I have an interesting relationship with my roots. And by roots, I mean the places that formed and shaped me during my childhood. I was born in the South, but this statement alone seems to demand of me additional information, clarification. There are many Souths and I grew up in one type, my family hailed from another type, I was educated in yet another type. I have driven its roads and swam in its oceans and studied its people and cultures and history. Its dirt ranges from deep tobacco black to dusty red powder, and its grasses are blue and green and yellow, soft and tender, or scratchy and close cut, and sometimes non-existent. In the area where I was born they claim to have blue blood; the blue of fierce athletic loyalty, the blue of stubborn persistence and deep loyalty, the blue of a chosen and superior group – and yet the blood runs redder and deeper with each passing November, an interesting contrast in ideas and primary colors.
I am somewhat uncomfortable with these roots. Not in the roots of family, but in the passage through these spaces of my childhood. I am always longing for the blurring of lines in my life, and I think it might be because I grew up in a culture with such sharply defined ones. As the car speeds down the highway that cuts through the Eastern Tennessee mountains and into that endless stretch of Georgia highway, the landscape flattens sharply, and billboards litter the skyline. It is a brown landscape, the kind with reddish undertones and pine trees that work at green but can’t quite achieve it. The blue sky is more white than azure, and the billboards anchor into the brown and reach into the white with a frequency that is jarring. They alternate back and forth between messages that you don’t wish for your children to read. You distract them with indoor car games and hope that the miles will roll quickly beneath the tires and get you to your final destination without too many questions. Endless miles of strip club advertisements punctuated with demands to repent of your sins, last chance options to escape the fiery pits of hell. Declarations of the correct kind of family, the correct kind of politics, the correct kind of worship, the correct kind of president, the correct kind of flag – two please, one American and one Confederate – an uncomfortable symbol in uncomfortable numbers. And then again, more adult superstores.
We breathe a sigh of relief as we pull off the highway. We ignore the box stores and the fast food joints and admire the vernacular architecture of the handful of streets laid out in a tight grid. There is always a Broad Street, and the porches wind around the front and onto the sides of the houses, the ghosts of generations of rockers are nearly visible against the deeply shadowed facades. As soon as it begins the grid ends, and the Second Avenues and the Court Streets begin to wind again into two lane highways bisecting a landscape of cotton fields and diagonal rows of pecan trees. I can remember as a child pressing my nose to the glass and watching those pecan tree rows stretching out, creating a staccato of dark-dark-dark-then light, as the rows align perfectly for that one split second and you can see to the very back of the line before they crisscross again and the car speeds along. The cotton plant defies rows in its asymmetry. I imagine a time when those rows were more defined as pickers moved along the grid. Now it is harvested by machines and giant mounds of it sit under brightly colored tarps at the field’s edge, the size of a tractor trailer, the littered fluff that remains scattering across the highway and under the car.
And then it’s green again, greener pines and a green lawn. People spilling out of cars and (mostly) trucks, and gathering under a barn-like shed for a midday dinner. Those lines are there – make no mistake – but they blur a bit across the table, across the pine straw, across the porch, from swing to rocker to swing. It’s a holiday and we can briefly put aside those billboards we erect in our own lives that declare to the world just who we are (or who we think we are) and eat barbecue until it runs down our chins. Sometimes a study in contrasts is just what we were needing. And for that we are most thankful.