Just Folks

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When I was a little girl, I lived in a small town in Georgia. Everyone who lived there knew their neighbors. Not just the ones right next door, but up and down each street. It was a homey place to grow up in, a safe place where people looked out for one another and one anothers’ kids.

My extended family has lived in the same area of Georgia for generations. We were a settled bunch with family traditions. Every Sunday while my parents were still married, we, along with cousins, went to my Grandmother’s house after church to eat Sunday dinner. We stayed a good long time, longer than I wanted to sit and talk like the adults did, so I would entertain myself as best I could since my brother and sister rarely wanted to play with their baby sister.

When I was really young, a little boy named Johnny lived just two houses down the street from my grandmother’s house. In fact, I liked him so much I named one of my kittens(one of the many) after him. The house he lived in was not like mine. It had dirt floors, and the screen door on the front entry could be lifted up so two little kids could step over the base and enter without ever opening the door. I thought that was so cool and wished my house had such a wonderful door. I’m not sure what happened to Johnny. He moved when I was still pretty young. But I do remember my mom and grandmother talking between themselves when they thought I wouldn’t hear about how letting me go play with him might not be a good idea. I didn’t understand why.

I understand now, however. When children are little, they don’t see poverty or skin color, or socioeconomic status. They only see people. I knew Johnny was fun to play with. That’s all that mattered. What his position in society was didn’t matter at all. When I taught the book To Kill a Mockingbird to my sophomores, I often remembered Johnny, especially when Scout tells Jem, “I think there’s just one kind of folks.  Folks.” Scout was still too innocent to understand why Jem thought there were different kinds of people in the world. Of course he was no longer innocent after seeing what happened to Tom Robinson, the black man wrongly accused and convicted of raping a white woman. Jem understood what Scout didn’t yet, that there was injustice in the world.

Another thing that struck me when I taught that book was the difference between how I see the world and how my students did. When we studied that book I had to explain racism and Jim Crow laws to them even when they had learned about it in history class. Often as we read about how some people treated Tom Robinson or how they treated his wife or any other unjust incident in the book, they would ask me, “How could anybody treat others that way?” My heart would break when I explained, but at the same time I rejoiced that they saw no reason to treat anyone of a different race or sex or socioeconomic status differently. I am grateful kids don’t view others the way adults do that they haven’t yet lost their faith in humanity.

Scout Finch

We learn prejudice in all its forms. We learn how to treat people from our elders and from those we associate with. Sometimes we treat others poorly because we bow to peer pressure. Sometimes we are afraid of what treating someone differently might say about us. Whatever the reason, we don’t live up to “the better angels of our nature.” Children are not prejudiced. Somewhere along the way they learn to be. But we don’t have to remain that way.

I am guilty of treating others poorly, of making my prejudice known. One of the biggest regrets in my life is that one of my best friends in college, who was overjoyed at marrying the love of her life, felt she couldn’t tell me about him or her marriage because she was marrying an African American man. She didn’t know how I would react. That said volumes, not about her, but about me. To this day I am embarrassed about that, but her telling me had a profound impact on my life. I woke me up to my own prejudice and made me examine the way I thought, which I’m happy about.

When I married my husband, I also married the Marine Corps, a color blind society if ever there was one. I learned to get along with people from all over the United States and all over the world: the Philippines, England, Mexico, Honduras, Haiti. Everywhere. We lived in many different states, but the one thing that united all of us was that we were living a military life. Race didn’t matter. Neither did anything else. We endured together.

When I was becoming certified to teach, I started out in the public schools in Florida and even did some practicum work at a public high school in Milledgeville, Georgia. I taught all kinds of kids, white and black and brown, from every background imaginable. I started my teaching career at the largest population school in Wisconsin and taught at a small rural school in the middle of Wisconsin. Even here I have taught white kids, black kids, Hmong kids, Hispanic kids, and kids from other countries. The one thing they all have in common is being young men and women who want to be successful and to be taken seriously by adults. Race, socioeconomic background didn’t matter. They wanted me to treat them fairly and not to abandon them when they needed someone to talk to. They wanted praise when they succeeded and help when they failed. Isn’t that what we all want?

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I have learned much in the course of my life which has humbled me. Mostly what I’ve learned is that all people, no matter where they come from, are children of God and should be treated with respect. I haven’t always done that, but I try to. I don’t have all the answers to the terrible things happening in our country right now. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to write about this topic because I feel overwhelmed and sad and confused, and I’m sure someone will not like what I’ve said. I don’t want to be part of the controversy or take away from anyone’s loss. Like everyone else struggling to understand it all, I’m just trying my best to make sense of what feels senseless and wrong and tragic.

We need to discuss so much concerning race relations, but those conversations are hard. They are hard to have even with our friends. No one wants to be called a racist, so often people don’t have the hard conversations to understand. We become defensive  rather than understanding. I’ve never even talked about race with my college friend, but I’m sure she has a lot to tell me and much I need to hear about her children and how  they’ve been treated and how her husband has been treated.

