During the last several months as a part of my semi-quarantine routine, I have been re-reading a lot of books that are stored on the shelves in my office. I couldn’t buy new ones or check new ones out of the library, so I read what I had. There were two old publications that resonated with me as the tribulations we have been facing with the pandemic and racial unrest reverberated around me. The first was set in the South, my home. In William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom,” Quinton Compson is asked by his Harvard classmate, “Tell me about the South. What is it like down there? What do they do there? Why do they live at all?” The other is a play by Thornton Wilder set in New Hampshire, a place called Grover’s Corners. That play is “Our Town,” one almost all of us have read or been a part of a production in high school. Both books paint a timeless portrait of life in small-town, rural America. Both were written about and in a different time, a time long ago, a time when the world was different, when we were different. But the stories are timeless. They still address the personalities and culture of a part of America that has certainly changed but still remains a unique country that has great promise even if the promise is delayed. The reader or audience member can see a part of himself if he pays attention. And I paid attention and thought I could get a better understanding of my own world if I could do something similar, paint a word picture of our current time and place in the small, rural towns and communities where I live.
I am no Thornton Wilder or William Faulkner, but I do have a unique canvas on which to paint that portrait: The News Reporter. Part of my job at the newspaper is to write about the people and places in Columbus County. I write a series called Where Are They Now? that allows me to “track down” those folks who have made contributions to our lives here but have retired or moved away. Finding those folks and telling their stories is providing a history that is not available anywhere else. But it is history. What about the present? Who are we now? How will we be perceived in the future? What we do today is tomorrow’s history. Like the play, “Our Town,” I want to portray what is happening now on the living stage that is this county. My role is the stage manager, the narrator.
An irate lady told me the other day that Columbus County is an “evil Mayberry.” I believe that is an oxymoron if there ever was one. Like every portrait, there are myriad colors and hues, shadows and light, angles and circles in the picture of this county, this area, this place we call home. Without getting into a discussion of what constitutes art, I’ll just recite the old cliché: “Art is in the eye of the beholder.” I want to behold a bright, realistic picture of who we are. I want to go into each community and ask the residents who they think they are. I want to record my impressions of the everyday things that we sometimes take for granted, the new and the old, those living and those dying, that which is mundane and that which is celebratory.
A phrase I’ve heard many times as we greet newcomers to our area is, “Now, who are your people?” I want to answer that question. I don’t mean just who are our ancestors, but what kind of people live here now as well as those who have passed on. Why are you still here? What is your life like? Why do you do the work you do? Why do you go to that church or any church at all? What is your tie to this place, to these people? I want to answer the question posed to Quinton Compson. I want to look at the everyday things that we take for granted and show how important they really are.
The best analogy between what I want to write is taken from Emily Webb in the play when she has died while giving birth and is given the chance to go back to any day in her life. She chooses her 12th birthday. I choose an ordinary day in each community.
I started this series on the eastern end of the county with a portrait of Byrdville.
If you see me driving around your community all day or asking people nosy questions; don’t think I’m up to no good. I’m just gathering the paint for the portrait.