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Family Histories

The Pendulum and the Storm: The Story of the Tuckers

Anyone who follows the weave of history, whether their own, their family’s or of life itself, will know that the threads unravel in two essential directions: those things that change over time, and those that remain the same.  Following these strands to their logical or illogical conclusions can lead through a dense skein of thickets that can ensnare, even stop us dead in our tracks.

At this point we are prone to ask ourselves, “What does this mean? Why am I going on, and on?”

Because, we seek what we always are going to believe are the answers in the clearing on the other side, and not only answers but a revelation. 


The Answer.

And maybe, in this tale at least, it could be so.


It can be said that this story revolves around a terrible Gordian knot where many lives become entangled.


But a linear timeline of the Tucker family, as all timelines can also turn a circle, and become a centering equator at that, so that the end of the story may simply represent the beginning for another generation that may use the center to undo themselves.


For the purposes of this narrative, the beginning of the Tucker tapestry was stitched with a nice fillip by whom else but another writer, and it leads back to another aspect of a remarkable clan: the array of bright colors and brilliant designs they have crafted for themselves over many obstacles and many generations.  


The writer, a freelancer like myself, witnessed and placed the family on record for the first time almost 150 years ago, so this story of their continued travails and transcendence will, I hope, etch a distinctive circle of its own.  She recorded, in the time-honored nature of the craft and its mysterious ability to lead an observer into hidden truths, a foreshadowing, a symbol, and perhaps a star for their descendants to steer by.


She wrote then, as I do now, of a successful, influential, dynamic, creative, and happy family, the Tuckers.


In the 1860’s the big house on Tucker Hill was lit for Christmas, a beacon she would allege, for the Ripley, Tennessee community spread below it.  Hired by the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, her assignment was to profile one prominent family anywhere in the realm of West Tennessee.  For those who haven’t been there, Ripley lies just on the eastern edge of what represents a marked dividing line on the American continent - and its psyche - where the green rolling hills and remnant forests of the eastern piedmont cast down into the rich silt of the Mississippi Delta, and the Deep South.


But her slant wasn’t meant to reflect that contrast of landscape and mindscape, played out in stark divisions of loyalty, class, status, and above all race, which colored the culture then as now. Instead, the story would revolve around the big house on the hill where all was joyful for the holiday season: tinkling glasses, sparkling lights, and conversation.


The somewhat florid style of the era played perfectly to what she either perceived or decided was the perfect jollity of the scene, but the Chamber had commissioned a hawk-eyed reporter and a real chronicler as well as a dutiful hire.  Consciously or not, she would uncover and duly note the key totems to a family dynamic that would play out over and over again for decades to come.


Indeed her casual observation about the objects atop the mantel that night, at least to my excitable mind, worked equally well in providing the context for the reading of history, and the particular history of the Tucker family itself.


Relating this account by my wife, Clare, a century and a half later on a Virginia mountaintop, this writer - hired by the Tucker family of Chapel Hill, North Carolina to chronicle their continuing fortunes and misfortunes - would jump out of his chair.


“That’s it!”     


“What?” Clare asked.


“The mantelpiece…what she just described on the mantelpiece. That’s it, that’s it!”


In 1988, prominent North Carolina psychoanalyst, Dr. Landrum Tucker, initially wanted an account of how his family was dealing with his younger brother, Chris’s, illness. Chris had contracted ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Dr. Landrum had taken my initial working of that account and begun to follow and unravel the threads down through time and his family’s absolutely riveting history.


He noted many patterns, many repetitions of enigmas shrouded in shadow, but the core design seemed to work: one dark thread of sickness, one light thread of survival, and one brilliant thread, that of Service. Working out from this center point, the threads jumped and jumbled together in an ever more complex inconclusiveness that eluded even a generalized word to describe it.




 A curse?

No answer – cosmic, medical or otherwise - for the time trackers to hold up to the light and say, “This is why, for over a hundred years, through our love and care for each other and many others, for our accomplishments and achievements, the Tuckers – young and old but especially young – get sick, very sick, and worse.”


Not just inevitably as all humans and families do, but again and again, way past the odds.

And that was before the death of daughter Lara, published poet, teacher and the absolute apple of her dad’s eye.


She would die of an incredibly rare cancer and a botched surgery when she was 42. Sadly, her father, Lanny, who had never been ill in his life, died less than three months later of liver cancer.


So, personal and family lives both intersect and correspond with history: microcosm and macrocosm. 


In the years of chronicling the family history, Lanny and I had come to believe that within this weave shimmers a tale of the ages. Somewhere in the cross stitch of tragedy and triumph, survival and selflessness, lies the “Design”, set atop the mantelpiece in the big house on Tucker Hill.


The original writer followed the sounds of merriment to the main living room of the big house, where the patriarch William Tucker was holding court by the fire.  Inside and out the home was decked for Christmas, but here at its center the mantelpiece looked sparse, with only two items to be noted.


One was a fine brass and wood vintage pendulum clock. Next to it stood a child’s Christmas toy, a glass paperweight globe enclosing a scene of a family group.  When shaken, the family becomes engulfed in a blizzard but, when placed back on the mantel, the storm subsides.


Meanwhile the pendulum piece swings silently back the other way.


The pendulum swings, the storm subsides; the pendulum swings, the storm returns.



When Lanny’s ancestral family left the big house on the hill and patriarch William Tucker died, it burned to the ground only a few months later.


Welcome to the story of the Tuckers: The Pendulum and the Storm.

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