The sky above turned slowly from azure to the delicate blue-green of a robin’s egg, and the unearthly stillness of rural twilight came stealthily down about her. – Margaret Mitchell
I’m reading Gone With the Wind again, and it is making me homesick for the red clay of middle Georgia, where our family traveled from our marshy home on the coast to visit Grandaddy and Nannie on their farm.
Compared to the flat lowlands of southern coastal Georgia, the rolling hills and deciduous forests of central Georgia were like a different country to me. Where we had low, always-green live oaks, dripping with gray beards of Spanish moss that swayed in the breeze, and our hills were bridges over tidal rivers, middle Georgia had tall trees – hickories, and scarlet oaks – that cast cool shade in summer and were stripped bare as bones in winter, and the land undulated like knees under a green blanket. Where we had sandy soil fit for cabbage palms and saw palmettos, they had rich red clay that yielded emerald crops of corn and cotton.
Where we had the ocean, they had the swimming hole. Or the yellow lake.
In summer, when our cousins came down from Virginia to Eatonton, the small town in North-to-us Georgia where Grandaddy and Nannie lived, Uncle Clayton and Aunt Dot hosted a pig roast at the lake. Aunt Dot’s hair was teased up into a blue-black beehive, and her hands clicked with rings and lacquered nails. She always brought bags of candy for the kids, and she doled it out to us in secret, away from our parents. She’d pull a piece from the bag and say, in her honey drawl, “Here you go sugar,” and she’d smile with her bright red lips and wink.
The kids ran around in 1980’s neon bathing suits while our parents sipped beer from pull tab cans. They sat in a circle around a bubbling pot-bellied cauldron. The black stew pot was big enough for a small child to climb inside. While we splashed in the silty lake, or slapped mosquitoes in the shade as we played Monopoly in the bed of Grandaddy’s silver pick-up, they drank Budweiser and stirred Brunswick Stew. They took turns with a paddle that looked like a sawed off canoe oar, and they stirred for hours, passing the wooden scull clockwise around the ring.
After tending the pig – a whole pig, head and all – on the spit in his homemade cinderblock barbeque pit, Uncle Clayton would amble over to the pot to check the progress of his stew. He’d stand over the cauldron that came up to his thighs, then look over his shoulder for Aunt Dot, who was grinding meat, or prepping potato salad, or laying plates, or icing her Coca-Cola cake. When he felt safe she wasn’t looking he’d block her view of the kettle with his body, pull a bottle of Tabasco from his overalls, waggle his eyebrows, and dump the whole bottle of hot sauce in.
“Clayton, don’t you make that too hot!” Aunt Dot hollered from the dessert table.
As a kid, I didn’t care much about the food. Well, except for Aunt Dot’s cakes. But I remember the fun and freedom of a day at the lake with the cousins. The adults relaxed and laughed in their grown-up conversations while we ran from swimming, to pick-up truck, to digging worms, to fishing, always drinking cold Coke from shiny red cans and eating Aunt Dot’s secret candies.
At the end of the day, we rode back over to Nannie and Grandaddy’s house, drowsy in the bed of the pick-up as the truck rose and fell over rolling hills. At their house, we barely went indoors, except maybe to change clothes, before we retired outside on the front porch to feel the sunset. Drained from the day, we were lulled into quiet. As twilight descended, the only sounds were the creak of the porch swing chain, the gentle thump of rockers on porch planks, and the rising chorus of katydids. Ice clinked in glasses and heads leaned against the top rails of rocking chairs.
And then, the squeal of the first cousin to see a firefly pierced the revery. Nannie gave us jars as we jumped off the porch swing. The empty bench swung wildly while the chain screeched its surprise. We – my brother, our cousins, and me – ran down the green hill, chasing lightning bugs in rural twilight, in the magic freedom of childhood.
It’s easy to romanticize the Georgia of my childhood now that I’m grown. I remember the lake with fondness, and the front porch with a nostalgia that aches. Nannie and Grandaddy, and Uncle Clayton, they’re all gone now. The cousins are all grown. As an adult, the red clay and green hills of Georgia still grip me, but they are not a part of my life anymore except in memories, and visits that are too short, and too seldom, and too adult to feel magical.
For the next week, though, while I lose myself in Margaret Mitchell’s glorious prose, my heart will sing for the land I grew up on, and I will miss Georgia. Gone with the Wind will move me with the beauty, and the memory, and the magic of my home.