In these discussions I’m afraid we won’t hear what needs to be heard because people are so entrenched in who we think we are, the outer trappings of our identities rather than the inner workings of our hearts. About six or seven years ago I was talking to Pastor Jim, a former pastor at my church about an unrelated concern, but he told me something that has stuck with me ever since, and I often use it as a guide to figuring out what to do in difficult situations. I think it applies to this particular time and issue. He said,” If we err, shouldn’t we err on the side of love?” Indeed.

If we could get to know our neighbors, not the ones we live right next door to but the ones we ordinarily wouldn’t talk to, maybe we could make a difference. If we could see each other with the eyes of a child, maybe we would think, like Scout did, that “There’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” Our skin color doesn’t matter. How much money we make, or don’t make, doesn’t matter. Our ethnicity doesn’t matter. Those things give us character, but they aren’t who we are. Who are we without those things? Who are you? Who am I? All of us deserve dignity and respect. All of us deserve to be heard. All of us deserve to be safe.

I am challenging myself this week to do something small, something manageable that might make a difference. Many small things add up to something big if enough people do them. When you go out into the world this week, introduce yourself to someone you don’t know. Make a friend. Smile at the person next to you in line at the grocery store. Pay for someone’s coffee or food at the drive through. Be a blessing to someone in some way. We cannot allow this crisis to divide the good people of this country. Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address said this about anther moment in time that nearly destroyed our country: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” Let’s make an effort to see each other as neighbors and take care of each other as such. Let’s also make our neighborhoods homey places again where nothing matters but being together, where folks are just folks.

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I Belong to Two Places

A couple of years ago I read a book that has stuck with me, The Conditions of Love by Dale M. Kushner. As I read, I dog-eared pages and underlined passages even though my copy is a hardcover, not a paperback. I couldn’t help myself. It’s that good. Each time I go back to the book, I discover something else that makes me think or appreciate Dale’s writing. As I was thumbing through it not long ago, one line in particular gave me pause, and I’ve thought repeatedly of it since. Here it is: “To learn is to forget, the events of one life crowding out the events of the next.” If that is true, what does it mean to my life? How does that affect who I am? Does it change my identity as a person? A writer? A teacher?

Change is difficult because we have a  tendency to hold onto what we know out of fear or the desire for comfort, but learning requires that we step out of our comfort zones to experience something new, and that can be scary but also exciting and liberating. Since I’ve lived in the Midwest, I’ve felt myself to be on the fringes of society at times, not able to fully understand or participate in the culture here because it is different from what I grew up with and identify with, but also because I don’t want to lose my identity as a Southerner. Just the idea of being any less Southern made me rebel against embracing the Midwest, yet I also pride myself on being willing to experience new things, on learning. I think of myself as an educated woman. I like the challenge of learning something new, but if I refused to change, or to embrace this place, every bit my home as the place I grew up in, what does that say about me?

If I learn how to be a Midwesterner, do I have to forget about being a Southerner? Perhaps, but I don’t like to think of it that way. I prefer to think of it as change. I’ve changed to live here, and the most noticeable way is how I talk. My speech no longer sounds like that of my friends down in Georgia; my vowels are less rounded. I’ve learned to endure the cold, sort of. I complain when it gets humid here, even though at times I still miss the sticky air of Georgia. Heck, two winters ago I was alone the entire month of January in 40 below temperatures with a poorly working furnace and had to shovel LOTS of snow, and stoke the fireplace to help heat the house without my Midwesterner husband around. If that’s not Midwestern, I don’t know what is. In fact, lately people have acted surprised when they find out I’m from the South. Lawd have mercy, I need a trip home to get my drawl back!

Do those things mean I have “forgotten” some of what makes me a Southerner? Maybe. I can hear my Southern friends blessing my heart right now.

Yes, I’ve changed, but the South will always be a part of me. When I write, I write about the South. I can’t help it. The South bubbles up out of me when I put pen to paper or at least hands to keyboard. And that’s when I hear the cadence of my people, no matter that I live so far north of the Mason-Dixon line that I might as well be in Canada. Though I’ve become accustomed to the fast flat vowels of the North, they still seem foreign to me because when I go home and hear a sweet southern drawl or hear my niece and nephew say yes ma’am or no ma’am to me, I fall into that drawl like I never left. I still make tea, though no longer sweet, but flavored with mint. I still love pimiento cheese, fried chicken, The Masters, and good sea food. I still long for the smell of magnolia blossoms and tea olive in the spring; UGA football in the fall, even if Larry Munson no longer calls the games; the occasional 75 degree day in winter; being close enough to the ocean to drive there for a weekend; and having everyone ask after your mama. I know these are only surface traits, but they represent the culture that Southerners hold dear. What keeps me feeling connected to the South is going back and being enfolded into family and friends as though I never left. The open hearts of the people, my people, are what keep me longing for the South.

