Monday, November 03, 2008

Arkansas Will Always Be Home

I wrote this post for Open Salon, because there are two other bloggers there who are also proud Arkansawyers. We thought it would be fun to write about what makes Arkansas so special. I thought people who read this blog might find it interesting as well. And my Arkansas friends will definitely know what I'm talking about!

I'm the slacker in the Arkansas Trifecta on Open Salon. Both Dorinda Fox and Hillbilly Aunt have written wonderful posts about what it is to be from Arkansas. I have been having the ideas swirling in my brain for a few weeks now. I'm just now trying to put these ideas into words.

I should start by confessing that I was born in Louisiana. Which is a pretty amazing place, but I have been always kind of sad that I can't claim "Native Arkansas" status. But if you ask me where I'm from, I will always say Arkansas. Then if we really get into it, I will admit that I was actually born someplace else and moved to Arkansas when I was four.

Both of my parents grew up in Louisiana, but my mom was born in Arkansas. My dad is a pharmacist, and when I was three or so, he got it in his head that we should move to Arkansas. And not just any place in Arkansas -- places people may have heard of, like Little Rock or Hot Springs. He wanted to move us to Gillett. Gillett is in Arkansas County, in the Southeast corner of the state. In the Mississippi River Delta part of the state.

When you get to Gillett (which people hardly ever do) you'll be greeted with these words on the sign: Welcome to Gillett. Home of Friendly People and the Coon Supper. Population 927. (I went back to Gillett a few years ago, and the population is still around 900.)

Gillett is the nearest town to Arkansas Post, which Hillbilly Aunt mentions in her post about the state. Arkansas Post is the oldest settlement in the state (and I think the oldest west of the Mississippi). I love that place. Growing up, my sister and I thought it was our backyard. My parents were friends with the park superintendant and his wife, so we spent a lot of time there. I am determined to take my children there -- perhaps in a couple of years.

My memories of Gillett include Arkansas Post, the Coon Supper -- which deserves its own post, but basically is a celebration for the high school football team. The men in town go on a raccoon hunt and then have a big raccoon barbecue. The whole town (and most state politicians) get together, eat raccoon, and present awards to the football players. Bill Clinton has eaten raccoon plenty of times. For those who are afraid of eating raccoon -- it's kind of gamey -- they offer baked ham, too.

I also have vivid memories of playing outside til it got dark, or until the byplane flew overhead spraying insecticide to kill all the mosquitoes. There are huge mosquitoes in South Arkansas. I'm quite sure I've been exposed to some pretty toxic chemicals, because sometimes I just could not get into the house fast enough.

We used to go to the swimming pool everyday in the summer time. We'd get there at 10 a.m. and not leave til closing time at 5 p.m. I have no idea if I ate lunch on those days. But I still love to swim. It was the best way to be outside while avoiding the oppressive heat and humidity, and those dang mosquitoes.

The people in Gillett were some of the nicest I've ever known. Everyone took care of one another. The town was full of yellow dog Democrats, so I don't remember anyone really talking politics very often. It's in the Bible Belt, but no one seemed all that concerned about religion, either. As long as you went to church someplace, everyone was happy.

When I was fourteen, we moved to the exact opposite side of the state, to Springdale. Springdale is in the Northwest corner of the state, in the Ozark Mountains. It was like a different world. Isn't that funny? That another region in a small state could be so different? It was, though.

For one thing, Springdale was about a billion times bigger than Gillett. I went from twenty kids in my class from kindergarten to eighth grade, to a town with TWO junior highs. I went to Central Junior High, and I was scared to death. I made myself a little map of the building so I wouldn't get lost.

Hillbilly Aunt is right -- things are different in those hills. Suddenly where I went to church took on enormous significance. I remember one of the first people I met in 9th grade, a sweet girl named Christy. She introduced herself to me, and then she asked me where I went to church. I told her that we hadn't started going to church in Springdale yet, since we'd just moved, but that I'd grown up in the Episcopal Church, so I figured that's where we' d go. She gave me a look like I'd said the church of Satan. She shook her head and told me she was sorry, but I was going to go to hell.

I heard that a lot in Springdale. But it never offended me too much. It's just something people like to tell you. They'll pray for you, and you know they feel sorry for you. I heard "bless your heart" a lot. But then we move on, and Christy showed me around the school and informed me about which lunch line had the best food.

The autumns in the Arkansas Ozarks are the most beautiful I've ever seen. I still miss autumn in Arkansas. The leaves turn the most vibrant oranges and yellows. One of my favorite drives in the state is the Pig Trail. That's a windy, twisty "shortcut" to Little Rock from Northwest Arkansas. If you want to avoid boring old I-40, the Pig Trail is the way to go.

The trees create a canopy over the road, so that it's hard to see sometimes. It's so amazing. I always said I wanted to close off part of the Pig Trail and get married right in the middle of the road, when the leaves are at the height of their color. But I had to go off and marry a Yankee and live in Chicago, so that plan didn't work out.

Dorinda writes about all the famous people from Arkansas. She's right on it -- everyone from Arkansas can list off all the names of the famous people from our state. Bill Clinton helped put us on the map, but he's just one of many.

In addition to the famous people Dorinda mentions, Glenn Campbell is from Arkansas. Johnny Cash is from Arkansas. The Reverand Al Green is from Arkansas. Not to mention Frank Bonner, who played Herb on WKRP in Cincinnati. And the guy who played Buck Rogers, the one and only Gil Gerard. We can add Darren McFadden to the list, since he was the runner up for the Heisman Trophy the past two years, and is now playing well for the Oakland Raiders.

