This story is featured because it takes place in Georgia, just like this week’s blog post!
Although they had settled in the Nation’s Capital, my parents were from the South, so every summer they would take my younger sister and me on a road trip “back home” to visit our grandparents in Georgia and Mississippi.
I loved these Southern road trips, and my memories of them are still full of magic. Often, they’re only snapshots of long ago times and places filtered through the prism of a child’s memory, but they conjure up a past that’s somehow more mystical because it’s so elusive.
Anticipation mixed with commotion and excitement as we packed up our Oldsmobile of the day, with no air conditioning the first few years, mind you! My dad always said it was like getting a circus on the road – the “old” road, that is. We took 11W/11E, which is now mostly Interstate 81. Interstate highways were just getting started back in the day, so childhood road trips on two-lanes and four-lanes took us through many a small Southern town.
My mother was the oldest of 11 kids in one of those small towns in northwest Georgia. She was a beautiful, brilliant girl with a great sense of humor, but her youth was impacted by the Depression and the responsibilities that came with being the oldest girl in a large family. She turned down opportunities to go away to college in order to help raise her younger brothers and sisters, and she taught school before coming to Washington, DC, to work for the government.
My grandparents’ house was not the one she grew up in, but it’s the only one I ever knew – small, white and cozy, with crape myrtles in the yard, a gravel driveway and a small screened porch. It had a steep, narrow staircase without handrails most of the way to the upper level, which was a challenge for us to climb when we were little. Up there in the bedrooms under the slanted roof were treasures like books and trophies, scrapbooks and coin collections. It had a furnace that made big scary noises through big scary grates in the floor and sounded like a monster growling when it kicked on.
My grandfather died when I was 8, but I remember sitting with him in his favorite chair. He was strong and handsome, warm and loving. He held a variety of jobs in his time — managing a pool hall, supervising a chain gang while they built a road bridging two counties across a huge mountain, and travelling around Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama, working on roads from Chattanooga to Birmingham.
My grandmother always had a freshly made pitcher of sweet tea in the kitchen, and no iced tea ever tasted so good. She smelled like Jergens Lotion and had a set of false teeth that I found fascinating. One time my parents admonished me to brush my teeth because I would only get one set. “Unh, unh,” I replied confidently. “Granny’s got a whole new set that she keeps in a glass at night.”
One of my Georgia uncles owned a drive-thru liquor store and kept a real gun behind the counter, which made him a cross between an outlaw and a celebrity in my book, but before that, he owned a café. Some of my earliest memories are of that café and its old fashioned bowling machine. I absolutely loved to slide the metal puck down that shiny wooden surface and smack down the mechanical pins with a “thunk.”
My mother told me that I used to go from table to table in the café, stealing the pats of butter and eating them. You have to be a Boomer or older to remember butter pats! I also liked to drink the cream from those little tiny glass bottles with the cardboard tops that they used to put on the tables for coffee. This was consistent with my life of crime at home, where I went around the table at my parents’ dinner parties pilfering lima beans off the guests’ plates. Lima beans, for Pete’s sake! I had eclectic tastes, but I digress.
Visiting our relatives in Georgia meant fun and freedom, playing with lively young aunts, uncles and cousins. They talked differently than we did, with a funny accent and the word “y’all” at the end of every sentence. We especially loved hanging out with my aunt who was a schoolteacher and coach, the undisputed Pied Piper to all her nieces and nephews. She was a tomboy and an athlete who would play ball with us in the yard no matter how hot it was, buy us orange and grape Nehis, and drive us all over Creation.
You see, Southerners like to take drives, to visit everybody and see everything. The scariest drive was up Fort Mountain, where the winding road my grandfather had helped build twisted and turned, climbing to dizzying heights and revealing magnificent vistas. We would drive around to visit aunts and great aunts who sewed quilts and pickled things in mason jars and knew all about the family history. There were always huge family gatherings with hand-cranked peach ice cream, homemade potato salad, fried okra, and lots of teasing and love.
Most of all, I loved listening to the grownups talk, about people, places and things in the distant and not so distant past, about whatever happened to so-and-so and the marriages, births, adventures and misfortunes that made great stories about real people and real lives.
I guess that’s why I love reading and writing those types of stories to this day. No matter how much of an East Coast suburban kid I was, my roots were undeniably in the South.
Next week: Mississippi