Growing up in Charlotte NC, I viewed the world from the bed of a cobalt blue Ford pickup. There were no plantations. There was no swinging Spanish moss. There were no great expanses of sky. There were no sweeping prairies or mountains. There was no pine barren or marsh with a smell to catch your jaw. There were no deep forests.
Family legend told that my grandpa, whom we called Pop, had bought the blue Ford without telling my grandmother. I heard her tell time and again how she’d been so mad she could have spit fire, earning her reputation as a red head. In the thick of the argument, she had heaved her wedding ring into the yard. She and her neighbor crawled under the shade of a massive oak that had been cut down by the time I came along, feeling the tickle of the grass plagued by clover and relishing its coolness in the wet heat of a July night.
Charlotte is a town built on a crossroads, two intersecting Native American trading paths, known now as Trade and Tryon Streets. The landscape rolls gently and lies half way between the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. When a tourist visits North Carolina, it’s usually not to visit the “piedmont” or “foot of the mountain.” As a girl, once I’d traveled to those parts East and West of my hometown, I harbored a sort of longing to be with the mountain people or the people who lived “down east” as we say it. I longed for forest and sea. But this land has its beauty. It has its trees and when not hitting pockets of orange clay, has fertile soil from which one can grow corn, cotton, and tobacco easily. Crops with troubled pasts. Growing up here, one has a complicated relationship with the land, its history, its scars. I’ve known many born and bred here to hate it so much they had to leave; they couldn’t swallow the shadows still visible from the periphery. Then there’s the other half, older generations mostly, that cling to outdated ideas about what this place is supposed to be and who it’s made for. I stand somewhere on the edge, just coming to terms with the fact that I may be forever settled into this town.
Early European settlers were Scotch-Irish, Quaker, and German. Native American tribes in the area included the Eastern Band of Cherokee, Cheraw, Waxhaw, Saponi, Waccamaw, and Catawba. From what little I know of my ancestry, I can tell you that I am part Scotch-Irish, Cherokee, and Welsh but most of my people were poverty-stricken and kept poor records.
The town’s first boom came in the late 18th century when gold was discovered here, sparking a gold rush that predates California’s. The town didn’t really grow until after the Civil War when it became a hub of cotton processing and textile mills boomed in the region. My great-grandparents were farmers in North Mecklenburg County, in what is now known as the University area. My grandparents started out farmers, moved to working in textile mills, before my grandmother finally wound up a beautician and my grand-father a school bus driver. My history and this landscape is not exactly what one would call southern pastoral.
Yet, it was rustic and of the earth. Like the land itself, the culture here is balanced; it is a blend of the rural with the urban. In their tiny back yard, my grandparents grew corn, collards, tomatoes, okra (which thrived in the heat), string beans, cucumbers, and summer squash. They canned and froze their harvest. They made chow chow, which sat like jars of confetti on the counter. They couldn’t pay me to touch it but I saw my grandpa eat it straight from the jar, his leathery fingers scooping the red pepper, corn and onion concoction.
No matter what I do, where I go, or how hard I fought it, I’ll always see the world from the back of Pop’s truck, the heat of its ridges still burning into my back and feet –somewhere beneath the surface smelling tomato vines and tasting salted cucumbers, thinking of my grandma searching for that ring.