What keeps me here then? Why don’t I return to my roots? That’s a question I’ve pondered lately. The answer I’ve come to is that I love what my husband and I have built here. I love my home here, my friends, my colleagues and my students, my writing friends, my church, my community. I became a teacher here, built my reputation on my own. I became a writer here and have a community of writers who support me. I’ve built a life here that would be hard to walk away from even though I feel the pull of the South. I look out at the gardens I’ve labored over, the house I see my husbands handiwork in, the town where I raised my children, the parks they played in, the rivers and lakes we swim in, the sunrises and sunsets we’ve seen, the trees we’ve planted that have grown so tall, the farm fields, the forests. Could I leave this place? This place I’ve come to love?

I have wondered if I would ever feel like I belonged here in the Midwest, and I finally feel like I do. Is it because I was finally willing to? Maybe. People here have welcomed me in their midst and I love them for that. But if I have to forget where I came from to fit in or belong, I don’t think I can. Being southern is part of my identity. I can’t separate myself from that part of me any more than Churchill Downs can separate itself from horse racing, mint juleps, or big fancy hats. I think what Dale Kushner meant is that to fully embrace where you are you have to be present in the moment. I’ve tried to do that, even though at times I long for my people and the place I’m from, the familiarity of home and the love of family. What I’ve come to understand is that I belong to two places now: the Midwest and the South, both lands  whose features have a way of becoming a part of your identity and whose people have the same generous hearts. Perhaps I’ll move back “home” one day. I want to, one day. But when I do, I know I’ll miss the Midwest, my other “home.”

10 Reasons I Love Summer

In the summer months I revel in the weather, my writing, and the freedom of not answering to a schedule dictated by bells. I realize as I write this my family down in Georgia is sweltering with the heat index ranging between 105 -110, and I must say I don’t miss that at all. In fact, I complain a lot about Wisconsin winters and springs because–let’s face it–winter lasts too long and we have no spring. Well, sometimes we do, but not this year. We rolled directly from late winter into summer in a matter of about two weeks. But since I’ve moved to Wisconsin, summer has become my favorite season of the year.

Yesterday I was reflecting on what I love about summer, and I had no trouble coming up with a list.

1. Waking to the sound of birds singing rather than an alarm ringing. With a river behind us and a stream running through the backyard, our yard is a haven for birds. And they wake up at about 4:30-5:00 AM to sing their little hearts out. It’s lovely!

2. Falling asleep to the sound of peepers and frogs singing and croaking. That little stream in our backyard empties into a pond where said peepers and frogs like to hang out. They put on a nightly concert just for us. Once, one of the tree frogs got stuck in the window next to my youngest son’s room. He couldn’t figure out where the sound was coming from and struggled to fall asleep each night the singing was so loud!

3. Thunderstorms. Through some trick of nature or topography, my town doesn’t get a lot of severe weather. When we do, the storms are doozies, but usually we just have a gully-washer as my mama use to say.

Delphiniums by my soon-to-be complete vegetable garden.

4. Flowers–everywhere! I don’t know if all southerners are gardeners, but in my family we are or, at least, we profess to be. I love flowers, especially roses. What I’ve learned from gardening in the Midwest, however, is that my gardens don’t tolerate weakness of any kind (I think that may be a metaphor for living in the Midwest.) I don’t grow tea roses which were my daddy’s favorite, specifically Tropicana tea roses, but I do grow Knockout Roses. Ironically, they were developed by the brother of Tom Radler, the wonderful teacher I student taught with years ago.

5. The river and water in general. I grew up on Lake Sinclair in Georgia. We had a lake house (read trailer with an attached screened porch) where we spent nearly every weekend and a lot of weekdays for years. Once we even witnessed a tornado from inside–I know. It’s a miracle I’m still here after surviving a tornado in a trailer! We also spent a lot of time at Jekyll Island on the beach with two other families. Those are great memories, but I’m making new ones on this river behind my house. Once Bruce and I got caught in a thunderstorm while we were floating down the river! Scary but exhilarating!

6. Running and walking with my Stella. During the school year I don’t get nearly enough exercise. I usually put on about ten pounds. All summer I work to take that ten pounds back off! Luckily I enjoy the heat and humidity and also working up a good sweat. As I’ve grown older, it has taken longer to get back into shape, but I keep at it. Not only does Stella like to go with me, but she also gets to swim in the river to cool off. sometimes I wish I could join her!

7. Farmer’s Markets! I will feature my favorite one on my blog soon and show you all the beautiful flowers and vegetables we have available.

My favorite wine and my favorite husband!

8. Relaxing with my hubby on the back porch. We both love to garden, and when we finish, we often relax on the back porch after a dip in the river to cool off. One of my favorite things is spending time with my husband, and summer means I can devote quality time to him without being distracted  by grading papers in the evening.

