Where I come from Coke is a generic work for any carbonated drink. For instance—
I’ll take the fried chicken livers, green beans, and a Coke.
What kinda Coke you want hon’?
How ‘bout a Dr. Pepper?
Where I come from sweet is the only way tea is served and potato salad has mayonnaise, mustard, and sweet pickles.
Like most young people, I suppose, I hated my hometown. I was young and impatient, and the place I came from was in no big hurry. Mostly though, I couldn’t wait to escape the claustrophobic gentility that was often a disguise for generational hate and racism. Where I come from, black men still say Yes suh, Mr. John when white men speak to them and very old ladies don’t even blink when they let the n word slip.
Where I come from, if you look carefully on the exposed brick wall of the Five and Dime— below the words suggesting you See Rock City—you can still make out the words white and colored where the segregated water fountains hung.
Don’t get me wrong, not all my memories are bad. I grew up there. I learned to walk and talk. I had my first kiss and went to football games and dances. I graduated from high school and earned my first real grownup paycheck in that place that I came from.
When I go back to visit now, I can look at it with grace. I can sit and watch the sun set over the lake to the deafening soundtrack of the cicadas. I can drive down country lanes bounded on each side by unending cotton fields and glory in the vast magnolias that I know where old when I was born.
Much of my father’s family still live in the place I came from and like the cicadas and magnolias, I have learned to appreciate them. Growing up, I recall bickering and long-held grudges. I remember my grandmother playing my aunts and uncles against each other—whispering this in one’s ear and that in another’s.
But there are good memories as well. I particularly recall a picnic at the lake —a birthday party for my great grandmother. I might have been nine or ten. I can remember the burned sugar smell of barbecued pork ribs cooking over a hand dug fire pit and scoops of cold potato salad on thin paper plates. I remember my grandfather, Paw Paw, turning a hand cranked ice cream churn while chain smoking from an aluminum folding chair. I remember exactly how that thin vanilla ice cream would melt and soak into the edges of the grocery store birthday cake.
I remember cold sweet tea in red plastic cups. Now, for anyone who is not southern, the ratio is two full cups of Dixie Crystal White Sugar into a two quart pitcher of hot tea. Looking back, it’s a wonder we are not all diabetic!
While the adults cooked and gossiped, we children played. I can recall the feel of the mud squishing between my toes as we played waist deep in the edge of the lake. Our swimsuits were eternally stained dingy orange from the iron rich red clay in the water.
My cousin, Regina, and I were the oldest and were expected to entertain and supervise the younger cousins. We accomplished this by taking turns pretending to baptize them. We would instruct each little one to cross his arms and lean back. Then we would hold them just above the water and ask, “Do you believe in Jesus?”
We would pinch their little noses closed and dramatically lower them back into the smelly lake water. When they emerged, hair dripping behind them, we would all shout, Hallelujah! And then the next cousin would be waiting, impatiently crying, Do me next! I’m next!
In addition to my uncles and aunts, Granny and Paw Paw, my great grandmother, Margie, and her sister, Bonnie Jean were installed in folding chairs in the shade of the mimosa trees. (Great) Grandma Chandler wore a thin flowered house dress that zipped up the front and heavy black lace up shoes. On the front of her dress two large square pockets held a small package of tissues, her reading glasses, a pack of Beechnut gum, and a small Round red can of Garrett and Sons’ Sweet Snuff. Her thin gray hair was pinned to the back of her head with black bobby pins because she said it was just too hot to wear her wig. Bonnie Jean, who had left home, had a career and two husbands, wore a pair of polyester pants and a coordinating flowered top purchased from the ladies’ sportswear section of Sears and Roebuck. Both women fanned themselves with stiff square paper fans emblazoned with the name of the local funeral home on the front and quarter page ads for local mechanics, beauty parlors, and divorce attorneys on the back.
Grandma Chandler worked as a winder at the local cotton mill for thirty-seven dollars a month. She retired after sixty- four and three-quarter years. When they asked why she didn’t make it an even sixty-five, she replied that she just didn’t want to. After she retired, she received a pension of thirty five dollars a month a Christmas box containing six oranges, a bag of hard ribbon candy, and a paper box of old fashioned peppermint sticks.
On Saturday evenings, Grandma Chandler would prepare Sunday dinner. Where I came from lunch was dinner and dinner was supper. She would fry chicken and cook turnip greens with a slab of fat back, and slice sun warmed red tomatoes from her garden. When the meals was complete, she would place it on the kitchen table and drape a clean flowered bedsheet over it until the next day, after church. She loved her family, Jesus, and Johnny Cash, but maybe not in that order.
I loved Grandma Chandler but I worshipped her sister, Bonnie Jean. Bonnie Jean was exotic. She had been to places outside of that place I came from. She talked to me like an adult. Bonnie Jean liked to rock the boat a little and I hope I learned that from her.
Even as a small child, I took it to heart when someone would offer to wrap up a piece of cake for her to take home and she would declare, “I’m going to save myself from temptation later, I’ll just eat all my cake now!” There was, I thought, an important life lesson there and I embraced it fully.
I cannot escape the place I come from. No matter how far I travel or how loudly I deny it. The place—the people— I come from are part of me. You can hear it when I pronounce the word bed or dead with two entire syllables or declare that I am fixin’ to go to the store.
You can see it in the way I dress, and walk, and talk.
You can feel it in who and how I love.
You can taste it in my sweet tea.