By Erin Kenney
The summers of my childhood were made up of walks down the path to Memaw and Papaw’s house, the Fudge Rounds she’d send us home with and tractor rides through the garden. Summers meant weeding around the cucumbers, camping trips with my cousins and playing Animal Crossing on the Wii when the sun became too hot to bear. Summers tasted like blueberries, blackberries and honeysuckle — the taste wasn’t as good as the pride I found in discovering and plucking them off their branches. In the summers, freshly tilled soil stuck between my toes, leaving the bottoms of my feet red and dusty.
Growing up in the South looked like a lot of things. But it always had something to do with family.
In the fall we’d sit around a cinder-block fireplace in my backyard and listen to frogs and crickets sing as the sun set and stars climbed high into the sky. My uncle and cousins would come down to my house with camp chairs, and we’d roast marshmallows, always burning them beyond the point of being edible.
I’m not much of a talker, but my family has enough personality to make up for my shyness. I always loved listening to them and their crazy stories — sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes straight-up gossip. Sometimes just listening was a relief, knowing I wouldn’t be called on to reply or tell a story of my own.
The promise of seeing family now lures me home from college. I relish cruising down the interstate and watching my exit pop up, and watching the streets transform from something foreign to the sights of home.
My family was the foundation of my childhood, and I constantly recall the memories they gave me and the lessons they instilled in me. Part of growing up in the South, however, meant that everyone was family. My biological family was the first family I ever knew, but as I grew up I found myself in countless more along the way.
My mother and her family are Southern Baptists, but my Catholic father raised me and my twin sister in his church. I found family there, where I’d overhear conversations in Spanish and marvel at the traditional dresses worn by Nigerian parish members.
I also found family in elementary school classrooms, and at the houses of friends who had swimming pools where we could escape the summer heat.
In high school, I found family in the marching band, on the cross country team and in the school parking lot. I found family waiting in line at the gas station after the high school football game, and on the bus home after a track meet. I found family at my favorite park and at graduation parties.
Being at college and away from my hometown, I find comfort in things that remind me of home. The tradesmen — electricians, pipefitters, maintenance workers — who come to the sandwich shop where I work remind me of my Papaw, my uncles, cousins and brothers. When I’m at a gas station and hear an interaction between old friends, it reminds me of shopping with my mom and running into people she knew from her high school. These interactions remind me how closely knit the South is, how the relationships formed here are rich and deep.
While all the little families I’ve found in my hometown keep me coming back, I’ve found family in college, too. I found family at my first University of Georgia football game, in the dining hall and in class GroupMes. I found family at the tiny local grocery store, at the botanical garden and in my apartment complex. I’ve found family with my three roommates and with my coworkers.
Part of the reason I’ve found so many families in my life is because I’ve always been taught to treat people, even strangers, like family. Growing up, I watched my mom bend over backwards to help people — from family to friends, and even strangers. I’ve always been taught to treat a stranger the same way I’d want them to treat my mother, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews or cousins. I was taught to hold the door, say please and thank you, and treat servers with kindness. I was taught to let people over on the interstate, and to stand up for one another. Really, I was taught that if someone asks you for help, you help them — not with the hope of something in return, but in the hope that maybe one day someone will be there for you when you’re in a time of need.
When you treat people like family, you don’t have to look far to find little families of your own. Most of the time they’re at home — but they’re often found at work or in the park, at the coffee shop you love or at the concert of your favorite band. When you realize all the different families that complete the community around you, anywhere can feel like home. The idea of Southern hospitality can really be boiled down to the mentality of treating people as family. This action defines what being a Southerner means to me.
For a period of time, I was uncomfortable even calling myself a Southerner. Despite the hospitality and welcomeness I always found in the South, I couldn’t ignore the hatred I also encountered. The Confederate flags on the way to school, the insensitive Facebook posts, the stinging political ads and homophobia I heard and witnessed made me want nothing to do with the region. I eventually realized, with time, that I didn’t have to give up my identity as a Southerner in order to be a loving and understanding person. I just had to try and make the South better.
The South, like any place, is imperfect. But it’s also special — incredibly diverse and interesting, full of great culture, food and music inspired by cultures that were left out of the conversation of the South for centuries. It’s no secret that the South has a horrific history. But for generations, Southerners have worked as community leaders, activists, parents, preachers and teachers in efforts to advance our communities — to make them more inclusive and to foster more opportunities for success. I think, and hope, that I speak for my generation when I say that the idea of the “Old South” is dead — we’re just waiting for it to keel over.
My hope for my home state and home region is that we can embrace the communities that live here, so that they may thrive here. My hope is for every Southerner — or transplant, visitor or tourist, for that matter — to feel at home in the South, regardless of color, creed, who they love or what they do for a living.
Being a Southerner means being a part of a family. It means being home.