Growing up in Massachusetts with a North Carolinian mother was confusing. After all, how could I describe being a Northerner who felt Southern; a Tar Heel raised above the Mason Dixon line; a girl with Carolina roots, but Boston branches?
My mother was raised in Concord in the 1950s, descended from a long line of Scots. The daughter of a housewife and a small-business owner, Mom’s childhood sounds to me as if it were spun from the magic fur of a dandelion. Summer days, she’d listen to the Beach Boys, buy a Cherry Coke on Main Street, and jump from the beams of a cotton gin.
In college, Mom fell for my dad, a “Yankee.” I imagine her voice warbling like a bird in a Hugh Morton photograph when she agreed to move with him to Boston.
So there I was in New England, eating collard greens, pulled pork and black eyed peas. Listening to Motown on the way to the skating rink. Wearing pantyhose to a Sunday School. Writing thank you notes to people who didn’t understand why I was sending them. And because Mom couldn’t admit that “you can’t go home again,” I went to North Carolina. All the time.
In comparison to our fast-paced, competitive days, taking a trip to Concord was like pressing pause. I felt sheepish in my jeans and oversized T-shirts; my older cousins wore prim Laura Ashley jumpers and bows bigger than their faces. But soon they taught us to shell peanuts, whistle and shag dance. My uncles who worked at the family lumber company had voices so booming and colorful that even a regular word like “hamburger” could send my brother and me into fits of laughter.
Each time we returned, my heart leaned as far as the statue of Queen Charlotte at the airport. I could smell pear trees all around her.
Year after year, the state revealed new magic: In blazing hot Inez, we visited gravestones as sharp as teeth. In a back yard in Warrenton, we played Spite and Malice until the Jack of Spades perspired. From the wet brush at Lake Norman, we filled pails of tiny blueberries and in Asheville we inhaled the mountains’ purple breath. We climbed over the dunes in Wilmington, and when we came back the next year they had eroded, but we remembered where they had been. If that wasn’t intimacy, I don’t know what is.
But still. What were we? I claimed the South, but did it claim me back? I was proud of being northern, too. Of our open minds and broad circles, of our snowstorms and politics, of the Queen Anne’s Lace and hydrangeas that beamed up at me from Cape Cod lanes and said I could be whoever I wanted. By the time I entered sixth grade in Boston, I had Lee Smith novels written in my heart, the songs of Charlie Daniels Band in my head, and a taste for Sun Drop. But I was starting to pick up on the fact that you could not ever, not fully at least, be both.
One afternoon, my Uncle John drove my brother and me way out into Cabarrus County, past the car dealerships and the Pizza Huts and the S&D coffee factory that slow-roasted the air inside our car. We stumbled onto a farm covered with cattle, buttercups and oak trees. Land, he told us, was the most valuable thing a person could own. And on the land, each living thing had a name, and it was important to know them. He let us drive the truck, and when it was time to go home he slapped us on the backs, handed us each a five dollar bill, and bellowed, “Here’s to the land of the long leaf pine!”
Was it the South that produced these marvelous feelings, or was it simply my youth? I will never know if the fried okra and the catfish and the murky lake water laced with gold were special because they were regional novelties, or if North Carolina was dear to my brother and me because we were learning it together. Perhaps bigger than the discovery of the South was the rediscovery of my hometown in its context, the surprising and important knowledge that there were other places on earth.
When I was in college, my parents decided to retire from Massachusetts to North Carolina. Mom’s lifelong dream of “going home” was coming true: she would plant azaleas in her new garden, attend family christenings, and slip back into her Piedmont accent. But when the moving truck parked at the top of the hill outside of our house, in the spot where my brother and I had pushed off our sleds on snow days, there were tears of uncertainty in her eyes. Holding her hand as the boxes were carried out, I crisply understood the fine line between having both and having neither.
To this day, the South and I remain undefined, my connection to it equal parts self-worth and self-doubt, the source of my belonging and my not. My affection for other places has kept me from giving it my whole heart. Call me progressive, a modern woman: North Carolina will always be one of my great loves.