I Am a Town: Jackson

“I’m a town in Carolina, I’m a detour on a ride, for a phone call and a soda, I’m a blur from the driver’s side… I am not your destination, I am clinging to my ways, I am a town…” I invite you to first listen to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s  I Am a Town.

.  .  .  .  .

On yesterday’s mid-June morning I awoke to a day of early spring instead of a hot-as-the-hinges-of-hades summer, with the day’s peaceable temperatures and airs beckoning me to something. I just wasn’t sure what that something was till I realized I was being called “back home”. With a single phone call to shift an appointment, I was free to follow my heart, and so quickly packed a small lunch, along with two Zevia Cream Sodas and a small bag of cashews, and hit the road for a half-day trip to Jackson. I loved every minute of the trip, every field and farmhouse, cow, horse, goat, and piece of John Deere equipment, bright and shiny or rusting away. I expected the trip would be physically difficult, not yesterday, but today. And that’s the case. It’s been worth it.

From my journal, April 28, 1991: When the crop duster came in late afternoon, dusk, really, we’d run outside and down the left road to a field where something green was growing. The sun would already be behind the trees, and the old plane silhouetted against the sky as it flew low, east to west, pulling up at what seemed the last possible minute so as to keep itself from returning to dust – or flame and ash. The white cloudstream of “cropdust” would fan out from the plane’s crawdaddy tail, turning into fog, and we’d feel it seep into our noses and throats and lungs. We’d watch as long as he’d fly. Then there would come one pass, one like every other, except he’d pull up over the trees and keep on going toward the last of the sunset, headed for one more field, one more farmer’s field where something green was growing. We’d turn around then and walk back up the dirt road to supper and a hot bath, and one of us would say, “Wuz fun, wadd’n it?”

Jackson is the county seat of Northampton, a large agriculture-based county lying just south of the Virginia border and due east of Halifax County and the Roanoke River, the “Rockfish capital of the world”. To get back home this morning, I leave Wake Forest to travel roads long overdue for re-paving, passing through Louisburg, where my grandmother was once “house mother” to a dorm full of college boys, then through Centerville and into Holister, home to the Haliwa-Saponi Indian tribe. From Holister, I drive to Halifax, where The Halifax Resolves, leading to the Declaration of Independence, were written in 1776. Seven miles up the road I skirt Mama’s hometown, Roanoke Rapids, by coming into Weldon, but I can still smell the RR paper mill. Mama’s mother worked in that mill and permanently injured one of her hands when it got caught in a belt long before the days of workers compensation. It’s at Weldon’s eastern edge that I make my first stop to walk down to the river, where I linger awhile to watch the rapids, remembering the day that I rode an elephant in this little  town; I was about six at the time. The memory is bittersweet, as I could feel the sadness of that big matriarch, so out of her element in a little traveling street circus. Back on the road, I pass through Garysburg, gateway to the Occoneechee Neck and home to antebellum Longview. From here, all that separates me from home are some seven or eight miles of field after field of cotton and soybeans.

From Centerville on through Northampton, the entire region is farm country. Acres of “farmers’ fields where something green is growing,” and all shapes and sizes of backyard gardens, help to sustain the economically depressed area. It was the lack of educational and economic resources in Northampton County that drove my parents to pack up their three little children in a station wagon and leave home for the big city of Charlotte in 1961, the year I turned ten and entered the fourth grade. The move left me heartsick, for it was the town herself I identified with. You see, she had become my Object; I had a big ol’ case of transference going on with Jackson, a transference that deepened after I marched into the living room one winter night (I was about five) and threw my best friend, my little blue blanket (my first Object) into the fireplace and watched it burn, my stunned parents watching me watch. I then turned and went back to my little bed next to the window that, in summertime, looked out on our own big garden. Before I went to the fireplace I had calculated that if I got rid of the blanket, I would stop sucking my thumb. Made perfect sense to me, given the fusion of the two. For some time I’d been being shamed and pushed into releasing that nasty thumb by all the grownups around me, including the family doc, Dr. Roberson. Of course, that was the best thinking during the mid-fifties. It didn’t work – not the thinking and not my  best-laid plan. A few years later, baby brother Don was to instigate a similarly dramatic event when he, Jimmy, Mama, and I were on the way home from Roanoke Rapids and he threw his “bot-bot” (his ever present bottle) onto the railroad tracks. He, unlike me, made a clean break.

Though I kept my close relationship with my thumb for some years, the loss of my best friend was my first conscious heartbreak. The next came when we moved from what quickly became known as “the little house” – the one Granddaddy Dutch had built for us just before I was born – to the Barrow House, a stone and cold, two-story situated about a mile from the little house and our neighborhood. My mother asked what color I wanted my new room painted (it was my first “room of one’s own”). “Black,” I answered. Told that I couldn’t have a black room, I went for my second least-favorite color, orange. (I later realized that irony, sarcasm, and cynicism were not understood in our house!) Apparently, no one knew how I hated orange, so those walls only seemed to punish me by failing to bring attention to the emotional pain I was left alone with. A year or so after the move, the house with its twelve-foot ceilings having been impossible to keep warm that first winter, we left Jackson altogether, left behind the state’s northeast green, small communities for its southwest towers and concrete anonymity. Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco; I left mine in Jackson.

