I need to stop saying things like, “I could never live in [insert name of town/region of the U.S. that I assume is a complete hellhole],” because the universe has enough of a sense of humor that it will force me to live there eventually.
At the end of last month, I became a resident of Mississippi. I am here as a trailing spouse, having followed my husband to Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis Presley, where he recently started a new job overseeing a local TV station’s newsroom. There was much kicking and screaming on my end. Our last address was in West Palm Beach, Florida, where we enjoyed year-round “beach weather” and access to a seemingly infinite number of great restaurants and cultural attractions.
Living in the Deep South is something I could never conceive of doing. I have spent most of my life trying to forget about having lived in what I’ll call the Shallow South during most of my childhood. I was born in Alexandria, Virginia, which doesn’t count as any version of the South because it’s in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. By the time I had some toddling and talking experience under my belt, my family made its first move, to Lynchburg, Virginia, the land of Jerry Falwell. It would be the first of five relocations, all resulting from my engineer father’s career moves, that I’d experience before graduating high school in upstate New York.
But it was West Virginia that loomed the largest in my upbringing. We spent a combined 10 years there, which could have been 12 but for a year-and-a-half hitch in Pennsylvania. Our second stint in the Mountain State, which lasted from 1980 to 1986, coincided with my adolescence, so it’s no surprise that it turned out to be the longest six years of my life.
To be fair, we lived in the tip of the Eastern Panhandle, a region wedged between Maryland and Virginia that’s within day-tripping distance of the nation’s capital and Baltimore. We were hardly “up in the holler.” And yet, I had ample exposure to redneck culture. During West Virginia, Part II, I came to understand that for a few of my peers, a soda bottle or can functioned as a spittoon during the school day. Or sometimes the water fountain would do. On my high school bus route, the very last kids to board lived in a ramshackle house featuring a sign that said: “TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT. SURVIVORS WILL BE SHOT AGAIN.” Between that stop and my school, the bus passed by another dilapidated dwelling rumored to be the home of a Grand Wizard or Knight or whatever of the Ku Klux Klan.
To make matters worse, my tendency to be too nerdy and quiet and serious for my own good, combined with my inability to suffer fools gladly, made me a target for bullies. Consequently, I was more than happy to kick West Virginia to the curb once my father received what would be his final job transfer, even though I had just started my junior year. And I was determined never to go too far south of the Mason-Dixon line ever again if I could help it.
And here I am, some 30 years later, living where I thought I never wanted to be. But I’m trying my best to adapt to this (mis)adventure in Mississippi, and so I plan to write about it from time to time. I have extensive experience being a newcomer seeking opportunity, hence the name of this blog. I might as well embrace this latest chapter in the story of my carpetbagging life.