It’s a “Misty Moisty Morning of real Chicago weather,” my mother used to recite, except we weren’t in Chicago but Charleston, South Carolina, and my mother, the Midwesterner, couldn’t help herself. Midwestern weather and geography overlay her view of our life in The Old Citadel. Curled up together on the sofa, she read my sister and me the “Laura and Mary” books. The Ingalls’ overland sleigh rides became real with her quick addendum about Papa Max, her North Dakota county auditor father who’d “give his horses their heads,” she’d say, “and let them carry him over the snow-covered fences home.” Not until years later did I glimpse that reality in my own overland (well, highway) snowy travels across Minnesota to writers-in-the-schools residencies. Just as my mother lived far more of her life in Charleston than she did in North Dakota or Minnesota–she graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1929 and immediately went east–so I have spent twice again as long in the Twin Cities as I did in Charleston.
Yet every summer, with that bliss of the unattached mind, I order Eudora Welty’s quintessentially late summer Delta Wedding on audio disk from the library and take it north with me to our “big water.” The huge expanse of Lake Superior easily carries me wherever I want to go, and though I’ve never visited the Yazoo Delta or Jackson, Mississippi, where the novel is set, I picture them with my Carolina eyes trained to wide expanses of marsh, and the occasional lone plantation house, a sentinel among its fields.
This morning, standing in my St. Paul kitchen staring out at fog, I muse on inherited geography and our preferences for certain locales. We rarely had fog in Charleston except in winter. Yet today, I can almost spy the battlements of The Old Citadel, rising out of the mist. That block-long complex of medieval-looking barracks and classrooms used to house the cadets who, famously fired the shots that started the Civil War. John C. Calhoun, great secessionist, still stands across Marion Square where my father in his Citadel uniform used to take me to admire the great orator’s cloak.
With a daughter’s detachment, I saw around the adjustments my parents made which allowed them to live for over fifty years as Yankees in a changing Carolina. I sneered, openly, at the politics my father adopted, and was rebuked. Eventually the enormous clang and strife of civil rights quieted, my father died, and my mother lived on, happy with her huge garden in Wappoo Heights, in a house with a Southern wrap-around porch. Visiting and caring for her, I remembered the early experiences that linked me to this climate and soil. Her house became an icon of everything the family had tried to stuff into its piebald identity. Yesterday, reading Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, I found myself alive again in my mother’s upstairs bedroom, ready like Welty’s optimist’s daughter, the lone survivor of her family, ready to put my hand to the bureau and draw out my North Dakota grandmother’s letters. Another version of connecting across the miles and years.