In the South, your people are determined by much more than bloodline.
About 40 minutes up the road from my house is the Museum of Appalachia, a sprawling compound of historic cabins, cantilever barns, exhibit halls, and heirloom gardens populated by free-range peacocks, guinea hens, miniature fainting goats, and a particularly docile Highland cow named Clover, who moos when you coo at her. To visit the museum is to travel back in time in the best possible sense—unspoiled land and architecture, minus the typhoid and tooth rot—and I go often. But what brings me in is less the majesty of the spot than the people who inhabit it.
The museum is run by Elaine Meyer, one of those slyly intelligent women you find in the South—unflappable yet warm, beautiful yet modest, no nonsense yet tremendously fun to be around. Basically, every Southern character ever played by Sally Field (except Mary Todd Lincoln).
Over the years, I have come to view Elaine as a kind of surrogate mother, my mom away from Mom. When I stop in to see her, she feeds me. She makes sure I am comfortable. She asks about my work and the girls. She always offers two desserts. I always accept both. This, too, is something you find in the South—the extended family made up of folks that aren’t actually relations, the kin in other skin.
Growing up we had Aunt Kat, who was not an aunt but a friend of my mother’s who made the best fried chicken in Jacksonville. All my childhood friends had aunts and uncles who weren’t, as well as people who joined their people on every family occasion, so much so one tended to forget they weren’t linked by blood.
I imagine this tendency sprang from the South’s rural roots and our natural inclination toward prolonged socializing. Southerners don’t just meet for coffee. We linger. We roll the biscuits, and we wait for them to rise.
There are wide-reaching benefits to this familial fluidity, not the least of which is what it teaches our children. That the safety net is large. That love isn’t confined. That you are accountable beyond your front fence.
I still recall a neighborhood potluck up North where no one said a single word to a group of children who were throwing their paper plates, hot dog buns and all, into the swimming pool.
“They aren’t my kids,” shrugged one of the guests.
I thought about my upbringing. How there was no such thing as “not my kids.” How a child tossing trash into a pool would have been shut down faster than Congress.
I shared this story with Elaine on a recent trip to the museum. She chuckled, shook her head, said, “Bless their hearts.” I chuckled, too, the way you do when you feel understood, when there is no need for spoken words, the way it is when you are with family.