Charlotte did have the advantage of a backyard treehouse, but that was nowhere near enough for me. Almost every day of the nine or so months we lived in Charlotte, my fourth grade teacher, Miss Potts, had to call my mother to come get me early from school because I wouldn’t stop crying. Something was definitely W-R-O-N-G in River City. It would take another four or five years, and two more moves, for this little girl’s heavy losses to start being soothed, and it was he beauty of salt water, marshes, and boats of Swansboro and Carteret County that finally turned my heart’s tides. “There’s nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”* A heart filled with cotton fields and crop dusters eventually opened to admit water, sand, and wind. Adding to the bounty would be the love of two grand English teachers who really saw me, and the creation of our Bogue Inlet Ski Team. I finally felt at home again, though it would be many years before I’d know that home is really wherever I am.

Today’s trip to one of my heart’s two homes was all I hoped it would be. I loved every minute of both the drive and the “God’s in the details” adventure of just being there. The drive reminded me, as it always does, of those in my college years at Meredith, where I was friends with a young woman from Garysburg. I’d often drive her home to Longview, where we’d spend weekends with her family on the farm. She’d sometimes take me riding around on the tractor on Sunday afternoons before we had to head back to school. We seldom went into Jackson; being out in the country was enough for me in those days, and it was after graduation when I began my every-few-years pilgrimages to the little town herself. When I could still ride my bike, I’d take it with me and just ride and ride, visiting all the places (and some of the people) that meant so much to me. Here’s the short list:

The ditch beside Grandma Ila’s house, always off limits, but the boys and I went down in it anyway. It looked so big back then, but there’s not much to it now; the schoolhouse (I remember when we first started using waxed paper to speed up our slide ride); the courthouse square downtown, also so big back then and now much smaller (I learned to skate there on weekends when Daddy had to go into his courthouse office for something);

Jackson’s “Boo Radley” house, in front of which I fell off my bike once when I was about eight, my little coin purse spilling all its treasures out into the road. (This is the same bike that The Convict stole one night and rode all the way to RR before he was caught. I got the bike back, but I for a long time I was scared to sit on the seat!); the dimestore that had everything you could possibly want – and still does. Yesterday, I bought a bathtub stopper and my second bottle of the best insect repellant in the whole world, SkinSkreen (the only all-natural one I’ve ever used that really works!). My great-aunt Dorothy worked at the dimestore when I was a little girl. She’s long since passed from this realm and now rests in the Hedspeth plot at the cemetery (another favorite spot), but the dimestore still sits across the street from what used to be Daddy’s dry cleaning store, where his mother, Grandma Ila, worked doing alterations. Sometimes she’d let me cross the street by myself with a dime or nickel she’d given me out of her pocketbook. Dorothy and Ila, one on one side of the street and one on the other, would watch me cross over. After I’d made it safely, and once I’d looked around a little while, Dorothy would dip out my sweets (my inevitable choice, in spite of countless other colorful options) from the bins in the long, street-facing wood and glass candy counter, placed so boldly and brightly to entice all us little children walking downtown with our Mamas or Daddies. The Kennedy’s, owners of this magnet of a place, must have intrinsically known something about fortuitous placement (a la Feng Shui).

When I left home yesterday morning, I made a conscious choice to notice everything along the way, not just be in a hurry to “get there”. That’s something I’ve had to cultivate through the years, as I used to only keep my eyes on the prize and speed my way to whatever distant destination lay ahead. I loved every minute of this trip, and I stopped often to take pictures with the camera on my cell phone, planning ahead for writing this story to share with “all y’all”.  I want to tell you about one of those pictures. It’s of an old, small house, the only one left of several that sat on the Garysburg edge of town. Just slightly more than shacks (I’m being generous with the “slightly more than”), all of them painted yellow, the one left standing has just a touch of its faded yellow paint remaining on the front door. In 1995, I wrote Anthem, my song about those shacks and about the segregated south, about Jackson and my years there. Here’s a verse and chorus:

All our mamas stayed at home, our daddies worked downtown, except for the ones who lived in the fields from sunup ‘til sundown. The dark-skinned lady who ironed our clothes lived on the edge of town in a tiny little yellow house, close to falling down. But these were things not spoken about; the lines were drawn and some left out.

We were the southern children in drowsy southern towns, heir to our parents’ gardens to tend in hand-me-downs. We lived just down the road from what she** wrote about, and were some distant kin to Jim, Atticus, and Scout.©

They say that Home is where the heart is. That is so. My heart and home is now within me. It’s also with every cotton field and salt marsh I’ve ever known, with every woman and man, boy and girl, cat and dog who’ve shown love and kindness to me. And it’s with the ones I didn’t know, yet feel a bond with even after all these years, the ones in the tiny little yellow houses. We drew lines between the “us and thems” to keep our hearts from opening. I know mine broke so many times because I couldn’t keep it closed; hearts can break open because of the love they are meant to be, and can’t yet be supported in opening to.

May we open our hearts to all we see and to all we are. May you you’re your heart to know that the Light in Me greets the Light in Thee. And may the Light that we are be the Light that we remember we are.

Blessed be.

*Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

**Harper Lee, author of  To Kill a Mockingbird

© Amy Pierce and In Spiritual Wonder, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Amy Pierce and In Spiritual Wonder with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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