As I rounded the curve that took me past my great-grandparents’ farm, the fields along the side of the road provided glimpses of a few wispy strands of cotton clinging to plants lying in wait to be plowed back into the deep black soil at the end of the season. That black soil put food on the tables of generations of my family, nourished children, sent them to college. Some of those children returned home to work the land, to grow more crops and more children. Others, like my grandfather, moved to town.
But the pull of the country wasn’t lost even on me, three generations removed from that place. The excitement I felt every time I neared the outskirts of town as a child–riding on the armrests of my grandfather’s boat-like Lincoln Continental, listening to the Chipmunks Christmas Album on 8-track–seems as fresh as if it happened yesterday. I spent Thanksgivings, Christmases, and Easters wrapped in the love of people who knew that land well, who took me out to the fields and let me discover what cotton balls really feel like, who taught me the difference between corn and maize. I hunted Easter eggs on cold, windy March days on the lawn of the white clapboard Baptist church, and ate as much divinity as I could hold while waiting to open my Christmas presents.
Today marked the end of that era in many ways. My great-aunt, the last of my grandfather’s immediate family, died on Friday. We buried her in the rural cemetery where not only her husband and her brothers lie but also where she joins her parents and their parents. My father and I walked down to my grandfather’s grave, and he talked about how one day he and my mother would add his family name to those already there.
It’s good to belong to a place. My aunt lived all of her ninety years there. My mother and I were both born in the city hospital a few miles away. It’s a place where the Sheriff still leads the line of mourners to the city limits and salutes as they pass by, where other drivers pull to the side of the road to pay their respects, where local women make macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, and more desserts than you can count to feed the family after the burial.
While I may go years between visits, each time I return I feel the pull of belonging. It’s the place I began, and more and more I realize, it’s a place I might want to add my own name to in the end.