This happens once a year:
I am standing in a garden, dappled by pale green oak leaves. Daffodils are blooming at my feet and my arms are tank top bare to a kind sun. People smile at me as they walk by, some nod, one elderly gentleman tips his hat. There's an iced coffee in my hand, and I take a sip as I sit on a bench, and unwrap a muffaletta sandwich. As I eat it, I hear music in the distance, all horns and strings, and I think I might go dancing later. Or go for a drive to a little roadhouse I know, and have a beer, surrounded by five kinds of accents and people who call me ma'am without irony.
I'm dreaming about Georgia. Again.
And because it's a dream, there's a dollop of Kentucky, a dose of Tennessee, and a lack of reality.
Sometimes, I tell people I grew up in Georgia, though I lived up in Maine, and NH, on the Seacoast, most of my life. I moved to Georgia when I was 18 years old, and I got married there, and I had a child there. I had friends, and a job, and I volunteered. I went to church in Georgia, which I never did here. I did a lot of things in Georgia that I didn't do here.
I gained an accent, and a lot of perspective... more than one scar, and a lot of loves while I was there, though. So, while I spent my formative years a Yankee, really, I grew up in Georgia.
I've never been one to live somewhere without learning it intimately, although I didn't know that, couldn't know that, until I moved away. I got the South and I learned to say ain't. I learned why the Rebel flag is flown, and why there's some damned good reasons for that. I learned that alligator is edible, nay, tasty. I learned that my Northern Eco-Conservative animal loving ways couldn't stand up to living on land infested with Wild Boar, and I went hunting for the first time. In my backyard
I learned that the Civil War is referred to there as 'the war of Northern Agression...' and the day that I first called it that myself, a friend of mine - a true Southern gentleman - said I'd been Galvinized, and proclaimed me an honorary Belle of the South. It was truly one of my proudest moments.
I read every book I could find that talked about the characters.. the archetypes.. of the south, and I learned those, too. The Jo Beth Sidden mysteries by Virginia Lanier still sit on my shelves. They take place in a town 20 miles from where I lived, a town I went to frequently, and I can still read them and see the long highways of pine farm and swamp I drove through to get to Jessup.
I devoured Sharyn McCrumbs stories and all their Appalachian glory. I wept over The Secret Life of Bees, and the pride of those women, and their small, black Madonna.
I lived for awhile, about a mile from an old man who farmed his acre. There was a trailer on it, at the center. Behind that, an apple tree and a shack that housed his mule. He was black, maybe 70 years old, and he'd been a farm hand his whole life. When he retired, he cultivated his own land to within an inch of the borders, just enough room to turn around a mule and plow at the ends of the rows.
One day, I drove by, and he was picking corn. He was near the road, and I could see him clearly, and he didn't look good. Sweaty, a little ashen, tired. I'd met him once or twice, at the church, but didn't know his name. Didn't think he knew me from a hole in the ground.
I pulled over. Got out.
I walked down the row, and he stopped to watch me. The closer I got, the worse he looked. On the spot, I made up a story, and played a game of improv with an unwitting opponent.
I walked over, and told him my name, and reminded him where I lived. I asked him if I could talk to him for a bit because I was writing an article about being from the North, and living in the South. Before he could protest, I told him I'd help him pick corn while we talked, to make up for using his time.
I stayed until all the corn was picked. It wasn't a big place, and it wasn't all farmed with corn, so it didn't take too long. A couple hours, a few, maybe. When we were done, I had soaked my shirt with sweat, and realized that even with 60 years piled on my 19, he could kick my butt. What I had taken for 'sick old man who needs help', was really the face of an old man who could out work me all day, every day, for a year.
We'd talked about the Civil War a bit, because that's all I really knew of the South at that point. Mostly we talked about his life, and his experiences in the 50's and 60's. He had lots of views on the current state of black youth, as well, and none of them were favorable.
At the end, he offered me water, and we sat in lawn chairs in front of his trailer for a moment. I was just about to ask his mules name (She was tied nearby and I'm fond of mules, and was looking for an excuse to pet her) when he said: "You've got tattoos."
I steeled myself for the coming speech about women and tattoos. I'd heard it a dozen times since I moved to Georgia, and had learned to just swallow my retorts.
I nodded. "I do." I said. he didn't start hollering so I rolled my arm for him to see better. "They're all cats, see? But in heiroglyphs, like from Egypt."
"You like cats?" he asked.
"I do, very much. I have two now, Sinatra and Loaf." I was still waiting for the scolding.
"My grandmother told me once that her mother had tattoos. That was a long time ago, but I remember. My great grandmother came from Africa. I have a copy of the bill of sale when she was bought in Savannah."
It's been about 13 years since that day, and I don't remember what I said in response. I remember feeling over my head, and honored, and emotional, and overwhelmed. I know I left soon after, and never went back. (Stupid. Stupid. Me.)
But that's a good summary of my feelings on my time in the Great State of Georgia. Emotional. Overwhelmed. Honored.
It might not be where I spent my formative years, but it's where I grew up.