It was in a Minnesota movie theater in 1963 when I first suspected I was a Southerner. I was a boy of mixed heritage --my father a New Yorker of German ancestry, my mother born and raised in the Scots- Irish piedmont of North Carolina.
The South had been a mystery to me. After my parents' bitter divorce, I spent most of my childhood with what is now known as a blended family, moving from place to place to accommodate my stepfather's employment as a psychologist for state mental hospitals. And so we wandered, to the Virgin Islands, to Phoenix, to Montana, and to Minnesota, places so removed from the South that I was watching in that movie that day.
It was a re-release of Gone With the Wind, and I was curious to see what the real film looked like on something other than our small black and white television. It was gorgeous, and so exotic to me (and to the other people in the dark theater, folks with last names such as Svenson and Olsen). It was during a quiet moment I heard a woman sniffle, and I glanced a few rows over and saw my mother wiping tears. We had come separately (unknown to each other) for different reasons.
My mother had been the constant Southern presence in my life. No matter where we lived, her accent stamped her, connected her with the people we were watching on the screen. As we each saw Atlanta burning, I remembered when we had lived there briefly, until our family split, when I was six.
Her memories went deeper. She was surprised to see me waiting outside after the movie. What possessed you to see this, she asked, and I told her I had no idea. I do, she said. You a Southern boy, Boy. If you were walking the streets of Monroe North Carolina, anybody that saw you would say "that's a Ross." We talked a bit about her childhood, her accent deepening a bit the longer she spoke.
In a few years we moved to Charlotte, where my grandparents lived, a place we had visited often, the stepfather now history. I was home.
If I had to choose one word to describe what North Carolina did to me these last 50 years or so, it would be "inculcate," a marvelous word describing the act of impressing or instilling, placing the idea of Southern-ness in the hierarchy of who I am. Not the Lost Cause South, but the wonderful, eccentric, beautiful, and flawed place of Faulkner, Welty, Harper Lee, and Pat Conroy and other writers who describe it so perfectly.
And so today I'm thinking of civil wars. The one in the movie. The one between my parents. And the one I'm seeing today, each heartbreaking in its own way.
As I drove to and from the Outer Banks last week, the devastation I saw from the hurricane was a metaphor for what's happening to my home, and by my affection for this place, to me.
Think a good thought for North Carolina today, won't you? This Southern Boy would appreciate it.