Los Angeles, Calif.

She’s The South

By Colby Pines

The road to her house is lined with overgrown grass and train tracks. From the looks of the rusted steel and splintering wood you might think that the railroad abandoned this line long ago, but the train still runs (or crawls) down the tracks as I drive past today.

When I was a kid we traveled this road once a week. Every Sunday after church my parents somehow managed to wrangle all four of my brothers and me into a red Suburban that looked more like a fire truck than an SUV. There were only two quick turns before we were on Highway 19, gulping gas in the only vehicle that could hold us all.

U.S. Route 19 runs from our house to hers. If you follow it long enough it’ll lead you to Jimmy Carter’s place in Plains or to Atlanta 150 miles north. Some stretches of 19 were once a part of the Old Dixie Highway. The road winds its way across the states, connecting the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Erie. In total, Highway 19 spans 1,438 miles. Three-hundred and forty-eight of those miles rest in Georgia. Twenty-five of them connect me to her.

The 30-minute ride felt like forever when I was younger. My brothers and I would secretly unbuckle our seatbelts and turn the back two rows of the car into a jungle gym. We’d ask our mom questions until she ran out of answers. We’d pester our dad about what kinds of crops were growing in the surrounding fields. We’d tell stories, we’d play games, we’d argue, we’d ignore one another, we’d gag and point fingers when we passed the cow farms. But our favorite way to pass the time was to see who could be the first to spot the distant radio tower that sat in the center of her small town. When we saw it we knew we were getting close. Close to her.

The drive doesn’t seem to take as long today. Time passes faster than I’d like, and it’s strange … even when I got my license and first made this drive alone, it seemed to take forever. Our family dentist was just north of her house, so I’d always stop by to visit her on my way home.

If I close my eyes I can see it: I arrive unannounced to find her clutching a cup of coffee with both hands. She holds her mug as if life itself depends upon the next sip … or swig in her case. But when she hears the hiss of her screen door and her eyes meet mine, coffee couldn’t mean less.

“Come on in,” I hear her say. She’s on her feet and hugging my neck with a “hey, sugar!”

She tends to move a little slower during the winter, but you’d never know it as she glides across her kitchen floor, pouring me my own caffeinated cup. I remember the first time I asked her for coffee. She smiled so big it erased her wrinkles. She offers me cake, cookies and candy before mentioning the collards left over in her fridge.

Her tobacco-tinted walls are lined with shelves stacked with trinkets. Painted plates, old Coke bottles, ceramic rabbits and roosters, a crumb-cluttered cookie jar and a candy bowl filled to the brim. She kept it full for us. We sit at a kitchen table covered in playing cards. I tell her she can finish her game of Solitaire, but she’s already reshuffling the cards and dealing me in on a game of five-card draw.

I ask her about my cousins. She asks me about my brothers. She draws two cards. I draw three. She offers me a slice of pound cake for the third time. Third time’s a charm. She may or may not slip another card into her hand as I snag a fork for the cake. I ask her how the Braves are doing and she tells me ways we could fix the team. She laughs at herself when I bring up the time she won and then turned down an all-expense-paid vacation to Braves Spring Training because she didn’t have enough underwear to last her the trip. No one laughs at herself quite like she does.

I tell her about school and she tells me she’s proud. She says she has to use the restroom, which really means she needs a cigarette. She steals away, cracks a window, and sneaks a smoke. It’s not long before she returns to the table with a local newspaper clipping that mentions my name. When you’re at her house you’re important. In her home you’re more than welcome. You’re wanted.

It’s hard to say where she got her selfless spirit. Born into the Great Depression, she was only 2 years old when she lost her mom to pneumonia. She spent a large portion of her childhood being tossed around from one family member to the next. She became far too familiar with the words, “we don’t want her,” before being rescued by her aunt. Her aunt was only 11 years older, but raised her nonetheless. And when the tables were turned, and her aunt’s health started to fail she returned the favor. They took care of each other.

She took care of everyone, really. When her friends were sick she drove them to the doctor. When a family suffered a loss she made them food. She loved people and she cared about her community. She even fought the city when they wanted to build a bypass around her town. When hard times struck she banded together with a group of concerned citizens to start the “Chicken Pie Festival,” a cooking competition designed to foster fellowship and bolster the economy. It’s not easy to make something called the “Chicken Pie Festival” successful, but, damn, did she make a good chicken pie.

The rusty train tracks disappear into the woods just as I spot the radio tower peeking over the not-too-distant tree line. I’m getting close, but the drive is different today. Everything is; even the road. The bypass that she so vehemently opposed is now complete, ushering drivers around her hometown. I pass a worn out sign that says, “Welcome to Smithville, Home of the Chicken Pie Festival,” and the whole thing feels like a misplaced memory.

When I walk into her home the screen door still hisses, but she’s not there to greet me. I don’t see her smile or smell something simmering on her stove. Instead, I see my dad, back turned, surveying a vacant room. No more trinkets. No more coffee or candy. No cards or clippings.

She’s gone now, but the things that she built remain. Her house is now home to a family of four. Smithville survives thanks in part to the Chicken Pie Festival, which celebrates its 20th anniversary on October 31. Her kids had kids, and now half of her grandkids have children too — children who’ll be infinitely better people thanks to the example she set. She was strong, selfless, sweet and sometimes cynical. She was kind, cool, clumsy and capable of almost anything. She was my grandma, and she is and will forever be the South.