Recently, my great aunt Cleo Caraway passed away. She was 89 years old, still living in her own home, and was (by all reports) vividly and entirely herself right up to the end.
I can’t say that I knew Cleo very well — we lived very far away, and for whatever reasons, I never ended up getting down to Southern Illinois very often, where she was a regular fixture in both Carbondale and Murphysboro. She practically lived in the offices of the Forest Service (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture) on the campus at SIU Carbondale (the family alma mater). My vague memories of her in person (from when we were both much younger) are of a tall-ish woman with bright, sharp eyes and the sort of face that just knows things.
What I remember most clearly about her isn’t her voice or her appearance (neither of which were really all that familiar to me). What I know and recall most about her are stories. Cleo Caraway was a tireless finder, reader, listener, and teller of stories. She was a writer of novels and poetry, a historian of both work and family, and an avid genealogical researcher. I still own and regularly re-read Foothold on a Hillside (my great-grandfather Charless Caraway’s book, dictated to and edited by Cleo) and her own memoir, Growing Up In A Land Called Egypt: A Southern Illinois Family Biography, both published by the Southern Illinois University Press. These books are histories as stories rather than scholarship — in them, one gets to hear the voices around the campfire or the dinner table on Sunday, the stories the family told itself about itself and its world, and I love every minute of it.
When I had the chance to go on a University trip to Ireland a few years back, Cleo was kind enough to let me read a copy of at least part of her massive working genealogical manuscript about the Irish bit of the family (some of which made its way into Growing Up In A Land Called Egypt). It was an amazing document, and I wish I’d gotten the chance to go to some of the relevant libraries and genealogical archives when I was there, because it would have been an honor to add even a little bit to the great work she was doing. Even so, what most impressed me about that manuscript was not just its exhaustive amount of detail and careful research — it was the way she told stories, all the way through, and the way so much of her research was driven by stories and the need to see if they were true (especially the one about a Kelly forbear’s alleged gunfight death in South Dakota…).
Cleo’s written “voice” (much like her father’s, if Foothold On A Hillside is any indication) always struck me as sort of poetically fragmented and aphoristic rather than rigidly bound by the ol’ Aristotelian rhetorical rules; perhaps a better comparison is to Lewis Carroll’s Red King at trial: “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” The result is a set of (occasionally rambling, usually brief) tales, all historically connected, that function much the way Wittgenstein apparently thought his Philosophical Investigations ought to be read: as a sketchbook, rather than a single, linear narrative or argument. She painted a marvelous set of pictures of the sharecropper’s life in southern Illinois, as well as the growth of the University and the towns around it.
Thanks for the stories, Cleo. Time to read them again!