Summer in a Small Town

Ah, summer.

Summer is when fat red tomatoes get carried in by the bucketful and watermelons split at the touch of a knife and ladies by the dozen snatch Vidalia onions and Mr. William’s yellow squash up by the sackful to fry, fry, fry.

I’m fond of summer.

Despite the heat, it’s the time for traveling, too. Folks are in cars crisscrossing the country and some of them — despite the dog days — make their way to Mississippi, often en route to the Coast or New Orleans or on a music or literary pilgrimage or, probably most commonly, to see family.

And they see me. They trek in to walk around a store I’m proud to say is an experience in itself. They see me, in an apron, and two things happen.

If they’re not from Mississippi, they think I am.

“You from here?” They ask. Or, “Have you lived here your whole life?”

If they are from Mississippi, they know I’m not.

“Where you from?” They ask. Or, “How’d you wind up here?”

These are hard questions for me to answer. They shouldn’t be. I spent my entire childhood in the idyllic and gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains, where my mother still lives, but my parents had moved there themselves. We weren’t surrounded by kin. We never had that native from-there feeling. (Also, by some genetic quirks, people have asked me my whole life if I’m from Germany or the Netherlands or Russia. It’s weird feeling like an exchange student when you hail from Virginia, but there you have it.)

And then I settled, pretty much the minute I was an adult, in Mississippi. A place where I knew no one except the tall Yankee husband who brought me here. It’s where we’ve made a home, where we’ve lived our grown-up lives, where our children were born. But I’ll never be from here and, to native Mississippians, I don’t really get to comment on the attributes of the state where I’ve made my living and my life.

So, I won’t.

But, I will say that in a small town — in a state where most people I know are from here — it’s been increasingly important for me to feel connected to the world. To know what’s going on in other places, experience how other people in other states eat (whoopee pies in Maine! Espresso huts in Alaska! Pho in New Orleans!), and remember that my story: (a tiny bit crunchy, impatiently liberal, super-white, mostly mainstream) is not the story of most. I like hearing other people’s stories. I think it’s important.

Facebook is not so helpful in this. NPR, on the other hand, is. If I had to categorize NPR in one sentence, I’d say it is a free, valiant enterprise to make sense of the world around us. I tune into it on the radio and online all the time and I think y’all should too. God bless those folks for asking person after person question after question and listening, listening, listening.

What I like is that NPR doesn’t make up the ending. You can listen to the economic expert or the teenage drug-dealer or the felon interviewed on This American Life and come to your own conclusions. But, I get to hear people’s voices while I’m sweeping the kitchen floor or cooking dinner or pulling weeds, beamed (for free!) into my home. People who live in different places and contend with different problems than I do.

Plus, sometimes it’s just hysterical. Listening to Terri Gross interviewing Loretta Lynn was one of the more hysterical moments of my life. I remember where I was when I was streaming that Fresh Air episode: running up Markette Street, just around the corner, snorting like a lunatic and shaking my head while sprinting up a hill. (My kind of sprinting. It’s not, shall we say, a sprinter’s sprinting.) Y’all need to go find that archived episode right now. Pure gold.

Which all goes to say that… people are inexplicable and strange and surprising. And different (Lord! Some folks are… super different). And kindred spirits and kind and best friends and horribly confusing and tiring and maddening and every other permutation of personality under the sun.

But, they are all people. And my hope is that via NPR or across a counter or in the street or over the internet or somehow, some way, we work harder on listening to voices besides our own.

About the author

Alexe van Beuren

Alexe van Beuren grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She moved to Water Valley, Miss., in 2006 with husband Kagan Coughlin of Vermont. They have two Mississippi-born children, Annaliese and Caspian. In 2010, Alexe opened the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery, which has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Southern Living, Garden & Gun and, most importantly, Miss Betty's Week. Alexe and her business partner, Dixie Grimes, authored the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from A Southern Revival in 2014. She contributes to The 'Sip regularly as a columnist for Small-Town 'Sip.

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