9. Long days–really long! The sun rises here at about 5:00 and doesn’t set until nearly 10:00 at night. If my Norwegian relatives are reading this, they are probably laughing right now! When we went to Norway last summer, the sun never set because we were above the Arctic Circle. I went outside at our cousins’ house at about 3:00 AM, and it was light out! That was a little weird, but we adjusted. I love how long it stays light in summer here because in winter it’s often dark by four in the afternoon, and I thrive on sunlight.

10. Writing–for as long as I want every day! I saved the best for last. I am so excited about the work I did today. (I love calling writing my work!) On Twitter I found two new agents to query for my completed novel, did research for the one I’m planning at the moment, received a book I had requested for research, wrote one blog post and started another one!

Summer is definitely my favorite season here in the Midwest. I’m free to pursue my passion and enjoy the beauty all around me!

One Day

Southerners have an identity. They are the land they grew up on. Heat and gnats and flowers and rain live in them. Place defines them. It is as much a part of them as their DNA. They are connected to the land like Scarlet O’Hara was. My own family is the same. We have called the same area of Georgia home since the 1700’s, but we are scattered now. No longer do people remain, as their grandparents did before them, in the places where they are raised, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

When I went home in March, I knew I knew the Sandersville of my memory was different than the Sandersville I would encounter, but what I hadn’t counted on was feeling like the Prodigal son, someone who had squandered the fortune I had inherited, in this case my heritage. I was an outsider after a five year absence. Of course, I’ve been gone longer than that, but for five years I had not been home even for a visit. The recession and unemployment hit my immediate family pretty hard. I wanted to return, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t justify spending the money when I was just homesick.

People from the South are born there, live their lives there, and raise families there. Rarely does anyone decide to move away and make their home elsewhere, but I did. When I went back to my hometown, I knew both people and places had changed. What I hadn’t counted on though was how much I have changed. I’m proud of having left and made something of myself in a place where no one knew me, but I miss my people, my family and relatives and my friends and their families.

Sandersville has changed, but that’s no surprise. What I’m most concerned about is that at some point my “home,” the place where I grew up, the place that molded me into who I am today will no longer be home. What if I stay away so long that my friends don’t recognize me, that I’ll be an outlander, an alien in a familiar place?

I have vowed to return home one day, but one day seems farther away than ever before. One day I will walk again in the footsteps of my ancestors, drink in the soft air of a southern spring, feel the thunder rumble beneath my feet as a summer thunderstorm brings sweet relief from the heat of the day, and feel the mists of winter rise over the hay fields at the end of the day. One day.

Going Home!

I once told my husband–or so he claims–that I would never live above the Mason-Dixon line. After this winter, I think I know why I said that!

Today, however, I am going home to Georgia after five years of being away. I’ve always gone back every couple of years, but the Great Recession stopped my travel this time. Now, we are back on our feet, and although I’ll be taking this trip by myself, I am looking forward to it more than any other trip I’ve had in a long time. I can’t wait to see my sister when she picks me up. I know I’ll cry!

Although I haven’t lived in the South since 1987, I still consider Georgia to be home and always will. I can’t wait to feel the warm air on my skin and touch the red dirt. Georgia is the place that reminds me who I am and where I came from. It is where my ancestors made their home and where most of my relatives still do. My, how I’ve missed you!

 

Mrs. Jackson’s Cakes

I recently had my forty ninth birthday, a birthday that has set me to pondering my future as well as my past. Notable for this birthday is for the first time ever I didn’t have a birthday cake. Instead, I bought a piece of my favorite pie (key lime) and a piece of Bruce’s favorite pie (banana cream) for us to celebrate my day. But a silent niggling feeling kept haunting me. I needed a birthday cake with pink roses, the kind I’ve always favored, to make my birthday complete. Of course, the kind of cake I would really like only exists in the past. What I’ve been yearning for is one of Mrs. Jackson’s birthday cakes, the birthday cakes of my childhood , white cake with pink roses and ballerinas dancing on top.

I remember those cakes like I tasted them only yesterday. Back then, I had to have a white cake with white icing and pink roses with a ballerina on top. That was when I still thought there was a chance my sturdy, little girl body would lengthen into a lovely, lithe, small-boned young lady filled with grace. Mama always took me with her to pick up the cake at Mrs. Jackson’s house, and I could smell the buttery sweetness even before the cake was out of the box. Those cakes were little works of edible art, with smooth white icing hardened just slightly so when you bit into a slice of cake, your teeth felt the tiniest break in the sugary icing. Heaven.

My mama always cut that cake especially for me too. Usually when you cut a cake, you make pie shaped wedges, but not with my birthday cake. Mama always cut halfway into the cake and then made a ninety degree cut next so the first piece came from the outside of the cake and was completely covered with icing. That was the piece for the birthday girl. I’ve been an icing fanatic ever since those times when I awaited  my coveted slice of Mrs. Jackson’s cakes.

