Folklore Project: A Collection of Personal Essays from the American South

Jackson, Mississippi

Real Country

Watching country music with his dad was part of novelist Matthew Guinn’s Saturday-night routine — first on “Hee Haw,” later on “Austin City Limits.” Ten days after his father’s death, Guinn accidentally stumbled on a new band who played what his pop would have called “real country.”

By Matthew Guinn

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Richmond, Virginia

Going Home

Chelyen Davis went to her old hometown for a high-school football game and finds that home “is where your ghosts live.”

By Chelyen Davis

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Powder Springs, Georgia

Ghosts in the Hollow

There’s magic in that hollow. Hidden in the little house nestled near the bend of the Cartecay River and the slope of Appalachia’s hills.  She’s a gypsy of a shack with her whitewashed boards and tangled rose bushes that clamber on either side like vines to nowhere.

By Amy Hyatt Fonseca

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Wilmington, North Carolina

Grape Expectations in Duplin County

Celia Rivenbark's first job was at Norris’s Restaurant. Norris’s is gone, but if Celia has anything to do with it, Annie Faye Norris’s rarest treat — grape-hull pie — will live on. Recipe included.

By Celia Rivenbark

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Covington, Georgia

Road Improvement Has Closed Henderson’s Restaurant

When you grow up in a small town, sometimes the local, family restaurant marks the transitions of youth. Then, they widen the road, and it disappears.

By Andy Offutt Irwin

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Sydney, Australia

Deeds Well Done

Atlanta native George Lancaster — a three-time contributor to our Folklore Project — remembers the night in 1974 when his father took him to the ballpark to learn some lessons from Hank Aaron about the value of hard work.

By George Lancaster

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Atlanta, Georgia

Tennessee Williams Crazy

Jessica Langlois admires the genteel, slightly mad, Southern heroines of Tennessee Williams’s greatest plays — flawed and fragile, but scrappy with fortitude and endurance. Her own experience with mental illness gave her this story: about a Southern woman who discovers, on an obscure island, her own strength and resilience in the face of hell.

By Jessica Langlois

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Marietta, Georgia

It Looks Delicious, But I Couldn’t Eat Another Bite

If you live in the South, then you better like eggs. Because we put them on everything. As Jill Fogarty writes, “I once attended a Thanksgiving dinner where chopped hard-boiled eggs had been added to literally every dish on the table except the actual turkey.” Problem is, Jill hates eggs.

By Jill Fogarty

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Milford, Connecticut

Such a Lady

Nanny Maud was blind as a bat, but she knew everybody and everything about them. Her grand-niece loved Nanny Maud and knew her well. Then, when she caught Nanny “saying her prayers,” the young lady learned a little more.

By Beth Boquet

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Miami, Florida

The Skillet

As I sat in a dark Kissimmee, Florida, hotel room, my two cats sleeping on the bed with me, the puppy comfortable on her bed on the floor, I thought about the skillet. Evacuating from a hurricane requires a kind of existential internal conversation about what matters. What must I have, if it is all I have?

By Susannah Nesmith

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Atlanta, Georgia

Eating Their History

Amanda Avutu is part of a group now working with a family of refugees from Syria, helping them start their own business selling cookies, called Sweet Sweet Syria. In the wake of our look at the thousands of refugees who come to America through Clarkston, Georgia, Avutu shares her experience, bonding with this family through food.

By Amanda Avutu

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Charleston, S.C.

The Lost Boys in the Pond

It was just a muddy little pond with a fountain in it. And everything would have been all right if Nanan hadn’t told cousin Geoffy how that fountain could pull mischievous boys right down into the depths of the murk.

By Claire Porter

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Rome, Georgia

A Southern Definition of Fine

By Laura Elmer

How are you? I’m fine. And you? In many places, such exchanges are mere pleasantries. But to some in the South, the response is always “fine,” because it’s not polite to be a burden. “Fine” is an answer loaded with strength, pride, and downright dishonesty.

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Charlotte, North Carolina

Ronnie Ward: Brewton, Alabama

A Film by Hamilton Y. Ward

For the first time, we run a short film in our Folklore Project — a work by Charlotte filmmaker Hamilton Young Ward that pairs recorded audio of a story about the loss of an infant brother with found and burned film footage. 

