The pull of home is just a morsel away
By Jillian Weiss
I could no longer remember what it was like to live in North Carolina.
As I flew back to Greensboro after nine years of living in London, there was only one certainty: The next morning I’d be eating two perfectly toasted Eggos in my grandparents’ bright kitchen. I’d smear butter on the waffles and stare up at the framed photograph of my mother that hung between the pantry doors. She’d be standing in a long denim dress, her pregnant belly large and oddly pointed, waiting for my arrival. After that breakfast, who knew? My American childhood years had become so distant that North Carolina meant only large malls, parking lots and fast-food chains.
I was returning because I’d chosen to attend Elon University, but I still had a month before classes began. I stayed with my grandparents in one of their spare rooms and we watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy every evening. During the barrage of commercials, I took trips to the kitchen to grab a handful of grapes or a giant chocolate-chip cookie and ate these snacks with quiet pleasure. I often didn’t want to leave the comfort of their house. The sounds of strong Southern accents or country music could make me cry. The shopping malls were so large that I felt I would drown. There was too much wasted space between buildings, too many cars and too many cereal options at the grocery store. I did not want to understand or invest in Greensboro; I only wanted to survive.
My grandmother took me to the movie theater during my second week. When the movie ended and the lights turned on, female figures poured down the aisles in a current of sweatshirts, shorts, and high Southern voices. I felt the waves of their slow, twangy, syllable-searching accents stretch out like a tide pulling me in. I was frightened and vowed to never allow myself to disappear into the American masses. I would keep my English inflections for as long as possible. I wanted anyone to only see me or hear me and know that I was different, that I belonged in London.
A week later I approached the checkout at K&W Cafeteria, my tray stacked with buttery vegetables, lasagna and Jell-O, and heard myself say “Thay-anks” to the woman who told me to enjoy my food.
My eyes widened after I’d said the word because the word itself had widened in my throat, lengthening out the “a” into two syllables. I slowly walked over to an empty table, set down my tray and brought wobbling cubes of strawberry Jell-O toward my undeserving, double-crossing mouth.
It took me years to understand that I was not so different. After all, my mother’s body had filled with me while she lived in North Carolina. And my grandparents had taken a picture of her pregnant and hung it in the kitchen where I would one day eat dozens and dozens of Eggos. I was born in North Carolina and lived here until I was 9. I loved sweet potatoes and casseroles, hush puppies and barbeque. Most summer evenings, I stayed out late in my large, front yard playing kick the can with my father and neighborhood friends and never felt like I was drowning. We’d stop running when the fireflies appeared and we’d catch the magic bugs in our small hands and then carefully open our fingers like clams to reveal a pearl.
A few months ago, nearly a decade since the beginning of my new American life, my grandparents moved out of their house in Greensboro, the house my mother had been born and raised in. Each room of the house had its own personality. The tiled sunroom was spacious and light. The room’s glass-topped table was where I’d played hours of games and from where I’d watched the electronic train go around and around the Christmas tree. The living room, however, was cozy and dim like London. The curved carpeted staircase was wide and soft and the upstairs bathroom was calming and floral. The kitchen, of course, was the heart — the place I’d returned to over and over to open the cookie jar and be renewed. h
Jillian Weiss is a writer from Winston-Salem. She attended Elon University, received her MFA from UNCW, and feels at home on every NC mile of I-40.