Sixteen years ago, my husband, Ralf, and I had lived almost a full year in our very first home, the old ranch house we'd bought in Cabarrus County.
There was plenty to fix up (there still is), but we still love our place. We love the crazy conglomeration of bricks in the facing. We love the antebellum beams in the library. We love the view from the kitchen window.
We love the magnolia tree in the front yard.
Sixteen years ago, we were struggling every month on the sort of salaries only teachers make. In those days, I taught part-time; that meant my paycheck was a source of wry humor for us both.
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That summer, my life changed significantly - partly because of our strained circumstances.
In those days, this newspaper you hold was called Cabarrus Neighbors, in my neck of the woods. Around August, the paper ran a contest for its readers. Folks were asked to write in about their worst summer vacation. The winner would get $50.
I read the announcement to my husband over breakfast.
"That's not hard," I said. "We had the vacation from hell right here in God's country."
(Let me explain: When my doctoral adviser learned we were moving to North Carolina, he told me I was going to be living in "God's country." He envied me, he said.)
So I wrote a description of our first attempt at a vacation in North Carolina, in spring 1991.
I was very pregnant at the time with a baby who was to weigh, at birth, a hefty 9 pounds 6 ounces. We drove to the coast to see the ocean. To save money, we decided to camp out.
We had no idea how God's country works. We were newbies.
It had been over 90 degrees each day for a month, with plenty of warm and mildew-producing rain. Our warm winter, the spring rains and the heat had produced a plague of flying, biting creatures. It was so oppressively hot at night in the campground that our sweat collected on the underside of the tent and dripped back down on us.
Did I mention that I was very pregnant? I was up a lot at night. The campground kept spraying chemicals to keep the bug population down, and rain spoiled every afternoon for hours.
When a pregnant woman gets rained on or gets overheated or, heaven forbid, both at the same time, she gets cranky.
After two days of this, we gave up and drove back home, covered by mosquito bites and thoroughly exhausted.
I wrote the story. I won the contest. I had $50 to recover some of the rental of the campsite and the gas we had used getting to the coast.
But that late summer was the beginning of my life as a personal columnist, because the editor asked me about writing for the paper again. For 14 years, I wrote a column every week. For the last two years (times are hard for newspapers), I've written twice a month.
My first column was about my magnolia tree in the front yard.
Even today, that tree symbolizes all the beauty of my home. I've lived in Cabarrus County longer than anywhere else. I've raised my child here, entered middle age, met some of the most hardworking, well-meaning people in the whole world. I've gotten to write about them for 16 years.
I am one lucky North Carolinian.
I live in God's country.