My neighbor lived with her son and his kids in the trailer down the road, and whenever I went on a walk with the dogs we’d stop and visit for a while. Talking to her was like listening to a record that was getting slowly cluttered with debris. She skipped a little. She’d share the same stories time after time, which I liked because they were good stories and I never quite remembered them right the first time. She told stories, about working the ration office down in Marshall during the war, about driving the bookmobile all around Madison County in the years afterwards. She’d tell me about picking books specific to each area she visited, knowing what residents of each community liked to read, and what they didn’t. “I knew ever’ pig track there was to know,” she told me.
One day I told her how nice it was to hear her stories, since I wasn’t from here myself. She looked a little shocked. “Oh,” she said quickly, her blue eyes suddenly sharp. “I’m not from here. I’m from Laurel.”
Another time I was walking up around Kalamazoo – this was when I lived in Little Pine – and met a man staring misty-eyed out over the mountains. Apologizing for my dog, who, in his role as First Responder, had taken it upon himself to dampen the ground around the man’s shoes, you know, just in case, I said something conciliatory about the pretty day. “It sure is,” he said. “You live around here?”
“Not too far,” I nodded.
He sighed. “I used to live here too. Grew up here. Miss it, every day.”
I nodded sympathetically. “Where you live now?” I asked, despite myself. Poor guy. He’d gone off to make a living someplace, I figured, Ohio, Michigan, Atlanta. Whereas I got to walk here everyday, if I felt like it.
“Oh, I live up in Grapevine.”
Grapevine’s a 20-minute drive. I’m just saying.
Somebody told me once that the difference between North and South is that in the North, when you first meet another person, the first question you ask is, “What do you do?” and in the South that question is, “Where’re you from?” The second question for a Southerner is “Who are your people?” because that tells where you’re really from (as well as, usually, your denominational lineage) and the third question is a narrowing down of how my people and your people might know each other. You don’t want to get into questions about line of work until you know someone pretty good. You don’t want to be nosy, after all.
I was raised in North Carolina which means that I’m a native, but only to anyone not from here. I didn’t move to Madison County until I was almost thirty. My father’s family has lived and owned land in the eastern part of the state since the 1600s, which is five times farther from here than either Tennessee, Georgia or Virginia. No matter that I was raised outside of Charlotte (notice that distinction – not in Charlotte, but outside of Charlotte, in what was then rural Mecklenburg County). No matter that my parents now live in Shelby, about halfway in between Asheville and Charlotte. (That’s where all the stoplights are when you’re making the drive down 26 and 74 to get to the airport.) No matter that my mother’s family is from Mississippi, while her father’s side of the family is clustered around Pendleton, South Carolina. But somehow, people call me a native. It’s a meaningless word, until you fill it with meaning. They’ve done that recently in Arizona.
In the South, we all grow up homesick all our lives for a place we’ve never been, the place we’re from. In church, we sing hymns about going home, family and friends waiting for us there. Angels beckoning to us with open arms, welcoming us, home. Where we’ve never been. We’re not from here, we sing. Down in Arizona, which is a state I’ve never visited, they’re putting a lot of thought into that idea of being from a place. Where’re you from? Who’re your people? You better have the right answer to that question when you’re down in Arizona, and you better have the papers to back it up. Family bible don’t count. Or maybe it does. I’m not from there, after all. But because of the color of my skin and the people I come from, I can, if I choose to, visit Arizona. But I don’t think I will. I don’t like that kind of pressure, and as far as I can tell we’re all visitors here in this place. Ask any native American; they’ll tell you.
Once I was talking to someone over tea as she told me about her childhood, playing in the creek that we both could see from her kitchen window.
“So, you’re from here?” I asked.
“No, I’m not from here. I’m from over there”. And she pointed, at the house on the other side of the creek and to the left. “That’s where I’m from,” she said, sadly. “I wonder who lives there now.”