When I moved to North Carolina, there was no way I was going to stay. I’d finish college and return to Western New York – which would always be home.
These intentions were only solidified after two years in the Tarheel State. I hated it there. Hated the culture, hated the weather, hated the “wussy” things people did for fun. Oh, and Southern cuisine wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Fried food sucked, college football sucked, golf sucked, vanity license plates sucked … everything just, well, sucked.
But here I am, more than 10 years after graduating college. I’m even further from Western New York.
I WILL NEVER FORGET those all-night drives to New York while in college. I hated flying because it lacked the thrill that came from witnessing everything get better the farther north I traveled. Virginia felt more like home than North Carolina. West Virginia felt more like home than Virginia. Maryland, then Pennsylvania … and finally, New York.
One such night in college came as a surprise to my parents. I arrived in the middle of the night and the dog pissed all over the driveway when it saw it was his long lost running buddy who’d just got out of the car. Mom and Dad turned on their bedroom lamp, shot out of bed – confused at first before finally erupting into smiles. They actually got up and had a cup of coffee with me before we all went to sleep.
The rest of my family would see me always before I went back to the South and every old friend I had time to see would drink at least two beers with me (the closest ended up consuming much more than that). And the food – luscious, giant slabs of beer battered fish on Friday nights, pizza, REAL chicken wings, red meat galore, great Polish cuisine, above average Italian cuisine – it was always good to eat food the way it was supposed to be eaten.
THOSE TRIPS ARE FAR and few between today, though. Nothing is wrong with the place. Nothing has changed … literally. My family and friends who remain in the area, I miss dearly. The food is still great.
But you don’t have to watch out for fire ants when you’re barefoot in March. They don’t have old men who will hold you up for three to 27 minutes as you’re walking into a store because they thought you looked like someone they knew 20 years ago. They don’t have jasmine. Crepe myrtles aren’t in every third front yard. There aren’t signs in front of houses selling unshelled pecans for $5 per quart-size Ziploc bag. They don’t have magnolia. And they don’t have the sweet nectar of a trumpet honeysuckle.
I did not like North Carolina because in one case, I lived in a coastal city (I did not realize I hate the beach so much until I moved there), I was bogged down by a new career in another NC city and I was too focused on recently becoming a single parent to a 2-year-old girl in the third city to bask in its glory.
That third city in NC … it almost had me. Kinston was its name and I reflect on it presently with adoration. I lived with my daughter in a small cottage I rented surrounded by cotton fields. I remember in the fall, mice seemed like they were everywhere inside the house, so when I reported this to my landlord – an old, small-in-stature-but-large-in-personality Southern woman who always wore an apron, whose house always smelled like fried food and always had tea brewing on the stove – just said, “Well, they ain’t too bad this year.”
“This year?” I said. She made it sound like snowfall in Western New York.
“Oh, yeah,” she calmly replied. “When those boys start ta harvesting the cotton, them mice coming running out of the fields and into people’s houses.”
She gave me a stack of those paper mouse traps with one side that was all super-strength adhesive. She told me to just put these in cupboards, corners, along baseboards.
“When one gets stuck, you’ll hear it scream and scream ‘cuz it can’t get off,” she said with an evil laugh. “Then you just roll it up, take it outside and squeeze it real hard until you hear it crack, then they stop.
“Then just throw it in the trash so you don’t get blood everywhere.”
This was a different flavor of where I was from, but resembled its simplicity and strength. People just did what they had to do to live their lives.
I liked Kinston.
LIFE EVENTUALLY TOOK me to South Carolina, though. By then, I was more acclimated to the South and prepared for a version of North Carolina that was even less progressive. I’d advanced beyond critiquing locals’ treatment of black people (since much of the North still views the South as Ku Klux Klan sympathizers) as I learned if either side needs a lesson in tolerance, it’s the place I’m from. I no longer felt as if I were on a constant journey to gather information to take home when I left the South. On top of that, the Carolinas was where my daughter was from … it is her home, so it might as well be mine, I thought.
Not that it took much convincing.
South Carolina sealed the deal for me. It was all the good things about North Carolina without the vanity license plates on SUVs. I saw few plots of forest giving way to million-dollar homes creating neighborhoods with names like “Landfall” and “Trent Woods.” I saw more farmland that was always going to be farmland because it’d be a cold day in Hell before the old timers allowed the nephew of a guy they went to school with vote in favor of a land development at a county council meeting.
Even the cities were more my speed. I actually – on a rare occasion, but it happens, nonetheless – take my children, today, to visit cities in South Carolina. If I wanted to carry a loaded handgun in my glove box without some government paperwork, I could. I learned to appreciate the food because it wasn’t like anyplace else. I loved the privacy offered in South Carolina … folks would try to get to know you when you move somewhere or start a job, but once you made it clear you’d rather they did not, they’d leave you alone. Of course, they’d circle back to quiet stabs at getting you to their church, but even this was not aggressive.
I REALIZED ALL of this when discussing what our family would do for upcoming spring break. It hasn’t been unusual to use this time for a Western New York trip, but we did not do that last year and I don’t anticipate it happening this year. There’s just too much interesting nothing going on here to leave for a week. The sun is out every day. Flowers have been coming up for a month and I’ve already cut grass three times. My daughter is talking about everything she wants to plant in the garden and my son, who is 3, considers every weekend a major holiday because he gets to run around our fields, swing from tree limbs, slide for hours from his wooden swing set, cut trails through wildflowers in a trailer behind the tractor and “help” me in the shop, fixing little things around the house that may or may not actually need fixed.
The most resistance I anticipate to my proposal we stay home for spring break will come from Hollie, who is – interestingly enough – a Georgia native. She’s visited Western New York twice with me since we met and loves the place. Maybe we can compromise with a couple of days at the beach (which would be a compromise because – remember – I loathe any beach and the freaks who go there).
So this is the evolution of my definition of home. I think WNY will always be dear to me and conjure a host of memories, but my heart will forever be in the place I’ve found that is both vacation and home.
Yes, I believe my life has finally become a vacation. I have no desire to leave this place. Above all else, it is home.