My father’s family, the Leatherwoods, come from deep Southern roots. My grandfather and grandmother Leatherwood were the son and daughter of two of the founding families in the Texas county where I was born, where my father was born, where his father was born. I grew up where three of the successful businesses on the town square were owned and operated by three of my uncles and my father had his own successful business as well, just north of town. My father had eight brothers and sisters, most of whom remained in or near that little North Central Texas town of Bonham, and most of them had children who grew up as my first or second cousins there as well. With five siblings of my own, our “people” (as you call your relatives in the South) were quite present in school and out. The cousins who didn’t live near came and visited on a regular basis. I grew up with a strong sense that family was family was family.
The past weekend, I traveled to Eastern Mississippi for the memorial service of one of my first cousins, Jack Hammonds White. Jack was the only child of my father’s baby sister, Lucille, and he lived fifteen miles away from Bonham in the little town of Leonard. Jack, who was 11 years my senior, was great friends with my siblings, Leslie, John and Jim. Growing up, Jack regularly visited our home, my brothers visited his, and he and his family were in attendance at any and all major family gatherings for holidays, weddings and funerals. He has been part of the fabric of my life for my whole life.
When in Columbus, Mississippi, where Jack and his wife of 49 years, Emilie, have moved after Jack retired as a professor at Mississippi State University in Starkville, I realized something about my family. My younger brother was there, along with two first cousins who are brothers and a first cousin once removed who is our same age, but whose mother was actually our first cousin. What did I realize? That we have this deep connection that comes from a shared place and shared people. That even if we haven’t seen each other in a while (I hadn’t seen my first cousin once removed in over 40 years), we have so many common roots that we all seem to fall into an easy rhythm with one another. It is as though these deep relationships and memories form their own intricate network of connections that supersede shallower concerns, such as politics or church affiliation. Democrat, Republican, Baptist, Episcopalian, Atheist, none of these “externals” seemed relevant when dealing with the deeper connectedness of experiences related to where we grew up and how our people were. Shared memories of Aunt Dana’s yeast rolls, Aunt Laverne looking over her glasses to make a point, Uncle Doc’s cigar, or Daddy’s dancing a jig when he was happy, push away the divisions that our adult life experiences might impose on us. Instead, all those external labels: liberal or conservative, Christian or nonbeliever fall away and we are just there together, laughing, eating, even singing.
I am grateful for this time together with my family. I enjoyed them very much and love them deeply.
Here’s to Jack Hammonds and his love and life. He brought our far-flung family back together, if for just a little while, and it was good.
Lee and Len Leatherwood, 1st Cousins, and 5 Days Apart in Age