Many years ago, my ex-husband’s job took us from our native California to Texas, which is not the South but rather the Southwest, and there are large differences, many of which I am still discovering; but at that time, Texas was South to us.
OhmyGod we were soooo obnoxious! We were every elitist, snobbish, stupidly Californian thing one can imagine. Sneering at Tex-Mex as inauthentic Mexican food, we spent a couple of years ignoring that it wasn’t trying for Mexican (or more importantly, what we thought of as Mexican food); it was a whole new and wonderful, regional cuisine. We gave a begrudging pass to the barbecue, because it was spicy and we liked spicy. We mocked the strongly-accented PTA moms who shunned me, a working mom, refusing to admit their efforts and energy contributed greatly to the success of the excellent schools our daughter attended. Feeling left out and rejected by them, I refused to see that my habit of beginning every sentence with, “In California….” might be off-putting to a Texan.
Time passes and even West Coast idiots grow up and settle in. I began admitting to myself certain facts, like the small, snug house in a fine suburb would have been unattainable in California; that it wasn’t the same as a smog-or-fire induced Tequila Sunrise colored, ocean-horizoned sunset but, a short walk from my front door I could watch the soft apricot and lemon-colored Eastern sky over Lake Lewisville turn into the brilliant, Wedgewood blue of a Texas morning and find it a mighty fine substitute; the Kimbell, Amon Carter, and Natural History museums of Fort Worth are easily the match of any in California. In short, I learned the lesson that things don’t have to be the same to be equal, there is beauty found in greatly differing things, and perhaps most importantly, that continuing to look backwards is a good way to get smacked in the face.
I decided to grow where I got planted.
Our daughter grew up and went to one of the finest colleges in the world, the University of Texas at Austin; my husband and I grew apart. Supported by the friends I made in Texas, I survived the single most painful episode of my life, there in Texas, which is not the South but rather the Southwest, but I still didn’t know the difference. And there in Texas I met a good man, as perfect a match for me as I could hope, and last year his job brought us to the real South.
I am learning it is very different than the Southwest: the accent, the food, the terrain, and the weather, to name only a few of the differences. I try very hard not to start every sentence with, “In Texas….” and I am open to trying all local cuisine, and let it stand without comparison to anything else thus, I assure you, you cannot go wrong with the shrimp & grits.
One day my daughter and I were talking and I wondered aloud why the expression of something “going south” indicates it’s gone bad? The South is a beautiful place, rich in history, amazing characters, and wonderful, varied cuisines. Ever wise beyond her years, Charlotte opined that rivers run North to South and when humans settled along them, wealthier citizens generally lived to the North, where the clean water is, while the poorer lived downstream. Modern conveniences and water treatment facilities may have clarified the water, but the demographics largely remain in the bigger cities; perhaps that will change in time. And now I think of it, I can’t recall any Southerner using that expression; perhaps it’s more West Coast snobbery unintentionally leaking out my pores.
Here we are, Paul and I, in the real South. Spanish moss, magnolia trees, and the humidity that make both possible are facts of our life, as are graveyards and a few churches dating back to the early 1700s, something unique to the East coast of our relatively youthful nation. Here exists an abundance of pit-barbecue, genteel Southern Ladies, and raconteurs who spin florid, Southern tales differently, but no less amusingly, than do their brothers in Texas. Instead of open roads where one can sometimes see the curvature of the horizon, highways lined with tall pines and flowering jessamine propel us to places like Spartanburg, Florence, or Charleston. It is a beautiful place, and rich in history we hope to explore while we’re here.
And yet…. it still doesn’t quite feel like home. For me it feels similar to the apartment I lived in after my divorce; for months, I still had unpacked boxes of books, a coffee table bought but left boxed for weeks after. Despite eventually putting everything away, it always felt a little like a hotel, and temporary. Maybe it’s as Margaret Mitchell had it in Gone with the Wind, describing people who married into Southern families: while I’m living in the South I am not of the South, and never will be.
We may not retire here for the simple reason most of our collective children and grandchildren are in Texas and watching how their stories unfold, from the good seats, is something we desire. But in the interim, there are Civil War battlefields, antebellum houses, old seaports and smugglers’ coves, and all the various styles of she-crab soup to explore. Age has taught the lesson of approaching new places with curiosity rather than prejudice, and I believe the South has already taught us things about ourselves and each other, and we’ve been here just shy of a year. Armed with our “must see” list, we’ll lace up the walking shoes, charge up my camera batteries, and continue our lessons in and of the South.