In June I returned to the South for the first time in fifteen years. My husband and children had never been east of the Mississippi. We visited my sister's family in Virginia, hoofed it around Washington, D.C., and wandered through Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. These are a few of the memorable moments I had in that beautiful state of Virginia that belonged to so many of our nation's forefathers. I love the South. I was sure that I would hate coming back home.
Tree-lined lanes, avenues and back roads? Virginia has tree-lined highways like nothing out here in the West. The sun pierces the branches, and the effect is psychedelic, blinding. I'm used to constant shine, never-changing on our roads at home. It was hard to stare down these kaleidoscope highways, narrow, two-lane byways with no shoulders, only vibrant, verdant vegetation and brilliant wildflowers crowding the pavement and the sentinel trees bending the light above.
It was on the drive from the airport that I expected my kids and man felt like Dorothy: "Todo, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."
I went with my sister to the church to keep her company as she prepared for a wedding Mass. But I didn't feel I should attend the service, so after sitting in the narthex to hear the homily make sense out of the Sunday readings' non-nuptial themes, I quietly went outdoors. In my tall heels and dress I past the shed, hoping to catch some rabbits, and hiked up the hill beyond toward a patch of woods.
The closer I got to the symphony of insects greeting me from the trees, the more I drifted back home to Tennessee as if I were walking toward my childhood with each spike in the dirt of my silly heels. I gazed into the black-eyed susans and cattails and all the exuberant plant life off the lawn, so familiar, breathing in deeply, and listened to the exotic sound of creatures, and I felt homesick, knowing I was home again and would have to leave it.
On the trek back to the church I surprised two rabbits in the grass not four yards from the door. They stood still as statues with stiff ears when I halted my approach, one lying and one sitting up. We were at an impasse: I wanted to watch them and they wanted to escape my notice. With my next step the one lying down bounded away toward the main road, and his friend hopped a few feet off into the lawn. I sat on the bench, very quietly, and when he had observed me from a safe distance, he grew bold, a curious little fellow, and began to hop a slow zig-zag across the stone before the building, getting ever so much closer each time to my perch. Every little bit he stopped and twitched his nose, flicked his ears and pawed the ground with his front feet. I started to get nervous when he was a mere three feet away, afraid he would use those muscular back legs to jump into my lap, so I stood, and he was off after his buddy. I remembered why rabbits were, and still are, my favorite creatures. He made my Sunday; I told my husband all about him when we got back to the house.
"Here, try this," my sister said, handing me a glass of wine, "and tell me what you think."
I wondered why she was watching me so intently, and then I tried it. Suddenly, instantaneously, I had visions of vines behind Mr. Hayes' house in White Bluff, TN, and then saw my siblings and I picking and eating small round fruit on the lane near the creek of our childhood home, by a gate into the field.
"It's like liquid childhood," I said fervently. "What is it?"
"It's muscadine wine. Remember the grapes we used to pick and eat when we were kids?"
I remembered. I also remembered our dad's good friend, Bill Cole, used to make his own elderberry and muscadine wine and bring it to my parents' Christmas party each year. So this was what it tasted like! And this was the reason the adults were laughing so much by the end of the evening. Vinca and I drank through at least two bottles while I was there. Matthew hated it, but it doesn't get better than liquid childhood, and Vinca has her sis' sincere, heartfelt gratitude for finding it already bottled.
Small towns, southern hospitality.
My husband and I took a walk by ourselves. As we strolled hand in hand down the quaint lovely streets, people waved and greeted us genially from the windows of their slow-moving vehicles; older folks called out salutations to us from their front porches or from the opposite sidewalk; and everywhere we went, obvious strangers to town, residents treated us like old, seldom-seen friends. We were not in the West anymore, that big sky and lonely hearts country, nor were we in the huge, indifferent city we call home.
