My current home sits only 39 miles from the small town in which I grew up, but in reality it’s located in a different world. The world I grew up in was the South. If you read that sentence and understood the weightiness of it, then you, too, must be a Southerner. Author Sarah Bessey writes, “Where we live life matter[s] to our spiritual formation, how we are shaped by our communities, by our rootedness, our geography, by our families, and by the complex web of connections and history…” She’s so right.
I grew up in a land of chicken and dumplings, apple stack cake, and sweet tea; garden club, prayer chains, and china patterns; dinners-on-the-ground, debutante balls, and decoration days. The landscape of Eudora Welty, Wendell Berry, and Flannery O’Connor looks a lot like home to me, and their endearing, sometimes quirky, characters were my neighbors. Yet the influence of this Southern upbringing impacted more than just my manners; it seeped deeply into my soul.
I knew I had arrived as an adult when I got a job working for Southern Living magazine. This was akin to serving as an editor on the King James Bible to folks from my neck of the woods. It was the guidebook to all things Southern. Now, fifteen years after my tenure there, I reflect on this region with wistful remembrance, for it feels like the South is fading from the landscape of place and memory with each passing year. It began when the first strip mall went up in my hometown, and now it seems tissue thin. I look at my sons, and I wonder if the South is part of their DNA in the same way that it is mine or my husband’s. Or is our generation the last one to be imbued with a deep sense of Southern?
I grew up the granddaughter of the town grocer, or more accurately, one of the three town grocers. Each store was named after its purveyor: Woodson’s, Lyon’s, and Shelby’s. We were the Shelby’s. We could have paraded through town with this banner unfurled proudly, and those we passed would know “our people.” In fact, maybe they were “our people,” as we seemed to be kin to every third person. To this day, when I meet someone from my home county, I tell him I am a Shelby and get a nod of recognition. He knows my people.
My grandfather had grown up in LaFollette, and he began the grocery store and milling company with his brother in the 1920s. In the early days they had a rolling store, which would deliver food to those living nestled in the Appalachian Mountains surrounding the town. When the grocery store was open, which was from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, he was there. I remember him dressed in a short-sleeve white button down with his pocket protector firmly in place, black dress pants, and sturdy black shoes. He worked alongside his brother, nephew, and son-in-law, and he knew each customer by name. The grocery store was as much his home as the house where he laid his head at night. Then, early one morning in his 82nd year, he died at the store. He was one year shy of his fiftieth wedding anniversary.
As a young man, my grandfather fell in love with a Radford-educated schoolteacher from Virginia. After they married she quit teaching (married females weren’t allowed to teach) and began to manage their ten-cent store, situated on the street neighboring the grocery. If my grandfather didn’t sell it at Shelby’s Grocery, then locals would visit the dime store, where they could find dishes, sheet music, toys, and more. My mother grew up working in the ten-cent store alongside her mother.
In this Southern small town, community members had allegiances. If you shopped at Shelby’s, then you shopped at Shelby’s. You didn’t go to one store for your meat, and then go to a competitor for fresh produce. That would have been as scandalous as going to First Methodist for Sunday morning worship and then attending the Sunday night service at First Baptist. By the time your car cooled in the garage, the town would know of your infidelity.
This devotion held fast for grocers, churches, car dealerships, and even mortuaries. My family’s arrangements have been and will be handled by Walter’s Funeral Home, which is located in a large, two-story clapboard house on the town’s main street. Since Walter’s competitor lived in our neighborhood, I always felt especially terrorized by his German shepherd, who would bark ferociously as my sister and I walked or biked past its home. I felt it knew of our competing allegiances and was threatening to send us on our way to Walter’s.
My family attended First Baptist Church, which stood as sentry on main street. My mother and father married there, and when my turn came, I married there too. I walked the same aisle as my mother, stood in the same stained-glass glow, and repeated the same vows. I recall sitting on the green, velvet-padded pews when I was a girl, knowing my grandfather sat on the back right pew with his friends while my grandmother sat in the center section with hers. If I visited there tomorrow, I could see their ghosts sitting in these seats as if they were flesh and bone. When I was old enough, I moved to the far side of the sanctuary, where the youth group sat and earned the critical stares and whispers of the older ladies in the church.
I grew up knowing I had a lineage that threaded back through the history of our town, which resulted in a surname of significance. Work was more than a job; it was an overflow of who we were. Church was integral, not elective, and community was family. Personalities were big, and neighbors were friendly. Quirky equaled charming, and need prompted generosity. When the time came I left my hometown, but I’ve never moved out of the South.
In my memory the Southern landscape began to change the day White Stores announced it was opening a store in town. Even as a young girl, I sensed the gravity of the news. It was a herald that outsiders were coming in, and soon all three local groceries would be competing with the chains. Today, none of them survive. Burger King and McDonald’s arrived, and the local diners slipped into oblivion. Dime stores gave way to Wal-Mart. The bowling alley is now a pawnshop, and the two-screen movie theater finally closed last year. My parents sold our home of 42 years, and now they live in a townhome down the street from my house.
From time to time I catch a glimpse of my native land, and it’s like the return of an old friend. Maybe it’s the sight of a blooming Dogwood, the taste of five-flavor pound cake, or the singing of an old hymn, but it evokes memory, familiar and comforting, and pricks an affection strongly rooted in my heart. This friend reminds me of the soil in which I grew, rich in tradition, culture, character, and kindness. Growing up in the South shaped me in lavish, lasting, loving ways, and while the region’s cultural identity may fade in time, it will remain deeply etched in me and “my people,” forever.