I looked out my kitchen window, a housewife in the rural South, and wondered if I would ever learn to call this place home. Our plans for a permanent home "after the Army" had never included the South. The irony of my situation, therefore, was as overwhelming as my conviction that I did not belong in this setting of flat fields lined with cornstalks, of humid weather and no sea breezes. I, a Greek through and through, belonged in a large city, with the mountains in the background and the blue Aegean always visible.
Since I had chosen to live in America, however, the ideal place would have been a college campus, which I loved, or at least an Army post that was too transitory to demand my loyalty.
What was I doing here?m
Early in my marriage to my Southern husband, we had driven through this little town to meet some of his relatives. But I was sleepy and had seen only the blooms of the dogwood trees as I lay on the seat of the moving car. I murmured something about images of Southern writers, floating above my head, and gave no more thought to the place. After all, we were heading for yet another Army school, going from Massachusetts to California. The trip south was only a visit.
A few years later, after a disillusioning year in Vietnam, my husband returned with me to North Carolina. I had married a man whose greatest ambition had been a military assignment in Europe. After Vietnam, however, Army life had lost its attractiveness, and home to the South seemed the better choice to him. My surprise, though, had only just begun.
I wonder then as I do now: Do all people who leave their native land to live elsewhere think that the change will be not only dramatic but glamorous -- at the very least, earthshaking?
There was nothing glamorous about the South in the '60s. Danger and despair were at our doorstep. And within me were the romantic, missionary tendencies of my youth and the liberal espousals of my college years.
"What are we doing here?" I asked my husband one day, sensing his frustration. We had just driven by the jailhouse when he had said: "I hear that Harvey Cox, the theologian, was jailed in this place during the riots of '63. This is not a peaceful town." It was a bitter thought.
Yet our neighbors showed warmth toward us. Musicians are always needed in little towns, and by the second month I was directing a church choir.
Almost imperceptibly our involvement with the community deepened as our months rolled into years. Our lives were not revolutionary, but they were true to our natures. The changes we brought about were tiny.
I opened my home to both black and white children when I taught piano, something that hadn't been done before. My husband hired the first black salesman, and though he lost some customers, his business did not close down. A black lady came to sit with my baby so that I could go to the Head Start centers to sing to the children a few hours a week. When I directed a community chorus for the "Messiah" I invited both black and white singers to celebrate in our home together. I think they were all surprised that this unusual gathering was so pleasant.
We were not heroic people, so the objections to our lives were quiet, and we never heard them. Heroic people go it alone, but we were ordinary and longed for like- minded company.Gradually, we came to know white people who shared our views.
Chris sang in my choir. She was tall and elegant and rather aloof for a Southerner. Efficiency was her hallmark.During the civil rights troubles she drove repeatedly to Washington until she had secured enough funds to organize an effective community- action program.
Betty was my friend. Together with Chris she organized a better-education committee to improve the public schools, so that when total integration inevitably arrived, there was no exodus to private schools.
And then there was Alton, who has become my best friend.He is as passionate about his Southern heritage as I am about my Greek background. He sees all that is good and all that is unfulfilled in the South, and he remains. The devotion, self-giving and sense of responsibility that the rest of us reserve for our spouses and children, he, a bachelor, offers to people in need. A totally compassionate teacher, he works with children other teachers cannot handle. He makes his home available to youngsters who have left their families, to ex-prisoners who cannot find employment. The whole school system has come to depend on him. Sometimes I think this town would shrivel up and be blown away if Alton were not here for us to call on.
I realized that in writing about Alton I have slipped into the present tense. How strange and comforting it is that as I write about the man who stands for what is best in our town, I am also writing about a place that has become my home.
Recently, a former professor reminded me of my youthful yearnings for missionary work.We talked of my life now, and he said, "You have become a missionary in the South and do not know it."
He was exaggerating, of course, but it occurred to me that it had been a lo ng time since I had asked, "What am I doing here?"