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Graceland Bound

An essay about going home by “Lost Saints of Tennessee” author Amy Franklin-Willis. 

In 1998 I broke eight generations of Shoults family tradition by birthing my eldest daughter Georgia deep in Yankee territory. A thousand miles away, my mother spent the twenty-four hours of labor waiting for word in her Morris, Alabama, living room, rocking impatiently in the same rocker she had held me as an infant.

My wife Wendy’s career had brought us to Massachusetts from California, where we met in college. Several more moves and two more births ensued, eventually landing us back in the San Francisco Bay Area raising three daughters.

I assimilated to life as a Californian, no small feat given my Alabama roots. Cappuccinos, yoga, and parallel parking on steep inclines became commonplace. My palate was “educated” to like wines besides white zinfandel. The Southern parts of me went underground — the big earrings, bigger hair, the former cheerleader, my grandmother Lavice’s “Amy-girl.” They seemed incompatible with the new version of myself unfolding on the West Coast.

The years of being away from the South, of imposing my own kind of exile — afraid my decision to marry Wendy and create a family together would result in my being rejected — left me bereft. This longing for home motivated me to begin writing a novel that conjured the places and people I missed.

Ten long years later that novel was published. The Lost Saints of Tennesseeis a love letter to my father’s hometown of Pocahontas, Tennessee, and to my paternal grandmother Lavice.

In 2012 the book tour returned me to the South for the first time in a decade. I celebrated in Tupelo, Mississippi, with my aunt and cousins who hadn’t been born the last time I was in town. I broke down in a Memphis hotel suite, overcome by the realization that I had returned to hallowed ground with a book in hand that expressed, as best as I could manage, what the place meant to me.

And I realized those three California daughters felt little connection to my family’s heritage. My mother had retired to the Bay Area in 2003 and I thought her presence alone could convey eight generations of Southern history.

I was wrong.

Armed with a high credit limit Visa, I booked a tour of the South during the hottest month of the year. My father’s family planned a reunion to coincide with our visit. I bought out every remaining tank top and pair of shorts left in the Bay Area for my five, nine and thirteen year old.

On our first night in Natchitoches, Louisiana, I herded my girls outside after a thunder storm. Summer brings drought to the Bay Area and the scent of fresh rain on warm cement is rare.

“Breathe,” I commanded. “Deeply. This is what summer smells like.”

In West Point, Mississippi, my aunt took us to the Waverly Mansion. The tour included a ghost story, a lake, peacocks, a dog named Tallulah Barkhead and a three-legged cat. Overfull rain clouds burst as we raced back to the car. The sensation of having stepped through a space-time continuum of Faulkner’s construction lingered long after our clothes dried.

The entire Willis clan showed up for a reunion at Tennessee’s Chickasaw State Park in Henderson. My girls spent two days fishing off the dock at Lake Placid with their cousins. The thrumming whirr of cicadas called to us at night in our cabin.

The only disappointing aspect of the trip was my dad falling ill and being unable to travel to the reunion from his home in New York. I had imagined him leading his granddaughters on a walking tour of Pocahontas. Instead, his sister, my aunt Bonnie, was an enthusiastic substitute. We saw my father’s first home and the one-room church, now tangled in knee-high weeds and uninhabitable, where he preached as a young Church of Christ minister.

We crossed the railroad tracks and then I heard a sound.

“Stop,” I said. “Look.”

Barreling towards us was a freight train. We waved madly as it chugged past and the engineer blew the whistle.

A pilgrimage to Graceland served as the grand finale. The morning we left for Memphis my daughter Gracie told me she’d had a bad/good dream.

“I dreamed I died,” she said, “which was bad, but I went to heaven and Elvis played guitar there.”

Maybe more of that Southern DNA made it through than I thought.

It is sometimes easier and more convenient to forget the origins of your family and yourself on the way to becoming the person you will be. But I wish for my daughters what I learned last year — that you can be born in one place, create a grown-up life in foreign territory and yet still find the strands to connect those two distant stars, however fragile or ancient the bonds.

All photos provided by Amy Franklin-Willis. From top: Willis, her children and family in front of her grandmother’s house; the girls at Graceland; visiting Faulkner’s grave in Oxford Cemetery; youngest girls in Pocahontas, Tennessee; Amy, Wendy and kids at Mulate’s restaurant in New Orleans; and Grace at Chickasaw State Park in Henderson, Tennessee. 

Amy Franklin-Willis is the author of The Lost Saints of Tennessee,now out in paperback. An eighth-generation Southerner, she was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and lives with her wife and three children in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

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