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Portland, Maine


By Meredith McCarroll

We think of the Interstate highways as monotonous stretches of sameness: They might take us home, but they don’t feel like home. But that, of course, depends on how well you know the road and what happens to you along it. 

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Atlanta, Georgia

The Leader of the Band

By Timothy Cook

Tim Cook always wanted to know more about his father’s early life. He never learned as much as he wanted to, but he did see his dad get a proper sendoff from more than 80,000 people at Clemson University’s Memorial Stadium.

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Phoenicia, New York

My Racist Friend

By Robert Burke Warren

One of The Bitter Southerner’s earliest contributors, Robert Burke Warren, recounts a part of the story of his youth — the part he’d always left out, until Charlottesville.

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Covington, Georgia

Why Lightning Bugs Light

By Andy Offutt Irwin

Andy Offutt Irwin, a regular at storytelling festivals around the South, — and the rest of the nation, for that matter — gives us his theories about the Southerner’s love for the lightning bug. The rest of the nation may call them fireflies, but we don’t care.

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Charlottesville: Our Readers Respond

By Various Contributors

In the wake of the Charlottesville attack, we asked readers to share their thoughts about what actions should be taken. If you’re trying to figure out what to think and do, now that we’ve entered a dark new chapter of Southern history, you just might find some help here.

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Sacramento, California

Ever South

By Leo Johnson

Leo Johnson — a young man with roots in three Southern states — now lives in California, where is he finding that, as the DBT song says, “everyone takes notices of the drawls that leave our mouths.”

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Pensacola, Florida

The Neighborhood of Make-Believe

By Jennifer Lynn McCarthy

Jennifer and Trina had the idea to stage their own Azalea Queen parade in Bay County, Florida. They learned that if you want to be a queen, it helps to recognize who your court actually is.

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Boston, Massachusetts


By Caroline McCoy

The old house in Beaufort, South Carolina, was once called Tidalholm, but most folks in town today know it as “The Big Chill House,” for the Oscar-nominated 1983 movie that was filmed there. A visit to Tidalholm last summer brought home the differences between reality and the fantasies the movie could — and still can — evoke.

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Pearl, Mississippi

Mississippi Cotton

By Selika Sweet

Selika Sweet, a sixth-generation Mississippian, is a physician in rural Louisiana and Mississippi. This story is a slightly fictionalized version of her experiences as a doctor — and her life as a teenager before that.

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Evanston, Illinois

Notes from a Semi-Native Daughter

By Emma Sarappo 

If Emma Sarappo is “from” anywhere, it’s Nolensville, Tennessee — but does just wanting to be from somewhere make it true?

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Waverly, Alabama

A Handle on the Panhandle

By Meredith Frye

Watermelons used to have seeds, and we had spitting contests. We used to rent beach shacks and while away the hours with nothing to click on or swipe. Meredith Frye’s most recent family trip to the Florida panhandle made her wonder what we lose when we trade natural hours for moments of convenience.

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Chattanooga, Tennessee

Where You From, Honey?

 By Gwen Mullins

Gwen Mullins tried for decades not to “talk like a hick.” This is a story about what she gained — and what she lost — in the process.

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Berkeley, California


By Gary Bland

When we first received this essay, we contacted its writer, Gary Bland, to discuss its sharp turn near the end into what we’d think of as magic realism — or at least an adaptation of the eighth book of Exodus. But Gary wrote back to say, “I gave up long ago trying to convince people that the events of this phenomenon happened when I tell this story. But it actually did rain frogs that day."

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Nashville, Tennessee

The Groaning Cake

By Jennifer Justus

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is just show up and bake a cake.

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Griffin, Georgia

Florida Dark

By John T. O’Neal

Forty-two years ago, seven years before John T. O’Neal was born, something grim happened at his grandparents’ house — something he never knew the truth about until he was a grown man. 

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Powder Springs, Georgia

An Appalachian Queen

By Amy Hyatt Fonseca

A story about a woman with a kudzu heart: “No matter where you planted her, she coiled and climbed until she reached the top.”

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New York, New York

The Battle of Point Pleasant

By Tim Heaton

Tim Heaton, a Southerner gone off up north, imagined this piece after a real episode when his father attempted to save a deer that had gotten itself stuck during the low-water season at a lake near Oxford, Mississippi. Tim took his father’s experience and re-imagined it through the eyes of a Native American fighting displacement. Says Tim, “The place I describe does exist, and is accessible only during the winter months, when the water is low.” 

