It was a quick, foolhardy decision born of a country girl who wanted to see more of the world than pasture fences, cows and hayfields. I came to regret it during all the nights I cried, homesick for all of that as well as the bullfrogs, crickets and dirt roads.
Later, once I was safely ensconced back in the South — I had gone to Washington, D.C., then to Indianapolis — I realized that no misery could have served me better. From those woeful days, I saw the beauty of a life and a place I had taken for granted. It was from those three years away that my writing about the South would begin its conception, then grow with genuine affection and mindful reflection.
It is a place where men gather at local diners for breakfast, then head out to the farms to fight what the day will bring; a place where casseroles abound during sickness or death, and the prayer chain stands ready at an abrupt moment’s notice.
My friend, Ed, grew up in rural Virginia in a place where the sweat of a man’s brow and the turn of his hands are the tools to make a living for his family. When Ed’s father — a man who with his wife, had invested heavily in church and community — entered into eternal life, the outpouring of love came immediately.
“He died at 5:30 a.m. We came home and went to bed at 6:45,” Ed explained. “By 8, the door bell was ringing and people were coming by with food and just to gather. We couldn’t believe that many people already knew that he was gone. It helped so much.”
Tink came home from a locally owned lumber store one day. He was grinning when he came in the door.
“I love living here! People know each other and really care. And they tell stories. It’s wonderful,” he said.
“What brought this on?” I asked.
“There were five people at the lumber store, including the owner. Four men and a woman. And they shared stories about you and your family.” Tink started laughing. “One man said what a nice man your daddy was, then remarked, ‘I remember the time he told someone who was making trouble, ‘I’ll lay my religion down long enough to wipe up this ground with you.’”
Daddy was a preacher … and a farmer … and a mechanic.
I know of two times – there may have been more – that my powerfully-built Daddy uttered those words: Once a man was going to whup another preacher for some sermon words he didn’t like, so Daddy stepped between them. To that man, he added, “You don’t lay a hand on a man of God. I’ll tell you that right now.”
The other time, the man was a drunk who had beaten his wife. Daddy didn’t turn his cheek on that one because he always stood up for those who couldn’t stand for themselves.
“Of course,” Tink continued. “I’d already heard that one. But I liked hearing it again.”
The truth is that 20 years after I returned from the North, the way of Southern life had become, again, normal to me. The comfort, compassion, casseroles and tight-knit community were just the way things were. I find nothing odd about standing at the grocery store in conversation and connecting people through a long listing of who they’re kin to, where they work, and what “kilt” their third cousins. Because in the South, degrees of cousins count.
I had forgotten the specialness of this life until Tink came along and reminded me. He showed me the South’s worth through sharper eyes. When he joys in it, I revel because it is, indeed, special.
These are my people. My place. My characters. My stories. I love them all from the bullfrogs to the hayfields to the dirt roads.
This is my beloved South. And now it’s Tink’s, too.