As a good friend of mine would put it so descriptively, I went from “dirt to concrete.” Born in the hills of Tennessee, I ventured north to the bright lights and taller buildings as soon as legal age allowed. Without knowing it (and certainly never admitting it!), my father raised me a feminist. He did not shy once in his belief – demonstrated in both word and action – that I could do whatever it was that I set my mind to. His respect of both my academic and athletic prowess never flinched despite the fact that a was a girl – a girl born in the South nonetheless.
And so, I left … for a bigger world … a world which could provide me an oxygen mask for my too restricted and slowly dying spirit. I was in need of an environment that fostered the encouragement and opportunity for my emotional, intellectual and vocational wings to sprout. Once gone, I never looked back.
The world that I found and have created north of the Mason-Dixon Line is quite different than the one I was raised in. So different, that sometimes I don’t even recognize the roots from which I was created. But then there is that one taste of fried chicken and a flaky buttered biscuit, the sound of katydids at summer’s dusk, the sweet smell of a magnolia bloom or Johnny Cash’s twang on the CD and I am cast back to whence I came. Lost in the unexpected yet certain wave of cultural and familial legacy.
One value from my Southern childhood was learning to “rough it.” Nature was the ultimate force to be reckoned with and we Sullivans ne’er to back down. Grit and determination were part of the backbone. We camped through the Smokies and the Rockies. We hiked Mt. Lacont despite the warnings of bear sightings. We flipped a canoe sideways over a 12 foot waterfall. We pitched tents in the pouring rain. We ran over rattlesnakes in the driveway. And yes, we even shot BB guns at innocent squirrels. Something was not considered broken unless it was beyond the hope of a roll of duck tape and a can of WD40. It was a true Southern reality TV series long before the creation of “Duck Dynasty.”
So, when I got the bright idea last summer to give my kids a bit of Southern culture (before they were totally lost to the world of prestine Washington), my lovely neighbor and friend, Patty, from Philadelphia decided that she and her daughter were game. They were coming too.
It was a good idea – or so I thought. A twelve-mile canoe trip down the Shanandoah River. The sun was cooperating. The water temperature like bathwater. The coolers packed to the brim with junk food fit for the outing. Hell, this was going to be great fun. I could teach my son to steer a canoe and my daughter to get her feet dirty. Wouldn’t Dad be proud?!
We were off. The excitement was palpable. “Mom, can we do this every summer?” the kids yelled across the water, echoing through the riverbed canyons. I was feeling a moment of serenity … I was giving my kids a small taste of my Southern childhood and they were actually happy to be out in nature, away from city-living.
After we stopped for lunch, I noticed a shift in mood. In her usual demure way, Patty asks … “So, how much longer do we have to go?” When I told her that we were only halfway through, her face dropped to the bottom of the river. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” she mumbled under her breath. She sat there stunned, frozen in place, clearly mulling over her options. Finally, she says, “Well … there’s no going back. I’ve come this far. I guess I have no choice but to keep going forward.” And going on is what she did. For six more river miles, my friend paddled … one painful stroke after another … using strength that she forgot she had.
Of course, we now laugh about our big canoe venture. We even talk about how representing of life it really is. That once you get on the river, there is no stopping. It’s a one-way journey that demands your all. You have no choice but to keep paddling – even when your body and your spirit refuse to go on. You dig deep and pull one more stroke just because you are not done. You have yet to arrive at the endpoint. There are six more miles to go and you are only halfway there.
Patty makes me promise that if we go again this summer, that we are signing up for the shorter canoe trip. Hell, after last summer’s outing, anything less would be a cakewalk. But she may be right … our lives require that we run plenty of marathons. A walk in the park might be a welcome relief.