. Though the coroner’s report said your father departed on June 29th, July 1 (2005) will be the official date of death because that’s when he was found,” the funeral director started. We nodded. He continued ungracefully, unbefitting of someone whose livelihood was made from the act of helping people bury their dead. He lifted a huge Ziploc bag with some change and a few dollars. “This was found on him, when we took him,” as he passed the bag to us. We looked at this bag wondering what we were supposed to do with it. More words were exchanged, then lost in the thickness of the July heat and grief.

Suddenly we were in a back room with sample caskets; brushed nickel, copper, hunter green, and a pine wooden box, all at different price points. My brother insisted we choose something nice; I’m still disconcerted as to how they want us to pick a box in which we lay my father, when he just died, yesterday, two days ago, what has just happened.

“I want to see him. Where is he?” I asked. No one was convinced this was a good idea.

Terrell resumed his own discomfort with his clients’ grief, “Well, um, I don’t, uh, know if you want to…”

“I want to see him.”

Terrell walked to a sliding door just beyond the caskets. My dad was lying on a metal table with a white sheet over his chest and extremities. Cotton stood over his eyes and his hair was unkempt. My knees buckled.

Fearful I would faint, my mother called for help and she and my uncle steadied me. My brother just walked away. Our 100-level course in how to bury your dead just ended its first session. We left and would consult with the funeral home later.

 

The next day we met my uncle and aunt at my dad’s apartment to gather clothes for my dead naked father lying on a metal table in the back of a funeral home.

Death, blood, feces greeted us as we unlocked the front door and the aroma permeated every inch of the two-bedroom apartment. His siblings had covered up the brown and maroon splotches on the floor with a bed sheet so that as we entered my father’s bedroom we didn’t have to see the spot where he waited for the pain in his chest to subside. We didn’t talk about the smell, the spot, the sorrow. We just took as few short breaths as we could, and focused on our task of making our dad look like his father’s son.

My uncle, Alton, told my brother to pick something nice. “You know your dad always liked to be sharp. Laval always was sharp. We could own the same suit, and Laval would look better in it than me. Daddy was the same way. He always liked to look sharp.”

We chose a blue pin-striped suit that my uncle delivered to the funeral home, while my brother and I stayed in the death-filled apartment and went through my dad’s watches, cufflinks, serenity prayer coin from a stint in rehab at Cumberland Heights. While our hands rifled through his things, he was being prepared by someone else’s hands. We visited my father at the home a day before the funeral.

Someone

My father lay there
with too much foundation
of the wrong shade,
making him a mocha version
of his caramel self.
His face,
clay,
the corners of his mouth turned downward
molded into place
by inept hands.
His navy blue pin-striped suit fit, snugly
his hands were folded tightly across his chest.
He lay there,
looking like someone else.
A new version
prepared
for others

The version I knew was rarely solemn. When I complained of the rigors of grad school, the version I knew asked, “Do you know how to eat an elephant?”

I rolled my eyes.

“One bite at a time,” he advised as I tried to write all my papers at once.

The one I knew introduced me to Brothers Johnson when I was in love with Tevin Campbell and played for me the original Strawberry Letter 23 on the record player he claimed in the divorce. My version introduced me to jazz musician Jerald Daemyon who imitated synthesizers imitating instruments in Summer Madness across strings on the violin. My version gave me pithy advice and lengthy lessons in music always with a smile.

It was time to open the doors in order to let everyone say goodbye to their own version of my dad.

 

July 31, 2015

Today is my dad’s birthday. Was my dad’s birthday. He would have been 66 today. Preparing for his funeral while in shock and in immense pain is still an unwieldy concept that I am haunted by. It took several years for me to understand how he could miss his mother’s funeral five years before his own. Alcoholism had stymied his movements, but so had profound sadness. In burying my dad and not wanting to help bury anyone else’s dead, I finally understood how he could opt-out of Ma-Dear’s (short for Mother Dear) funeral.

