So far as I know, my family has been in North Carolina for ten generations on both sides. The Hassell brothers shipwrecked off the coast, and the McCains on my mother’s side fled religious persecution like so many others, finding themselves not in puritan-controlled New England, but in warmer climes. As southerners, we have a morbid fear of the cold. So, when I voluntarily left for “Yankee Land,” as my mother jokingly calls it, I was deemed to be reliably insane. This diagnosis was confirmed when my parents arrived at my boarding school’s parents weekend, and found my room in disarray. My mother believes that a person’s room is indicative of their state of mind. Health Services was called, appointments were made, and I was left protesting my sanity, punctuating my argument with disgruntled huffs as I attempted to root out the dirty laundry from beneath my bed. My roommate’s parents looked on in horror; everything they’d ever thought about life below the Mason-Dixon was confirmed. Not only was I crazy, the entire portion of the country was off its rocker.
I have grown up fed on a diet equal parts fried chicken and tradition. I am acutely aware of the ritual of family holidays, the telling, and retelling, and re-re telling of old stories until they become a part of the fabric of the listener’s identity. Not something I put on with my Lilly Pulitzer (may she rest in peace), but something that has been so close to me for so long as to be rendered indistinguishable from my very being (I believe Mormon underwear has a similar effect). Sometimes I forget that they are the tales of my ancestors, and instead wake from sleep in the night with the words on my lips, and the images fresh before my eyes. My room is tidy, and yet my mind is in disarray. To be Southern is to recognize yourself as an individual at once separate and in concert with the past. Sometimes you are in harmony with the lives of those before you, and sometimes you are in discord. In coming to Dartmouth, I found myself marching to a melody at odds with the family refrain.
When I graduated from high school, I moved back down from New Hampshire to go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I arrived on a campus as familiar to me as my elementary school playground. As a toddler, I ran between the columns of the famous Old Well as soon as I could manage it without holding my parents’ hands. The school had seemed to me a paradise, with ample spaces for hiding from view when I wanted to induce heart attacks in my parents, frantic that they had at last managed to lose their small child. Now, as an 18 year-old, I was filled with dread. I had panic attacks whenever the 20,000 undergraduates changed classes, and for the first time in my life, I felt suffocated by the hot Southern sun.
My family has gone to Carolina, with few exceptions, since before the Civil War (note to non-southerners: “Carolina” and “UNC” always mean Chapel Hill). We had one wayward soul go to Duke back in the days when it was known as Trinity, but we don’t like to talk about it. When I was six, I decided I would root for Duke in a Duke- UNC basketball game. My parents, who between them had a total of three degrees from Carolina, were absolutely horrified. The look on their faces was about what you’d expect if you child’s first word was a four-letter expletive. As the game was about to begin, my parents made it clear that until I came around, I would be refused food. As the smell of my favorite cookies wafted under my nose, I immediately saw the error of my ways and recanted. I have been an avid UNC basketball fan ever since. My parents even let me labor under the delusion that the Duke Blue Devil mascot was modeled after their basketball coach, Coach Krzyzewski (I am still not entirely sure this is false). Yet, while I am, as the UNC fight song goes “a tar heel born, and a tar heel bred” I’m afraid I have the “granite of New Hampshire” in my brains (my muscles are unconvincing).
This has come as quite a shock to the family. My great-great-great grandfather was a part of the 1789 convention in Fayetteville that voted to found the University of North Carolina, so the fact that I would voluntarily leave it was beyond comprehension. Every day as I passed the portraits of two distant and thoroughly unattractive cousins who lent their name to the dorm in which I lived, I felt as though I were alienated from myself. There, I was merely a piece of living history with memories of my ancestors decorating my mind as they did the walls of the places in which I lived, dined, and learned. When I told my family I was transferring, not to another public University in North Carolina, but going back to the “Frozen North,” I was met with a locution unique to my state. “Do what now?” I was asked. It took till Christmas of my first year for them to utter the word “Dartmouth,” and for my birthday the extended family gave me UNC hand sanitizer and Band-Aids; materials, I supposed, that were suited to heal the wound created by my sudden removal. I assuaged my grandmother’s misapprehensions by laying out my choices. “It’s here or Duke,” I said. Anything is better than the Devil’s stomping ground.