I had the chance to take all the younger kids to the town park a few times. It wasn't manicured like ones in the city, and the water fountain drained at your feet, but it was a charming playground with nice equipment and great views down Main Street.
The first time we went, I suggested we could all stroll down Main, and my niece said we could get smoothies. I was open to it, an aunt who had not been good about sending birthday money and who rarely had the opportunity to treat my nephews and niece. Plus, I had their assurance it wasn't far. We came to the historic train depot. "Just down here," they said, turning right on another street. I had assumed the smoothies were to be had on Main, but they told me, "Not much farther."
Ah, the humidity hadn't gotten to me before, and the heat had felt like nothing, but as the walk lengthened with my four kids and my nephew PJ and niece Danni as my caravan, I began to feel that this smoothie shop they raved about was a mythical oasis in the humid heat; we would walk for miles - our clothes permanently moist and our mouths dry - and never find it.
But at last! After a few dozen miles, the tiny shop appeared; we got our cold, fruity drinks and took a shortcut home, taking breaks to sip, sit and stare at traffic.
I can't hold my liquor; that can be embarrassing unless you're with family.
For a double date Vinca, brother-in-law Dave, Matthew and I went to Barboursville Winery for a wine tasting. The vineyards are beautiful, and the ruins of the Governor's mansion are romantic.
But I had never done a wine tasting before. The tiny stemware has a splash at a time of each new wine, but it adds up. A quarter of the way through, I was giggly. Half way through, and I was rolling my head side to side and trying to smooch my husband as I swung toward him. I became the entertainment on our elegant date. At the end of the tasting, the rest of them deposited me at a table in a safe corner while they roamed the gift shop. I lay my head on my arm, and in a moment saw my sister coming toward me, bearing gifts of artisan cheese, crackers and honey to shore me up for our jog down to the ruins.
The four of us sat under a great tree outside the remains of the octagonal dining/ballroom of the Barbour family and chatted, joking that Dave and Matthew are pretty similar: so even-keeled like their mother-in-law, they could have married almost anyone and done alright. However, Vinca and I, more like our dad, found two of the few, if only, men who could put up with us and our hereditary temperament.
It was a great date, the first for Matthew and me in many months. That we got to spend it in the company of Dave and Vinca was awesome.
I saw Marcus B.; that five-year-old mischievous boy I used to watch while my sister worked has grown into a Marine with a wife. He claims to have a bad temper (it runs in the family), and I'm sure he does. But I found him to be the same lovable, smiley guy with a heart of gold like his mom. His wife Jen is a good match for him, and though it cost them some trouble to get to Virginia from where he is stationed in NC, I was honored and very grateful to get to meet the smart, down-to-earth and stable girl he fell in love with.
He brought up the fact, of which I am so proud, that I taught him to tie his shoes when he was a little tyke and, apparently, didn't teach him the right way. Everyone who sees him wrangle his laces says they've never seen anyone tie them like that, and Matthew quickly agreed, "It's messed up, isn't it?" For the life of me, I don't get what's wrong with how I tie my shoes or teach others to tie theirs, but I've surely made him unique like his Aunt Hillary, a true gift, and I trust he is properly grateful.
It had taken me so long to get back to the South, the region for which I have an affinity, I dreaded coming back to the desert. I had finally grown to like it, but now I would be dreaming of Virginia highways and history and charming southern manners. Seeing the stately brick homes with their spacious green lawns, porches and abundant wildflowers in my mind's eye, I would scorn the low ranch houses and xeriscaping of our southwestern home.
It didn't happen. We returned to Arizona and settled right back in between the saguaros and Palo Verde trees, watching the haboobs blow in. I married a New Mexico man, and we're home. Our babies were born here.
But I miss my family back east in Texas and Virginia and England. We began in Idaho and Tennessee and have scattered like tree bark in a dust storm. Our children are not growing up together, don't experience the craziness of regular holiday gatherings of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. The visits are few and far between, and will likely remain so, but the memories sustain us.