Home or something like it

Laura went into some serious detail yesterday in writing about home, homesickness, and generally a sense of place.  As I told her in a comment there, her piece stirred up some similar feelings in me about my own home.  That’s how I got here right now.

Home.  As Toad the Wet Sprocket says in the song “Something to Say” from the “Fear” album, home’s not where you live, but where you belong.  I was listening to that album a whole lot for a short period there when I was living in the Midwest.  I didn’t necessarily know where I belonged then…still don’t, I guess.  I just knew at the time that I didn’t belong there.  That’s a large part of how I identified so strongly with what Laura was trying to say.  There’s something in this old down-South country boy that found all those wide open plains…desolate, somehow.  Empty and lonely.  Sort of the polar opposite of the oppressed, isolated feeling my wife got when she visited my old homestead in Virginia for the first few times…where the trees overhung the highway for miles at a time, and you couldn’t see past the next corner.

Home has a strange meaning for me.  Or to be more precise, a strange lack of definition or define-ability.  I lived on an asphault secondary road (almost all of Virginia’s secondary roads are paved) that had a “Route 1 Box X” address.  When asked by my freshman roommate in college if there was a “Route 2,” the answer was “no.”  I was raised from the age of 9 months until the time I moved into my own apartment in graduate school in the same house.  A house that my father, a construction worker at the time, built with his own hands and the help of friends and family, on land that was (a small part of) my great-great-great-grandfather’s farm.  My great-grandfather that carries my surname came from a poor family, but he had the good fortune to marry well.  As a matter of fact, he married the younger sister of his older brother’s wife.  So my grandfather had, as we call it, a “double-first” cousin.  [Insert Southern inbreeding joke here.]

I grew up in a neighborhood that was defined by family…a place that was clannish in a way that most people don’t really understand nowadays.  I’ll draw you a little mental picture.  I lived on the south side of the road, in a little 1500 square foot brick house.  To the east of my house was my great-grandfather’s old country store building, now empty except when we held our annual get-together on Christmas Eve.  On the other side of that was my great-grandparents’ trailer, and on the other side of that was my grandparents’ tiny little house.

Across the road was my aunt’s “brother,” adopted by her mother when he was orphaned as a small child.  Up the road at the top of the hill was said aunt and uncle; beside their house was her mother’s.  All told, our “neighborhood” was a half-mile stretch of that highway, bounded on either side by small creeks…and of the 15 or so houses in the square mile or so, all but two were occupied by people related to me by blood or marriage.  Interspersed were a sawmill, a dozen or two tobacco fields with their curing barns, and acres and acres of hardwood forest.  My brother, my cousins and I had the run of all this land as children…by foot, by Big Wheel, by bicycle, by minibike or motorcycle, or just in general.   We could more or less go where we wanted as long as we were back for dinner, and could go back out and stay until dark.  When I got older, it was no big deal for me to ride my bicycle two miles down the road to meet my friends at the pool, or the little mom-and-pop store to shoot pool.

It was a great place, and a great time, to be a kid.

It was when I got older that I started to notice the uglier things.  On the one hand, my people were the stereotypical friendly Southerners…polite almost to a fault, at least to your face.  But they were mistrustful of outsiders, and as I grew older, outsiders were pouring into my little podunk county in droves, coming especially from New York and New Jersey, drawn by the insanely low property costs and taxes.  Folks back home still don’t take too kindly to Northerners, especially when there are still plenty of old chimneys pointing proudly to the sky, defiant remains of mansions burned by Union occupiers.  There’s no insults to the face, oh no, but a general mistrust and a wish that they’d all just stay the hell back where they came from.

The small-mindedness and mistrust can extend to those within as well.  It’s quite common back home to hear some form of the question “Who’s your family?” with the expectation that the answer to that question will tell the questioner all he or she needs to know about you.  Some people have a hard time getting away from the bad apples in their family, past or present.  I didn’t really have that problem, but it still always reinforced in my mind just how insular and narrow-minded the people in my community tended to be.  Every time the question was asked in my presence, I winced and wished to be someplace more reasonable.

There’s the flagging economy, which has taken an even more radical downturn since I moved away in the mid-90s.  It wasn’t good when I was there – a lot of farm jobs and a whole lot of unskilled industrial labor because the workforce was poorly educated and staunchly anti-union.  The workforce has, sadly, not changed very much…but when the economy started going into the tank under the first President Bush, lots of the factories started to cut back, and then shut down.  Lots of people who’d worked for the same large factory for years were laid off with no real prospects of anything else to do with themselves.

