This town. Every morning I drive toward it and watch it appear in the fold of the sky, at the edge of the horizon. Spread from the center like spilled milk, it reaches out to greet me, its permeable edge drawing me in.
This town is my town. I was born, taught and preached to in one after another of its red brick buildings. Under its pines and magnolias, its humid skies, its drawling voices, I learned to breathe, to read, to believe.
This town is the answer to the question I’ve been asked a thousand times. Where are you from? A simple inquiry made heavy by the weight of a stranded preposition. On this morning, a few days before Christmas, I am asking myself that question. Where am I from? Not what point of geography do I call my provenance, but what is my source.
While I read the newspaper, check phone messages, review my calendar, my mind wanders. I remember, with the perspective of an adult, what it was like to grow up here. This was the town where strangers called tourists were always allowed to merge into traffic and given a smile and a wave. This was the town where families named Minkovitz and Seligman and Rudderman operated stores where my family and I happily shopped for Buster Brown shoes and Villager skirts. This was the town that desegregated its public schools without any of the violence that was broadcast into our homes from other towns on the evening news, even as its Confederate monument stood silently on the courthouse square.
The last memory comes into sharper focus. It is the first day of desegregation. I am in fifth grade at Mattie Lively. Neither I nor any of my classmates know what to expect. Our teacher, Julia Trapnell, her shirtwaist dress starch-pressed and trim, opens the classroom door and a girl, a black girl, walks in. “Children,” Mrs. Trapnell says, “this is Kathy Love. She is going to be in our class.”
No one says anything. “Kathy.” It is clear Mrs. Trapnell is speaking to me, not the new girl. “I’d like for you to sit at the table in the back with the new Kathy while she gets adjusted.” I pick up my books and silently move to the rear of the room, waiting for Kathy Love to join me.
I look out the window, the window of my office that, when I was in fifth grade, would have been the storeroom of the Buggy and Wagon building, and I try to remember more about that day, the day 10-year-old Kathy Love, all on her own, changed this town. But I can’t.
What I can remember, though, is a day about a year ago. I’d been invited to speak to the local Board of Realtors. We ate civic club lunch food and then I was introduced by my friend the program chairman and then I spoke for the allotted 15 to 20 minutes about writing and words and power. When I was done, lots of kind people — some of whom I knew, some of whom I didn’t — came up to shake my hand and tell me thank you.
One of those people was a young black man — tall and lean, with an easy smile. He offered his hand with an enthusiasm that made me know he had found the right profession. “I am Reginald Love,” he offered.
“Are you from here?” I asked. “I went to school with some Loves.”
And, upon hearing that he was, in fact, a Bulloch County Love, I proceeded for some inexplicable reason to tell him the story, the story of the day I met Kathy Love. By the time I finished, his smile had transformed to a grin.
“I’ve heard that story,” he said. “My family tells it, the story that Kathy was given a helper, a friend.”
I gasped, gripped his hand in both my own while tears welled in my eyes. “Thank you,” I offered. They were the only words worth saying.
Every town has its stories, stories that rise from its people and then fall back down like rain upon their shoulders to bring forth more. It is important to tell them.
Where am I from? I am from this town. This town is my town. This town is me.