When I was a little girl, our vacations always sent us north toward Rock City and Ruby Falls, Stone Mountain and Grant Park, Cherokee and the Great Smokies. And, in the absence in those days of an interstate highway system, our trek always took us through Eatonton, home of Joel Chandler Harris, creator of Uncle Remus.
Fast food dispensaries were, like the interstate, a fixture of the future, and the thought — not to mention the expense — of eating in a restaurant was anathema to my parents, thus we used up most of the car trunk space to, in the words of my mother, “pack a picnic lunch.” The picnic area at the Joel Chandler Harris Museum became our regular stopping point, and when I remember those summer road trips, the memories always include the physical sensations of the cool concrete bench under my bare legs, the softness of Sunbeam bread collapsing in my mouth, the feel of thick, green grass under my bare feet. And the laughter.
Oh, the laughter. Mama and Daddy with their best friends and traveling companions, Mr. John and Miss Frances. Me and Keith with their children. Everything was funny, even the mishaps. It was summer and we were on a road trip, and the trunk had been too full of sandwich meat and potato chips and powdered doughnuts to leave any room for seriousness.
Last Saturday, I was back in Eatonton for the first time in probably 30 years. I’d been invited to speak to a women’s conference. I arrived early, greeted my hosts and got my bearings. I turned down an offer of coffee — explaining that I take my caffeine cold and carbonated — and asked for directions to the nearest place open at that hour that could provide the same.
I’m certain the directions were good, but the IGA to which I’d been pointed didn’t come into view when I thought it should, so I kept driving. Though it had been a while, I’d figured out that Eatonton hadn’t grown so much that I was going to get lost looking for a Diet Coke.
I was admiring the quaint shops downtown, the well-kept yards in the Victorian houses on the side streets, when I came to a stop sign and, trying to decide which way to go, realized that I had driven right up to the Uncle Remus Museum. Thoughts of caffeine momentarily left me and I pulled into the parking lot. It all looked exactly the same — picnic table, log cabin, statue of Brer Rabbit and the placard of Brer Rabbit with the big arrow tucked under his arm, pointing the way to the museum.
I felt my face stretch into a smile. I felt my chest begin to vibrate with laughter.
Under my long sleeves I could almost feel the summer breeze, could almost taste the Kool-Aid and the Pecan Twirls.
It has been a long time since I felt like a child, actually felt in my body that lightness, that expansiveness, that wholeness that exists when you don’t yet understand the concept of boundaries; when you have not yet experienced limitation or loss; when being certain is all you know.
And it has been a long time since I felt so scolded. Scolded because — it should be clear, I suppose — that if the mere sight of this place where the innocence and security of childhood was epitomized can send me straight back to those moments, that posture, I should be able to get there at will. I should be able to remove myself, when need be, from the things and people that would steal my joy, kill my optimism, destroy my faith. All I have to do is remember.
It is almost Thanksgiving. The leaves that are left on the sycamore are limp and the color of cured tobacco. The ones that litter the ground at my feet are brittle and leather brown, their edges curling like a hand making a fist. The marshals who enforce the laws of nature are finally, after weeks of effort, wresting those hands loose from their grip on summer.
I close my eyes and fold my arms across my chest against the chill wind, but under the jacket and the sweater, my arms are bare, and I feel the warmth of June sunshine.