Southern Charms

How to describe the South without using cliches like “hospitality” and “hydrogenated vegetable oils”? Returning to South Carolina last week gave way to my nostalgia. In 1985, I was a semi-sweet, semi-innocent Yankee, lured to Aiken, SC, with a good job at a bomb plant and the romantic notion that kudzu-wrapped iron gates and secret gardens could be a part of this Philly girl’s future. Of course, it wasn’t quite so.

Part of my husband’s and my visit was a stay in Columbia, where my step-daughter Morgan is attending grad school at USC. In sharp contrast to step-mommy, she is loving the southern life. She was born to primp, taking showers that could drain small water bodies.   Her southern friends have labeled her the “Cowgirl,” and she considers herself low-maintenance, comparatively speaking.

Karl, Morgan and I took a day-trip from Columbia to Aiken, a place I left in 1986 without looking back, not even once. These two people must love me–memory lane crap is admittedly dull for everyone else, unless you find a brew pub. Aiken surely did not have a brew pub in 1985, but they do now. And they deep-fry pretzel nubs. De-Licious.

Nothing in Aiken rang a bell for me– not my old apartment, not the road to the bomb plant, not downtown. Only Hopelands Gardens. It was the only place in the AAA Tour Book in 1985, so I probably went there 6 or 100 times over the course of my 9-month residency. The gardens and its pools were as stunning as ever, and honestly it all came rushing back to me: the 1985 romance with an incredibly fun but unstable man-child from Mo-Town, the Sunday-finest dinner with my visiting parents at the Waffle House, car pools to the bomb plant with go-cups and Funyuns.

Morgan and Karl at Hopelands gardens

The South was a place of contradiction for me, always. Just as I was learning to speak out – compliments of the unstable boyfriend – I was living in a place where it wasn’t really appropriate to say what you were thinking. Southern boys talked slow and moved slow, and I was looking for something fast. The bars were beer-only; wine coolers were exotic and could only be bought if you carried cash and wore a Scarlet Letter. Life—the real stuff that happened and no one talked about—all seemed to be subterranean, tucked away in those hidden gardens with iron gates wrapped in kudzu.

Garden Pool and Goddess

205-H Fairway Ridge—my apartment number from 1985 buzzed into my head out of nowhere, and the iPhone lead us right to it. Staring at an apartment complex that looked as different or the same as any other apartment I’d ever lived in, seeing nothing of the old me anymore, I turned back to the rental car. Morgan was yawning and adjusting her tourmaline-wanded hair. Karl was securing the growler of Aiken’s finest nut-brown ale behind the driver’s seat. I gave one last look at 205-H, at the ghost of me who wasn’t sure whether to cry silently or to scream a big F-you to the cheating creep in Detroit, and gave it a silent, southern goodbye.

205-H…farewell.

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About Michele Finn Johnson

Michele Finn Johnson’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, DIAGRAM, The Adroit Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction won an AWP Intro Journals Project Award. Michele lives in Tucson. More at michelefinnjohnson.com; @m_finn_johnson.
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