When I’m asked why I transferred, I give a few, general reasons. It’s true that UNC was too big and that my education felt impersonal. However, another reason lurked in the back of my brain. While I love and appreciate my heritage, I felt as though I would lose my own distinctiveness, the identity that I had cultivated, if I continued along at a school that belonged more to the members of my family who had called it home for nearly two centuries than it did to me . However, while I have chosen a different path from some of the family traditions, there are other things that I have latched onto with fiendish devotion. During ACC basketball season, I’m transformed into a raving maniac. When I was working in New York my junior winter, I joined a gym just so that I could watch Carolina basketball games because my apartment didn’t have ESPN. I sat on the exercise bike for the duration of each game, refusing to pedal but instead gesticulating at the screen with such energy that those around me were satisfied that the bike, while not in use, was most assuredly occupied.
I arrived at Dartmouth for trips, just before the start of my sophomore year. I had searched for the least physically intensive trip possible and was beyond excited that the Organic Farm offered an option that promised its participants would “eat like kings.” I was sold. A week later, my smelly, unwashed self flew straight back to home, stuffed full of cherry tomatoes and Annie’s Mac and Cheese to go make my debut with the North Carolina Terpsichorean society. I was in for a culture shock. Going from daily swims in the river, makeup-free and suitably grimy, to morning and evening balls in a wedding gown was quite the transition.
The Terpsichorean Society is a secret society in Raleigh, North Carolina, that is responsible for choosing the list of girls who will “come out into society,” based upon whether or not your ancestors were debutantes, or upon your family’s contributions to the state. When my grandmother made her debut, she needed six men, or as we call them, junior marshals, to escort her during the festivities. “I had to enlist all of my cousins,” she jokingly says. In the 21st century, only one is called for, so a distant cousin and friend stepped up to see me through the ordeal. After relating my fun on the farm, I found myself dragging my feet during the events, earning myself the nickname “the reluctant debutante.” At the weekend’s close, I found myself back at Dartmouth with an aversion to taffeta and an acute fear of high heels.
A few years later, I encountered another cultural collusion, clad not in wedding lace but in the guise of a discussion on the Civil War. I sat in class listening to a discussion on Sherman’s March to the Sea. I was near enough the only Southerner in the classroom, and on more than one occasion found myself taken aback at the misconceptions of the series of events. “Well, Sherman didn’t actually kill anyone,” one student said. I was stunned. In an uncharacteristically sharp tone, I felt myself jarred into the conversation. “That’s blatantly false.” I said. I didn’t elaborate, but through my head ran the words and stories of my ancestors. I saw Sherman’s men setting fire to our house, not once or twice, but three separate times. I saw the soldiers heckling the women, my female ancestors hiding our silver, sewing it into their petticoats. I saw my great-great-great grandfather, hung by his thumbs, or his daughter, who huddled in her boarding school in Raleigh as the men who tried to protect the women from being violated by the invading army were strung up outside of her dorm room window by Sherman’s men. I don’t endorse the biases of the time, but I do feel as though, in embracing the stories of the past, I am unable to articulate my Southern identity for fear of producing a dissonance with those around me that would unfairly brand me as something that I am not. In the South, I felt smothered by my history. Here, my past is denied recognition.
One of my favorite poems begins: “I live in the doorway/ between two rooms.” I dwell in this threshold, moving forward and looking back, at once longing for the comfort of the south and for my friends in the north, constantly reconciling my ever-vacillating identity with both my heritage and the life I have made for myself. As I contemplate my next steps after graduation, I’m faced with a choice. “Did your parents convince you to come back to the South?” I am asked. As I face an uncertain future, my mind reaches inexplicably toward the past. I find myself dreaming of open fields of lush green, red clay between my toes, and dried golden leaves. My mother always points out the sagging tobacco barns as we drive back to her hometown of Wilson, NC, the former tobacco capital of the world. Drying and curing tobacco is a lost art, and the empty smokehouses are the wounded warriors, making a final stand against the elements, and finally falling to the ground scattering dust over a ground that could tell more stories than my family ever could.