I have studied with depth, breadth, and passion not only the literature, but also the history–both political and intellectual–of the American South. During the most impressionable years of my intellectual formation, I was reading Wilbur J. Cash on The Mind of the South and Ulrich B. Phillips on “The Central Theme of Southern History”–and H. L. Mencken on “The Sahara of the Bozart.” And I can still experience a frisson of recognition when I read anew the exchange between Quentin Compson and Shreve McCannon in Absalom, Absalom:
“Tell me about the South. What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they live at all? . . . Tell me one more thing. Why do you hate the South?”
“I don’t hate it,” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; “I don’t hate it,” he said. “I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!”
Pat Conroy’s opening sentence in The Prince of Tides thus exposed layer upon layer of significance for this student of the South: “My wound is geography.” The South–specifically, South Carolina’s Lowcountry–was not just the setting, but a main character, in Conroy’s thinly veiled version of the Southern gothic. I understood the wound, but, to be fair, I also understood the refuge described in the following line: “It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” Because I have studied, written about, and lived vicariously in the South–and because I have for forty years lived actually in the South (but never called it home)–it is easy for me to understand how mere geography could have such evocative power.
However, despite my penchant for introspection, I have seldom spent much thought on the formative geography of my own beginnings. I have understood the importance of growing up in a small town, with people of similar history and lives mutually transparent. I shared with Thomas Wolfe an understanding that being sheltered by mountains on all sides provided an insularity to our childhoods that made us both interdependent and independent. And my undergraduate mentor tried to analyze me based on the tagline of an old radio show: “Once again, we present Our Gal Sunday, the story of an orphan girl named Sunday from the small mining town in the West, who found true happiness with one of England’s most handsome Lords, Lord Henry Brinthrope.”
Somehow, though, it was only yesterday, looking at Google Maps, that I understood how thoroughly I am a girl from a small mining town in the West. So now is the time for some extrospection.
As I often do, I typed in the search block, “428 North Street, Globe, Arizona.” And here is what I saw:
Marked with the distinctive Google Maps pin is the home where I spent the first sixteen years of my life–practiced penmanship and the cornet and words for the spelling bee, sent a photograph of myself with my hair in bobby pins to President Kennedy, read all the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries before I finished the third grade. Next door to the left is the home of my aunt and uncle and their two daughters, Nancy and Kathy. Behind them, down the hill on Devereaux Street, is my grandmother’s house, where I learned to embroider to the background noise of the fifteen-minute soap operas she called “my stories.” Between the two houses is the vacant lot where Johnny Vazetti’s house burned down; I once disrobed on that lot, hung my dress and panties on the mulberry tree, and pranced down the hill to Grandma’s house, where she greeted my arrival with shrieks of horror. I spent most of my childhood playing, walking, roller skating, and bicycling on the streets and sidewalks circumscribed in this photo. I attended kindergarten through sixth grade at Noftsger Hill School, the large building across the street from our house. There, I gave the first clues of being a big fish; of course, the metaphor doesn’t hold because there are no ponds in small mining towns in the West. Summer evenings, I ate candy cigarettes and wax lips and slurped on snow cones while watching the local boys play baseball at the Little League park just past the school on the right. I played jacks with Susie Billingsley on the school steps because golf balls bounced straight and high on their smooth paint of battleship gray.
In retrospect, other than the school steps, vivid colors painted my childhood. However, I must acknowledge that then, as now–a fact starkly revealed by the Google satellite–the palette was mostly limited to shades of dusty brown, and sizes were limited to small. The elementary school attended by my father and his four brothers, my sister and me, and the first female governor of Arizona is now a bed and breakfast. The barrenness of the baseball diamond leads me to believe that children slurp no more snow cones and play no more six-inning ballgames there. Otherwise, the neighborhood seems essentially the same from this vantage point.
Let’s zoom out for a little perspective. The previous view was primarily of Noftsger Hill, a neighborhood on the northwestern edge of Globe. Here is most of the town:
And here is an even broader view, including the sheltering mountains and what remains of the copper mines that provided a living for our families and the smell of sulfur that pervades my childhood memories:
I have seen these views countless times since they became available in cyberspace. But it was only yesterday that I began to locate my own wound in these arid and barren vistas. So I haven’t figured out quite what they have meant for my social, psychological, and intellectual development.
However, zooming in for the Google street view, I begin to feel a slight itch from that unacknowledged and unhealed wound of geography and history:
This is 428 North Street, my childhood home. Zillow tells me that our house was built in 1910; standing on a lot of 5,227 square feet, the house is 769 square feet, but the website doesn’t reveal whether that measurement includes the half-unfinished, half-underground basement. White plastic chairs have replaced the green metal ones of the 1950s. The cedar tree is missing from the space to the right of the porch, and the planters and the dog house are new.
The fence, however, is the same one kicked by Delton Gillespie from the bicycle on which he delivered the weekly newspaper; our dog, Curly, bit him in response to repeated harassment and was subsequently sent to that farm in the sky where he could run free; as I recall, Delton, whom we called a juvenile delinquent, was subsequently sent to Fort Grant, the State Industrial School for Wayward Boys and Girls. The porch rails are the same ones in front of which I made mud pies and between which my sister as a toddler stuck her head and learned the valuable lesson that ears compress in only one direction. The square box affixed to the right side of the house is the same swamp cooler that made summers tolerable in the higher regions on the verge of the Sonoran Desert–but sticky and intolerable during the monsoons. In the room where that cooler blew its cool, damp air stood my first piano. The house barely visible on the left is the same one where Andy Rogers lived. I had my first quasi-sexual experience with him in one of the finished rooms of our basement, where Andy took off his pants, told me to do the same, and lay on top of me, rubbing me with his tiny penis until we heard my mother coming down the stairs and scrambled to get dressed. We were four and six, and neither of us suffered psychological scars; significantly, neither of us was sent to the State Industrial School for Wayward Boys and Girls.
I have a lot to ponder before I can say with confidence whether geography is my wound or my harbor. Of course, the metaphor doesn’t hold; there are no harbors in the desert. But there are oases, and there are mirages of oases in the distance.