Over the past 5 years I’ve tried to embrace the theory that “home is where I hang my hat.” I left my hometown when I was 16 years old with a granite-head concept that I was destined to thrive in a world far greater than the tiny dustbowl lands that raised me: lovely little Jesup, Georgia.
Three weeks ago I was summoned down to Jesup for family reunions and general “business” that needed to be handled before I fly out of the country for the better part of a year. And in my short time here, I’ve been attempting to wrap my head around Thomas Wolfe’s idea that “You can never go home again.”
In many ways, I always assumed “home” would be anxiously awaiting my return. My favorite restaurants would never close and my best friends would always live on Orange Street. I never expected my room to turn into a fully-packed storage unit full of second-hand treasures and mismatched tupperware. But here I stand, in a place I once knew as my own, driving to the downtown storage units of tin doors and concrete boxes, shouting “Ma! Where is all my shit?!” It’s starting to seem, you actually can never really go home again. Or at least the idea of home as you once knew it. Your belongings will vanish into piles of neglected memories and you may no longer know every person and his uncle in the WalMart check-out line. But, the beautiful thing I realized on this extended stay in my stomping grounds is that in the South, some things (the good things) will never change.
I’ve spent at least 60 percent of my time back on my beloved Atlamaha River. And if any of you remember my last post about the gorgeous land of tan lines and moonshine, you know that I am quite a fan of the mucky sandbars. So as I stay inside today, nursing my skin and punished liver, I feel the need to fill in a few gaps as I compose my Part II synopsis of days on the Altamaha, and propose my personal theory on going “home.”
Rounding the corner of the wash-board rendered dirt road, the sandbar smelled of hot plastic intertubes, diesel fuel and happiness. Everyone has their own four-wheel-drive, dune-defying mode of transportation and you better drive that mother straight up to the water before the sand turns into molten lava and sears your toes like meat on a skewer.
If a day on the sandbar becomes mundane, (or is likely leading to a case of waterlogged debauchery) you can always hop a john boat with a bucket of worms and make yourself useful by catching dinner.
On this particular day of fishing, the ladies and I caught about 45 channel cats… which would have sufficed if only we were the family of Thumbalina, as my hook seemed to only attract the freshly hatched bottom dwellers no bigger than a big toe and inadequate bait fish. But we did finally move into a hole where the Ohoopee joins the Altamaha, where we sunk worms in a Shell Cracker disco party.
And thank heavens for Southern men, who know good and well that we ladies are perfectly capable of wrapping a worm around a hook and can quite easily skin a catfish… but they dare not ask us. Instead, we pull up to the house and leave our bucket of flopping gold at the base of the tailgate for the fellas to take over. I’m not saying that I am accepting my archaic, socially deemed “place in the kitchen,” but I’m not going to argue when a man tells me to step aside so that he can cut the heads off of barbed catfish and cover his knuckles in the glue-like substance that is worm guts. Have at it, Poppa Testosterone. I’ll be in the kitchen getting the batter ready, whipping up hushpuppies and grating cheese for the grits.
In my three weeks at home, I realized that my old home has in fact changed. But the South, the place that will always be home to me, remains perfectly intact and beautifully unaltered. Fish is still fried in cornmeal batter and beer on a Sunday should always be mixed with a splash of tomato juice.
There are old wives tales to explain the stories of why we paint the ceiling on a porch pale blue and why the willows lean toward the sandbars in the curve of the river. And these tales will continue to be passed down, exaggerated and created to teach life lessons. This is the south, where people are creatures of habit, a characteristic that has often been cast in dim light. But I like to imagine we creatures of habit are not clinging to tradition for fear of change, but rather to hold a steady grip on what makes the south that uniquely pleasant corner of America. There’s a reason those of us who leave regularly, tasting new worlds and following odd paths continue to return. I’m not looking for home in the form of hop-scotch in my old neighborhood or chocolate cake from the highway 57 gas station. I now come home to the culture that will always welcome me back without hesitation and offerings of supper at the family table.