When Cindy Henry McMahon’s mother begins to lose her memory to dementia, McMahon develops a driving need to reckon with the past—no more stalling. That determined search has led to a new memoir, Fresh Water From Old Wells. As she opens neglected church archives and history rooms, cold calls family acquaintances from decades past, and visits decaying homes from her childhood, McMahon is seeking to restore a set of fractured memories.
Fresh Water from Old Wells places McMahon’s narration of long-past family tales and historical events alongside her own contemporary efforts to corroborate the stories. She begins this history by exploring the career of her maternal grandfather, Walter Moore. As a Southern Baptist preacher, Moore faced a series of personal and professional decisions that led to his reputation as a powerful voice for integration within his religious denomination. Fresh Water from Old Wells opens with the story of Moore’s efforts to stop a lynching and then provides a detailed picture of the integration, under Moore’s leadership, of not only his own Baptist congregation but also of Mercer University. Using a variety of letters and official records, McMahon presents a detailed account of one historical moment when conviction successfully met strategy in the fight for social progress.
But as McMahon learns in searching out the truth behind the stories she grew up hearing, history’s path toward greater justice is anything but linear. Ghana-born Sam Oni, whose enrollment at Mercer University broke the school’s segregation barrier, offers some perspective on how to address a complicated past. Despite his disillusionment with the stubborn prejudices of many Southern churches, which he describes as a “faith-shattering experience,” Oni tells McMahon that he has arrived at a place of cathartic forgiveness. He urges her to consider how often “people can latch onto incidents of the past, and let that affect them whichever way, and in fact maybe even retard their growth and progress. Or be obsessed with the future, and be made insecure by it. But really and truly, the time one lives, is here and now.”
Oni’s words hover over the book’s subsequent chapters, as McMahon turns to the darkest stretches of her family’s past: in contrast with Moore’s solid legacy, McMahon’s father, Al Henry—though also driven by a strong conviction to end racial segregation—makes a far tougher subject for her to revisit. Dogged by the persistent need to leave everything behind in the name of radical change, Henry finds the Southern Baptist pulpit confining, communal farm life frustrating, inner-city activism disillusioning, and ambulance-attending deeply traumatizing. Each time he throws off the shackles of his present era to try a different tack, the new start eventually crumbles into disappointment—and then to violence and delusion. He begins to denounce family life and wanders away from his wife and daughters, into a wilderness only he seems to understand.
Bearing the brunt of these abrupt changes and episodes of violence is McMahon’s mother, Carol. Her beliefs in social progress are strong, but when it comes to her difficult, sometimes abusive husband, she seems bound by a self-defeating desire for secrecy and a “happy façade.” She must navigate the challenges of communal farm life, urban poverty, and the restrictions of her husband’s New Age philosophies, all while trying to give her four daughters a sense of security in the midst of a volatile, itinerate family life. Along the way, however, she also manages to make her own marks of social change. The surprising fruits of her labor arrive late in the book, offering welcome moments of hope.
Fresh Water From Old Wells leaves the impression that McMahon’s understanding of her legacy is still a work in progress, much like the South’s own tumultuous history. For McMahon, forgiveness may sometimes prove as ephemeral as memory itself, but the sheer act of seeking it also keeps the larger arc of history vivid and present.
Emily Choate holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction is forthcoming from The Florida Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Double Dealer, and her nonfiction has appeared in Late Night Library, Yemassee, and elsewhere. She lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.