My grandparents lived in a tiny village in the farthest edges of northeastern North Carolina near the Virginia border. In the summer, we’d shop at Rountree and Riddick – the country store – where my grandmother would pull a whole dollar from her fat wallet to buy Chicklets gum for me, and I’d browse the glass cases filled with hog jowl and “trotters” back when they were just plain old cheeks and pigs feet.
Three of my grandfather’s sisters married Rountree men, so they are thick in our family tree. We used to rent a beach cottage each summer from the ones who owned the store. Back then I couldn’t have imagined I’d one day marry one – though he in fact comes from Georgia and never heard of my family before we met.
But life often makes those connections for us when we aren’t looking.
Folks in those parts talk in lilting tones, their soft “aus” for “house” and “about” remnants, it seems to me, of Virginia Dare’s legacy to the region that birthed her. I grew up listening to the Tidewater melody – even spoke it myself as a child – the soft vowels that marked my father’s and grandfather’s speech today are the lyrics of home.
My summer visits always included “going to ride” down quiet farm paths with my grandfather to check the crops on the farm he had owned since the 1940s. No farmer himself – though he kept a large, immaculate garden – he was overseer, and he liked to finger the corn growing tall and green, the cotton sprouting blooms right on time. Though in truth the summer air was thick with gnats and horse flies and giant hogs living in a barn behind the farmhouse reeked in the heat, it seemed like a magical time, filled with front porch stories and eating tomatoes straight from the garden vine.
His owning the farm we always called The Speight Place meant something to me that I couldn’t define, but I knew it was important.
A few years ago my father asked that we take him to the farm – by then he owned it with his sister. So on a brisk spring day I found myself riding again down that worn farm path framed by winter wheat, toward the house that stood firm and white in my memory but had now lost its windows to kudzu, its front porch to years.
Today my siblings and I are benevolent landowners of this farm, a fair expanse that stretches in field and forest just west of the Dismal Swamp. I have never owned much outright. A rug. A book. A pair of shoes. The bank still owns a piece of my house. But now we have this land, and it seems we are part of an important family story.
I don’t often hear the Tidewater lilt anymore, but when friends of friends walked into my kitchen on a recent Saturday, their “how are yous?” drifting toward me, I felt at once at home with the couple, who were strangers to me.
They’d grown up in Suffolk, they said, which is a short 20-minute drive from my grandparents’ old front porch. So I said, well, you know Sunbury, no doubt.
As a matter of fact, Jim said, my family came from there.
So, the “‘who are your people” game began, and in the midst of the “ous” and “aus” he said his family name. Speight.
I don’t know all that many people in this world, but of the ones I do know, many are connected to me by small dots that seem on the surface coincidence. Neighbors. Church. Children. Or like spending summers in a Rountree beach cottage, then marrying one who is no kin.
But meeting the Speights wasn’t random. Turns out that Jim’s grandfather built the ramshackle house on our farm and his father was born there. Gravestones on the property bear his ancestors’ names.
“So you are the landlord we always talked about,” he joked. “Just so you know, I stole a few bricks from the foundation a few years ago. I hope that was OK.”
More than OK, I think. For whether we are trading stories or old bricks that hold history, we are all, in one way or another, kin.