When I was one year out of college, I said goodbye to my small-town newspaper job, packed my bags, and toted them to Washington, D.C.
Literally, I toted them. Though the word “literally” is almost 100 percent overused in today’s language, it hits the bull’s-eye in this story. In those days, luggage didn’t have wheels. My luggage was a deep, vibrant pink set of Samsonite which I had been collecting as gifts since the seventh grade. One of the pieces was a beauty case with a tray to section off cosmetics.
I still have it.
A year or so later, I traveled west from Washington to Indianapolis, Indiana, for two years of the worst winter weather I had ever seen. The skies were gray and dreary from November to April. During the harshest months, it took me 30 minutes to clear the snow and ice from the windshield. Then I would drive the eight miles to my office with bags of rock salt in the trunk. The weight held down the rear end of my Camaro and kept it from sliding.
One morning, as I was digging in to scrape off four inches of fresh overnight snow from the windshield, I clenched my fist, looked upward and, in my best Scarlett O’Hara mock style, declared, “With God as my witness, I will never be cold again!”
That was my last winter north of the Deep South. Though I have been cold since, it is nothing compared to those deeply bone-chilling days.
The true gift of those days in Washington and Indianapolis was that they allowed me to step out of the South and see my world of my raising in a fresh and different way.
Gradually, I saw my small-town Southern life as a tightly knit community of neighbors who shared what little they had, who sat by a friend’s side as evening shadows fell, and rejoiced in the newly-saved as they were dipped in the cool mountain rivers. In Indianapolis, I saw, for the first time, a baptismal pool INSIDE a church.
Without question, it shaped the appreciation of place that I would later compose on page. With the exception of Margaret Mitchell, there has probably never been a successful Southern writer who wrote without venturing outside the boundaries of our land.
Harper Lee wrote “To Kill A Mockingbird” ensconced in a tiny New York apartment. Eudora Welty’s education included studies in New York and Wisconsin but Mississippi would always be her true north. Truman Capote. Flannery O’Connor. Horton Foote. They all held firmly in memory and pen to a place of endearing, calming charm.
The next best thing that happened to me was that I married a man who had never known a place of such warmth and hospitality. Never had he lived in a place where he could lunch at a “meat and three” — by the way, that was a phrase that perplexed him — and have a friend slip into the booth and begin a conversation on subjects varying from the weather to who died to the signs of the moon.
Through his eyes, I saw a place where stories and adventures matter. Where family ties are knotted and often entangled with many bloodlines. In the early days of his Southern life, he would listen, astounded, as we told a story and, painstakingly, explained who all was “kin to who” in the story. Often, this is a telling of four or five people deep before it gently falls off because the point has been made.
In the rural South, it matters “Who was she before she married?” and “Where do they go to church?”
In Los Angeles, he never heard what are often our first words in the Appalachians upon hearing someone has departed this world, “Did he know the Lord or did he die in vain?”
What a treasure to see the South in a deeply appreciative way.
[Ronda Rich is a best-selling Southern author. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]