Stepping forward

Thank God my dad won the “name the baby” battle. My mom, a Georgia/Tennessee, native, begged him to agree to name me Georgia. He refused.

Even though I’m grateful for narrowly escaping being dubbed as a child of the South for the rest of my life, I feel sorry for my mom every time I think about her wanting to include her Southern heritage into my name, and into so many other aspects of our lives, wistfully longing for her own childhood home while stuck in the dry, flat city of Wichita, Kansas. My dad, a Delaware native and son of Polish immigrants, had no connection to or reverence for the South. And although my stepdad tried his best to fit in when we moved to Arkansas, learning to speak with a Southern accent, adopting turkey hunting as a hobby, and even trading “you guys” for “y’all,” he probably never fully understood my mom’s emotional connection to the deep South.

While living in Kansas, I remember being vaguely aware of the differences in my mom and other parents. Her drawl gave her away, as did her affinity for grits, black-eyed peas, and homemade cornbread. Once, in a fast food restaurant drive-thru, my mom placed her order, speaking loudly and clearly. The drawl was too thick for the poor drive-thru attendant, and after asking my mom to repeat herself twice, she asked us to pull up to the window to order face-to-face. I’m sure my mom had finally had her fill of Dorothy’s stomping grounds, and after closing their eyes and pointing to northeastern Arkansas on a map, my parents scouted out rural towns for the best place to find jobs and raise a family.

Moving to Arkansas felt like culture shock to me and my sisters, and probably my stepdad, but to my mom, it was coming home, or getting close anyway. The landscape of our lives changed drastically that year, and quite literally. We abandoned the open plains of eastern Kansas for the rolling hills and dangerous roadways of the Ozarks. We no longer shopped at the mall, since the nearest one was at least 90 miles away. Instead, we joined the thousands of other rural Arkansans who rely on a combination of the nearest Wal-Mart and the local grocery store/deli/gas station for all our food, most of our clothing, and everything in between. We marveled at the payphones, which charged a mere dime per phone call that year. We learned to coat ourselves in insect repellant before catching fireflies and playing with our pets in the yard. We rejoiced at the joys of Southern cooking, sipping on sweet tea for the first time and frying up green tomato slices. We eagerly joined the nearest Southern Baptist church and walked the half-mile down our dirt road on Sunday mornings together to congregate and later devour the best church potluck food I’ve ever tasted in my life, prepared by the most viciously competitive elderly women on the face of the planet.

Of course, moving to Arkansas had its drawbacks, too. I reluctantly quit competing in gymnastics after discovering that the only local gymnastics facility consisted of the oldest and most questionable equipment I’d ever seen, along with the most reticent coach I’d encountered. I laughed when my fifth grade teacher announced that she hoped to not have to use her paddle on any of us, only to receive silencing stares from my classmates who knew all too well that she wasn’t joking. I missed the vast wheat fields and frequent gusts of wind I’d come to expect in Kansas, replaced by heavy, humid, long summer days.

When we moved to Arkansas, we stepped back in time. While I didn’t fully appreciate my parents’ decision to relocate our family at the time, I now understand their motives. They wanted us to enjoy life and take our time exploring the world. They desired for us to form a close-knit family, spending more time together than apart. They longed for us to understand the meaning of real neighbors, the kind you can call on for a cup of sugar or a last-minute ride to town in case of car trouble. They hoped we’d succeed in school and form lasting friendships in our much smaller classes. They seized the financial opportunity to take advantage of the stronger demand for professionals in their fields, and we all benefited.

They wanted to start over. And they did this by taking a step back.

Every time I sit on the porch of my old farmhouse with my husband, admiring the woods surrounding us, discussing our next fishing trip, I understand that by moving to the Ozarks and slowing down the hands of time in our lives, they pushed us further ahead.

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