At least once a year, I like to trade the brooding isolation of my Upper-Midwestern life for the relaxed togetherness of a Southern one with the Wrights of College Street, our dear friends who live in Macon, Georgia.
The South is a deep source of comfort, beauty, and fascination for me: Bluegrass music is bluegrassier, booze is boozier, sultry is sultrier. Cherry blossoms float through the trees, azaleas pink the edges of Georgian lawns, and English ivy drapes itself over houses, trees, ironwork fences. Today, when an old house up the street went on the market, the whole neighborhood trooped up to see it, waving at every car that passed, inviting more neighbors to come along, reciting the history of the house like a catechism.
Bridget and I like to sing together –music is an essential element of our friendship– so we sang “Wagon Wheel” and “Make You Feel My Love” while we made vanilla ice cream for root beer floats and pesto for pasta with grilled sausages. Children, husbands, cats, dogs, and neighbors drifted in and out with the pollen as we worked, looking for a towel, a taste of ice cream, a beer. There is always a feeling here of a collective Southern life, lived by and for everyone at once. Everyone belongs.
Cherry blossoms float through the trees, azaleas pink the edges of Georgian lawns, and English ivy drapes itself over houses, trees, ironwork fences.
After dinner, root beer floats, and an under-eight kitchen dance party, the children get sorted into sleepover venues (girls here, boys at the neighbors’, then one girl at the neighbors’, then eventually both girls and both boys at the neighbors’). When the babies are all settled, the five adults leave them to their dreaming and wander out on foot into the starry darkness.
The neighbors greet us at their gates or from their porches as we pass. The people two doors down –a chef and her engineer husband –are just back from the Cherry Blossom Festival street party downtown. The chef sniffs the air –“Who smells like tacos?” She giggles when we tell her no tacos –it’s the garlic from the pesto she’s probably smelling– and launches into a story about her recent job switch:
“The owner of that restaurant, she was all –” she screws up her face, kisses the air several times, and smacks her own round bottom. “Not a very nice person. Did you go see that house for sale? You gonna buy it?”
We move on. Michael and Greg point out architectural features, local history factoids, and signs of water damage on the historic houses we pass and then we spend about 25 minutes skulking around a foreclosure. Katie tries the windows (locked), Michael turns on the flashlight app on his iPhone and ducks into the crawl space under the front porch. “Oh boy.” Greg joins him to inspect and they spend several happy minutes commenting on the structural integrity of the house. This, apparently, is a common Macon pastime.
On the way home, around 11:00 pm, we pass Leslie drinking wine on her porch. “Y’all just gettin’ back? You wanna come in for a nightcap?” We follow her into her kitchen, where she pours wine and fetches beer and speculates about a neighborhood scandal: “It’s weird, isn’t it? It’s just weird. Why is she going over there all the time? What am I supposed to say when people ask me?”
“Just say you don’t know, ‘cuz you don’t.” Bridget gives me a secret smile and Leslie drops the subject, opens a container of homemade salsa and a bag of chips. “Oh you like peanuts, don’t you,” she says to Katie, and opens a bag just for her. We crowd around the island in her pretty little kitchen with the black and white checkered floor and cabinets the color of maple syrup and talk about Macon.
Quality is not linked to condition when Southerners choose a house to restore; it’s linked to history and endurance.
“I tell you what, Macon’s the best-kept secret in the South,” says Greg. I can’t tell if everyone else is aware of raising their glasses. “Took me a couple years to believe house prices down here. Best-kept secret.”
“These old houses are worth fighting for. You gonna buy the Buafo house, Michael?” asks Leslie. She looks at me. “He wants to save them all.”
Of course he does –to preserve those houses is to preserve the lives lived within them, still flowing through the old halls and rooms like a current. Quality is not linked to condition when Southerners choose a house to restore; it’s linked to history and endurance. If the roof needs replacing, the second floor has to be reconfigured, and the whole place seems unstable, but it has a gorgeous view and original woodwork, then it’s worth restoring. If the windows are a mess and there are giant cracks from floor to ceiling but it’s been there for a hundred years and lets in a lot of light, then it’s worth restoring. If it’s kind of dark and lonely-looking but pretty in its way and just needs a little love to be beautiful again, it’s worth restoring.
So I’ll keep coming back here –to sing, to cook, to wander around in old houses, to participate in this collective Southern life, to remind myself that I’m always worthy of restoration.