I’ve lived in the south all my life. And as much as I love going other places, I also love that I have somewhere to come home to. And when I say “home,” I mean home of a long, long time. The vast majority of our family lives here in Georgia, and it seems those who scattered chose southern destinations as well. Texas, Tennessee, The Carolinas, Alabama, Florida. The last of which is sort of debatably southern to most of us, but there are pockets which would be characterized as such, I guess.
There are southernisms I love that I will never outgrow, regardless of where my path takes me one day. I like collard greens. My kitchen usually smells like I’m making something good. I often catch myself saying I am fixin‘ to do something instead of the far superior about to. I hate the cold. I smile at you warmly, even if I don’t really like you. I love to host a good party. I say y’all. I find a strange comfort in rickety church pews and old hymns. I always handwrite a good thank you note. I don’t wear white after labor day or before Easter. The Florida gulf is still my favorite sand in all the world. We bought our house for the wrap-around porch, and tens of thousands of dollars of repairs and improvements later, I kind of wonder if that was a good decision. But I still burrow in a rocking chair with a drink after dinner sometimes and think it was money well-spent.
But there are other characteristics of my homeland I hate so much. The lazy inactivity which matches the humid, scorching summers. The racism that seeps so tangibly in the words of both my peers and my elders, not even shamefully hidden most of the time. The closed-minded perceptions of so many people here. The disinterest in education. The classism that still exists in some old money circles and the resulting sense of entitlement. I hate to think of my own son coming of age in a place where these are defining characteristics. But I hate to think of him coming of age in a place of shallow roots instead of old ones, so I really don’t know which is best, and I’m leaving that big question to fate and where we land.
As I’ve thought about this question before in reference to my own home, I’ve always resorted to being happy I’m at least from a colorful place. I believe it was Flannery O’Connor who once explained, “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” And with this entry, reader, I am letting my southern freak flag fly proudly.
My family is colorful. We entertain children with thump bugs. We turn naked kids loose in the back yard and let them play with a water hose. My uncle is a beekeeper who swears they are miraculous and stings his own joints when they ache and sprinkles bee pollen on his cereal for daily consumption. I have a relative who stands in his yard and stops cars if he deems them to be driving too fast on his shaded residential street. I’m said to be related to the famous Miss Mary Bobo of Jack Daniels Distillery, but church-goin’ folks don’t look kindly on that, so we don’t advertise it much. And in addition to all this, much to Jude’s delight, my grandparents live just a few minutes from us, and they house laying hens and two goats. Not just any goats, mind you. These are authentic Tennessee Fainting Goats. They are of no use to anyone except that they are pets. Pet goats who have grown fat and happy in all their peaceful years of strolling their large pen.
Fat and happy and peaceful until they met my Jude who thinks that anything with wheels or four legs is for riding. Our chocolate lab? Can I ride him, Mama? The cows we pass on the side of the road? Cow go moo, mama. I wanna ride! No joke that he once asked to ride the bird that flew overhead in a parking lot. So it’s really no surprise that he made the logical connection to goat riding, and now it’s all he wants to do. And being a practical mama who tends to explain these things (No, Jude, you cannot ride the birds.), I’d ignore his pleading attempts, but his Great-Grandaddy thinks it’s hilarious to indulge him, and they’re his goats anyway so who am I to intervene? So we end up with a goat rodeo around here about once a week.
And taking photos of a goat rodeo is very difficult, but you can almost see him smiling from ear to ear.
Children have a way of humbling you, it seems. I swear that every time I find myself thinking I’m reasonably intelligent or well-spoken, I end up fishing shit out of a bathtub or singing some obnoxious toddler song or catching myself giving Jude a cracker that has fallen on the kitchen floor at least three times. This goat scenario is no exception. Jude has a way of saying “I wanna riiiiiiiide da GOATS!” in a shrill command that can get anyone’s attention, and he usually saves that statement for when we are nowhere near goats. Like to another kid at a playdate with someone we might not know very thoroughly. Or to a random server at a restaurant. Or to other patrons in the organic foods aisle who look far more hipster than I do to begin with. If you combine this with his tendency to leave the last syllable off of “mama” these days and yell Maaaaaaaw, we are regular hillbillies.
But these quirks are becoming deep-seated memories for Jude, and I love that. I have my own images filed in the back of my mind from so many years spent here: Barefoot and eating slices of watermelon with my slew of cousins, all aged like stair steps one after another. The whirl of an electric fan plugged in the corner of my grandmother’s home as July stretched in to August. Fireflies in mason jars. Beach trips to the gulf. College memories thick with porch sittin’ and rocking chair gossip and arbitrary rules about what a girl should and shouldn’t do.
And roam where I might, this thick file of memories remains always in the same place in my imagination. And it’s culture. It’s flavor and foundation and family and all the things that somehow combined to give me the me I eventually became. I forget that sometimes. “Culture” has more than one definition. Yes, in ways it is a result of a cultivated mind that sees and experiences new things and finds its way out of ignorance. But the other kind of culture seems just as important to me. Goat riding won’t give my boy a repertoire of big thick classics, a palette for caviar, or wide cluster of pins on a travel map. But it gives him those glowing memories seared in the back of his own mind, and for a moment, my barefoot runnin’, watermelon eatin’, porch sittin’ childhood and his are the same. And that brings a happiness all its own.