Monday, December 10, 2007

From Summit City to Crescent City

More than a month has passed since my annual "birthday soak" retreat, and I now find myself in the last few hours of another kind of retreat. A very different kind of retreat, this getaway has given me something nearly opposite from the quiet, relaxed trance that lingered for weeks. Not too long after the hot springs contentment faded into memory, I found myself on a plane headed south, to New Orleans. I won't lie about my reasons. It was a business trip. But for me, and I'm sure for most others, going to New Orleans for business usually involves at least an equal amount of pleasure.

I used to secretly envy people who had one culture, one geography that they could claim as if a family heirloom. A continual string of family history- a gumbo of food, language, music and memory that kept them tied to one particular place. A part of me wanted to have grown up amongst an unending string of kinfolk, both proven and probable, and to intimately know the texture of the land that my ancestors' bodies knew.

When I come to New Orleans, I am reminded how wonderful it is to come from a family who comes from another place- not so distant, but so very different from the one where I was raised. My appreciation has grown from childhood summers chasing lizard chameleons and hunting crawdads in the thick, moist air of South Mississippi summers. The multilayered pleasure of sitting around Uncle Frank's kitchen table, peeling and eating fresh shrimp and listening to all the grown ups talk their way through the afternoon. Walking through the streets of the French Quarter with my mom in search of the best place to get a po' boy. Powdered sugar clinging to my sweat-coated skin after mom and I "cooled off" with cafe au lait and beignets. Riding the trolley up and down the route for hours in hopes of getting a breeze. Back then, I never even once thought about what it would have been like to have grown up down here. I wouldn't have traded anything for the tumbling creeks, soft cool humidity and rolling hills of my Smoky Mountain home.

The older I've gotten, the more open I am to seeing these root places - the places where my family came from - as a place that I could live also. I don't imagine I'll ever move to Mississippi or Louisiana, but with each year they feel more and more like home.