Who Are Your People?

Some of you may remember me writing guest blogs for Thad a few years ago. I called them “Tales of a Displaced Debutante”, but since then I have landed squarely back in the South (Rome, Georgia to be exact). He asked me to give the guest blog a whirl again so here I go. I have no plans and no outline for what I will write or how often I will write it. I hope you laugh a little and get where I am coming from. You may get funny anecdotes of a first year college professor or funny things that pop in my head. Either way, this is my life….When in Rome.

Who are your people?
Kimberly Hays

In my house growing up we had a big, blue dictionary and we called it “the blue dictionary”. It often stayed by my dad’s chair for his morning crossword puzzle solving, but was also on call in case my sister and I made the mistake of saying “What does _________ mean?”. The automatic from both parents was always “Look it up.” There was also a cool section in the back of commonly used foreign phrases which came in handy when my Latvian pen pal in 4th grade asked what E Pluribus Unum meant when I sent her a U.S. Dollar (fyi, it means “out of many, one”). There was also a section that told you how to address letters to important people. I got mad at Bill Clinton once and my dad told me to write him a letter. I used “the blue dictionary” to find the correct salutation. I am assuming my mom still has that blue dictionary somewhere. I got a big fancy new one for Christmas (yes, I asked for it) a few years ago, but honestly it just isn’t the same.

Between all of the looking up and crossword puzzles and scrabble games that happened in our house I fell in love it words – big words, little words, words that sound funny (onomatopoeia is one of my favorites – I had to use my shiny dictionary to double check that one), and words that mean far more than their definitions are fun. In fact, I am still saying onomatopoeia to myself right now. When Thad asked me to revive my guest columns I thought I would start with the humorous anecdote of packing my whole life up and moving it halfway across the country. I started to write that and got pretty far until I realized that I shouldn’t tell the story of my stuff, I should tell the story of my people. You know, my people.

If you have spent any time in the South you have inevitably been asked the question, “Who are your people?” We all know what they mean and we all have them – our mama’s people, our daddy’s people, our Granny’s people, our relations, our shared genetic history, stretching back for generations on land, in places, and changing the shape of communities for centuries. Genealogy has become the cool thing to do in the past few years and no doubt some of you can tell me who came to the New World on what boat. I have never delved quite that far. When people ask my heritage I tell them Southern or poor white trash (my mama hates that answer) because it seems so odd to think about my ancestors living anywhere else. And for the record, my people are from Butler County, Alabama on one side and South Georgia and Northern Missouri (I know, I know, I know) on the other. With the exception of that one guy that was in the Union army we are pretty dang Southern. One set of grandparents even grew up in Pigeon Creek, Alabama which was where they set the movie Sweet Home Alabama. Trust me, it was not that glamorous in real life.

Even though there are plenty of stories to tell about my people, they are not who this story is about. I am writing about my other people. The ones I got to pick. The family built of Southerners and Northerners, carnivores and vegetarians, men and women, every race and language you can imagine, and about a million ways to refer to a Coke and a water fountain. In the grand scheme of things my life has not been that exotic, but for a small town Wetumpka girl it seems that way to some. I moved away with no plans to return. I set off to a place where I knew no one. I have lived my adult life unattached thus far, no husband or children to consider in my decision making. While all of that is fine and dandy it is no walk in the park to find yourself 900 miles from the people, places, and things you have known all your life. There were tons of things I disliked about growing up in small town Alabama and some I still do, but there are things I never realized I would miss until I was gone. Sick and need a doctor? Go visit Dr. Kumar and he will fix you right up. Hankering a walk down memory lane? Go to Wal-Mart and I guarantee you will bump into a classmate. Death in the family? No need to cook, the casseroles and fried chicken will arrive shortly. Starting to feel Christmasy? First Saturday in December you will be downtown at Christmas on the Coosa. Need a laugh? Go see a play at the Depot. Went to Wetumpka High? You know exactly who I mean when I say Coach. These are the pieces of Wetumpka life that I left behind. I had no Dr. Kumar when I was sick and no church ladies to send me a note when I missed church. What I found, however, was a group of people that was equally as ragamuffin as I was. They were from crazy places, too – Northern California, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (no, they aren’t Canadian, they just sound that way), Brazil, India, Washington, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Missouri. We were all in the same place. We packed our trucks and cars and cattle trailers and moved them from the corners of the globe to land almost in the geographical center of the United States – Stillwater, Oklahoma. We were all, many for the first time in our lives, people-less. No one understood me when I said my people were from Pigeon Creek. They didn’t have the context I had. They chuckled at my funny accent and I chuckled at theirs. I spent a whole afternoon pointing at a water fountain and asking a girl from Wisconsin what she called it. Ha – a bubbler!

I am not sure when the transition happened and we became each others people. It could have been all the birthdays when we gathered in a tiny apartment or rental house to bake homemade cakes for the birthday boy or girl. It could be the celebrations we had on the days one of us received a big grant or award for the science we were doing or the celebrations of our epic failures when we didn’t get those same grants and awards. Maybe it was the Friday nights we spent doing the Texas two step around a wooden dance floor. I prefer to think that it happened on the less glamorous occasions. The semester I had strep throat and was trying to write my doctoral dissertation and people brought me soup and medicine and walked my dog because I was too sick to walk down the stairs. The airport drop offs for a 6am flight home when the airport was an hour away or the pickups that turned into a 3am adventure when the flight was delayed. It could have been the freezing cold or burning up nights in a tent somewhere in the wilds of Oklahoma when folks would tag along to help with your research just because they had the time. It definitely happened when the big things in life happened – we lost parents and grandparents and friends, people got married, and nieces and nephews were born. It happened when we spent Thanksgiving Day together, starting with a Godfather breakfast all the way to raucous board games after a potluck dinner. It happened when we got to share our traditions with each other. Regardless of when it happened it did. This random, ragamuffin, diverse group of individuals became my people.

My shiny red dictionary defines people as “the members of a family or kinship”. I don’t share a single bit of DNA with my people and most of us have scattered to the winds now doing the things we studied so hard to do. But, they are still my people. Do you have the kind of people I have? Did you choose them? Did you choose each other? You should. Find some. Don’t be afraid of finding people that talk funny, or look different, or come from different places – they are the best kind. If you see me around town when I come to visit and you ask about my people, be prepared for a long answer.

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