I recently found myself sitting next to an old classmate from my Virginia high-school on an airplane flight (for whatever serendipitous reason, these bizarre things happen to me with some regularity). It was particularly timely: this year marks the twentieth anniversary of my high-school graduation. I recognized the woman immediately — we probably shared ten classes together between seventh and twelfth grades. To my embarrassment, she not only didn’t recognize me, she didn’t even remember me.
I didn’t take offense, though perhaps she felt embarrassed for not recollecting me (hey, maybe I’m not that memorable). She, I vaguely remembered, had been somewhat popular; I, though an athlete with many friends, was not the kind of person regularly invited to parties (frankly I’m not sure I would have gone to the kinds of parties she frequented if I had been invited, anyway).
My old classmate admitted that she had skipped a lot of her high-school classes, spending her days in various boys’ basements, drinking, trying various illegal substances, and engaging in other manner of behavior she preferred not to describe in detail (I’m grateful for that). And yet, to the credit of her intelligence, she still was accepted into a competitive out-of-state school in a big city, where she successfully double majored. She completed graduate work at another prestigious urban university. Since then, she’s had an impressive professional career and pursued many exciting (and a few dangerous) hobbies in her free time.
I asked her what her parents thought of all her adventures. She admitted she didn’t communicate with her parents. I awkwardly apologized for asking. She explained that her family life had been unpleasant, that her parents had “hated each other,” and that the whole experience was much of the reason why she would never have children of her own.
My answers to her questions were met with incredulity. She asked if I considered a certain girl from our high-school “hot.” I confessed I didn’t really know how to answer that question, and that I hadn’t dated in high school. “Well,” she persisted. “What did you do?” I didn’t really know how to answer that either. I went to school, played sports, worked multiple jobs, went to church, and spent time with my family. Isn’t that what adolescence was supposed to look like?
And that’s when I realized where the great gulf between us truly lay. If I had partied hard, let my grades slip, and fallen in with the wrong crowd, my parents would have been deeply disappointed. In truth, my senior year I several times forged my mother’s signature on a note so I could play hooky with friends. When my mother found out, I was mortified. It wasn’t just the punishment they distributed, it was that I had let my trusting, loving parents down. And I knew it.
It wasn’t just about my parents, either. With the exception of a few years of elementary school, I had a religious upbringing — first Catholic, then evangelical. I knew right and wrong weren’t just about this-worldly ethics, but about something transcendent and eternal. There was a God who created me, who loved me, who had a plan for me. My cooperation was required.
Besides that, I had the rest of my family: grandparents, aunts, uncles. On Sundays we would grab brunch with my uncle from rural northwestern Virginia who attended the same church. One set of grandparents lived 10 minutes from us — they babysat me regularly, and in high-school I volunteered with my grandmother at a local thrift shop. The other grandparents were about two hours away in the Shenandoah Valley — I spent a couple weeks every summer with them. I had relations in Richmond and Tidewater who I saw often and offered thoughtful gifts on my birthday.
Perhaps another way to put it was that I had an inheritance. And I don’t mean a financial or material one. The inheritance bequeathed to me was much deeper than that. It involved a faith, one that had been in my family for well over a millennia. It involved a story, one of blood relations who had fought in just about every major American conflict since the Civil War. It involved a land — ancestors who had tilled the earth in Virginia, Louisiana, and Kansas. And it involved a community — ancestors who had started successful businesses, had helped found churches, who had put down roots.
I felt all of that, albeit inchoately, as a teenager. I had been given something, a gift hard won that others had bled and sweat to attain over centuries. That gift was mine to accept or refuse. Because I was well acquainted with many of those who labored for that gift, and that they loved me, how could I refuse? I suppose with a good dose of divine assistance, I chose rightly.
Today, I live not far from where I grew up. I visit my old haunts, and make a point to check in with my old tennis coach, who is still going strong in his 70’s. The dentist office I attend twice annually was designed by my grandfather more than forty years ago. My grandparents are all buried in Virginia, as is my father, and as are an aunt and an uncle. Sometimes I visit the Catholic parish my grandparents helped found. Every few months, I drive my children out to my uncle’s rural home, the same one I visited as a child thirty years ago. We regularly visit the same Tidewater barbecue joint I first enjoyed when I was in my mother’s womb.
What separates me from my old high-school classmate, most essentially, is our inheritance. She, a child of immigrants, had no deep connection to the Old Dominion. If anything, her difficult upbringing likely made her less interested in Virginia. Flee the pain and follow the fleeting opportunities for happiness — that seems to be the guiding principle of her life. Perhaps if I was in her shoes, I’d feel the same way.
I want my children to love what I came to love, what my parents and grandparents loved. I rejoice to hear my kids celebrate when I announce we’re driving to the Blue Ridge Mountains or down to Virginia Beach. I want them to feel that sense of solemnity when they drive by the cemetery where their great-grandparents are buried. Most importantly, I want them to appreciate that it was not random events that brought our family to Virginia, but God Himself, who had a plan for us, across generations, to build something here, something to honor and cherish.
Those couple of hours on an airplane with an old high-school classmate helped clarify for me what it is that will ultimately keep the memory of Dixie burning through this century and beyond. It won’t ultimately be our best apologetical defenses of the South, or the passionate preservation of our aesthetic culture — as important and even essential as those things are. It will be the love between a father and a child. For children who feel the deep and abiding love of their fathers are not typically ones to spurn it. More than likely, they’ll be willing to die for it.
What a fine way to say, what you just said.
Wonderful, you put into words and quite eloquently, what it means to have and be a part of a family in the South. This is who we are, it forms our souls, and binds us to the land and those ancestors who were there before us. If we forget this we have no future and our past becomes irrelevant.
Dear Mr. Chalk,
I’m a fan of your writing. This essay must be your Magnum Opus. I can’t think of anything finer that distills the essence of what makes a Southerner.
You took a chance encounter with an old classmate and turned it into a treatise of what is most important … spiritually, culturally and historically.
Your retelling of the story is poetic and captivating. Thank you for putting your pen to paper when the Spirit moved you.
Great Falls, Virginia
It is right for us to remember and honor the struggles, sacrifices and values of our ancestors. Their same blood courses through our veins.
I have very deep roots in Old Virginia so I naturally loved this wonderful essay.
The story you tell is one that all should remember and be reminded of, our roots are in the soil.
This soil produces food that sustains us,and holds our memories, also it is the resting place of our dear departed.
For all these reasons this is sacred land.
Beautiful! This is what I cherish most and have tried to give to my children as well.