Southern Ways

She was just passing through; but Ashland had other plans.

(Illustration by Jane Webster)

In my mid-40s, I almost married a farmer-professor from Vermont. In preparation for my new life, I bought a pair of rubberized boots, a new L.L. Bean parka, and tried to get interested in tapping trees for maple syrup. But I couldn’t keep my eyes on the spigot—which eventually wound up being true of the relationship as well. I broke off the engagement and moved, instead, to Ashland.

It wasn’t long before I realized I had done both of us a favor. Within the year he was married to someone else and I had bought a house in a town I had chosen for one cold-blooded reason: to get a tax deduction.

I got a lot more.

Here’s what I like about the South.

The way they talk, which is soft and unhurried and has the soothing effect of floating down a warm creek in an inner tube. A mundane word like “chair” is pulled apart like taffy and turned into “chay-uh,” which sounds much better. They don’t say “hi” but “hey,” which has an affectionate ring to it. And if you are over 35 and they like you, they will put a “Miss” before your first name, as in “Hey, Miss Phyllis,” which makes you feel as if they’ve been waiting all day for you to walk by and make them happy.

Gardens are very important. You plant a hydrangea bush and people come right over to see it, like a new baby. If you get sick, you are swamped with soup and prayers. If you forget to wear your shoes to the local market, people look the other way.

“I can’t believe you went in there in your bare feet,” said my mother, who was from New York, where they’re much stricter about such things.

“This is the South,” I said defensively. “They tolerate eccentricity better than they do up North.”

I like Southern houses. They are high-windowed and full of clutter, homegrown flowers, and relatives who are too old to fend for themselves. They sit around the kitchen table after dinner and tell you stories about how they were born in Stonewall Jackson’s kitchen, which was converted into a hospital delivery room—and they have a special birth certificate that cost $15 to prove it.

People in the South take their histories, large and local, very personally. Every house has a name, like “Grandma Hall’s” or “the Moreland house,” which is where I live, now that Dr. Moreland, who died on his knees saying his bedtime prayers, has gone to his reward. And, of course, every person is connected, like strands in a fishing net, to everybody else.

Soon after I arrived, I phoned my neighbor, Lula Hopkins, who was one of the town extension cords until she died. If you wanted to find out who was sick, got the job, or had the baby, you called Lula. I was giving a party for Dr. Moreland’s visiting daughter and most of the people on her list were unfamiliar to me. Lula knew them all.

Betty Troxell, she said, was kin to the Lucks, and of course I knew who they were. I did. But she didn’t think Ralph Milledge would be coming on account of his heart bypass last June, and she hadn’t seen his wife, Lou, at church last Sunday. Then again, she was probably just under the weather. And so it went down the list, until I was thoroughly caught up and woven into the larger picture, which is more complex than I used to think.

On the surface, a small Southern town is highly stratified, particularly along religious lines. Where you go to church (if you go) tends to become your core community. But because the wider circle is so small, it is easier to meet people who do not think or act like you, which brings everybody closer together on a regular basis.

Over time, Ashland has changed. The farm tractor distributor is gone from England Street. We have a Starbucks, a new Town Hall, and expensive houses on the periphery. But the essence, or fragrance, of the town remains the same.

We still have magnolia trees with blossoms like soft, floppy white ribbons, and a grocery store that smells like someone’s kitchen before dinner. It takes more strength than most people have to hold onto a grudge. We try to rise above each other’s political yard signs and when sorrow strikes, we strike back with cookies, casseroles, and hand-written notes on good stationery.

Of course, living anywhere for a long time can make you restless. You need to leave home in order to know what you’ve left behind. I am not a romanticist. I do not believe that one has to be in a particular place to fulfill one’s destiny. But I have now lived for more than thirty years in a community I thought I was only passing through. Instead, something unexpected happened. The community passed through me.

This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue.

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