“We live in a time and place in which we are conditioned to leave our hometowns,” Dreher reflects. “Our schools tell our young people to follow their professional bliss, wherever it takes them. Our economy rewards companies and people who have no loyalty to place.” Probably most importantly of all, “The stories that shape the moral imagination of our young, chiefly by film and television, are told by outsiders who were dissatisfied and lit out for elsewhere to find happiness and good fortune” (on Ron Dreher's The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.)Call me intrigued. I've seen a number of reviews of Dreher's book, and I have an interest in the topic--Lousiana, the death of a sibling, the idea of a local habitation where one knows and is known. (The review I quote from I saw via Prufrock.)
I was born to two people who were strongly tied to place but left home. During my childhood, my father worked a multitude of jobs--when I was born in Aiken, South Carolina, he worked at the Savannah River Power plant. Later we moved to Gramercy, Louisiana, where he was a chemist for a sugar refinery. Then he went to graduate school at LSU in Baton Rouge. Then we had six years out of the South, a three-year stint teaching in Kansas followed by three years as a research chemist in Wilmington, Delaware. It wasn't until I began high school that we settled in Cullowhee, North Carolina. After the NASA cutbacks, it was difficult to be mobile. My father, an itchy-footed Georgia sharecropper's child who joined the Army Air Corps at 17 and flew on a B-17 as tail gunner in World War II, finally stayed in one place. My mother finally was able to keep a job she loved. Cullowhee is one of the few places in my life that feels like a constant.
My years in Gramercy and Baton Rouge are far more vivid to me than they should be, given that I left the state at seven, after second grade. Intensely colorful, the images in my mind seem to hold a kind of joy. The scattering of pictures suggests paradise. Everything that lodged in my mind was excessive, beautiful, bright, glittering, or just plain curious. Anything that came afterward could only be a fall, and what came after was endless miles of wheat bending to the wind, and a horizon that seemed like forever.
When we moved to Louisiana, we were a small family suffering from grief. In Gramercy I raced with my neighbors, shouting in the Cajun French I no longer remember, racing past the tomatoes that grew up into the trees, over the winking spiders, wearing my green and pink lizards as earrings. The past and time fell away.
For the last 14 years I have lived in a small Yankee town of about 2500. As a place where many people are extremely conscious of whose ancestors lived here, it can take a long time to feel reasonably "at home." The overlong and snowy winter always reminds me that this is not my place, as do other things. But I have friends here, and my three children did most of their growing-up here. I am glad that it is on the Appalachian spine, and that the hills run down to the Blue Ridge. I have a place here.
And yet, I do not know exactly where I belong.
Some years ago my mother tried to buy her family home in south Georgia, a beautiful Queen Anne house built by my grandfather. I have no doubt that I would have felt deeply tied to that little spot, the house and grape arbors and fruit trees. But I would not have become part of the community by virtue of birth, no matter how beloved my grandmother was in her little town.
What is the cure for our American wanderers, who have no place fully their own? Does it matter that "the stories that shape the moral imagination of our young, chiefly by film and television, are told by outsiders?" And how does that impact writers, who have long written out of place?