I didn’t realize how long it had been since I had been to a funeral until I was talking with coworkers about a colleague’s upcoming funeral.

“I don’t go to funerals. I haven’t been to one since my father died.”

“How long ago was that?” he asked.

“Ten years,” I said. Every year I marked the anniversary of the day we learned he was dead. July 1, though it was probably two days before that, which always sank me further. My father lay dead on the floor for two days before he was found.

Ten years. Ten years of purposely choosing to direct my energy, grief, condolences elsewhere. Funerals were incredibly sad for an empath like me; I prefer not to walk into the weight of a funeral.

So I don’t.

We lost our colleague in a tragic car accident. On the day of her funeral, my son had a field trip to the National Zoo. Her accident made me want to be in the faces of my children. Even if there had not been a field trip, I still would not have attended the funeral, grieved publicly for her two children on the first pew, nor stared at her in a casket.

I didn’t attend either of my students’ funerals because I needed the memory that I had of their faces to remain intact. I needed to see Brandon’s smile and feel his hug when he returned to visit a year after his graduation. I wanted to remember the transition he made from 10th grade to 12th grade and beyond. This was the only Brandon I would hold tightly to.

I always see my father on a metal table with cotton over his eyes, covered in a sheet. I always see him in a casket, lying there, not really himself. I never want to give such a memory of anyone else any space in my head.

Thus, I don’t.

 

June 25, 2016

On June 25, 2016, The New York Times published this article written by Clay Risen, “Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: A Slave[1]” as they opened the article about Nearis Green.

My father gave us the story of Nearest Green (this was the spelling we knew) before The New York Times gave it to the world. We knew it but lacked the vision of what this story could behold. We didn’t dig deep enough to become intimate enough with our history. Rather reactively, I interrogated Clay Risen’s language use as an attempt to position myself, my father, in this narrative that was unfolding on a stage.

I started with “embrace” as “Jack Daniel’s” was not a language choice, but the name of a company engaged in a public performance. Generally, we think of an embrace as an intimate act. The first definition offers the image of one holding another closely in one’s arms. Given the fraught history between the enslaved and their oppressors, the second definition may be more apt. Embrace as a verb can also mean to “accept or support a belief enthusiastically or willingly.” Has the company embraced the man, an individual who was enslaved? How can a living company embrace a dead man?

Or has the company embraced the story including what such an embrace offers them? Risen suggests the embrace is tentatively given in the social media and marketing campaign and in some of the tours at the distillery. Surely another word would more accurately capture this action? Is this about Nearis Green or Jack Daniel’s the company, the subject in the title, the subject who is gaining monetarily still to this day on the back of the labor of the enslaved? Maybe the words “continues to gain,” or “to reap the benefits” of being taught a trade by an individual who did not receive monetary compensation for passing along his skills might be more accurate?

My largest problem was the last word in the article’s title. The title begins with the agent, the performer, the company, and the title ends with the word “slave.” Not an individual, not a name, just the word slave. Why haven’t we moved to repair the damage our language has accomplished by labeling people slaves. An entire group of people was enslaved; recipients of an egregious act by agents who had power and money. They were people who were acted upon. Let us choose to make the subject who enacted these crimes a part of the accepted nomenclature. With the use of the word enslaved, another individual has to be recognized: the one who is doing the enslaving, the one performing the action. Nearis Green is being acted upon, “embraced” now, much like he was being acted upon by Dan Call (and by extension Jack Daniel) during his lifetime. He was a man who was enslaved.

 

He was my great-great-great grandfather. Nathan “Nearest” Edmund Green beget eight children, one of which was George Washington Green. George begot ten children, one of which was Reak Henley Green. Reak begot six children, one of which was my grandfather, Charles Wade Green. My grandfather begot 6 children, the eldest being my father Wadie Laval Green.

