One day in late 2003, I came home to a phone message. The voice on the other end had that familiar slow, deliberate Southern drawl that I immediately recognized from a single phone call over twenty years prior. “Ahm loookin’ fowah Zayan Caaayannon Gaowf. Ah think this heyah is heyis nuumba. Ahm his daayad.”
After a lifetime of having virtually no contact with Pop, having a message from him out of the blue one day was the last thing I would’ve expected. Pop’s voice was immediately recognizable to me. I had heard it only once before that I could remember, over twenty years prior, but it was distinctive and memorable. A little more gravelly and less genteel than the “high Southern” of, say, Charleston, but not too dissimilar to my own ear. I knew Pop likely lived somewhere in the Florida Panhandle. It’s where he was born and raised, and had lived the last time I’d spoken to him when I was ten, and indeed he did still live there. More or less in his hometown, in fact.
I was with Adam at the time, and he was skeptical of the message. You hear things all the time about people pretending to be someone’s long lost relative in order to get something from them. Or, actually being that relative, and still just wanting something. Adam preached caution, but I had nothing to give or lose. Besides, I knew that voice, and was optimistic about starting up a conversation after so many years. I decided to embrace the opportunity presenting itself, to embrace the fact he was reaching out.
I had put some significant effort into internal processing over having grown up with no father, and was more than ready to connect. After a bit of preliminary searching and trying to find him through the Internet a couple of years prior to that, I’d soon discovered Goff is almost like Jones in that part of the country; it’s a well-established name that’s been prevalent there since the mid-1600’s. Trying to track down a Goff, in that region, with a first name as common as his was, well, futile. I knew my paternal grandparents’ names, so I put out feelers on message boards and a genealogy site, and left it at that. I never had any response to my inquiries on what was a very active message board, but it turns out that board had nothing to do with him finding me anyway.
Pop had unspecifically put his sister to the task, around the same time I was looking for him. Tina lived in Michigan, and worked for the state’s university. As Pop put it, “she has that there computer net in her humble abode.” She’s the same aunt who had been able to get a message from Ma to him when we were looking for him so many years earlier, and now she was able to reunite us once again. Pop and Aunt Tina had a discussion one day about trying to find me and seeing what had become of me. She told him that there were many websites out there that helped to find people, and all it took was wanting to look. Perhaps paying for a formal search. That was food for thought. At least he knew it could be done.
Some time went by, and Aunt Tina tried free searches for my name on her own a couple of times, but to no avail. When opening her browser, she would often get pop-up ads. One day, the pop-up was an ad for a site that offered to “find anyone in the US for $20,” and she thought to herself that they were offering a very cheap service compared to the others, and bookmarked the site. Later, she went to lunch, and when she came back she again opened her browser. The ad that popped up asked her, “Looking for commercial real estate in Houston? Visit zann.com.” She knew it was time. She went back to that earlier site and paid the twenty bucks. Zann Cannon Goff came up right away, with an address in San Francisco. She called Pop and told him what she’d done, and gave him the info.
He sat on it for another half a year. He knew where I was, ostensibly, and could now find me more easily. One day he finally decided to check it out, and called 411. The interesting thing is that I had always had my phone number unlisted. Adam and I had just moved into a new apartment after close to a decade in the previous one, and I had forgotten to request an unlisted number. So, there I was. In San Francisco, and listed. Pop finally had my number. And I came home to that message…
Over the following months, we talked on the phone almost constantly, catching up on a lifetime of missed conversations. We’d ramble for sometimes several hours at a stretch, at least once or twice a week. There was so much to learn and share! So much family history I had never known! I loved getting to know more about him. I’d been a Peer Counselor all through high school, and had learned listening skills to get to the root of what people are saying, to understand motives and backgrounds behind statements. On the surface, Pop was exactly what Ma had said he was: a hot-tempered womanizing misogynistic racist gun-toting Southern redneck asshole. A perfect case-in-point is that he told me how “his heart sank when [he] learned [I] was living in Frisco” and he new “what that meant.” I went off on him a bit that just because somebody lives in San Francisco doesn’t automatically mean they’re gay, for Pete’s sake. Then I affirmed to him that I am gay. I was able to dig a little deeper, though, and see that in many ways he was self-consciously – almost resignedly – reflecting the contextual culture of his upbringing and current home town, despite having experienced some of the world beyond it through the Army. He knew his manner was politically incorrect in the world at large, but that he was falling back on familiarity of behavior. On many occasions he acknowledged the irony of recognizing what he knows is the “evolved” world view but still displaying the vulgar unenlightened thoughts with his peers, thus perpetuating the behavior. My favorite quote of his, in fact: “People say we’re all backwards down here in the South. Like we don’t know what’s right from wrong. We’re just like everybody else, though. We know the world is round… Just like a nickel.” With serious conversation I could elicit that there was a decent person buried in there, and could embrace the fact that we were different but still meaningful to each other. I could embrace our differences and accept Pop for who he was, just as he could embrace me the same.
