My earliest memory is of being on vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains when I was only two. Of course, at the time I had no idea how old I was or even where I was – that information came later from my mother.
I remember laying on my back in a playpen (first sign I wasn’t sleeping at home) and the playpen was right in front of a door that led to the outside (second sign that I was in a motel.) I remember the door opening, the soft light of early morning floating through, and my father walking in with a package of diapers in his hands. I remember I could hear the sounds of running water – sounds that my mother later told me were coming from the babbling brook right outside the motel balcony.
My mother filled in the rest: apparently I had gotten sick during the night and they had run out of diapers. Thus my father leaving at first light to try and find an open store in the small town of Gatlinburg which sits right at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
I remember nothing else about that short weekend stay over, apparently en route to visit family. But I do find it interesting that my earliest memory turned out to be of the one place I have returned to many times during the fifty years since.
I have traveled to Europe, Asia, Central and South America, the Caribbean and just about every state from the Everglades to the Rocky Mountains. But the one place that has always felt like home to me is the Smokies.
There’s just something special about it. Something magical. My grandfather first started visiting the area before it even became a national park. He took his children there – my mother; and then she took her children there – me; and then I took my children there – who are now in their mid twenties and early thirties. Hopefully one day they’ll take their future children there and that will make five generations of our family continuing the pilgrimage to those sacred, shrouded hills.
It’s like a religion to me. Hiking the trails of the Smokies, being at one with nature, draws me far closer to God than being in church ever did.
I currently live in Florida – a mere five minute drive to the beach – and while the rhythmic sound of crashing waves and the tactile sensation of sand between the toes does indeed calm my mind, nothing feels like the warm, welcoming hug of the Smokies. It feels like home.
Home. It means something different for everyone. For me, it means crossing the Tennessee state line. My aunt once jokingly told me that she could hear the angels singing whenever I crossed that border.
Actually, I think that was me.
“We leave, we run away and don’t realize how much we’ll need to go back home one day. The South is like that. It’s the worse mama in the world and it’s the best mama in the world.”
–Edward P. Jones
I was born in the south in the late sixties. Mere months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr … mere weeks after the assassination of Robert Kennedy. A time when protests against the Vietnam War were ongoing. A time when marches for the Poor People’s Campaign descended upon Washington. So much violence and civil unrest but a time when peace and equality were ideals to march for. To strive for. To die for.
And now here I am, in the year 2020, and I’m too lazy, too indifferent, too worried about what the neighbors might say to march and strive for those same ideals. Oh I ordered all the bestselling books of the moment on racial inequality and, I might add, I’m reading them with a veracious literary appetite. I also donated to several current, hot-topic organizations that are fighting against racial injustice.
All from the comfort of my sofa.
So let’s be brutally honest here: that’s not creating change. That’s just donating dollars.
I’ve got a long way to go.
And having been born and raised in the south, I’ve got a lot of baggage to unpack along that way. A deconstructing, if you will. For make no mistake about it, I have a love/hate relationship with this land and her people. I love her natural beauty and her gracious hospitality and her country drawl, but I hate her ugly history and her stubborn tendency to cling to a heritage that is more prejudice than pride.
And my uneasiness with southern, bible-belt views and morality goes a lot deeper than just race. I raised my own children to be open minded and accepting of all – but is that enough? Of course not. In the past, I’ve had very close friends who were black and some that were gay – but is that enough? Of course not.
Because in the end, it’s not enough to be good. One must do good. And doing good requires action.
And I was taught … well, to be passive. To be quiet. To let the men folk be in charge. I’ve been questioning that, fighting that, arguing against that most all my life. A life that has thus far been a succession of three steps forward, two steps back.
It can be hard to stand up to your parents. Even in your fifties, like me. (Did I mention that my father is a minister? So going against him is like going against God because everything – and I mean everything – is answered with a scripture.)
My mother texted me the other night, upset that Lady Antebellum had felt the need to change her name to Lady A. “What’s next?” my mother asked. “Are they gonna burn down all the antebellum houses too?”
“No mother,” I replied. “Houses aren’t racist. People are.”
My family used to live in one of those antebellum houses. Yep, this is gonna be a long journey.