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You can't go home again

A Connect columnist reflects on home, place and family


January 28, 2016

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    When I began preparations to move to Statesboro in 2014, people told me very passionately that I was sure to experience culture shock. Being an undercover, fast-talking Southerner living above the Mason Dixon, I already knew that things are, indeed, different down here. The pace of life is a little less frenetic, the clock a little more forgiving. The tea is sweeter, the bacon more prevalent and the accents less nasal. The flora remains verdant throughout the winter; sometimes, in January, the camellias bloom.  
    I’ve spent most of my adult years navigating public transportation, shoddy bike lanes, and aggressive sidewalk company. But for all my love of the metropolis, I’m originally from a small town in South Carolina: a place with one stoplight, an IGA, and an independent pharmacy that sells things like potty chairs and walkers, and shelves precisely one box of each medication at a time. As a teenager, the local bank teller always knew how I was doing academically. I spent a lot of time blushing and whining at my mother.
    So it wasn’t culture shock I worried about. If anything, I had experienced culture shock on my way up the coast: during my first summer in Philadelphia, I kept track of how many people smiled back at me when I smiled at them. The percentage was devastatingly low, and over the years, I stopped making eye contact entirely. Like the best of the Philadelphians, I yelled at jaywalking pedestrians and pushed my way through crowds with my shoulder. It’s a dog-eat-dog world in places so heavily populated, and I had to learn not to expect kindnesses from people I didn’t know.
    Preparing for the move, I was having more of an existential crisis a la Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. Hadn’t I left the South for a reason? My familial ties were strained and seemed irreparable. I hate humidity, and what’s worse, hot weather. There are many things about me that don’t sit well with conservatives. Would the adult version of myself fit in here, after years adapting to the frenetic pace of tall, cramped cityscapes and years of stubborn independence? I feared the upcoming changes and wondered, at times, if I wasn’t backtracking, somehow erasing my own progress.
    I shouldn’t have worried. It turned out that moving back wasn’t a reversion, only a change, and the local challenge was getting to know my neighbors again. Like a series of atrophied muscles in need of physical therapy, I’m slowly getting better at accepting, if not depending upon, the kindnesses of strangers, like a door held for me, or a place in line, ceded. Although I’m still surprised each time a stranger waves at me, my own hand is waving back now before I have time to consider it, and after years of aversion conditioning, I do still make very shifty eye contact. I’m working on that, y’all. I promise.
    Beyond getting to know my neighbors, though, it turns out that moving back also allowed me to get to know my father again, and to be with him in his terminal months of COPD. He was a Minnesota transplant who remembered his childhood being much like A Christmas Story — stuck in a coat so full of down he couldn’t lower his arms to his sides, and maybe it’s only family legend, but I’m pretty sure the leg lamp was there, too — and once he moved to the South, he never again left it.
    Dad recognized the quiet, staid beauty of a place where lost items are returned to their owners, the most remote of names are remembered, and some people don’t even bother to lock their doors. Where the medians are sometimes overgrown and the shoulders are foamy with cotton. Where summer fruit is sold from gas station parking lots and the hometown pharmacy that used to disappoint us children for lack of gumball machines would, as adults, see us through Dad’s final hours, calling us by name while meting out morphine.
    For many reasons, my relationship with my father was fraught, but we came to our own brand of peace before he died. While that may have made the mourning harder, it was worth it, and I couldn’t have done it from far away. Last May, when my father passed away in our farmhouse among the pines and oaks, front door unlocked, he was warm, in sunlight, in a land of people who knew his name.

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