My favorite anecdote about growing up in the rural South is a childhood memory of sitting with my aunt and uncle at their red Formica kitchen table, which was strategically positioned in front of a double window looking out on the dirt road in front of their house. Each time a car or—more likely—a pickup would go by, leaving its plume of dust hanging in the air, both of them would stop whatever they were doing and crane their necks. Then one of them would offer an offhand comment like: “Looks like Ed and Georgia finally traded in that old Ford of theirs. It’s about time.” Or: “There’s that Johnson fellow who’s logging the Benton place. Wonder if he’s any kin to Dave Johnson.”
Inevitably, there would follow a speculative conversation about their neighbors’ personal and business affairs, about which they always seemed remarkably well informed. “Is her mom still in the hospital?” “I think they let her go home yesterday.” “Maybe we should take over some deviled eggs or something.”
For the most part, it was casual and benevolent. Though their nearest neighbors—my parents—lived half a mile away, beyond a screen of forest, they seemed to have a strong sense of being members of a real community where people knew each other well and looked out for one another.
Sometimes, though, a darker note would creep in. “There’s that Wheeler boy again. What’s he up to, do you reckon?” Then the conversation would turn to past misdeeds and present mistrust, accompanied by a disapproving shake of the head.
And on those rare occasions when they didn’t recognize the vehicle or driver at all, they would take special note. “Who in the world is that?” “Never saw him before.” “Wonder if he’s the fellow who bought the old Pearson place.” “What kind of truck is that?” Looking back, it seems to me now that there was always a strong note of suspicion in their voices at such moments. Here was an intruder, not to be trusted until clearly identified.
Over the years, I’ve found myself conflicted about the sense of belonging that memory evokes. There’s something compelling about that kind of attentive and caring community —something that I miss to this day. The old clichés were true—doors were never locked, and people really did show up unexpected with food when someone was sick.
But there was also something intrusive—even coercive—about it, and as I grew older, I began to understand just how closed and exclusive a community it was and how ruthlessly it enforced its unspoken rules of conformity and homogeneity.
I don’t think my parents ever felt completely a part of that community, though they lived there most of their lives. Neither did I, even as a kid. We didn’t go to church. We didn’t hunt or fish. We had strange political views. But we kept to ourselves. We didn’t make waves. And so we were accepted, if never quite assimilated.
Today, I’m a suburban Angeleno, but my roots will always be there. For years, whenever I went home to visit my parents, I was treated by the community as a prodigal son. A couple of my many cousins would drop by to ask how I was doing out there in California. The few neighbors who still knew me would wave hello as I drove by. Even though I always felt apart, I don’t suppose I’ll ever feel quite so completely at home anywhere else.
During the past year, there’s been a lot of talk about the growing cultural and political divide between urban and rural America. Despite my roots, I don’t feel qualified to comment beyond that little anecdote. The last time I visited that community was to finish preparing my parents’ house for sale. They’re both long gone, as are my aunt and uncle and almost everyone I knew as a child. I doubt I’ll ever go back. In any case, I’ve become an outsider, the kind of stranger whom people stare at from their kitchen windows and say, “Who in the world is that?”