Some years ago Mama bought me a cookbook, a smallish purple book with two bearded irises on the front of it. It is Mrs. Jackson’s recipes. What a treasure it is, filled not only with her recipes but also anecdotes from people in my hometown about what they remember about Mrs. Jackson and also helpful household hints and a short biography of her life.  I didn’t know much about Mrs. Jackson until I read that book, but I wish I had.  She led quite an exciting life.

Mary Lollie Smith Jackson was born in my hometown of Sandersville in 1900. Her mother died only a year later, so she was raised by her aunt until her father remarried. She attended the same college my mother and Flannery O’Connor did, GSCW, Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville, Georgia. After graduation she moved to New York City to live with her aunt and became a private secretary to the president of a large mortgage company. She met her future husband in New York while he was home on vacation. He was manager of eleven banks in the Dominican Republic. After they wed, they lived a luxurious life in Santo Domingo with servants and a chauffeur and orchids growing wild in her yard! They even moved in the same social circles as the country’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo.

Unfortunately, Mary Lollie’s husband died a premature death at age forty six from lung cancer. She returned to Sandersville in 1946 with her two children where she learned the catering business so she could stay at home and be with them when they needed her. Her business included wedding cakes, birthday cakes, and party refreshments, all to be picked up at her house. She was also an avid gardener raising azaleas, irises, and daffodils. In addition, she was a member of the Sandersville Methodist Church and taught Sunday school there. She provided for her children and was a pillar of the community, and I’m sure is remembered by many children who are now in their forties and fifties.

I remember Mrs. Jackson’s cakes as the stuff of legend. I think I have been searching for just such a cake my whole life in the many white cakes with pink roses I’ve eaten. My southern friend Mary Zimmermann and I often reminisce about our childhood cakes because our birthdays are only four days apart and we both had a special cake that made our birthdays complete. That is what Mrs. Jackson did for me. She baked a cake that held my dreams and aspirations, the promise of another year of happiness and fun and dreams come true. Her cakes were works of edible art, but her cakes also made a little girl believe her ballerina dreams might one day come true.

The Only Thing Scarier Than Buying a Swimsuit Is Buying a Pair of Jeans

I’ve decided the only thing scarier than buying a new swimsuit is buying new jeans. I went to Panache, my friend Debbie’s wonderful store here in Waupaca—I had hoped—to buy a pair of jeans on sale. I love the Jag jeans she carries. Luckily she had several pairs including some cute, brightly colored, cropped jeans for spring and summer. I was psyched! Until I got into the dressing room. Now, I’m a bit chunkier now than I was several months ago what with winter and all. I tend to put on about five or six pounds each year by February because I don’t exercise enough, but I thought those few pounds wouldn’t matter much. After all, the jeans I’m wearing right now fit, sort of. Okay,  they have become tighter since the snow has flown, but I’m working on that.

This is not the first time I’ve struggled to find a pair of jeans to fit. It has actually been the enduring story of my fashion life. In fact, I didn’t even have a pair of actual jeans until I was eleven years old. You see, I was what I like to call a “sturdy” child, not exactly fat, but by no means thin. By today’s standards I would have been a little thinner than average but back in the late sixties and early seventies I was on the heavy side. That is one reason I loved my Granddaddy Avant so much. He was a big man and the only one who would throw me in the air or pick me up on a regular basis.

I grew up in the time of double knit pants outfits with coordinating if not matching tops which at least allowed me to be somewhat fashionable, but that changed in the seventies, the era of denim. I wanted a pair of blue jeans so badly that every time Mama took me to Augusta for an orthodontist appointment we would search for jeans for me. Are you getting the picture here of a slightly chubby little girl with braces wearing double knit pants and saddle shoes? It’s a wonder I wasn’t bullied. I was a sad sight. I have always been blessed with a smallish waist in comparison to my rear end, and that was part of my jeans fitting problem, but one day we had some success in our search.

Mama and I found a pair of “jeans” at The Beehive, an independent clothes store in Augusta, Georgia. They weren’t exactly Jordache or Dittos (which I coveted), but they were denim. The thing I couldn’t quite get over was that scattered all over the denim at approximately two inch intervals were the images of…motorcycles, kind of Harleyesque, white against the pale blue of the fabric. I didn’t like those motorcycles, but the jeans FIT! I walked out of the dressing room with them on, and Mama was as pleased as I was. I reconciled myself to the motorcycles because I actually was wearing a pair of blue jeans, my first ever. Mama bought them for me, and I wore them proudly, thrilled to be cool like my sister. Oh, to be that certain that coolness came in a pair of jeans!

Times and my body changed for me. I eventually grew up and was able to fit into jeans with regularity, eventually sporting some Jordache and later on Guess jeans. But my preferred jeans in college were boys’ Levis. I even sold them where I worked in Athens, Main Street Britches. There I was introduced to my favorite jeans, the Levis 501, still the best jeans on the planet even though they are no longer made in the U.S. But I digress.

