This week I did something I have never really done properly before: I went back home. In this case, it was back home to a place I only lived for a few sweaty, metamorphic years -- Savannah, GA. And I took a witness, my 10 year old son. We had a ball. This was all a new experience for me. In my family, we are slash-and-burn transitioners. We go to a place, we leave, and that's that. How would I know the pleasure of returning to a home that had actually gotten better while I was gone?
The Savannah that was my home in the early 80s was a Southern grande dame carrying around an empty martini glass and still wearing a torn ballgown on a Tuesday morning. The one I returned to was a chic, eccentric heiress with polished gams and a penchant for hanging modern art in her grandmother's parlor. (More on this transformation in a later post...) I had moved to Savannah on a whim. One cold February night in Blacksburg, VA as I tried to get warm in my virtually unheated house by sitting in a hot bath, I was playing my favorite game -- Rand McNally. I'd open the road atlas, propped on the side of the tub, close my eyes, and stab my finger onto a page. The game was to then imagine myself living in that place -- from home to job to tree out front and pool out back. Even. That night I was playing for keeps. Tired of college, directionless, on my third major, and fed up with my boyfriend, I promised myself that I would move that week to wherever my finger landed. The first time, it landed on Tulsa. (I decided that was a test run.) The second, I opened my eyes to Savannah. The next day I borrowed somebody's mother's station wagon, took all my money (about $300) out of the bank, and left.
Savannah was exotic, funky, and more Deeply Southern than even I had experienced (despite my growing up in Richmond VA, capital of the Confederacy). Savannah was not only segragated strictly by race, it was also divided between two kinds of white people. Both groups nursed a vehement disdain for eachother. Category One, the bigger one, was made up of the so-called "true Savannese," people who actually said things like "ma family has been he-ah since evra thud dog died of yella feevah." (Actual documented event.) Category Two was the smaller subset and included drifters, seekers, and the dissolute cousins and unacknowledged offspring of Category One. This small, but rambling group tended to drink cocktails for breakfast, move into their relatives homes unannounced, and run boats into things like stop signs. Since I was neither in One or Two, my very existence in Savannah was questionable. The true Savannese could honestly not understand why a stranger would be in their city without some alternate malevolent reason, e.g. burning, sacking, looting. This, and the fact that I was a vegetarian, might have been enough to get me locked up as a matter of public safety alone. Fortunately, I rented my first apartment from some friendly Category Two squatters ("jus watchin' ma uncle's place while he's off makin' money in some Naw'thin pisshole"), who took an immediate liking to me because I could make a perfect batch of Pimm's Cup before 8AM.
With $40 left after paying rent and a security deposit (!) to the squatters, I shaved my hippie legs, hit the pavement, and (based on my excellent math skills), got a job as a bank teller at a pile of marble downtown. A few months later, I changed up to work at the brand new Savannah College of Art and Design as their first assistant librarian. (More on that later). Somewhere in between, my disgruntled boyfriend joined me down south. In a stroke of genius, I got one of the best dogs I've ever had there, who turned out to be an even better companion than the boyfriend. And I learned a lot -- both good and bad -- about that ubiquitous and contradictory thing called "southern living." (More on that later too.)
Fast forward to this week, 25 years later, and I am standing in my old bank, pointing out to my son the till where I cashed old men's social security checks and tucked a few dollars into their redbook savings accounts. The 20-foot walnut walls are polished to a high gleam and the old security guard smiles at us while I explain my old job.
"The fishermen from the islands brought in their money everyday at 11, and it smelled like fish, and they spoke Gullah to eachother and English to me. That sounded like a little Jamaican, a little Ivory Coast, a whole lotta I don't understand. Their head man did the banking for everyone on the island, and that could take a whole hour, and I'd have to close my line."
"Mom, you're talking funny now."
At first I don't understand him, and then I realize that, over the past couple of days, my vowels have been getting longer and taking some mighty wide turns. The old "yes ma'am" training has switched back on. And that morning, when a car whizzed by too close, a "Have mercy!" popped right out of my mouth. I swear.
"Ah guess ah'm gittin' ma accent back, shugah," I tell him.
Sometimes it's really good to go home again.