Tuesday, January 13, 2009
I recently found myself in the passenger seat of a big ole pickup truck, riding slowly down a dirt road, headlights off, Bluegrass on the radio, and a Bud in my hand. When I lived in the South – 14 years ago – I was vaguely aware of this aspect of my culture: that country roads are somehow exempt from traffic laws about alcohol, headlights and speed limits. But that culture had never been a part of my Southern reality. I come from the well-paved suburbs of Atlanta far from any dirt road, and my daddy never had a pickup truck, nor dreamed of having one, and he rarely drank beer. I listened to Top 40 not Bluegrass, and when I started drinking, Bud was never my preference. Pickup trucks, Bluegrass, and American beer, in my mind, were the stuff of red necks.
Still in the 14 years that I lived outside of my native South, when I longed for “home,” it was these contrived, cliché symbols of country life, not in any way representative of my own youth in the South, that I sought. The first summer I spent in New York rather than Georgia, homesick, I took a liking to Bluegrass and insisted on playing it on the tape player at my Manhattan summer job all summer long. Years later, with a band of hipsters in tow, I shamelessly insisted that we go to a bar in Brooklyn that was playing Bluegrass, and I made each one square dance with me as if I personally owned the rights to the steps. The last, and only, time I had square danced was as a requirement in my 7th-grade P.E. class, and, like all my classmates, I complained about it fervently. When I longed for the South though, as an adult in New York, I longed for country roads and boiled peanuts from roadside fruit stands while the only produce I had grown up on had always come from the grocery store.
I had seen this phenomenon before in New York, a city of displaced people. I knew Brazilians, raised like me on American rock and pop, who only took a liking to Bossa Nova music after they left their country. I had Middle Eastern Muslim students who, dressed in head coverings and long dresses, told me they never covered their heads back home. And in my 11th year in New York, I, a vegetarian who mostly prefers Asian food and always skips dessert, hosted a dinner party of shrimp ‘n’ grits and peach cobbler with nothing but country playing on the stereo.
During my 6-year marriage to a Brazilian, who always kept one of our collective feet in New York and the other planted in Brazil, I accepted what seemed to me a bitter reality that my Southern lineage ended with me; that my children, should I one day have them, would not be from the South, and their vague notion of what Southern meant would be tied not to me but to maternal grandparents who would not live nearby. Once, seated at a corner table at a Starbucks in the Bronx, thinking about these very facts, I cried when Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” came on the radio. I wondered how it was I had gotten so far off the road that he claimed always led back to Georgia.
And now, so many years after I’d accepted that I had to give up the South, I find myself, not too far from home, on a dirt road in Georgia. A few miles into this Sunday night drive, my companion stopped beside a field of sunflowers and waded out into the middle to pick three for me. With his large hands, creased and worn from hard work, his wide fingers, flattened out it seemed from numerous whacks with a hammer, he pointed out for me where the seeds were and how to remove and eat them. We climbed back into the truck, and I laid the enormous flowers out across the back seat with the care of a mother laying an infant down to nap. This was the fourth time I had gone out with this man, and for reasons unrelated to trucks, sunflowers, and endless dirt roads, I knew by this night that he was not the guy for me. Maybe I knew that if his wading out into a moonlit field of sunflowers for me didn’t do it, nothing would. Still, in honor of this lovely country night that I had wanted for 14 years, that I had once feared I’d missed forever, when his rugged hand reached across the arm rest, between the twin bottles of Bud, I willingly let mine fall into it.