Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born and raised in an Eastern North Carolina tobacco town with 6 stoplights and a lot more churches and a whole lot more kin, if you go by the generous Southern interpretation of the term. Sixty years ago I graduated from UNC and headed off to explore alternatives. For 25 years I lived in an assortment of non-Southern metropolitan areas, domestic and foreign, where I felt (still do, sometimes) like I was carrying two slightly fraudulent passports. But, as the saying goes, whoever discovered water, it wasn’t a fish; this persistent Otherness has been useful to my writing, which often addresses the dichotomies. I’ve been back in NC now longer than I was away, grateful for the enrichment of my wanderings, but happy to be home. Some of the good stuff, despite the odds, seem to be hanging on here.
In California, where I spent 20 years, a couple moved in to the new house next door to us. We’d wave and smile from our respective driveways. When they moved on to somewhere else after a few years, we still didn’t know their last name or much of anything about them. And they didn’t know us. And nobody seemed to find that remarkable. Sometime later, when I finally decided to move back to North Carolina, my California friends asked me why (the South, in their view, being not somewhere you go to but somewhere you come from). I’d have told them if I could — that it was partly in hopes of finding something still in the air here that was, well, kind of what drove me away in the first place. But that thing was a little tricky to pin down, and I knew I couldn’t explain it to their satisfaction. Or to mine, for that matter. I wish I could have told them this story I just heard from my sister-in-law, Sylvia.
Sylvia said she was driving back up from Atlanta one day when she spotted a hand-painted roadside sign for Vidalia onions, the first of the season. Now, you know, a really good Vidalia’s so sweet you can practically eat it like an apple, or cut a slice thick as your hand for a sandwich and slather it with lots of home-made mayonnaise and cracked pepper. Sylvia pulled over to the farm stand and bought a burlap sackful. When she got home and tasted them, they were the sweetest she’d ever had, so she called a number she found printed on the sack.
A woman’s voice answered, “Aww-ri-i-ght?”
Sylvia said, “I bought some Vidalias from your stand the other day, and they’re just about the best things I ever put in my mouth. Could I order some more from you by mail?”
“Well, I don’t know, honey. I’ll have to let you talk to my husband about that. I believe he’s just up to the barn. Can you hold on? Hold on, now.” The woman took a deep breath.
“Clarence!” she hollered, right next to Sylvia’s ear.
In a few minutes a man’s voice came on the phone. “Aww-ri-i-ght?”
Sylvia complimented him on his onions and said she’d like to buy a lot of them, but not all at once. Would he be willing to ship her twenty pounds right away and then another twenty pounds from the very last picking of the season? The man said he believed he could do that.
A week or so later, a sack of onions arrived. Crumpled in the sack was a scrap of brown paper bag with a pencilled note: YOU OWE US $20 DOLLARS. SINCERELY, ROSELLA MEEKS. MRS. CLARENCE MEEKS. Sylvia sent them a check.
The Vidalia growing season is a short one, so when a couple of months went by and Sylvia hadn’t heard anything about the second shipment, she thought she’d better call. A man answered the phone. Sylvia asked to speak to Mrs. Meeks.
“She’s over to the hospital seeing after Mr. Meeks,” the man said. “She hadn’t been here all day. He’s took real bad.”
“Oh, gosh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Sylvia said.
“Looks like they might have to cut his leg off.”
“That’s terrible!” Sylvia said. “I don’t want to bother them, then. I was just calling about some onions I ordered.”
“Sorry I can’t help you with that, ma’am. I just come in to help out a little around here while Mr. Meeks is laid up. You call back tomorrow early, now. Clarence Junior’ll be here then. He’ll take care of you.”
The next morning Sylvia called again, and the young man who answered said yes, he was Clarence Junior.
“I sure was sorry to hear about your father,” Sylvia said. “I hope he’s doing better today.”
“No ma’am. He’s doing right poorly.”
“Was it an accident?” Sylvia asked.
“No ma’am. They don’t know what it is. They’re taking him to Atlanta this afternoon, see if they can save his leg. I’ll tell Mama you called to ask after him, though. Who is this?”
“Oh, I’m just calling about some onions I ordered a while back,” Sylvia said, and told him about the arrangement for a split shipment. “Look, please don’t bother about it. I know you all have got a lot to deal with right now.”
“It don’t look like anything got set aside,” the young man said. “And there’s not much left. I’m mighty sorry. When Daddy got sick, everything sort of skipped everybody’s mind.”
Then he said, “I tell you what. The folks next to us planted later than we did. They’re likely to still have some.”
He gave her a telephone number. Sylvia thanked him and wished him and his family good luck with his father’s leg. That night she put a get-well card in the mail. The next morning she decided she would go ahead and call the number Clarence Junior had given her. A woman answered.
“Hello,” Sylvia said. “I was talking yesterday with Clarence Meeks Junior, and . . .”
“Oh my goodness! How’s Big Clarence doing?”
“Well,” Sylvia said, “It doesn’t sound like he’s doing all that well.”
“They find out what’s the matter with his leg? I heard they were going to take it off,” the woman said.
“I don’t think they have yet,” Sylvia reported. “They took him to the hospital in Atlanta yesterday, to see if they can save it.”
“Atlanta? Lord have mercy!” the woman cried. “You know if anybody’s called Shirley?”
“Um, I really couldn’t say,” Sylvia said.
“Has she even got back yet? That woman, I swear!”
Sylvia was beginning to feel a little out of her depth. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I really can’t tell you. I’m calling from North Carolina. I’m an onion customer.”
“Oh,” the woman said.
Sylvia pressed on. “Clarence Junior thought you all might have twenty pounds of Vidalias left you could sell me.”
“We’re just about finishing them up. These here are a little scrappy, but they’re good and sweet. I’ll send you what we’ve got left for ten dollars the bushel, how’s that?”
Sylvia thanked her warmly and gave her the address.
“And I’ll tell Rosella you were asking after Clarence,” the woman said. “That’s mighty nice of you. I know she’ll appreciate your calling.”
A week later, a big sack of Vidalias arrived, but Sylvia couldn’t find the bill or an address anywhere, so she hunted up the telephone number for the Meeks family’s neighbors and phoned them again. The woman who answered the phone this time said Billy and Ruby and the girls were off in Columbus for a few days visiting Ruby’s aunt and her new husband, now all the onions were in. She’d just come by to feed the dogs, she said, when the phone rang. Sylvia explained about the missing bill, and asked her please to leave a note that she’d called.
“I sure will, sugar. Now, isn’t that something, you buying your onions from Ruby and Billy from up yonder,” the woman said. “How’d you come to do that?”
“Well, it’s sort of a long story,” said Sylvia. “I was talking to young Clarence Meeks . . .”
“Lordy, you know that family’s had a time!”
“Oh, I know,” Sylvia said. “They surely have.” She hesitated, then asked, “What’s the news about Clarence’s leg? Did they take it off?”
“No, that they didn’t, thank goodness. I just talked to Rosella last night. Turned out it won’t anything couldn’t be fixed. Clarence got home Sunday evening and they say he’ll be walking good by dove season.”
“Why, that’s wonderful news!” Sylvia exclaimed. “I’m so glad to hear it.”
“We’re all mighty thankful around here, I tell you,” the woman said.
“Yes, well, I’m mighty thankful too,” Sylvia said.
“I’ll tell ‘em you were asking after Clarence, awright?”
“Oh, please do, I’d appreciate it,” Sylvia said. “Give Clarence and Rosella my best wishes. And tell Ruby and Billy their Vidalias are just about the best things I ever put in my mouth.”