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I guess I thought there’d be fried chicken. Back home, we had the world’s best fried chicken, served family-style at every corner, and we heard tales from those who ventured outside our tiny farming community about how there was none to be found. And yet I held out hope that there was one other place that would have my favorite food. That place of which I dreamed was the South. Now, as I sit on my front porch and wonder how I could have been so wrong, I determine it wasn’t my fault. From the television and through the country music airwaves, I had collected enough clues over my lifetime to determine that the South must be a fried-chicken haven. Had I not swallowed such propaganda, I might have stayed in Illinois.
It’s April, and mine are the only windows open on the street. The other porches stand empty, and I can hear my neighbors’ air-conditioners running. Even the school where I teach is air-conditioned, unlike the one back home. In August, my old classroom was thick with humidity as I tried to teach the American Revolution to a room full of lethargic 9-year-olds. In May, bumblebees made their way into our class. Interlopers, we called them. Harmless and insignificant.
The memory brings my concerns back to the lesson plans on my lap. I do not know how to teach the Civil War to my new students. I am embarrassed, because suddenly I do not understand this familiar topic. Before, I simply taught the dates and events in the textbook. I quizzed students on what I thought was a simple struggle between the just and the corrupt. Like myself, my students descended from poor immigrants from places like Italy, Ireland and Poland. Our ancestors toiled in ditches and coal mines, but never on Southern plantations. As my students recited lines from the Gettysburg Address, I was never concerned about any personal ties to either side of the war. Here, though, I am on unfamiliar familial territory. I wonder if it would be inappropriate to ask another teacher.
Everyone on staff is friendly and they have welcomed me. Yet there are moments when I feel like an outsider, baffled by some of their gossip. As I work not to hear the wide variety of accents as different from my own, I do not understand the preoccupation with who is or who is not a redneck or which parents sound country. I maintain that people here are the same as folks back home. There are wise characters and ignorant ones, kindhearted souls and selfish individuals. Sometimes I forget that I’m someplace else, because so much is universal. Then I see someone taking aspirin in powdered form and I remember where I am.
Yet, despite my desire to find similarities, there seems to be a unified effort amongst my peers to differentiate themselves as Southerners. When they exchange plastic trinkets bearing sayings about Southern ladies, I bite my tongue rather than ask if they were made in China. It’s not my place. When one of the other women declares that she married a redneck, bless his heart, I wince. I hope never to have my heart blessed in my lifetime. To my ear, it sounds too close to rest her soul. Once, I walked in on a conversation about the former principal, who moved back North. She was a damn Yankee, the secretary said with sweet, warm laughter. I expected them to halt or to become uncomfortable as I sat down, but they didn’t. Either they’d forgotten that I was from the North or they didn’t care. With a final bless her heart, the conversation moved to shoes.
Back on my front porch, my thoughts return to the question of what to do about lunch. I bring my lesson plans inside, grab my keys and head out. I do not take my usual route, toward the chain restaurants. I take a new way, even though there appears to be nothing but a liquor store, a cheap motel and a whole lot of nothing. I feel like exploring.
I see it at the exact moment I am passing it, and I almost can’t believe it. An old, stone archway bearing the words Confederate Cemetery, set back a little way from the road. I turn around in the liquor store parking lot and return to the spot. Now I am certain I’m not in Illinois. In awe, I turn onto a narrow driveway, barely wide enough for one car. A placard explains that 150-some unidentified soldiers, retrieved from local hospitals, are buried on these grounds. I feel like I’ve discovered a sacred treasure. I find well-maintained acres of green grass with old trees and stone benches. No headstones.
I park my car and I stand at the gate, mesmerized. A sign welcomes respectful guests, but I hesitate. I think of Julian, dead at 21 and buried hundreds of miles to the north. What if he and I had been born in a different time, a different place? I know these men fought for the Confederacy, but all I can see in my mind are mothers, sisters and wives. Did their fathers wail at the news of their sons’ deaths? Did their mothers quickly apply masks of strength, lest they fall apart when their families needed them? Were they even certain that their boys had died, or had they spent years wondering, searching for their faces in crowds? Did their sweethearts go insane?
The day is sunny and there is a slight breeze. Birds sing overhead. I move my hand toward the latch and then I freeze, watching a bumblebee fly through the gate. Interloper, I whisper. I linger at the gate, looking in.
Lisa Ploch Swope loves her new home of Chattanooga, relocating here from Kansas City last year. She and her husband enjoy hiking and discovering the area’s natural beauty.