Wednesday, October 14, 2009

We'll Have A Jubilee Down In Memphis

In the last few sparingly documented months, a milestone silently passed. No, no, not the birth of my new niece Madeleine (heck, that was all over Facebook, anyway). This landmark was a much more bittersweet occasion. I’m speaking, of course, of the close of my first decade as a Memphian. I recently realized I have spent ten years as a resident of the city of Memphis, county of Shelby, state of Tennessee, US of formerly confederated A.

I feel like I should have something insightful or wise to say about that, but really, I’m just baffled. It still boggles my mind that a girl who grew up around lakes and loons is now at home with magnolias and mockingbirds. But have I become a belle in this epoch? No, definitely not. I still feel like I trip over my thick Midwestern tongue whenever I’m around Southerners, and Southern women in particular. There’s an ease and grace and openness that I don’t think I’ll ever master, no matter how well I integrate “y’all” and “ma’am” into my vocabulary.

Memphis is its own particular breed of Southern, of course. It’s the loveable ne’er-do-well, the kid brother who keeps swearing to pay you back that ten bucks he owes you from 2002. (When he took it out of your car. With a hammer.) And also the stage-frightened protégé, the reclusive genius, filled with so much talent but terrified to do anything with it. It’s a big city with seriously small-town self-esteem. Over the last ten years, I’ve grown fond of its foibles and exhausted by its drama. I’ve been its champion and its victim. And I’ve worked hard to raise two native residents who can see their hometown for both its joys and sorrows.

When I was up north (the generic term Memphians use to describe anywhere above the Mason-Dixon, whether it’s Northeast or Midwest) this past weekend, I realized what a homeland limbo I’m in now. Friends from high school marveled at my Southern accent, a cashier at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport asked where in the upper Midwest I was from, and the DeSoto county resident sitting next to me on the plane said I obviously hadn’t lived in Memphis that long. And it’s not just my phonemes that are hard to place. I have Southernized, to a degree. My manners have softened, my pace has slowed, and I’ve learned to make a mean pitcher of sweet tea. But you can’t take the Minnesotan out of the girl, either. Just being in the airport and seeing St. Olaf sweatshirts made my heart ache a little. As we took off from the Lindbergh Terminal, that Mississippian asked me what that big city was over on the horizon, and my voice caught a little as I said Minneapolis. Because in that one word is many others: Wayzata, Minnetonka, Olivia. Guthrie, Walker, Calhoun. Sister. Parents.

And then, two hours later, I landed. I walked out into a perfect Memphis autumn day, and into the hugs of my children and friends. I spent the afternoon playing in my yard, lounging in my house, and hearing stories of what I’d missed. And I had missed it. The pull I felt toward the color-shifting birch trees of Minnesota was, bizarrely but truly, just as strong toward the Dixie Queen on Airways. They may not be comparable in beauty, but they are both vivid markers of their place. And for the past ten years, this place has been my home.

Postscript: it occurred to me this morning that ten years is longer than I've lived, consecutively, in any one place throughout my entire life, and about matches the collective time I've lived in Minnesota. Which explains why it's not unlikely for me to utter the phrase, "Y'all want some pop?"