Live Oaks and Blooming Azaleas


I was in sixth grade the first time I traveled without my family. I had qualified for the national Academic Games competition in Georgia. In case this feat sounds even remotely impressive, let me immediately disabuse you of such illusions. I was twelve, and in my spare time I studied uncommon trivia about the presidents. (Dolly Madison, our nation's fourth First Lady, made her own lipstick, you know).

This national competition was held at a camp an hour outside Atlanta. We slept in cabins: one side with bunks for the boys, another side for the girls, and a small buffer room in between for the two brave and likely under-compensated teachers who chaperoned our full cohort — a dozen or so kids from our Pittsburgh middle school who qualified to compete with other kids from around central and eastern United States in games with thrilling names like Equations, Linguistics, and Presidents.

At the end of the week, there was a dance held in the dining hall. I don't want to unearth memories too deeply here, but I'm pretty positive I wore a baggy tee shirt and overalls with one side of the bib hanging loose, which clearly was the best style to pair with my singular dance move, the running man. My bangs were styled with a one-inch barrel curling iron, my lips were glossy with Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers, and my eyes were bright with mascara I had borrowed from a seventh grader in the cabin.

That embarrassment aside, this trip captured something within me. I never had traveled far from my Pittsburgh home before this trip, and in one fell swoop, I — a twelve-year-old who knew that James Buchanan was the only president who never married — fell in love with Georgia.

I'm not sure what sealed the romance. Maybe it was the red Georgia dirt and mulched pine needles, or live oaks and blooming azaleas, or sweet tea and billboards for truck stops that sold salty boiled peanuts. Maybe it was graceful swags of Spanish moss and slapping my legs to ward off chiggers instead of typical Pennsylvania mosquitos. Maybe it was the first taste of how travel offered new insights and freedoms, even if I was chaperoned and transported by school busses without air conditioning.

Georgia, somehow, became special to me. Over three decades later, Georgia still feels special.

Since it's spring break at Penn State, our family recently made its way south, passing through Georgia on our way to northern Florida for the week. We stopped in Savannah for an afternoon, and once again, the southern charm, deep and still and somehow ageless, spoke to me.

Many life events have transpired since I first laid eyes on Georgia: high school and college, grad school and marriage, homeownership and parenthood, to name a few. Tomorrow, in fact, I celebrate my 45th birthday. Even with this passage of time, I haven't forgot that my first magical associations with the south started when I was twelve.

Back then, you see, I wasn't just a kid who knew which president gave the longest inaugural address, but also a person who, when exposed to an entirely new place on this earth, felt acute wonder that dirt could be red and oaks could be evergreen.

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