They married sisters. The doctor with the craving for farming and cattle and the injured machinist whose gardening and shooting skills outdid any in the county and probably the state. They raised their families down the street from each other, close enough that “MiMi, go get me beans for supper” sent me to my aunt and uncle’s cellar for the canned green beans that would round out our meal. It was a beneficial arrangement for both families; butchering one of my father’s steers meant bounty for the giant freezers that graced both houses.
My father was the one who chose to leave Tennessee to travel the country and sow his proverbial oats before marrying, once proudly declaring that he had traveled to all fifty states minus Hawaii and Alaska. During his stint in the service as a captain at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver during the Korean War, his letters reveal his two obsessions: the beautiful, dark-haired Catholic girl he was madly in love with back home and the fields of lespedeza he had planted to rejuvenate his crops that she oversaw.
My uncle served in the Air Force during World War II. Stationed in Trinidad & Tobago, he became a master cook for officers using the finest ingredients available on the island. He, too, wrote letters to his love, the pretty and shapely sister of my mother who waited patiently for his return. He sent pictures of natives on sandy beaches, laughing with the uniformed soldiers. He mastered the skills that would later benefit us all with foods cooked with flavors that even chefs could not rival.
On Father’s Day I posted a photo of my father and uncle on Facebook and mentioned their influences on my childhood in southern Middle Tennessee. But I am reminded of more as I attempt to explain what it means to live in the South. As I looked at these faces I loved so dearly, I realize that these two men, who chose a rural country life, epitomize what being Southern means.
My father was well-spoken and wooed my mother with classical music on the first combination record player/television set in the town. He quoted Dickens to me when I studied him in college, this after buying me a set of classical novels from a traveling salesman one year just because he said he knew I would read them.
Besides medicine, he loved politics and education, serving as mayor and board of education member and hosting politicians running for national office on our farm. Once he took us to meet Jimmy Carter at a fundraising event at Tom T. Hall’s house in Nashville, and I realized he was exposing us to important people. Yet, his greatest pride and pleasure was bringing his children around his patients living in the country, farmers and laborers, and people he encountered in his daily life. He took us on house calls, and he talked for hours to the people he enjoyed. He also deftly sewed up our cuts and mended our broken limbs. He kept us safe and healthy and surrounded by people.
My uncle was also a friendly man, but in a quieter way publicly. He, too, visited folks around the countryside, but he took them the fruits of his labor: game from his hunts, vegetables from his garden, knives made with Osage orange limbs, flips (slingshots) made with v-shaped sticks.
Along the way my uncle listened to tales and in turn, began his storytelling. No one could recount the history of our area better than him. He knew the idiosyncrasies of each family, their quirks and their secrets. Until his final illness and death we begged him to entertain us with his stories. These, now, are inspirations for my own.
When I was only a girl, my father took me on his farms to feed cattle and look at his crops while my uncle taught me to hunt and fish and appreciate the boundless outdoor recreation those farms provided. In later years, my uncle oversaw my first garden, guiding me every step of the way in the planting, tending, and harvesting.
Nowadays, I can’t look at an LL Bean catalog without remembering my uncle’s blue chambray and plaid flannel shirts. I can’t notice a hunting dog in Garden and Gun without seeing him in the field, training one of his English setters with a cane pole and a corncob bird. My mother reminds me that he often hit more than one quail with one shot then cooked up the meat with brown gravy to the delight of my father. He also whipped up meals with the fish, squirrel, and rabbits he and his sons brought home. My father couldn’t have been happier if he had killed the wild game himself on safari. Neither man needed to leave the area for their greatest pleasures in life. They could find them right here.
It is remarkable how much cliché is involved with the Southern way of living. All in all, though, I don’t mind it. Yes, we love sweet tea, cornbread, grits, and of course pies, especially fruit ones like apple and blueberry. Many still love that mile-high meringue, glistening on top of chocolate or coconut cream bases, tempting with peaks browned to perfection. My uncle was a pro at these, baking one for each of us on our birthdays. Back then we didn’t worry any more about our sugar intake than walking barefoot on the town’s roads, popping black tar bubbles with our toes. Now, however, the South boasts the highest rates of obesity and diabetes because many just can’t push away from fatty foods and fried-everything eating (I have even read that fast food restaurants target their marketing to the South for such things as “double bacon double meat cheeseburgers with super large fries”).
There are other downsides to living in the rural South, mostly involving grammar and politics. It pains me to hear folks struggle to conjugate verbs. Most give up and never know the difference. “He don’t” largely outpaces “he doesn’t,” which is rarely used. “Ain’t” crops up all the time.
Yet, I never really have to leave my farm to experience happiness. I love my slowed-down way of life that allows me to write and contemplate in quiet peace. I love back roads and would rather pull over to let a farm implement pass a hundred times than sit in traffic any day. I love our porches and our easy affection, the wave or one-finger “hello” as we pass other cars on the road, the conversations. I love the gardens full of silk-topped corn, proud okra, and luscious, ripe tomatoes waiting to be sliced. I love my neighboring farmers with their quiet wisdom and their country ways. I am a mix of the two men who shaped me; two Southern gentlemen who understood the most important lessons in life and expertly passed them on to their children, nieces, and nephews. They were wise men indeed.
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