Amanda Bellows and her sister in New York City

Amanda and her sister in New York City. Photo by Anita Brickell

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South Toward Home: A New Yorker’s Perspective

In Lee Smith’s brilliant essay, “Raised to Leave,” the Virginia-born author reflects on her early life in rural Appalachia before she left to find “culture.” Only after departing her hometown of Grundy, as Appalachian music and literature became increasingly “mainstream,” did Smith discover that she had been surrounded by culture all along. Smith’s migration, however, is part of an older tradition of Southern writers who pulled up their roots and headed north: Thomas Wolfe, Richard Wright, Willie Morris. Viewing home from a distance, these authors produced novels infused with the memories of their unique, Southern pasts.

But what about their offspring? Those who grew up in tiny apartments high above concrete sidewalks, who fell asleep to the sound of sirens, who grew to love the pungent smell of the subway rather than the sweet scent of jasmine on a summer’s eve? In his book North Toward Home, transplanted Mississippian Morris “wondered most of all about the children, growing up with no local belonging, no feel for place or of generations gone.” As one of those children, I ask: Is it possible to be nostalgic for somewhere you never lived? Is it wrong to feel that your home may not quite be the one where you grew up?

Alford Lake Camp, Maine, 1996: “If you’re from the South, why don’t you talk like a Southerner? And didn’t you grow up in New York City?” With the naïveté and dogged persistence of a ten-year-old, I tried to explain to my new friends that, despite my 10128 zip code, I was as Southern as a Mississippi magnolia. “My ancestors fought for the Confederacy,” I argued, “And my daddy goes deer hunting every Christmas!” Needless to say, my fellow campers didn’t buy it—and why would they? With my Yankee cadence, tomboyish demeanor, and Manhattan-upbringing, I did not remind them of a Suth’n bay-elle. These New Englanders dubbed me “New York City–Southern Girl,” a title that sounded as ridiculous and confused as I felt on the inside. Maybe they were right; how could I be Southern if I grew up in the North?

Born and raised in the heart of Manhattan, I attended an all-girls school and lived on the thirteenth floor of a pre-war apartment building. My backyard was the “Green Meadow” of Central Park, where patches of dirt outnumbered blades of grass three to one and where New Yorkers walked their cats on leashes. The local wildlife included ancient pigeons with battle-worn wings, skittish squirrels, and groaning buses that roared up Fifth Avenue. My friends and I knew how to navigate the Metropolitan Museum of Art with eyes closed but had nary a clue how to read a compass or clean a fish. Typical city folk, you think, which we were in many ways. But there was more.

Amanda Bellows on her family farm near Yazoo City, Mississippi.

Amanda on her family farm near Yazoo City, Mississippi. Photo by Anita Brickell

My dad tells people that he was the first male in the family born north of the Mason-Dixon line. His father grew up in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and his mother in West Virginia; all three of his children are named after Southern ancestors. We ate ham and fried apples in our apartment for Sunday dinners and sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” with our parents as they tucked us into bed. My siblings and I can recite our family tree, beginning with colonial North Carolina militiaman Matthias Brickell and going right on down to our unfortunate great-great-grandfather who drowned in the river while checking on his flatboat one cold night. But our Southern upbringing wasn’t all about genealogy and other, more private matters; instead, my parents told us and the world that we were not quite Yankees.

How many apartments in the concrete jungle of the Upper East Side boast an array of deer heads mounted to the living room wall and contain freezers stuffed with fresh venison? How many New Yorkers instruct their children to refer to all elders as “sir” and “ma’am,” and take their kids on turkey hunting vacations while their classmates fly off to Palm Beach? How many parents send their ten-year-old daughters off on Halloween evenings dressed in homemade hand-me-down Civil War–era costumes and expect people not to look at them cross-eyed?

Well, let me tell you, I know only one strange family that did all that, and I know them well. After spending hours touring antebellum homes during Natchez Spring Pilgrimages and days searching for colonial tombstones in kudzu-covered graveyards, I did not grow up feeling like a New Yorker. But even as an adult I’m still conflicted about the North/South division; when a relative recently tried to add “Dixie” to the playlist at my wedding reception, I had to put my foot down.

How did the children of transplanted Southerners like Morris and Wright see “home from a distance” when home was neither North nor South? Well, I take my cue from my Mississippi magnolia of a cousin who said of my younger brother, “Private boys’ school in Manhattan, college on Chicago’s South Side, but he deer hunts in Mississippi . . . he’s got it all goin’ on.” So I’ll gladly take both. Southern by way of New York City (maybe my camp friends were right after all), I now embrace my Northern rearing and my Southern roots. I was not “raised to leave” Manhattan, but taught to fit comfortably in both worlds. The distance is small.

Here in North Carolina, I’m embracing my Southern-ness from a scholarly angle, studying the history of the South as a graduate student at UNC–Chapel Hill. If there are other transplanted Yankees around who feel like they might finally be home, come find me. I’ll be the one driving like a New Yorker on the way to the Southern Historical Collection.