“We know the world is round… Just like a nickel.”
Discussing family history is a very Southern thing. I mean, it’s a very many-places thing, but in the South learning about your lineage is uniquely cultivated in a way that demands reverence for its cultural significance. Perhaps insists upon reverence is more accurate. Knowing who was married, from what family, to which ancestor, in which year and church, and what scandalous stories need to be passed along so that they can continue to be whispered about for another six generations are of the utmost significance in daily life, in my observations. “So-and-so was going to marry this one guy, but he was left handed,” the last two words emphasized with a you-know-what-that-means gaze that you can actually hear over the phone. Ma’s side of the family, on the other hand, had a completely different take. The Gaulin family are Quebecois, though she and her seven siblings who survived infancy were all born in Indiana. Her parents used French only between each other, as their “secret” language when they were arguing with each other. The immigrant culture of the 1940’s was assimilative, favoring a departure from heritage, so many of Ma’s generation were never taught their parents’ native tongue. Ma’s own father had died when she was barely in her teens, so even the dependence on family in agrarian communities was soon to be made irrelevant to her own upbringing as they were no longer able to hold a farm. Me being raised as an only child with a single mother of this background meant the importance of family ties was not strong in my life. We had even left the home region completely in favor of California before I was old enough to connect with family, weakening the ties even further, especially for me being raised without a single family member aside from Ma.
Pop’s phone conversations were quite another thing by comparison. I had lengthy, exhaustive stories and histories told to me. So many that I quickly lost track of how one hour-long regurgitation of lineage was related to the previous hour’s story that had led to this new one in the first place. There are cousins and aunts and uncles galore. There are (more than on Ma’s side) many cousins and aunts and uncles who are related through second and third marriages. Cousins who are blood, but whose siblings from newer marriages are not, but by default they now are, even if there have been subsequent divorces. Cousins who are cousins despite having no actual direct family connect to me aside from being the spawn of my aunt’s ex husband and his other ex wife. I got to learn their histories.
This was a whole new thing for me, and very exciting. Of course, without meeting any of these people (repeatedly) it’s difficult to recall even the slightest detail. Especially considering every family member has a nickname for each other that’s unique from anybody else’s nickname for the same person. When Cousin Billy (who’s really Joe), and Cousin Joe (who’s really Bob), are referring to Uncle Buddy or Uncle TJ, I have to remember that they’re talking about my Pop. When Pop is talking about a cousin and “his Uncle Buddy,” I have to figure out that he, for whatever reason, has transitioned to talking about himself in the third person as he retells a story about one of those cousins I’ve never met.
In those ensuing months of conversations, we knew we were going to have to meet. It felt so surreal, planning this seemingly as-seen-on-TV reunion with Pop. We talked and formulated plans for me to fly to Florida for a week, starting the Fourth of July weekend in 2004. Plans which almost didn’t come to pass, when in mid-May I came home from work to find Adam had taken his own life that day. My job ensured I was able to keep the planned time off, despite having more than used my accrued allotment, and my coworkers had even taken up an incredibly generous collection to make sure I could still afford the trip. I may not have been entirely ready for the trip, emotionally speaking after the recent events, but I was glad to be able to keep to the plans and embrace a new venture in my life, another new turning point.
And so it came to be that, six weeks after that life-changing event, I finally set foot in Florida to meet Pop for the first time, on his home turf…