Sometime in 1979 I began to recognize some of the differences between country folks and everyone else. I was headed to my Grandmother’s home for a weekend away from College. I brought along a friend. I’ll call her Kate. She was kind and smart and very much a Southern girl. I had warned her we were headed to rural Alabama, to the country. She smiled and said, “You know I’m from a small town,” as if to reassure me. She thought being from a small town meant she was country.
Now don’t misunderstand. Small towns in the South are great places. Most of them have had a Jack’s Hamburgers or a Dairy Queen or something called a Frosty or Tastee-Freez. In the late 1970’s some small towns in the South have even had a McDonald’s. But there’s always a place where old men gather to drink coffee and share the day’s latest “news.” No one calls it gossip. But everyone knows what it is. Especially when so much of the conversation is punctuated with “bless his heart.” As in, “Y’all know that Owens feller thinks he can write a story. He’s not real smart, bless his heart.”
Small towns have a courthouse, a First Baptist Church, and a high school football team that drives everyone’s plans for Friday nights from September to December. Where Kate and me were headed had none of these things. As we drove down the Old Hull Road, a kidney rattling drive resulting from the daily passage of countless coal trucks, past ramshackle houses with sofas on the front porch, tin roofs, and dogs of indeterminate breed, I saw Kate begin to question her decision to make this journey. “Don’t worry,” I said. “My grandmother lives in a late model ‘double wide’ and she doesn’t have a sofa on the porch. Heck, she doesn’t have a porch.” Kate gave a soft sigh of relief until she realized I’d used the term “double wide.” She was relieved when we drove up the gravel driveway to a three-bedroom home with indoor plumbing, air conditioning and no dogs.
Kate was from a small town. But her Grandmother didn’t “put up” her own strawberry preserves. Her cousins didn’t cut the grass on the family’s cemetery plot, or dig their own worms to go fishing in a pond. They didn’t pick the tomatoes, onions or peppers from the garden immediately before supper. They didn’t start a bird hunt by loading the dogs into the trunk of an old Chevrolet. I’m pretty sure Kate had never skinned a catfish. Nor had she seen dogs come out from under a house to greet guests. I know she’d never gone snipe hunting or walked deep into a holler before sunrise to squirrel hunt. Kate was from a small town. But she wasn’t country.
My grandmother, both of them actually, were the best of the regal simplicity of Southern country. Kind. Forgiving. Generous. When Kate and me arrived, she met us at the doorway, pushing open the screen door. “Hey, Son,” she said as she gave me a gentle hug. She smiled and met Kate with “Y’all come on in. Are ya hungry?” This is, of course, the obligatory greeting when family and friends arrive at one’s home here. At Grandmother’s house, I was always hungry.
You can be Country by birth or by experience. Me? I guess I’m a bit of both. My Dad plowed fields behind a mule. His Dad lost several fingers when an ill-tempered mule team decided they’d prefer not to be hitched at that particular moment. I was born in the Deep South and country is in my genes. I’m country by experience. I’ve been snipe hunting though I’ve never caught one. I’ve never really lived in the country. But because of countless summers, Thanksgivings, and Christmas vacations there, it lives in me. It always will.