Although Nearest is the subject of this article and is the primary reason that Jack Daniel’s is the success that it is today, the Greens have been tied to the success of the company since before they were emancipated. There are family members who lived and worked for the company, recently retiring as late as 2015. There is still an unanswered question: What happens when a family is caught between the tale of slavery, freedom, and alcohol production?

 

July 18, 2017

During our annual summer trip to my hometown in Nashville, my Uncle Alton took my boys and me to Lynchburg, TN. He gave us a grand tour of where the Greens marked their presence. The land our family once owned was right near Cousin Jewel’s house, who was excited to meet us. And we carefully walked through the Green cemetery that held tombstones for George Washington Green’s children including my great-grandfather Reak H. Green (PVT 6 CO Recruit Camp World War 1 July 3, 1897-March 20, 1959), infants who died too soon and other descendants of Nearest Green.

During our tour of the Jack Daniel’s distillery, my uncle proudly and publicly arched his finger toward our heritage when our ancestor was mentioned by the tour guide. We are descendants of the singular Black man on the wall, a master distiller flanked by white men on the walls of an office space on the Jack Daniel’s campus. The cave where the limestone spring emerges and that serves as the source to Jack Daniel’s distillery was where my Grandaddy Charles and (Great) Uncle Curtis played as children. In the thickness of the July heat and through a Southern drawl drenched in humor, my uncle gifted us our history and stories we didn’t know we needed.

 

March 2020

One day while sheltering in place, every thought bubble began to collide. What did I not know, what did I not share, and what did I fail to pass down? I pulled out my dad’s graduation picture that I kept hidden at the bottom of a drawer because I didn’t like looking at him. My boys tried to guess who the image represented. I had kept the picture hidden for 15 years and never shared it with those I loved the most. They guessed incorrectly, with no point of reference. Then after careful study, they saw their uncle, my brother in my father’s image. Elijah, my oldest son, found my brother’s graduation picture on a nearby shelf and put the two images side by side. He found my father in my brother’s eyes and cheeks. “The way their eyes and cheeks are cut,” he explained.

Just a few weeks before my father’s death, he told me he wished he could see four generations of a direct line. He wanted to see my grandchildren. There was a history of Green men not living into old age to see their descendants’ descendants and beyond. I told him, “It’s up to you to make that happen.” He was quiet. It was an eerie silence that I didn’t comprehend.

 

Inheritance

“When a slave is drunk, the slaveholder has no fear that he will plan an insurrection; no fear that he will escape to the north. It is the sober, thinking slave who is dangerous, and needs the vigilance of his master” -Frederick Douglass

My dad,
intrigued by the story
that his great great grandfather,
Nathan “Nearest” Green,
taught Jack
to make whiskey,

Passed down
our
inheritance:

A narrative of liquor
encoded in our DNA
conceived on a plantation
near what later became
my grandfather’s playground: a cave from which
limestone spring water
sprang
and was used for production and distillation
in Lynchburg, Tennessee

To disrupt consciousness for generations

 

Inheritance, part II

My dad,
did not choose to live long enough
to know my children.
He passed down to me cloaked wisdom:
When overwhelmed,
“eat the elephant, one bite at a time.”
He showed me: Grief can stand so tall in your limbs,
it can block you from attending your own mother’s funeral.

My dad tried to combat serotonin depletion
on his own.
His salve, inadequate.
He taught me there is no shame in seeking assistance for restoration of consciousness

What do I pass to my children
of their grandfather
who never took them to the family graves in Lynchburg,
who has no place in their memories?

Pictures, narratives, self-healing
and
Stevie Wonder,
Earth, Wind and Fire
albums from his collection.
We move the arm
and place the needle carefully
on the disc during dinner.

We choose to add lyrics and melodies to
our
inheritance
and we awaken 

 

[1] Risen, Clay. “Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help From a Slave.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 June 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/dining/jack-daniels-whiskey-nearis-green-slave.html

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