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Powder Springs, Georgia

From a Carport in Georgia

By Beth Ward

How is it that a place of reunion and joy can turn itself into a place of dissolution and sadness?

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Maryville, Missouri

Mississippi Mud

By Jessica Piper

There are the folks on the beach, lying in the sun, picnic baskets by their sides. And then there are the folks in the trailers a mile away.

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Austell, Georgia

A Dress of Leaves

By Ron Huey

In the rural South, kids have surrogate parents all the time — a couple down the street, maybe, who keep their eyes peeled if a youngun goes astray. Ron Huey today tells us the story of Milton and Gigi Gilmer, his surrogate parents — and the lifetime of lessons they gave him.

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Danielsville, Georgia

Brown, Blue, and Gray

By Elizabeth Chandler

Have you ever looked over a pasture full of cattle and wondered what the little calves are thinking? Elizabeth Chandler, a 13-year-old Georgian who has spent a lot of time on her grandfather’s farm, decided to get inside the head of one little calf. 

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Omaha, Nebraska

The Things I Didn’t Know About the South

By Kristine Langley Mahler

A lovely essay about a childhood move to North Carolina — and how the child in question (the author) adjusted to her new surroundings in the South.

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Chattanooga, Tennessee

Stranger in a Strange Land

By Charlie Moss

A good many years ago, Charlie Moss found himself in a tiny Baptist church three times a week because that’s what his girlfriend wanted. Charlie is a Jew, but that did not stop the Baptist faithful from trying to save him. This is what happened the night they forced him to the altar.

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Brookhaven, Georgia

Mother of a Black Child

A white mother’s understanding of the African-American experience changes dramatically when she takes in two black foster children.

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Nashville, Tennessee

Popping the Bubble

As Americans debate the right approach to immigration policy and the resettlement of refugees, the subject moves into a different light when the stories affect families we know, people we value and respect. Robie Sullins Jr. tells us how the Southern bubble he grew up in popped after he heard a coworker of Iraqi heritage tell stories of her family members who still live there.

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Birmingham, Alabama

A Dose of Extra-Strength Tylenol

Lanier Isom’s mother was a world traveler, a true artist and adventurer, with a posse of friends of who shared her spirit. But now, few of those friends remain, and the years are changing the dynamics of the family relationships. 

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Atlanta, Georgia

Memories of Segregation

Born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1962, Dee Thompson was a child in the South’s Jim Crow era. Today, she ponders how much attitudes have changed as Southern society grows ever more diverse.

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Selmer, Tennessee

Mousey's Red Hat

Mousey could do lots: He could sell slugburgers, go undercover at Sons of Confederate Veterans meetings, and even restore the faith of a Santa-doubting youngster. Selmer, Tennessee, will miss him.

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Alabaster, Alabama

Maybe She Was 

By Jacob Melvin

We try to teach our children well, to set good examples for them, to teach them love and tolerance. But sometimes, our best efforts to do the right thing can backfire in the most awkward ways.

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Rocky Mount,
North Carolina

The Day You Discover Race Doesn't Matter

By Langley Chavis

U.S. Army Col. Langley Chavis was in the Korean War when the armed forces began integrating troops of different races. This story is from a memoir Chavis wrote in 2008, three years before his death in 2011.

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Memphis, Tennessee

The Swap

By Sylvia Akin

A long ago memory from North Mississippi takes us back to the time when small-town commerce operated very differently than it does today, back when butter beans were currency.

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Danville, Virginia

Where Are You, Spider-Man?

By Nicholas Harrelson

The Scout Infantryman of the 116th Infantry, fighting in Iraq, had a young Iraqi interpreter. They called him Spider-Man. Spider-Man had two purposes: to buy his mother an air conditioner and to come to America to ride roller coasters. A story about how we determine who is American and who is not.

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Dahlonega, Georgia, and Kent, Ohio

Including "All Y'all"

By Drs. Adam Jordan and Todd Hawley

Two dyed-in-the-wool Southerners — both now professors who educate upcoming social studies teachers — on why the “academy” can’t relate to the rural South, and how that might be fixed over time.

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Naples, Italy

Herby and Harmon Ray for America

By James Seawel

James Seawel, an Arkansan now living in Italy, brings us a story of two men in the little town of Maynard — men of different political persuasions and different faiths who knew how to respect and cooperate with one another for the good of their town. 