My husband, the Yankee, is a pretty great guy. But I just look at him sometimes. He is so foreign to me in so many ways. He doesn't talk that much, and when he does, he glosses over so many crucial details. He and I can tell the exact same story, but you'd never know it. His version will take five minutes and will leave out all the colorful details. Mine will take at least twenty minutes, but you'll have a much better understanding of what really happened. It'll be like you were actually there!

When my husband and I had our daughter, we had to figure out what to name her. We decided that we wanted her to have a sense of her Japanese heritage. My husband is fourth generation, so he doesn't have much of a sense of his heritage, but we want our kids to be a part of that. So we decided that our kids would have a Japanese family name for a first name, and a Southern family name for a middle name. Hence, Emiko Mae. Emiko was hubby's grandmother, and Mae was my grandmother's middle name. My grandmother's first name was Eula, which although a strong and pretty incredible Southern name, seemed a bit much.

Our son is going to be Hideo William. Hideo for hubby's great grandfather, and William for my dad. My dad keeps asking how to pronounce Hideo. He says he's just going to call him Willy. That's about right.

I often remind my daughter that she is half Arkansas. I never remind her that she is half Yankee. I kinda hope she won't make the realization. Now, this is not meant to disparage Yankees. But Yankees are different from Southerners. Not bad, just different. I'm just not used to them. I want Emiko to say yes sir and yes'm to grown ups. I want her to soften the truth with "bless her hearts" and"well, aren't you sweets?"

I want her stories to be full of detail. I want her to get excited about fried chicken, football, and calling the Hogs. We've already started practicing calling the Hogs. She loves hollering "Woo Pig Sooie!" It makes Mama very proud. I tell her that she does not have to go to the University of Arkansas, but she has to always cheer for the Razorbacks. If she goes to college in Texas or to a different SEC school, I think that will break my heart.

My husband and I met online. You don't realize how rural you are, until you start a relationship with a Yankee via the internet and the phone. Once we started talking on the phone, I'd tell a story about my past, and then I'd hear this complete and total silence. I'd think, "Dammit Amy, now you've said too much. You're never going to hear from him again." But bless his heart, he kept calling. I don't think he's ever quite understood what he's gotten himself into, but I give him a lot of credit. He won't admit it, but he likes visiting Arkansas almost as much as I do.

I've been really homesick lately. Part of it is due to being pregnant and having a job that drives me crazy. But the biggest part of it is that I just haven't felt that sense of community in Chicago that I feel in Arkansas. I miss knowing my neighbors. I hate all this damn traffic, and it takes so long to get a very short distance. My school is about 9 miles from my house. It takes me about 40 minutes in the morning to get to work. Coming home, it takes 45-50 minutes, if I'm lucky.

And the drivers aren't courteous, either. Back home, if someone cuts you off, they at least have the decency to give you a little wave, as if they are saying, "Hon, I'm so sorry. I'm just in a hurry to get to Walmarts." Is that so hard?

I miss cheese dip. The Mexican food here is authentic Mexican food, not Tex Mex. I love authentic Mexican food, but I sure miss cheese dip. And Delta tamales. And fried catfish with hushpuppies. You can get fried catfish here on the South Side, but they serve it with spaghetti, coleslaw, and white bread. Where's the hushpuppies and french fries? It's just not the same.

There is one barbecue place here that is owned by a really nice man from Helena, AR. So Honey1 Barbecue is my favorite place in Chicago for ribs. Robert Sr and Robert Jr even serve fried okra. I keep telling Robert Jr that he needs to serve fried pie, but he hasn't yet taken my advice.

People in Chicago wear jeans to church. This is a completely foreign notion to me. How can you wear jeans to church? I cannot do it. I can wear pants, but I never feel very good about it. At Emiko's christening, there were people wearing jeans and Birkenstock sandals. And lots of people had brought their own coffee. Even the people at the altar assisting with Communion were wearing jeans and Birkenstocks. That just doesn't seem right.

I manage to get home to Arkansas at least three times a year. I would like to get home more often. Our last trip was the beginning of October. It was such a great trip. I gained seven pounds. It just felt so good to be home. I can relax there like no where else on earth.

Lately I've been hinting to my husband that perhaps we could consider living closer to Arkansas. Like to St. Louis or Kansas City. Or maybe Austin, Texas. It would seem blasphemous to live in Texas, but Austin is the exception. He's not buying it yet. Especially now that we have children, I really am thinking about what it will be like to raise them in a big city. It scares me a little bit. Not knowing who my kids know. The idea of Emiko riding the El without me makes my heart stop. Trying to figure out where she will go to school.

If nothing else, I know I am instilling my Arkansas values into my babies. I make sure to pronounce things correctly -- like saying "greezy." My hubby says that's not how you pronounce it, but he's wrong. And washeteria. That's a South Arkansas word for you. When we moved to Springdale, we had to go to the washeteria a few times. But no one calls it that. Laundramat is far less fun to say. My husband thought I was making that word up. We went to Louisiana last November for my Great Aunt Lucy's 100th birthday party, and saw a washeteria in Monroe. We had to stop and take a picture. I felt vindicated.

Maybe one day I will get to retire to Arkansas. Maybe my husband will come around and get a job at least closer to the Mason Dixon line. My kids might be named Emiko and Hideo, but they'll be little country bumpkins just the same. Bless their hearts.

1 comment:

John said...

Having just driven from Ozark, Arkansas back to the house in the Kansas City suburbs, I loved the post. I grew up in Rogers, my wife in Ozark - the foot of the Pig Trail. We'll always be Arkansans, and hope that our kids will be too.