I’m spending the week in North Carolina. Hot, muggy North Carolina where swatting August flies from high-end restaurant tables and frizz-by-humidity are names of the game. This trip is one spent reconnecting with family, friends, and ultimately, my past. Despite the despicable weather, I’ve really enjoyed myself. My ties to this place are like a crab pot line tied to a piling–the rope is only a foot or two above the surface but when I start pulling, the slippery line coils around my feet to reveal a moveable anchor. My ties, though on the surface appear shallow, run long and deep.
This morning, while sitting on a pier under a pecan tree with my feet in the brackish water and a crabbing line between my fingers, I started thinking about the hand Eastern North Carolina (its geography and sociology) and her people had in raising me. I summoned memories from my childhood, and here’s the short list of lessons I learned in my formative years, with the exception of one or two:
I learned of patience while waiting for a blue crab to grab hold of a chicken neck, tied to the end of a line. And sitting through a church service at 4 years old, when an hour of sitting still felt like a lifetime. And waiting for the homemade peach ice cream to set, as it churned in the ice cream maker in the summer heat.
I learned of friendship while growing up with my brother in rural America with few toys and a lot of land, where our nearest neighbors were several acres away and whose children were several decades older than us. I learned how to be a friend when I went away to college, when my girlfriends became family.
I learned of pride when seeing that family grow, partner by partner, baby by baby, and recognizing the strong, hard-working women we have become.
I learned of kindness as I watched my parents care for their neighbors and being cared for by their neighbors. It’s a responsibility southerners take seriously. Taking or bringing casseroles over to a neighbors’ home after a loved one passes or offering to help clean a home when a neighbor is sick or injured is common in the South. And folks don’t do it because they have to. They do it because they want to.
I learned how to work while raking piles of pine needles, picking meat from bucketsful of pecans, and polishing the family’s silver punch bowl and its 24 cups. I did these chores for an allowance, not for a living, and because of that, I learned gratitude.
I also learned that gratitude is being thankful for air conditioner on a dreadfully hot day, a wholesome farm-fresh meal on the dinner table each night, having a safe shelter during a hurricane and a family that loves me. There are so many people who lack these necessities, especially where I come from.
I learned how to love from my parents. Throughout my entire childhood and into adulthood, my parents have undoubtedly loved me and each other unconditionally. They’ve always offered the best life advice, their full support of me, and really exemplify all of these bolded words. In the South, you’re constantly reminded that ‘blood runs thicker than water’ and the love for your momma and daddy will outlive you through family storytelling, a family recipe, reminiscing, and graveside vigils.
I learned how to respect other living things from my childhood dog, Ginny. There was no hard lesson learned by a bite or growl. There was only my brother’s and my 90 pound, lean, furry shadow standing guard as we played, swam, and explored our make-believe worlds. Good dogs (this one a black lab) are good that way.
I learned how to be caring from my mom who cooked, cleaned, kept company, bathed, shuttled, and cared for her parents and mother-in-law in between doing all the same for her children and husband and working a fulltime job.
I learned of beauty seeing the sky painted in pastel strokes as the sun set over the Pamlico River with blue heron, mallards, and egrets perched against or flying across the backdrop. And the soft, organic balls of white bursting from their brown husks at the end of a dried branch in October. And the abandoned potential of dilapidated, antique homes, overgrown with vines and coated with dust.
When you have a moment, I hope you can reflect on the lessons you learned from the place you called home as a child, when life wasn’t so busy and hectic. There’s some good stuff in there. I promise.