It seems now, as in the past, jeans and swimsuits are still the hardest things for me to buy especially after a cold winter when I’ve been covered up in heavy clothes for a while. Pulling on something that is supposed to fit like a glove exposes all that should remain hidden, at least until it is either tanned or whittled away with a little exercise. I am sure if I tried, I could find a pair of jeans to fit me. I might have to take in the waist to have them fit over the rear end like I had to when I was a young teen, but I have decided to wait to buy new jeans until I have lost the winter pounds. Who knows? Maybe I’ll face my two biggest fears at the same time and buy both a swimsuit and some new jeans. This time, however, they won’t be decorated with motorcycles!

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, UGA!

About twenty seven years ago I walked beneath the black iron arch marking the north entrance to campus at the University of Georgia, my Alma mater, for the first time. Legend has it no student should walk beneath it until they have graduated. That was a significant day for me because walking under that arch marked the end of my career as a student at UGA and the beginning of my life with a college education. As the years have passed, I have become even more proud of my degree and my school. I am proud to be a Bulldog, proud to have attended and received my degree from the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and proud to have been a student when Herschel Walker played football and took us to two Sugar Bowls. Most of all, however, I am proud to have been a part of the historic tradition of excellence at the University of Georgia.

The University of Georgia is the first ever Land Grant College founded in the United States. Founded by the state of Georgia in 1785, it was located in 1801 on a tract of 633 acres on the Oconee River in Athens, one of the greatest towns on the planet. Like all land grant institutions, it was established using the funding from the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 to teach agriculture, science, engineering and military science, a reflection of the concern people had at the time to respond to the industrial revolution, but still retain a classical education. Since its inception, the university has grown to include seventeen colleges, the first of which was the Franklin College named in honor of Benjamin Franklin, which carry on the work of teaching, research, and service for which the university has become known.

My paternal grandmother, who became a teacher as I have, attended the State Normal School located in Athens in the area known as Normaltown, made famous by the B52’s in their song “The Deadbeat Club”, and the Normaltown Flyers. The Normal School’s function of training teachers was later incorporated into the university. After that the university’s Department of Education began training teachers, so the State Normal School became Coordinate College and later was used to house freshmen and sophomore women. During the 1950’s the Normaltown campus was taken over by the Navy for their Supply Corps School, a development which would later directly affect my life. During my last quarter of school at UGA, I went out with my friend Laura Wyatt to O’Malley’s Bar on the Oconee River and met my husband who was in Athens for a three week class at the Navy’s Supply Corps School. There is an odd sort of symmetry about those connections that I find immensely appealing, like our finding each other was somehow preordained.

Since I graduated in the 1980’s the university has continued to grow. I’m sure north  campus remains very much the way it looked when I was there—at least Park Hall hasn’t changed—but the last time I went to Athens a new bypass(which is old by now) greeted me as I entered town from Highway 15. I couldn’t find the little gas station where I used to buy boiled peanuts on the way into town on football weekends. The road bypassed where I used to turn to take a shortcut to South Milledge Avenue via Five Points to get to the Tri Delta house where I lived, and new buildings and the bypass completely disoriented me. Growth and change is good, however. It could be a metaphor for life, growth and change being a disorienting experience, but I miss the Athens of my memories.

Although I was a reluctant Bulldog fan at first having been raised a Georgia Tech fan, I soon was cheering on my Georgia Bulldogs and Herschel Walker in Sanford Stadium, and walking the streets of Athens feeling like a native. I enjoyed a cheeseburger at the original location of The Grill, a place I still miss, viewed second run movies and ate pizza and drank beer at the Carafe and Draft House, now known as the Georgia Theater, a fabulous live music venue. I even bought some of my trousseau at Heery’s Clothes Closet in downtown Athens. My time in Athens feels like a dream, one I could never repeat, but one which forged my musical preferences and political opinions and taught me to appreciate life. I have come a long way from the country girl I was who used to walk through downtown Athens and pass beside the arch on her way to Park Hall. I owe much of my success, such as it is, to UGA and the men and women who taught me to think and question and enjoy what life has to offer.

My school, the University of Georgia turned 228 years old on January 27, 2013. Knowing how long it has been an institution of higher learning makes me feel proud and fortunate to have been a part of such a grand tradition. One day I hope to return to Athens to stroll through campus, take in another football game, walk up the steps of Park Hall in the depressions worn by thousands of feet, and stand on the bridge to look into Sanford stadium. One day I also hope to be classified as a scholar so I can enter the rare books room at the library, a place I longed to explore as an undergraduate.  I have always wondered what treasures are hidden within its walls.

My four years at the University of Georgia seems at once like the shortest and the longest time in my life. I lived a lot in those four years, making friends and memories in the dorms and at the Tri Delta house, learning about people, life, and what I was capable of in my classes. I learned the intricacies of the English language in Park Hall from distinguished professors like Dr. James Kilgo who has since been inducted in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. When I was taking his class, The American Short Story, he challenged me and the rest of my class to write a story ourselves so we would know how hard it was to do well. I struggled to produce something which wouldn’t embarrass me, but was unsuccessful. I would give anything to be able to tell him that I have now completed my first novel, all because of his challenge which sparked an interest in writing that has since become a flame. His passion for the written word became mine as well.

