The word wiregrass immediately conjures up two recollections for me. The first is relatively non-descript – no particular memory – just a recollection of walking through swampy woods of scrabbly pines scrapping my legs against the prickly, needle-like leaves of the wiregrass plant. The presence of wiregrass on the ground and Spanish moss hanging from the trees is a sure sign that you are in the Deep South.
The second recollection is much deeper and broader than the first. Wiregrass evokes a sharp emotional and physical experience of home. I am instantaneously drawn back to the smells, sights, sounds and even touch of my childhood. Memories flood back to me: the all-encompassing hug of Ida Mae as she clasped me to her breasts; the sizzling heat of the kitchen as Mama fried chicken and baked her mouth-watering cats-head biscuits, the laughter and chatter of family gathered around the kitchen table, the long and boring drive down two-lane roads that stretched out like gray ribbons amidst the interminable pines and wiregrass. Though I have travelled far from the Wiregrass region of the Deep South, its tentacles are deeply intertwined in my very soul. The mellifluous and honeyed drawl may be softened somewhat, but the experiences and values of my southern childhood are deeply embedded in the woman I am today.
For much of his life, my great grandfather ran a little country store in the Wiregrass area of southeastern Alabama. My recollection of exactly which strip of highway his store set beside is long gone, but I do recall that the store set right on the edge of the highway. The only thing that separated the store from the highway was a small spit of sandy earth and a chinaberry tree. (I remember the chinaberry tree from visits my family and I would take to see my grandmother – my great-grandfather had long since died. To entertain ourselves, my brother Dennis and I would play war, throwing the hard small chinaberries at each other hoping to inflict mortal wounds).
The store also served as the living quarters for my great-grandfather and later, my grandmother. There were two tiny bedrooms, a small kitchen and a back room that served as a living room. The front room housed the store.
There was no indoor toilet. An outhouse sat out beyond the back of the house. As a young child, I remember visiting my grandmother during the summers. One of my chores was to take the chamber pot to the outhouse each morning and empty it. Perhaps this helps explain why I love the outdoors, but hate camping or any other form of roughing it!
There were always people stopping by my grandmother’s, either to buy something, to catch up on neighborhood gossip or to swap stories. It was during these moments that I learned that art of story-telling – an art that is deeply ingrained in me. My father and others told the same story over and over again. These repetitive stories would often begin with “Remember, when . . . .” The repetition of the stories served to maintain the family and community bonds, connecting the generations and instilling values. Families and societies teach their children what’s important through the stories they tell. In many ways, scripture, particularly the Old Testament, is a collection of stories passed down from one generation to the next; to help the younger understand their heritage and their God. These days I think we have abrogated our responsibility of storytelling to the entertainment and sports industries. Sometimes that’s a good thing (e.g. movies like Lincoln and Beasts of the Southern Wild); sometimes not.
During my recent convalescence from knee surgery, I watched lots of talk shows. I didn’t realize how many options were available! In an episode of Katie, Katie Couric encouraged parents to write annual letters to their children, something she wished she had done for her two daughters. As Couric talked about the need for telling our stories to our children, I was reminded of something that Robert Bellah wrote in Habits of the Heart:
We find ourselves not independently of other people and institutions, but through them. We never get to the bottom of ourselves on our own. We discover who we are face to face and side by side with others in work, love, and learning.
Bequeathing our stories helps our children and teens discover who they are. Telling our stories to the next generations lays a foundation as they engage the question “Who am I?” Getting to the bottom of ourselves demands that we learn the cultural/familial milieu that is our own – good and bad.
So, two questions I am asking myself these days: What are the stories I am telling? What do I want my children (biological and not) to discover about themselves through the stories I leave?