See, the entire region is dominated by what’s called flue-cured bright-leaf tobacco farming, and the best way I can think of to explain it is to give you a link to this beautiful photo-essay of a day farming tobacco in nearby North Carolina.  That’s almost exactly what it was like for me and my friends in 1987, for my father twenty years earlier, and even for my grandfather twenty years before that.  In fact, if you take away the modern tractors, mechanical stringers, and LP tanks, there’s not a whole lot of difference between the work I did as a 14-year-old and the work that was done before Great-great-great-granddaddy Sam up and went off to th’ War in ‘61.  And since the tobacco market started to go under in the late 1980s, many of the smaller farmers (like the fellow I worked for, my grandfather’s cousin-whose father married another one of my great-grandmother’s sisters and lived in the same neighborhood-are you enjoying this yet?) accepted buyouts of their quotas from the Department of Agriculture and took their land out of cultivation.

With no factory jobs and very little agricultural work left, it started to get ugly.  Fast.  In the last ten years, people have finally started to get what money out of their land that they can, by selling off the timber.  This is in many ways the most heartbreaking to me, because a lot of what I loved about my home was the enormous stands of almost-untouched forest.  Those miles-long highways of timber are now ugly piles of deadfall…hills denuded by the logger’s axe, bare dirt fouled even further by the odd fallen log of “cheaper” lumber and the stumps of dozens of others.  It is depressing to me to take the drive back home to the old place and see hillside after hillside of this cutover where forests used to be.  It drives that old saying of “You can’t go home again,” even when I wish it wouldn’t.

And speaking of ugly…race.  You can’t talk about my home without talking about race, which in my part of the South is a strange and usually ugly thing.  Black and white folks work and go to school cheek by jowl, so we know each other as individuals.  We’re not some faceless mass on the TV set, like black folks were to many people I met in the Midwest.  (Racism in the Midwest is a subject for another post – I’ll say that I met just as many, and just as virulent, racist people there as I have in the South.)  But by and large, once the school bell rings or work whistle blows, we go off into our separate places and don’t come together again until the bell or whistle sounds again.

Several older members of my family will still talk about “colored” or “nig-ruh” people in disparaging manners.  Even though they may know or work with a handful of black people who they hold in high esteem, they can still easily fall into a “those people” diatribe at a moment’s notice.  I can’t speak for the black community, as I’ve never been on the inside there, but I often wonder if things are the same around the family dinner table in black homes, or if that sort of racism only exists in white families.  I’d like to think that’s true, if only because it would hopefully mean it would be easier to eradicate it, but I doubt it.

So on the one hand, there’s the bad economy, the uglifying of the natural environment, and rampant narrow-mindedness and racism.  Big minuses whenever I think of going back for more than a quick vacation.

But for me, there’s still the mystic pull of ancestral land.  When Michael Shaara describes the characters in The Killer Angels, he describes General Lee as someone who feels the strong pull of “the sacred earth of home.”  I think many people no longer understand that, but I do.

My parents sold my boyhood home the year my son was born, and moved in to a lovely new house ten miles away (and, incidentally, only a few miles where another part of my family used to farm – my other Civil War veteran great-great-great-grandfather is buried less than three miles away).  I love their new house, and they still have a beautiful stand of timber behind the house for my son to explore like I did…but it doesn’t have the memories of my childhood, the pull of kith and kin and generations of history behind it to anchor me.

There’s a character to the land and the people of my home county that I love…but there’s also a character of the people that I heartily dislike.  When I go home, I look forward to family, former coworkers, and others…but I don’t really have friends there anymore.  Most of the people I could call “friend” have long since moved on.  So when I go out to the grocery store to buy steaks and beer with my dad, it’s with a nervous eye, not looking forward to running into this-or-that person that I loathed from high school, to the ever-ready-to-judge eyes of the old ladies from my old church, to the ignorance and ugliness that lives cheek by jowl with the old-fashioned honesty and friendliness.

I’ve lived or spent plenty of time in other places in Virginia…Richmond, Charlottesville, Norfolk, the Shenandoah Valley, elsewhere…and there are places that are less ugly than my home can be.  I often think wistfully about going back, although at this point in my life I’m not sure it’ll ever happen, for various reasons, most of them perfectly good.  But no matter what my address is, in my heart I’m a Virginian, a proud one at that, and I’ll die a Virginian no matter where I’m buried.

But for now, while I love it and miss my idealized image of it from childhood, it’s not quite “home.”  And where “home” is, as defined by “where I belong?”  I wish I knew.