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The Broken Hallelujah

By Michael Dunaway

Georgia filmmaker and writer Michael Dunaway joins our Folklore Project today with some thoughts about tomorrow’s presidential inauguration — and, more importantly for our own sanity, some notes on how the right song, sung at the right time, by the right people, in the right place, can unify us. 

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Knoxville, Tennessee

Aunt Minnie and the Scoundrel

By Brenda Rayman

With every good story in the South, there should be a recipe. We thank Brenda Rayman for sharing the story of the 100-year life of her Mississippi aunt, Minnie Hamilton. And especially for Aunt Minnie’s recipe for teacakes!

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Los Angeles, California

Maps of Fannin County

By Elizabeth Adams

Up in the North Georgia mountains, your GPS can get you lost on the dirt roads — and these days, it’s not even so easy to find a map. And after a recent trip to the mountains with her parents, native Georgian Elizabeth Adams, who now lives in California, began to wonder if the maps themselves no longer tell us where we’re going in the South.

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Atlanta, Georgia

It's Not Always Black and White

By Lydia Lay

In the wake of the November presidential election, The Bitter Southerner heard dozens of stories from readers whose families don’t quite fit the norms of older times in the South— how they were scared for their children, or worried about divisions between them and parents of older generations. Like all life in the South, it’s complicated. Lydia Lay’s submission shows just how complicated it can be. And we want our readers to know that The Bitter Southerner will be a place where you can feel free to tell your own stories as the whole nation comes to terms with new realities.

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Athens, Georgia

R.E.M.’s “Out of Time” at 25

By Jody Stephens, Robert McDuffie, Hugh Acheson & James Ponsoldt

A very special group of playlists from Southern rock fans on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of R.E.M.’s landmark seventh album, “Out of Time.”

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Atlanta, Georgia

Where I Found Wisdom

By Pam Gresham Pomar

Pam Pomar is a school nurse in Atlanta. She grew up in North Georgia during the Civil Rights Movement. Her contribution to our Folklore Project, written right after the presidential election, reminds us that what we grow up with doesn’t have to be what we keep.

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Waverly, Alabama

The Geographical Lines of Friendship

By Meredith Frye

Some of us leave the red clay of Alabama and yearn to come home. Others dig their toes into it because it’s a place to begin anew. From little Waverly, Alabama, comes this story of the friendship that blossomed between one woman of each kind.

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Washington D.C.

The Fruitcake Revival Project

By Robert Thead

Robert Thead cares a lot about holiday traditions — particularly the fruitcake. He did long research in the hope of finding a practical recipe that would provide everybody with just enough, but never too much, fruitcake. We’re happy he shared the “fruits” of his research — nudge nudge, wink wink — with our Folklore Project.  

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Apalachicola, Florida

Blood Kin

By Sue Riddle Cronkite

When Sue Cronkite sent us this essay from the Florida Panhandle, her cover letter began, “I love the words that reflect our place of origin, local and historical idioms. Who we once were and what we hold most dear shadows our language, giving it a certain flavor.” So, Sue set about to capture that language in a simple way — by turning on a tape recorder at a church potluck dinner, then turning what she’d captured into delightful prose. Many Bitter Southerners will know these voices.

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Selmer, Tennessee


Dialect Stalkers

By Shawn Pitts

What do you do when strangers find your Southern drawl so charming that they literally follow you around, just to hear you talk? When Shawn Pitts sent us this delightful essay, he subtitled it, “Yet Another Reflection on the Endless Fascination With the Southern Accent.” Quite frankly, we believe our Folklore Project could never have too many of those.

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Carrboro, North Carolina

Just an Old House

By Art Menius

We were delighted to see an essay from Art Menius appear in the Folklore Project in-box, who for more than a decade was one of the driving forces behind one of the South’s finest music festivals — Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. His essay today is about how the stories that go missing from a family’s history can haunt you.

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Waterford, Virginia


By Melanie Vangsnes

Melanie Vangsnes’ current hometown of Waterford — in northernmost Virginia — was founded by Quakers in 1733 and was one of the few villages in Virginia to side with the Union during the Civil War. It’s so far away from her childhood home in Alabama’s Black Belt that it’s hard to feel any Southerness in the place. But Alabama lives on in the stories and memories that have built her life.

