Illustration: Gracia Lam

I've tried to move away from the South many times. I attended college in the Midwest, graduate school in the Northeast. My first real job was in Boulder, Colorado, a place as un-Southern as any I'd visited, what with all the earnestness and dietary fat avoidance.

Back when I was 12, the age my youngest daughter is now, I'd flatten myself on the baked concrete of the sidewalk outside our Florida house, let the heat soak up through my clothes, and dream of places far away where the air was cool and thin, and I didn't have to check my shoes for palmetto bugs before I slipped them on.

By my late teens, I was done with Coca-Cola cakes and wearing tights to church and having to "be sweet," lest my mother gasp, shake her head, and roll her eyes to the heavens as if to ask why God had seen fit to give her an outspoken daughter like me. I told her I was going to work in "the big city" someday, so convinced I'd had enough of the South to last a lifetime. I was wrong. As I discovered, I could no sooner abandon the Southland than I could the family dog.

The first thing I noticed after I moved away was not the cooler temperature shift (which was not as welcome as I had imagined) but the cooler interpersonal relations. I was used to a constant stream of open-faced chatter in every diner and waiting room, but outside the South, public spaces fell eerily quiet. Folks actually passed each other without saying "Hello." That took some getting used to.

So, too, the overall seriousness of the exchanges that did happen. Teasing and absurdity are part of the very air Southerners breathe. Not so much in other parts of the country where I found myself keenly homesick every time I had to utter "I'm just joking" to a bewildered checkout clerk or worse, a date.

There were other issues—food-related mostly. (I recall the first potluck I attended in the North and what passed for "dessert.") And nobody cooked. Or even cared about knowing how to cook.

So I moved back South. Something I would do time and again after a job or relationship temporarily lured me away.

None of my Southern kin were surprised at my yo-yoing. They knew that as much as I might protest, I could not quit the South. More to the point, the South came with me wherever I went. My manners, my palate, my accent, my appreciation of humidity—none of that diminished while we were apart.

I came to realize that the South was the love of my life—the dark, complicated, delicious, messy, blindingly gorgeous love I could never stop pining after, no matter how far I traveled or how much I claimed I'd be better off without it.

The other day, after a dinner of fried chicken and sliced tomato, my daughter informed me she was planning to attend college in California, and then maybe move to Europe. She said she was tired of the South and craved "an adventure."

"That sounds fun," I said, smiling, knowing full well, as my mother did with me, that sometimes you have to leave in order to find your way home.

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