One evening in late spring, I returned home from two weeks of flitting through major airports and hurrying bare-footed through security sensors. I was bone-weary from cramped planes — the center seat too many times — and delayed flights.
Home never felt, smelled or looked so good. The cows bawled hello, my two cats joyously bounced around the garage and a lick-happy, shivering Dixie Dew, my dog, danced with delight. The world felt perfectly right and cozy.
The next morning, I awoke to birds chirping and a rabbit zigzagging across the backyard. I stepped out on the porch, felt a gentle, warm breeze and inhaled the fragrance of blooming confederate jasmine and honeysuckle. I listened, but heard nothing except for those creatures of nature and a dog in the distance. No traffic, no voices, no television, no video games, just the Lord’s sweet sounds. It was music to my ears.
I decided to start my annual ritual of cleaning the back porch, turning it from winter’s dark, dirty gray to bright and washed down with Clorox. I gathered the brushes and buckets and began. I scrubbed from the floor the red dirt that had been tracked in by Mississippi the cat. What a mess she had made since autumn. Every year, it is such a rite of passage for me to prepare the porch, the swing and the rockers for several months of sitting with books, coffee and friends. On nights when the moon is full and the crickets sing, the back-porch swing is the best seat in the house.
Dressed in shorts, a T-shirt and sans shoes, I padded through the grass to the spigot when, suddenly, the air lifted just a bit and, at that moment, the smell and feel of it transported me back to all those summers long ago, when I was kid. Years melted away, and though it would seem that I have come so far, I realized I was back where it all began. The ground beneath my feet these days is the same dirt of my childhood. The stream where my cousin and I fished with poles made from sticks and string runs through the front yard. In those days it was all pasture, but now there is a house and a fence made of wood instead of barbed wire.
It is home. Then and now.
I can’t explain what it is about the land of our raising that imprisons us, but Southerners are held in bondage to our native soil, whether it is the orange dust of Alabama, the rich black dirt of the Mississippi Delta or even the stubborn, red clay of Georgia. That ground wraps itself around our ankles like kudzu-covered shackles and holds us captive to that place called “home.”
Country singer Marty Stuart, a Philadelphia, Miss., native, once explained that when he needs to center himself and find his true creativity, he “always goes back to the dirt roads of Mississippi.”
This I know: In the South, we do not possess the land. It is too strong and mighty of a force to be held by any deed-holder. The land, instead, possesses us. Try though we might, we cannot escape its hold.
So now I find myself plunked back down amidst the kudzu, blackberry bushes and maple trees of my childhood. Many days I swing on the porch, completely entertained by the simplicity of the memories that lie embedded in the hard clay or the quietness of a world far removed from city intrusion.
Truman Capote, the Alabama-raised writer, often said, “Every Southerner goes home sooner or later, even if in a pine box.”
I’m glad I didn’t wait for the pine box to bring me.
Rich is the best-selling author of “There’s A Better Day A-Comin’.”