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Atlanta, Georgia

Peace Be With Y'all

By Ruwa Romman

When Ruwa Romman walks into a room wearing the traditional Muslim headscarf, it can be a little disconcerting to hear her say, “Hey, y’all,” in a distinctly Southern accent. The problem, of course, is that this shouldn’t be disconcerting at all in an ever more multicultural, multireligious South. But perhaps the problem is that people of different backgrounds don’t understand each other. We don’t talk to each other enough. We welcome Ruwa to our Folklore Project today, in the hopes of starting the conversations we need to have anyway.  

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Birmingham, Alabama

This Old House

By Lanier Isom

Lanier Isom has the same phone number she had when she was 6 years old. We welcome her to our Folklore Project with her beautiful essay about the streams of mystery and memory that surrounds those who inhabit the Old Family Home.

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Roane County, Tennessee

The South Is a Neolithic Fort of the Forgotten

By Brian Miller

Brian Miller is a farmer in East Tennessee. And from a farmer’s perspective, the agrarian South of the past is, to paraphrase William Faulkner, not even past.

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Glenwood Springs, Colorado

Scotty and Pamela Sue

By Caitlin Causey

Caitlin Causey grew up in Hogansville, Georgia. When she was 12, a neighbor girl down the street was murdered. In her diary, she declared the offender worthy of the death penalty. Now, she wonders if she was right.

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Seattle, Washington

My Night in Redneck Heaven

By Julia Cook

Two privileged young women, fresh out of college, alone on a 500-mile cycling trip through Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. And in this story, all the things you’d think could go wrong do not. In fact, quite the opposite.

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Dinner Bucket

By Sarah Burroway Diamond

Sarah Burroway sent us two different stories for our Folklore Project — a mother/father pair of sorts. Two weeks ago, we ran Sarah’s beautiful “Morning Milk,” in which she inhabited the voice of her mother. This week, we’re proud to bring you the “father” part of that pair — a story in which she conjures a hard-working family’s memories from her daddy’s lunch pail.   

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Warsaw, Poland

A Story About a Mountain

By Kelly Bembry Midura

Fans of Southern literature might hear the phrase “good country people” and recall Flannery O’Connor’s story of the same name, with its no-account, artificial-leg-stealing antagonist, Manley Pointer. But sometimes, good country people are just good country people, like Freud’s cigars. Today, Kelly Bembry Midura, a Tennessean now living in Poland, brings us a memory of a weekend with good country people on Clinch Mountain.

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Flatwoods, Kentucky

Morning Milk

By Sarah Diamond Burroway

Sarah Diamond Burroway’s parents married young in Kentucky — when her mother was 16 and her father 17. But times were tough for them, and her father had to leave the family and head into Ohio to find work. In this moving story, Burroway inhabits the voice of her mother to tell stories about how she survived with little money or food to feed three young girls. “Morning Milk” shows the struggles that were all too common among rural Southerners of the middle of the 20th century.

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Scarsdale, New York

The Lunch Menu For Today

By Sharon G. Forman

Ask any Southern kid about elementary school, and at some point, a lunch-lady story will come up. Today’s story is from a suburban New York rabbi who grew up in Virginia and learned that nourishment of all kinds can come from a Southern school lunchroom, even if you keep kosher.

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Liberty, South Carolina

The Nightmare of Sunday Shoes

By Chris Carbaugh

Few things strike more fear in the hearts of children than the prospect of breaking in a new pair of stiff “Sunday shoes.” Chris Carbaugh today remembers a childhood shoe-shopping story — and recalls that making do with what you have sometimes brings much greater joy than scoring something new.

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Sydney, Australia

My Last Fight

By George Lancaster

George Lancaster, a Southerner by birth and now a longtime resident of Australia, recalls his first and only schoolboy fight in a newly integrated public school in Decatur, Georgia — and what that fight taught him, forever, about race and about friendship.

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Johnstown, Pennsylvania

Southern Accents and That Nashville Sound

By Shelley Johannson

Shelley Johannson, a Tennessee native now off in Pennsylvania, returns to our Folklore Project with a trenchant look at how her Southern accent has been perceived outside our region — and dives into the forces that drive those perceptions. “Accents,” Shelley writes, "are much more interesting to listen to than so-called Standard American English."

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A growing collection of stories and other items we hope will tell a bigger story about what Southerners are really like in the 21st century. The Folklore Project will grow only if you share your stories, family memories, recipes and photographs. Just click here to submit.