One evening back in late spring, I returned home from two weeks of flitting through major airports and hurrying bare-footed through security sensors. I was bone-weary from cramped planes — the center seat too many times — and delayed flights.
Home never felt, smelled or looked so good. The cows bawled a hello, the two cats joyously bounced around the garage and a lick-happy, shivering Dixie Dew danced with delight.
The world felt perfectly right and cozy. And the funny thing is that I hadn’t even realized it was askew until I stepped from my car.
The next morning, I awoke to the chirping of birds and a rabbit zigzagging across the back yard. I stepped out on the porch and felt a gentle, warm breeze and inhaled the fragrance of blooming confederate jasmine and honeysuckle. I listened. But I heard nothing ’cept for those creatures of nature and a dog in the far distance beyond the sunrise. No traffic, no voices, no television, no video games, just the Lord’s sweet sounds. It was music to my ears.
I decided upon my annual ritual of cleaning the back porch, of turning it from winter’s dark, dirty gray to bright and washed down with Clorox. I gathered the brushes and buckets and began. I scrubbed the red dirt from the floor that had been tracked in by Mississippi the cat. What a mess she had made since the autumn.
Every year it is such a rite of passage for me to prepare the porch, the swing, the rockers and the wicker for several months of sitting with books, coffee and friends. On nights when the moon is full and the crickets sing, the back porch swing is the best seat in the house.
Dressed in shorts, a T-shirt and bare-footed, I padded through the grass to the spigot when, suddenly, the air lifted just a bit and, at that moment, the smell and feel of it was such that it transported me back to all those summers long ago when I was kid.
Years melted away and though it would seem that I have come so far, I realized I was back where it all began. The ground beneath my feet these days is the same dirt of my childhood. In the front yard is a stream where my cousin and I fished with poles made from sticks and string. In those days, it was all pasture but now there is a house and a fence made of wood instead of barbed wire.
It is home. Then and now.
I can’t explain what it is about the land of our raising that imprisons us but Southerners are held in bondage to our native soil, whether it is the orange dust of Alabama, the rich black dirt of the Mississippi Delta or even the stubborn, red clay of Georgia. That ground wraps itself around our ankles like kudzu-covered shackles and holds us captive to that place called “home.”
Country singer Marty Stuart, a Philadelphia, Miss. native, once explained that when he needs to center himself and find his true creativity that “I always go back to the dirt roads of Mississippi.”
This I know: In the South, we do not possess the land. It is too strong and mighty of a force to be held by any deed holder. The land, instead, possesses us. Try, though we might, we cannot escape its hold.
So, now I find myself plunked back down amidst the kudzu, blackberry bushes and maple trees of my childhood. Many days I swing on the porch, completely entertained by the simplicity of the memories that lie embedded in the hard clay or the quietness of a world far removed from city intrusion.
Truman Capote, the Alabama-raised writer, often said, “Every Southerner goes home sooner or later, even if in a pine box.”
I’m glad I didn’t wait for the pine box to bring me.