Saturday, July 2, 2016
“How do you say ‘furniture’?” my mom asked my dad.
He pronounced the word, which for him rhymes with manure.
My parents, partner Ann, myself, and Little Brother Matt (LBM) and his wife, my Sister-in-Law Kristin (SILK), were sitting around the dinner table with LBM and SILK’s kids: Hayden, a high school junior; Lucie, heading into eighth grade; and Gretchen who has just graduated from fifth grade. As Dad pronounced “furniture, we all hee-hawed, which is what you do in North Carolina when something’s funny.
I sat at one end of the table, facing my father at the other end, looking past him, out the window behind him white sandy dunes and the blue-green ocean until the evening’s pinks faded to black. All of us but Mom had spent some time on the beach that day: young Gretchen throwing a football with LBM (she’s got a nice spiral—so does he) while Lucie dried out from a swim, bronzing her long body and listening on her orange headphones, Hayden absorbed in his i-Phone, SILK in her magazines, and Ann in her book, me slathered in sunscreen and protected from any further radiation by Brother-in Law Todd’s (BILT’s) straw hat on my head, a long sleeved shirt protecting my arms and reminding me “Breathe,” my pasty legs swathed in towels.
We were several days into this family vacation. Sister Jen, BILT, and their youngest son Willie were gone, but a good number remained. This family beach tradition was in its 52nd year, counting my parents’ honeymoon and not counting the one summer we missed. The tradition reminds me of my roots here, strengthening old connections and building new ones.
On this night, those not raised in the South laughed about (I’d like to think “delighted in”) our family’s accents. The kids have grown up in Connecticut and Ann was raised in West Texas while the rest of us learned our English with a North Carolina lilt. Though SILK was raised in Greensborough, NC, a 90-minute drive from our home in Raleigh, she has a different accent, so after a day of bathing in the sun she too bathed in amusement. Dad’s from a small town in eastern NC, so his accent is different than Mom’s big city Charlotte accent and from we three kids’ accents from NC’s Triangle Area.
We all asked others to pronounce words we found amusing: Furniture rhymes with manure; daughter and water rhyme with embroider; poetry is “poitry,” and an iron is an “eyern” instead of the Yankees’ “I earn.” We all laughed to hear the music of North Cackalacky, a term I’d only heard from my friend Colleen in the Pacific Northwest until hearing it from my brother at this Southern Accent Festival.
SILK did a quick search on her phone and read to us the definition of “North Cackalacky” from the urban dictionary: “A nickname for North Carolina. Mainly used by people (military transplants) who are originally from the West Coast, especially from CA and more specifically Socal); The word is used in good humor often to make light fun of the red neck ways of the South. Example: ‘Just saw a recliner on somebody's porch, it must be their patio furniture...only in North Cacklacky.’”
I love my NC accent: it marks me as one from another culture. I had been in Seattle sixteen years when I had brain surgery in 2007, and people had stopped commenting on my accent, but with surgery my accent returned with a vengeance. (I still have the accent, but the cravings for “pineapple delight,” a jello and marshmallow salad, and banana and mayonnaise sandwiches on white Wonder Bread have faded.)
In Seattle before the trip, we had read the news of new conservative NC laws, including where transgendered people can go to the bathroom, and it was fun to experience a warm connection with family and old friends, a reminder of the South’s charm and personal warmth. (And it’s complexity: not everyone’s a bigot. In fact, there are many fine people there.)
My first day in Raleigh, Mom and I visited my childhood friend Ana’s* parents. They now live in an assisted living apartment instead of in the home where I loved Grape Nuts (only there: they didn’t taste good anywhere else) and where Ana and I built forts, performed acrobatics from “Turkey Rock,” the large rock in their front yard, and in the basement listened to John Lennon’s “perfect scream” in the Beatles song “Hey Jude.”
Though their new apartment doesn’t carry those old memories, it does carry their spirit: art and photographs on the walls, some time to talk, and at the end, Ana’s father asking plaintively for a “hug.” (A kiss on the cheek from me: he used a walker and I use a cane, and a hug was too likely to bring us both down.)
The next night Mom, Dad and I had dinner with my eighth and ninth grade best friend Kiki’s* parents. Their home had been my second home through eighth grade and high school, and I was warmed when they agreed with Mom that I had been their “fifth daughter.” We recounted the story we always remember together about a Sunday before Christmas when Kiki and I, trying to be helpful, stripped the fake Christmas tree of its ornaments, and her Dad spent hours cursing and re-decorating the tree that hadn’t needed to lose its ornaments after all.
Ann joined me in Raleigh Friday, and we had dinner with my dear high school friend Becky, whom I hadn’t seen in 30 years. Becky had driven up from South Carolina for the visit, and her effort honored me. We reconnected immediately, like happens with some friends over the years. She looked just the same: some years older but not a lot. I still love her dimples and told her of the many high school days I spent in front of the mirror, folding my cheeks in an attempt to create dimples for myself.
The beach trip was, as always, a time to reconnect with my siblings and their families. The kids have gotten to the ages where they are fairly independent and are amused by their old school elders. One night, Gretchen and Lucie taught us all to work “the dab,” a dance move that involved dramatically bending an arm across the face and bowing into it. I probably sound like a foreigner using and describing the move. At 52, I am an immigrant to teenage culture.
At week’s end, Ann and I returned to Raleigh with my parents, and the two of us had dinner with my ninth grade assistant basketball coach and her partner. The last time we saw one another, I was 14 and she was 18, and I ended our connection because I thought my mom was worried that around my coach I would become gay. I think some part of me knew that I already was.
It was so good to connect with my coach and her partner. We were bad guests, arriving at their home at 6 pm and leaving five hours later. I felt like reconnecting with my coach, now that we are both adults, out of the closet and better than okay in our lives and relationships, filled some place in me that had been empty since those years. I also felt a kind of forgiveness for the loss of that connection that had somehow helped me to understand in those awful days that I was not alone. This connection healed me in a way I didn’t know I was hurt, and I just couldn’t leave. Now I felt I needed forgiveness for staying so long.
After Ann and I got back to Seattle, I got a text from Coach saying how lovely it had been to see me and meet Ann: once again, she seemed to forgive me, or even not to think I had transgressed, and to understand how important the connection was.
Back in Seattle at the Assisted Living facility where I lead a weekly poetry club, I could hear my re-strengthened accent as I greeted people. I heard myself saying, “Ya’ll come to poetry club if you can!” And though I didn’t expect them to remember that I’d been gone because so many of them live with memory loss, several asked about my trip. Sadie*, who seldom says much though she comes to poetry club each week, looked into my eyes with her especially round ones and said, “I’ve missed you.”
I’m home again.
*Names have been changed.