I couldn’t be prouder of my education and the traditions and connections I have to Athens. That town molded my mind and gave me a wonderful education, role models to pattern my professional life after, friends who have lasted a lifetime, and my wonderful husband. I couldn’t be prouder to be a Bulldog and to claim Georgia as my alma mater.  Happy birthday, UGA!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XeGWLOS-C_o

A Southerner’s Guide to Surviving Midwestern Winters

We moved to Wisconsin in early November with the agreement between Bruce and me that I would never have to shovel snow or use the snow blower, an agreement that still stands, by the way. Less than a week after we moved in, it snowed for the first time. Only a couple of days after that first snow, my daddy called. The conversation went something like this:

“What’s your favorite color?” he asked when I said hello.

“I don’t know, Daddy. Blue?”

“Well, you can have blue, green, or burgundy. Which one you want?”

“Blue, I guess. Why?”

“I’m sending you a parka from L. L. Bean.”

Daddy didn’t want me to freeze to death, and I might have. When we moved here from Pensacola, Florida, I didn’t own a winter coat. I had a jacket, but nothing warm, and I was to find out that Wisconsin winters required just such a parka as my daddy sent.

Learning about winter and how things are done here took a while for me, a Southerner moved north. When I was little, it snowed in Georgia, but not often. I remember only having a couple of inches on the ground and looking for anything that was slick so we could somehow manage to slide down a hill. That meant cardboard, Formica veneer, and even one of those round Coca-Cola signs that antiquers would kill for to slide down Evergreen Circle before it was part of our subdivision. Once, when I was in third grade we even had fifteen inches of snow and were out of school for what seemed like a week!

The thing was it snowed so seldom we didn’t have the proper clothes to wear to play in it. We just wore our regular clothes and when we were cold and wet, we came in, threw our clothes in the dryer and waited for them to dry while we sat by the fireplace sipping hot chocolate. Later we donned the same clothes and went back out to play again.

When Erik, my oldest son, started school here in first grade, cold weather was well advanced. There was snow on the ground and on the playground at school. He came home from school one afternoon and told me his teacher said he needed snow pants and boots to play outside. I was indignant but also wondered, what in the heck are snow pants? I didn’t have friends here yet to ask about said snow pants and had no idea where to buy such an item, so I sent him back to school the following day without any. He came home that afternoon and told me his teacher wouldn’t let him play outside anymore until he had snow pants.

When Bruce got home that day, I confronted him with what Erik had told me. “Can you believe she isn’t going to let him play outside without them? They are only out for about twenty minutes.”

Calmly Bruce reinforced the teacher’s decree. I found Erik some snow pants at The Family Center here in town, and Erik was able to play outside from then on. I soon found out how to survive winter here in the Midwest and learned the season is not something to take lightly. Winter here, like summer in the South, is deadly if not respected, but it can be surprising. Southerners pay attention; Midwesterners, try not to laugh too hard at what I have learned about surviving winter in the Midwest.

  • For instance, in below zero temperatures the little hairs in your nose freeze, a particularly strange sensation.
  • In winter in the Midwest, your nose runs in wild disproportion to how cold it is especially if you are exercising. Finding myself without a Kleenex on occasion, I have deemed it necessary to use the gym teacher’s handkerchief, known in Wisconsin—according to author Michael Perry—as the farmer’s snort. (I hope my mama never reads this.)
  • Hats in below zero temperatures are not optional and usually not fashionable, so if you spent all morning on the perfect hairdo, don’t count on keeping it. Learn to love a hood on a coat instead.
  • In winter conditions fashion must, at times, be sacrificed for warmth. You know those lovely coats we Southerners like to wear, the wool ones with the perfect cut of fabric and beautiful stitching? Midwesterners wear those, but not transplanted Southerners. We need Gore-Tex and down and end up looking like stuffed sausages next to our sleek northern friends who are impervious to the cold.
  • Snow doesn’t mean you get to stay home cozy by the fire and wait for it to melt. People here actually drive in blizzards! Snow days only happen if the blizzard occurs at the time the busses start their route. Otherwise, if the roads are passable, kids go to school and parents go to work.
  • Snowstorms don’t usually bring everybody and their brother to the grocery stores to stock up on staples and batteries. Who knew?
  • There are different kinds of snow, packing snow, dry snow, grainy snow. I never knew that before I lived here. And despite the old wives’ tales in the South, it never gets too cold to snow.
  • When the temperature stays below zero for a few days, snow actually evaporates rather than melts. Now that’s cold!
  • Below zero temperatures actually can make your window sills look like a scene from Tolstoy’s Dr. Zhivago.

