Tag Archives: Chapel Hill

You Can’t Go Home Again

The Old Well at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, my alma mater

The Old Well at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, my alma mater

As I have started re-writing Sabra the Astonishing AGAIN, I’ve come to realize why, after thirty five years, I can’t seem to let it go: with the exception of a few short stories, it is the only piece of my oeuvre set in the part of North Carolina I consider home – the rolling hills of the Piedmont. My heart may belong to the Great Smoky Mountains where I spent my summers between the ages of fourteen and twenty one, but the little university town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina remains my home town – a home town to which I am now connected by the slenderest of threads: my ninety-two year old father’s life. When he goes, I will no longer have a reason to visit Chapel Hill and so, in all probability, won’t. I won’t drive past our old house on Tenney Circle to see what they’ve done to it. I won’t stroll around the campus where I went to university. I won’t walk uptown to see a movie at the Varsity or have a Chef’s salad at the Carolina Coffee Shop.  Heck! the last time I visited the church where I had my first communion, I found it burnt to the ground. All that remained were blackened Gothic arches; it looked for all the world like the ruins of some ransacked medieval abbey. As for the friends I only saw because their parents lived in the same assisted living facility as my parents, the only place I’ll see them going forward is on Facebook. Chapel Hill will be over. Done. One more chapter closed in a book that is, itself, drawing to a close.

Thomas Wolfe was one of U.N.C.’s most distinguished alumni and, like my parents, a Carolina Playmaker, His debut novel, Look Homeward, Angel, has been viewed as a towering masterpiece. You Can’t Go Home Again, his second and last novel, published posthumously, was not so well regarded. It is founded,however, on an essential and melancholy truth – once you leave, really leave, there is no going back.  

I’ve lived in Canada for nearly thirty consecutive years, thirty four if you count the years I spent in graduate school at the University of Toronto. Three years ago my husband and I found a community that feels right to us – Port Stanley, a little fishing village on the northern shore of Lake Erie. We have a ravine out back and a lake view when the leaves are down. It’s beautiful here in its own Northern way, which makes it easier to take the fact that Chapel Hill, known (and rightfully so) as the Southern Part of Heaven, is slipping away from me, that it will belong, all too soon and all too irrevocably, to my past.

330 Tenney Circle, Chapel Hill, the house where I grew up.

An admittedly fishbowl view of 330 Tenney Circle, Chapel Hill, the house where I grew up.

And so I rewrite Sabra the Astonishing,  trying to conjure up and capture what home was like when it was home, when the journey had not yet begun that, so many years later, would see me deposited on the shore of a sweet water sea, a woman going on old in a country not my own. I go back home again, but in my mind, only in my mind. Because that is the only place it still exists.

Tagged , , , ,

Colored washrooms

I grew up in the American South.  I remember colored  washrooms and water fountains whites onlyand swimming pools – clearly being black was thought to be water borne.  If you think that’s bad, my mother remembered the sign posted on the way out of Durant, Oklahoma, the shit-hole she was born in.   It read, “Any (N-word) caught in town after dark will be lynched.”

My home town, not a shit hole, was really two towns, separated by a railroad track. On one side of the track was Chapel Hill, home to the University of North Carolina and populated by professors and university staff and the merchants who serviced students and faculty.

On the other side was Carrboro, home to black millworkers, the legion of maids and yard men who worked for white people over in Chapel Hill and the taxi cab drivers who ferried them back and forth to their jobs.  Growing up we thought taxis were exclusively for black people. Nobody else took them. We all had cars.

Each town had its own high school – and then, the year I entered high school, they didn’t.  The high schools were integrated, merged into one and housed in a brand new building on the outskirts of town.  The principal of the white high school became the principal of the new, integrated high school and the principal of the black high school, its vice-principal.    What could go wrong?

Well, not a whole lot actually. Oh, there was a little pushing and shoving, some brandishing of lead pipes, but what really stirred the pot at my high school was interracial dating. That is to say, high status black boys – athletes or musicians – courting second-tier white girls.  By “second tier” I mean nice enough girls ranking maybe a seven on the high school desirability scale –   not quite enough looks and/or personality points to snag a high-status white boyfriend, but not a complete dog’s regurgitated snack either. (BTW:  In case you think I’m being unduly mean girl in my estimation o, I had no boyfriend whatsoever in high school. Of any rank … or race.  I don’t even want to speculate what the Hell tier I was on!)

This intermingling of the races (and  there was intermingling) may have set white parents’ hair on fire and culminated in all manner of groundings and ultimatums, but the ones whose butt  it burned  most were  black girls. They were furious and rightly so. They were also big.  If you were a white girl, you stayed out of their bathroom.  Because, yes, the school might have been integrated, but the bathrooms were not.  This wasn’t a formal arrangement, but it was understood.  And it was the black girls who enforced it.

One year I was on the staff of the school’s literary magazine and two of my fellow editors made a practice of hanging out at a filling station on the old Pittsboro Road, where they would goad the gas station’s owner — a hoary coot who looked kind of like Gomer Pyle’s evil twin — into making outrageously racist remarks.  “If any of them (N-words)  come around here,” he’d say, “I’ll bust me up a Pepsi crate and make ‘em wiggle.”  We thought this was hilarious.  Then, again, we thought abandoning a cow in the high school’s second floor lobby overnight was also hilarious.  Do you know how hard it is to convince a cow to go downstairs?

Recently I read Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help, where a white employer fires her maid for using the family bathroom.

Then I remembered.

In the otherwise unfinished basement of the house I grew up in, was a bathroom.  It was just off the back porch, which, in turn, was just off the kitchen.  You could access it from the outside by a set of stairs.  No one ever used this bathroom.  It was smelly and full of cobwebs, and, besides, there were rats in our basement. My mother used to refer to them in the collective as “Willard.”

It had never before occurred to me what that bathroom was for.  Our maids – Altherea, who didn’t do windows, Camellia and then Amelia, daughter of Camellia — all used the same bathrooms we did.  After all, they were cleaning ladies.  How could they be unclean?  It was  illogical.

But there could was escaping the obvious.  The bathroom in the basement had been the help’s bathroom, the ‘colored’ bathroom.    How could I have lived in that house all those years – with its butler’s pantry and its back staircase and the button on the floor in the centre of what was our family room, but had originally been the dining room, placed there so that the lady of the house could summon a servant from the kitchen without rising from the table. . .  .  How could I have lived in that house all those years and not known what that basement bathroom was for?

I guess I didn’t think.

Tagged , , , , , , ,