I am not a Southerner.
I talk like ’em, I think like ’em, I vote like ’em, I eat like ’em. But I am not one of ’em. I will remain forever an outsider, content only to revel in close proximity (to rub elbows, if you will) with those true Southerners I have come to admire, love and yes, even envy a little.
My father-in-law is a true Southerner. Robert Skinny Wallace was born and raised in the South, so were his father and his father before him. His “people” (as true Southerners refer to their kin folk) migrated to Opelika, Alabama from the East in the 1830’s, when Alabama was first settled.
But that doesn’t make him a true Southerner.
My father-in-law grew up on a farm, hunted and fished, picked cotton, went to all-white schools, played with toads, jumped off a railroad bridge and broke his arm trying to impress some giggling little girls.
But that doesn’t make him a Southerner.
My father-in-law married a Southern girl, served his country honorably in World War II, then returned to the South where he raised three charming, little angel daughters.
But that doesn’t make him a Southerner either.
What makes Robert Wallace a true Southerner is a passionate and indelible link to the land of his Opelika roots.
Alabama, and the South, has forever been inextricably agrarian. Industrialization helped heal the South after the Civil War. However, all the efforts to modernize (ergo transform) the region could not alter that most fundamental and prevailing kinship of its people with the land.
A true Southerner never forgets that.
My father-in-law took me back to that most treasured birthplace of his roots over the Christmas holidays. Geda (pronounced “Gee-daw” because one of his grandchildren couldn’t say “Grandpa”), lit up like a Christmas tree when we drove up to Bean’s Mill just off Highway 29. Despite poor ciculation in his legs, which hinders his walking considerably, Geda walked all around the mill and affectionately recalled old times with John Ross who is restoring the mill. My father-in-law reminisced about his kin folk and his school days with Mr. Ross for half an hour.
We visited the old cotton gin, the abandoned railroad depot, the railroad bridge, his old school, his birthplace, the church his grandfather helped found, the graves of his parents and grandparents and other relatives, his old hunting grounds, and lots of other places.
He had a story about every one of them.
We put more than 70 miles on the car in about four hours and covered only about five square miles. For a few hours my father-in-law took me back, gave me a taste, an old wrinkled snapshot, of the life he lived as a true Southerner.
My father-in-law moved away from home shortly after graduating from high school with his graduating class (he and another boy). When he retired, he and my mother-in-law settled down. They now split their time between a home in Atlanta and a quiet beach house in Panama City.
But, as often as he can Geda returns to Opelik”er,” as he likes to say. That’s where his heart will always be–where he grew up as a True Southerner.