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6 Responses

  1. I followed Laura’s link to this post. It really touched me. I have identity crisis when it comes to “home.” I’m originally from upstate NY, grew up in FL, but ended up here in SC when I was 23 and it immediately felt like “home.” Here it is 16 years later and it’s still where I live. My husband is from here and jumped at the chance to move to FL with me and we did for 9 years. We knew we’d eventually end up back here. There’s something about the South (FL doesn’t count except geographically). I agree with everything you said about close-mindedness and ignorance here, but I’ve never found another place so proud and enamoured of its history, which lends a special feeling to this place. I can’t really describe it well enough. I just think it’s strange how a NY Jewish girl ended up here. And happy to be here. Though I’d move to upstate NY in a second if we had that kind of cash.

    You’re right; my experiences in SC and acquaintances with SC’ers bears that out. Like Virginians, they have a peculiar awareness of and pride in their own history which is often quite endearing…even though it does occasionally extend itself to ugliness. But you can easily drive through the upcountry and into the low country and imagine the cotton fields, the rice and indigo plantations, and feel the crawl of life two hundred years ago as though you can see it before your eyes. It’s a whole different feeling.

    My mother’s boss is also a Jewish native New Yorker, and he loves it there in small-town Virginia. His obscenely wealthy mother and sister have visited him twice from their home in Martha’s Vineyard and have sworn to never, ever return again. Some people find it attractive; others don’t.

    Thanks for stopping by; drop on in anytime!

  2. I really enjoyed this post. I felt like I was reading the 1st chapter of a very good memoir :-).

    My hometown had plenty of the racism (KKK rallies) and small-mindedness, but without any of the pride of heritage and cool forestry. It really took moving away for college to see that…I had a lot of, “Oh, you mean that isn’t normal,” moments my freshman year of college. That’s not to say that I don’t have good memories from my hometown…as a child, I was comforted by the everybody-knows-everybody quality to it. It’s the racism, homophobism, and general lack of value on higher education that propelled me away. My parents moved to a neighboring town while I was in college, and, for the most part, none of my good friends returned to my hometown after college. I only go back now for a high school play once or twice a year…usually hoping to avoid recognition by anyone, but willing to risk it in order to sit in that auditorium again.

    Yes, it sounds like a similar sort of town, at least. As for me, high school was a sufficiently bad experience that crossing the threshold is something I’d just as soon avoid. I think I’ve only been back once, and that was for my younger brother’s graduation.

  3. I cannot believe anyone besides me has ever heard of Toad the Wet Sprocket. I am often singing “Good Intentions”

    “Ever heard of” them? Hell, they were all over MTV for a year or so. Back when MTV still actually played music.

  4. […] I say from time to time that I grew up on ancestral land, it’s very much true.  My father’s father’s parents, the ones who share my […]

  5. Wow. I followed the link from today (10/1/08)’s post here, and as usual, I have lots to say.

    I come from a Southern family, but my experiences are 50% different from yours, as we never lived anywhere near ancestral land. Military family, you know, always going from port to port. But all the things you say about the South ring true – I lived there from time to time in my early years, from being born in Charleston, to spending five years in Norfolk, to spending two years in Key West (doesn’t really count, I know) to spending three years in Charlottesville.

    My question for you would be whether or not the ancestral land felt like home when you visited there. Even when I went to where my father’s folks are from, where they’ve raised generations of my family, it didn’t feel like home to me.

    It feels like home, but I don’t know how much of that is the “ancestral” part of it and how much is just that I spent the first half of my life there. I don’t think the “ancestral” segment of it really crept into my consciousness until I was a teenager and really started to get a feel for the continuity of past and present…if that makes any sense.

    It’s different now, of course. My parents don’t actually live there, and most of my family who did when I was a child have died or moved away. My grandmother still lives there in the house where my father grew up, two houses down from my childhood home…and my aunt and uncle still live up the hill. And the woods have been clear-cut in places, which is heart-rending to a kid like me who spent so many formative hours in them. I remember as a 17-year-old heading off to college, I took my then-girlfriend out a half-mile or so into the woods to a collection of huge basalt boulders and swore to her that I’d love her as long as the boulders were there…and five years later someone actually came in, cut away the trees around them, and hauled them away, probably as decorations in some corporate lobby in Atlanta or Seattle or someplace.

    (I spent four years in Charlottesville, myself.)

  6. And I forgot to say, I have double first cousins in my family too. My paternal grandparents’s brother and sister (respectively) married each other.

    Makes for some funny jokes, huh? And some interesting diagrams when drawing the family tree.

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