Thursday, January 29, 2009

A SOUTHERN WRITER LIVING IN THE WEST





Can a writer still be considered Southern if she lives in the West? Growing up, I adopted my parents’ Louisiana roots as home. No place tugs at my soul like Forest Hill, Louisiana. Even as my military dad’s career took us to destinations around the world, we returned often. Piney woods, icy creeks, old people sitting on porch swings. If home is where the heart is, Louisiana is the keeper of mine.

My dad’s last assignment was in New Orleans and so I got to attend high school and college in Louisiana. Mardi Gras and the French Quarter extended the boundaries of the place I viewed as home. But in my early twenties I left Louisiana for a new job in the Dallas area. Even with all the BMWs and glass buildings, I felt like I was still in the South. A slicker south, but a place where I could order a side of grits with butter and country music could be found at every other turn on the radio dial.

Soon I married a Texan, then gave birth to one. Before she entered kindergarten, we moved to Houston. There the sticky air, the rain, even swatting the mosquitoes kept me connected to the south I’d always loved. My grandfather’s camellia cuttings thrived in our backyard and I could hear the ice cream man’s tinny music all year long. I should have known better than to get too comfortable.

Two years later, my husband’s career change caused us to plop a For Sale sign in the yard, pack up and move to West Texas. As we drove the stretch of Highway 287 it was as if someone had plucked the trees from the earth in order to see clear to the other side of the world. This was not the south. It was a flat prairie with a canyon dropped in the middle like a gravy bowl resting in a huge saucer. This was the west. I didn’t know how I would ever call this place home.
The people were friendly enough, but try as I did, I couldn’t fit in. Maybe they sensed my yearning to be elsewhere.

One day I went to the post office to buy stamps. “You aren’t from around here are ya?” a postal worker asked with a Panhandle twang.

“How did you know?”

“Cuz you don’t talk like us.”

At the grocery store, I became excited when I discovered crawfish in the seafood section.

“Where is it from?” I asked, expecting to hear Gueydon or Crowley, Louisiana.

“China,” he said. “Would you like some?”

I shook my head. I didn’t even know they had any crawfish in China.

That was fifteen years ago. Amarillo has changed. We have crawfish from Louisiana, prosciutto from Italy and even a French bakery ran by a genuine Frenchman.

When people ask, “What is Amarillo like?” I tell them we have real cowboys in our Starbucks.
Although I’ve never gotten used to the occasional stench of the nearby cattle feed yards, I have learned to appreciate the wide open spaces. Still there is the longing. I’m not alone. Recently two of my former classmates and I spent a weekend together. Laurie now lives in Arizona and the last twenty or so years, Lisha has made Santa Fe her home.

“I get claustrophobic when I go back to Louisiana,” Laurie says. “All those trees.”

We talk about the beauty of the sunsets, canyons, and mountains. But we understand when Lisha says, “I get homesick whenever they have a hurricane.”
The south is a part of us. We couldn't shake loose, if we wanted to. Although at times we feel as if we’ve betrayed it like restless people taking on wild lovers. We dream of returning to the south, knowing that we might never be able to. Circumstances brought us here. Commitments keep us bound. We are Southern women living in the West.



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Kimberly Willis Holt continues to write in the west, but makes frequent trips to the south. No matter where she is, she continues to eat grits and butter. You can learn more about her at her website: http://www.kimberlywillisholt.com/

9 comments:

pcb said...

I, too, am a military brat with roots in the south, so I understand completely how you can 'adopt' a region!

Kimberly said...

Thanks, pcb. It's funny so many military brats tell me the place they called home was not a place they ever lived.

Dee said...

Most of my military brat experienced happened before I was six, when we were stationed in San Antonio. That's the town I grew up in and river floating, giant oaks, hills of wildflowers and FIESTA were all part of me. Then I went to college in San Angelo.

My accent subtly changed and my appreciation for mesquite increased. The starkness of the area became soothing. There were so many times when I was driving across the state to visit, and when I'd get back to West Texas, that sky seemed bigger than any other place in the state. I'd take a deep breath and smile at how small I always felt.

We now live in Houston (due to my husband's job), where I hesitate to take any kind of deep breath. (At least it's not cow patties, right?)But I dream of the day we can relocate to the Hill Country and back to those shady trees, lazy rivers and fantastic festivities. (Heck, I might even take the wide open spaces of the panhandle!)

I don't know that any other state has such a variety of regions within itself. Texas really is like "a whole 'nother country!" Thanks for such a lovely post.

Kimberly said...

Thanks, Dee. I know what you mean. Bits from every place I've lived have woven threads through me. And you're right. There's something about a West Texas sky.

shylohsuz said...

[deep sigh]I live in southern California but my heart is in Louisiana and Mississippi. It's hard to even appreciate the open spaces of this chaparral country - its mostly asphalt and freeways.

shoreacres said...

Oh, my gosh. Lovely blog, but this...? "But we understand when Lisha says, 'I get homesick whenever they have a hurricane.'"

I live on Galveston Bay, and varnish boats for a living. A full quarter of my customers lost their boats to Ike. I have friends with nothing but dirt where their homes used to be. Galveston is closing schools and hospitals, and their tax base is eroding. Businesses are reopening and FEMA trailers are coming in, but....

I chronicled a good bit of the experience on blogs, and I'm not saying that recovery won't come - isn't coming. But homesick for a hurricane? Oh, gosh.

I will say this - there is something about sharing such an experience that binds people and bonds them, and I can completely understand feeling homesick for that feeling of being part of a community determined to overcome adversity. I'd just rather find a different way to recreate that feeling!

Kimberly said...

I understand how that observation could seem odd or thoughtless, but my friend meant that she wanted to be there for her loved ones during those times.Not that she longed for a hurricane. Please know all of us felt a connection to those devastations. And that was the point I was trying to make. Perhaps I didn't write it clearly enough. A danger of being too spare in my prose.

shoreacres said...

The comment about "hurricanes/homesickness" didn't seem thoughtless or uncaring at all. It did seem a bit strange, but that's probably just one more indication that recovery from such events takes longer than any of us realize.

Long after the reporters, photographers and relief program administrators go home, the coping goes on, and the smallest detail or most off-handed remark can bring everything back. Obviously, it still is happening to me from time to time, and believe me, it surprises me as much as anyone!

No offense taken at all, and I've really enjoyed peeking through your blog!

River Jordan said...

Growing up on the Gulf Coast and living out West I know what homesick for a hurricane means - I may steal it for a book title. It means missing water in the air, the sound of palms dancing in a tropical storm, the pressue suddenly dropping and that electric feeling. Not for Katrina. Not for destruction or anything or anyone to be hurt. But for the air to change, for the seas to pick up a bit, for the wind to howl a level. Maybe just a good level 1 with no storm surge. I even miss those old fishermen looking out to the sea and exclaiming it's gonna be a bad year for a 'cain comin'. It's part of the history of who we are.

PS - Out West they don't believe people eat boiled peanuts. You will have to have people send them to you in the can.