I’ve learned a lot in my seventeen years of living in Wisconsin. I have, under duress and out of necessity, learned to live with winter. It lasts about six months here. I’ve even become a cross-country skier and walk with my dog on days temperatures are mild, (that’s anywhere above 20 degrees) but I’ve never learned to embrace the cold. When Bruce and I first married, I told him I would never live above the Mason-Dixon line. I don’t remember saying that, but it sounds like me, so I believe him. My adventurous nature got the better of me, however, and I have made my home here for now.

Each winter come January, however, I think about my friend Rebecca, a native Texan whom I worked with at Stevens Point Area Senior High School when I first began teaching. She has since come to her senses and moved back to Texas, but I remember what she told me one summer. She said she stayed outside in summer as long as possible so she could remember how it felt to be warm come January. Amen, Rebecca.

Winter is long in Wisconsin, but I’ve learned to cope. I’m certainly not a fashion icon in the winter months. My daddy saw to that with his gift of a very warm and serviceable, but unattractive parka that I still have. I have added to the coat collection now with two more down coats that fluff me out like the Michelin man. I even have a pretty wool coat that gets use in late September and early to middle October. Come winter, my nose hairs freeze and my hair is flat under my hat. But I’m warm!

A Toast to a Happy Thanksgiving

This time of year I am homesick for family, for foods that have been made by generations of Southern hands, for places that seem like places in dreams it has been so long since I visited. It’s Thanksgiving and I am once again not with my family in Georgia. Even as I write this, I know my sister is preparing the dressing for the turkey, either baking the cornbread or the biscuits or putting them together with the other ingredients to have ready to bake tomorrow. She and my mother will be making ambrosia for dessert, and Jessica, my niece, will be making the sweet potato soufflé. Tim, my brother-in-law, will be frying the turkey in the morning, while Tricia, my brother’s wife will be cleaning the house and getting the dining room ready for tomorrow and probably making chocolate delight. Tomorrow the dining room will be full of my extended family, even my nephew and his wife who recently married. Only we will be absent from the meal.

Since I can’t be in Georgia, I try to keep my Southern traditions here in Wisconsin as much as possible. I make cornbread stuffing rather than the dressing I grew up with and not so secretly yearn for, but I can’t get the proper stone ground cornmeal here in the north that I could at home, so I improvise. I put sausage, Jimmy Dean sage flavored, and pecans (rhymes with “we can” when pronounced properly). I now incorporate dried cherries with a nod to our Wisconsin ties. I also make my Mema’s recipe for sweet potato soufflé and have the Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce, the kind where you can see the rings from the can, because that is what we always had when I was growing up. I make pumpkin pie for my husband and boys, but I also make an apple pie, something my husband never had at Thanksgiving until he knew me, but I remember my Mema always had an apple pie too.

This time of year I miss so much about my Southern hometown, which is never more apparent than right now at the holidays. I miss the weather, of course, and the familiar streets of Sandersville, my hometown. But mostly I miss feeling like I belong somewhere, not the feeling you get from friends and in laws but the bone deep feeling that you are amongst your people, those who look like you do, whose gestures trace back generations, who get your sense of humor because they share it, who remember the embarrassing things that happened to you but don’t care. In fact, that is what endears you to each other. Your family know all there is to know about you and still love you, no matter what.

Perhaps I miss my home so much now because,  before I moved away from the South, I only knew holidays with my large extended family. We converged on each of our grandmothers’ houses on both sides of the family to celebrate together at least once each year at the holidays. I married into a small family. My husband’s mother was an only child, and his father only had one sister. Now my husband’s brother and sisters live far away from us and are traveling to see their in laws this holiday, but for us Georgia is too far for us to travel with so little time to make the trip and get Travis back to college when he needs to go. Therefore, here we are.

Though our celebration will be small in number, it will be large in sentiment. This year especially, I am thankful for many things. Now more than ever I appreciate the way I was raised with cousins as far as the eye could see and aunts and uncles in abundance who took the time to come together to be with family. I am thankful to have grown up with so many great cooks in the family and for my sister Andrea learning the recipes I haven’t been around to learn. She is teaching those recipes to my niece Jessica so they will never die. I am thankful for my brother hosting my Georgia family so they can be together at the holidays. Even if I can’t be with them, I know they are carrying on the traditions our family established so long ago. That is a comfort. I am also thankful my husband has a job again so we can provide for our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners this year as well as the other necessities of life.

I could go on and on with what I am grateful and thankful for this year, but I will leave you with one thought for this holiday. Be thankful for the family gathered at your table this Thanksgiving, whether they have traveled far to be with you or just came from across the street. Remember how much you love them. Look past the whining children, the overindulgent uncle, the aunt who changed the recipe of the favorite pumpkin pie because she wanted to make it special even though everyone preferred it the way it had always been. Look past the details and forget about the perfect Thanksgiving meal. There is no such thing. As you look around the room at your family, be thankful you are together and remember those who aren’t with you, even though they want to be. Drink a toast to them and to each other, and have a happy Thanksgiving!