SOTTO VOCE, Paul Kent Oakley

by Paul Kent Oakley

“He was a stowaway,” Mom whispers
conspiratorially, poking the bent tines of
a fork at her pork loin and overcooked
green beans. I look around the dingy buffet
to see who this news needs concealing from.

Her great-great grandfather worked the debt
off in farm labor, breaking frontier sod
with rough, calloused hands, never facing
prison or deportation. He died a venerable
old man a hundred years ago, outliving
his third wife, pater familias to a
three-mothered brood of upstanding
Christian citizens of this New World, this
New Jerusalem. Out of Welsh poverty, he
became a landed gentleman of a new Albion,
elder in his church.

“He was a stowaway,” she rasps to make sure
I know there’s sin, unspeakable sin in the
family tree. I let loose a belly laugh,
spilling my soda. “How long’s’e been dead,
Mom?” A rare blush crosses her cheeks. She
stabs a forkful of green beans and puts
them in her mouth. Dad grins, showing his
broken tooth, and doesn’t say a word.

Paul’s process notes:
From the time I was little, my mother told, with some combination of true shame and titillation, the story of my great grandmother’s grandfather making his way from Britain to the US as a stowaway, not being discovered until they were in the middle of the Atlantic. For a child growing up in a very staid family and in a community where it was so quiet you could hear the corn grow, this was mesmerizing. Almost as good as having a pirate in one’s lineage. It is a family story of uprooting oneself from home and planting oneself in a new place, but being able to do so only by breaking the law.

Paul Kent Oakley is currently finishing up his training to be an ordained minister in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. Unsurprisingly, a lot of what occupies Paul’s creativity is spiritual and religious in origin, but he believes that the specifics of the artist’s inspiration give grounding so that what is said may be equally felt across the lines of identity that might otherwise divide us.

Paul blogs at Inner Light, Radiant Life.


2 thoughts on “SOTTO VOCE, Paul Kent Oakley

  1. I love this story. There are a few skeletons hanging in my family tree…including a possibility that my great-great-grandfather may have been the product of a white plantation owner and a slave. He’s listed as “mulatto” on a census from the 1800’s, which is interesting. If we dig far enough, we can find the truth. But in your case, it wasn’t so much digging as it was a little nugget of gold offered in secret. Fascinating.


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