I know you’ve all been such troopers sticking with me through my ramblings about road trip after road trip. Probably you’re just grateful that you’re not anywhere near my laundry pile right now and are ready to hear about something more interesting. Hopefully we’ll get to that. But until we tackle the biggest and most important trip of the batch: our trip home to Atlanta for my birthday.
I’ve mentioned in an off-handed sort of way a few times that I’m a Maryland transplant from Atlanta, Georgia. I was born there, but my family is originally from New York, so I spent most of my childhood feeling slightly displaced. I don’t say “y’all” more than about four times a year when I’m so tired that I’m probably actually trying to say something else anyway. I have no Southern accent. I can put on a decent one, but it’s really not natural at all. (Actually, when I’m really groggy, I sound like I’m from Brooklyn. You can thank my grandpa.) I don’t speak slowly or like to be outside in the Summer (ok–Southerners don’t really like this. They like their air conditioners.) I don’t have a fried chicken recipe that I swear by or eat chitlins or do much frying in general. I have no relatives who fly confederate flags from the backs of their pickup trucks. While I do know how to make a nice pitcher of sun tea, I don’t like to tell people that I’m fixin’ it.
It wasn’t until I moved to Maryland that I began to actually feel Southern. Most likely this is a result of many a heated argument that my husband and I have had regarding whether Maryland can be considered “the South.” He’s from here and defends this little state’s Southern-ness (yes, not really a word, but it’s been too long a day to care) tooth and nail. He argues that they wanted to secede from the Union, but mean ol’ Mr. Lincoln incarcerated the entire voting body so they couldn’t vote to do so. He’ll remind you that it’s technically south of the Mason-Dixon line. He’ll even quote a president as saying that Baltimore was a city of “Northern charm and Southern industry.” (Nice, huh?)
It wasn’t until I moved here that I started getting defensive about what’s really the South. Here’s my argument: None of the cashiers at the grocery store strike up a regular conversation with me while I’m unloading my cart. Eighty percent of the restaurants and fast food chains have pepsi products (shudder) instead of Coke. “Sweet” tea up here tastes like unsweetened tea where I come from. For that matter, in the real South, when you ask for a tea, they just bring you a sweet tea (a fact that used to drive me crazy when I lived there and wanted a cup of hot tea and had to phrase it as such.) Every building there has central ac–no matter how cheap the rent is. The grocery store’s policy is that they carry your bags out for you and you’re not allowed to tip the guy. There is a Waffle House on every exit. The Braves are, and always will be, America’s team. I could go on, but I’m sure you’re already convinced.
We usually compromise by agreeing that Maryland is not the “deep” South. For the health of our marriage.
All this is to say that after our miraculously short drive down (13 hours down driving overnight), I was ready to soak up every last bit of my semi-Southern/semi-New York Italian & Irish hometown and family as possible. We did it right folks: two Waffle House trips, a Zaxby’s stop (how I wish they’d open one up here!), two big family parties, and going directly from our air-conditioned rental car to similarly arctic conditions wherever we were going. We had a blast.
The best part, though, was seeing my family for the first time since Christmas. We were supposed to go down for Easter, but between my surgery and the husband’s new job having just started, there was just no vacation time. We made dinner with my mom and sister, stayed up late talking and drinking tea (hot tea with milk and sugar for the record–Irish style) as we’ve always done in my family, and watched baseball movies.
We also had a family party to celebrate all of the birthdays from August and September (5, if you’re curious. Although we added the one October kid in to make it 6). I adore our family parties. There’s something about being just this one simultaneously very important and not really important at all person in a loud, loving, swirling mass of aunts, uncles, cousins, and children of assorted ages. I feel more grounded, more me, and more at home than I do just about anywhere else.
As long as I can remember, we would have one birthday party a month for any family members born during it (hey–it’s expensive to feed that many people,) except for the horrible, sad gap between New Year’s and Easter. There are only four birthdays during this gap and because we’ll have just lugged out the big bucks to afford Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s parties back-to-back-to-back, we have to take a break. It took me years to realize that I would often sink into a mild depression during this time of year because I needed the madness of my beautiful and crazy family to recharge. Turns out, I needed the physical closeness and volume and food and jokes and hugs to feel connected to my sense of self.
Our modern secular culture would not like my family or my reliance upon it. This culture constantly tells us that we’re supposed to be entirely self-reliant, self-contained, and self-important. Our identity should never be wrapped up in someone else, it says. We must be independent! Chase our dreams! Sacrifice for no one!
But guess what? Our faith teaches us that being interdependent, being consistently generous, and emptying ourselves for the love of others is how we get to Heaven. What my family taught me, without knowing it, is that it is better to be part of the love and madness of a family than to be self-contained. They taught me that sacrificing my eardrums and my personal space and spending hours over a hot stove to prepare a meal for twenty-something people to show them that I love them is the best thing in the world. When I’m home, I am just one very loved but singular component of the great, big, wonderful thing that is my family, for which I would give whatever is required of me.
My family prepared me for my vocation as a wife and, hopefully some day, a mother. Because the unconditional and sacrificial love that I’m overwhelmed by and surrounded by during a regular family dinner is a sign, a dim reflection, of the beatific vision that I’m stumbling towards, Heaven. And it’s a great thing if I can focus on yearning for that Heavenly home the way that I yearn for this earthly one.