Southern Journal: Coming Home

Though the landmarks of my past may shift and change, transformed from the landscapes of my youth, this will always be my hometown.
Article: Rick Bragg

My wife, who is usually not a snoot and denies that she ever is, has one teensy reservation about being buried beside me in the cemetery of my forefathers. It is not the cemetery that bothers her. It is the Dollar General.

The cemetery, located just off Highway 204 in Jacksonville, Alabama, is where all my people are buried, where I naturally assumed I would be. This is where I made a solid C average, raced a '69 Camaro across the TG&Y parking lot, declared my love in the soft glow of an eight-track tape player, and memorized every line from Frampton Comes Alive!

Where else would I be interred?

The problem is illumination. The graves of my ancestors lie just across the highway from the Dollar General. At night, its big, yellow sign lights up the surrounding acre-age. My wife would be honored to be laid to rest in the green foothills of the Appalachians, but wonders if rest will be possible. She does not want to spend eternity, or at least until the rapture, awash in a yellow luminescence. I told her it wasn't like it was going to be shining in her eyes, but that was of little help.

I do wish, for her sake, they had not built a Dollar General that you can see from space. But I guess you have to be from a place to love it, neon and all.

This is my town, though it was really just the closest city limits to the cotton fields where I was raised. I know people pass through and think it is no place special, just another pretty college town not far from Anniston or Gadsden—if you get to Weaver you've gone too far. It is no hamlet but a small city, big enough for a Walgreens and a CVS, three grocery stores, and a Super Wal-Mart, though apparently not big enough for a Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Colonel left town last year, which made my mother sad. It is too big, my town, to be precious, too small to have much of a traffic jam. I have always believed it to be just right.

I know that loving a place means watching it change, shift. People come, go, and pass. Storefronts empty of history, and fill with promise and optimism the next week. Confederate statues and headstones erode till only historians and the very old remember who came before. Newsome's Parts Store, on the square, is long gone. I bought a dozen fan belts there. The filling station down on Highway 21—a man named Popcorn pumped the gas—is missing. He sold RCs so cold they made you see stars. The cotton mill closed 10 years ago. My high school was torn down, and a newer, nicer one was built across town.

I can no more return those things than I can raise that Camaro from the rust, or dim that Dollar General. But I can sit in the shade at Jacksonville State—it thrives—and wonder how anyone can get an F- and an Incomplete in one academic year. I can have some timeless fried chicken at the Village Inn, and see the same people, at the same table, that I saw when I was 17. I can have a real cheeseburger at Cecil's, which moved in when the Dairy Delight shut down. Or I can just go sit in the parking lot of what used to be TG&Y, and try to remember what it felt like to go so fast, so stupidly, and yet be unafraid.

Come to think of it, there's a Dollar General there now, too.