Gail Dillard

June 2001

The Importance of  Place to a Southern Girl

 The little house on Willingham Springs Road in Upson County is the first place I can recall in any detail.  I don’t remember the inside of the house at all, but I can see the outside quite clearly: a box shape with asbestos-like siding (it probably WAS asbestos),  set in a large yard with a huge oak tree in front.  I do remember the interior of my Aunt Louise’s house, which was about 30 yards up a small rise from our house.  Specifically, I remember Aunt Louise’s cuckoo clock and her piano and her big black cat Bing, who liked to perch on top of the car and jump down in the dark, scaring unsuspecting passersby.  There was a Chinaberry tree in her yard, and my older sisters and male cousins used to shoot the berries at each other with homemade pea shooters.

            When it rained, the ditches in front of our house filled with water, and my sister Kate, who was three years older, and I would play in the rainwater.  The bottoms of the ditches were sandy, and the water never got very deep.  Those ditches and their sandy bottoms were our beach; we never visited the real thing.  On hot summer days when it did not rain, we cooled off by playing in the hose, clad only in our underpants.

            I started school while we lived in that house, but the summer before second grade, we moved to a larger house on Spring Creek Road.  This house was white, and, like Aunt Louise’s, it sat on a small hill.  There was wallpaper above the wainscoting in the dining room, and I thought we were rich.  The house had a screened porch on one side, a kitchen, dining room, living room, two bedrooms, and a bath.  My sisters and I (Jackie and Kate) shared a room with two beds.  Kate and I slept in the same bed.  On hot nights we would sleep with our heads at the foot of the bed because we thought it was cooler that way.

            The dining room, bedrooms, and bathroom had gas heaters, but we were not allowed to turn on the one in our bedroom.  I dressed in front of the heater in the dining room until Mother told me I was too old, and then I dressed in her room.

              Down a little from the house was a building that had been a shop for repairing automobiles.  A big, square room with an oil-stained concrete floor, it was my princess’s castle.  There was a sweet gum tree in front of it that I used to climb.  Behind the house were woods, where I also played, sometimes with the girl across the road, more often by myself.

            The only drawback to the house was that before we moved there, a young boy had been shot and killed by his older brother while playing in the front yard.  That story made quite an impression on me.  I think I imagined his ghost running in a circle in the front yard, and I seldom played there.

            I remember riding the school bus with Luther “Baldheaded” Russell as driver.  He smoked a big, smelly cigar and sometimes dozed at the wheel so that occasionally he would miss a turn.  He never spoke although sometimes he would nod his head as I climbed onto the bus.  But he never quite let go of the scowl on his face.

            During Christmas break of my seventh-grade year, we moved to town.  Actually, the town was a former mill village belonging to the B. F. Goodrich Company, one of the two big textile companies in Thomaston.  The village was called Silvertown, after the Goodrich company’s signature tire.  Our house was on R Street (the streets were all cleverly named for letters of the alphabet).  A white bungalow, it was very similar to all other houses in the village—two bedrooms, a bath, living room, and kitchen.  The yard was small, but I was thrilled at the sidewalks and tree-lined streets and the prospects of walking to school, another status marker, I thought.

            The school, appropriately named Community Center, occupied the commons area of the village, along with the Methodist and Baptist churches.  It was a two-story brick building set back from the street.  There was an outside basketball court beside it that on weekends became our skating rink.  The floors inside were dark hardwood, the ceilings high, the rooms large and airy.  The school yard was shaded by big oak trees.  It was an idyllic place.

            Memories of my seventh and eighth grade years at Community Center crowd my consciousness, but perhaps the most defining are my memories of the school lunches there.  The lunchroom was two stories high with stairs and a balcony at one end, opening up to the second floor of the school.  While we ate what to me were delicious lunches of vegetable soup and peanut butter crackers or cheese toast, Mrs. Underwood, the principal, would stand guard on the balcony.  Like Luther “Baldheaded” Russell, she wore a continuous scowl.  I can still see her standing with arms spread wide before her, holding onto the iron railing, surveying the lunchroom for any infraction of the rules, any behavior unbecoming to the young ladies and gentlemen who were, in reality, children of current or former textile workers.  There was never any condescension on anyone’s part, though, that I can remember.  It never occurred to any of us—at least not to me—that we were in any way inferior to the children of professional parents who went to the downtown school.  We were taught social graces just as if we would take our places in the drawing rooms of the owners of the mills instead of the dens of the hourly workers.

            As I grew older, though, and left the homogeneous world of my childhood to go to high school, where we mill folks mingled with the townies, I became more and more aware of place differences.  The houses of my new friends were large, with wallpaper in several rooms, and wall-to-wall carpeting throughout.  They were remarkably quiet.  Wanting to fit in, I buried the fond memories of the places of my childhood and set about trying to become middle class.

Only as an adult have I had the courage to revisit the places of my youth, to  reconstruct the memories of my childhood, and to share them with others.  I have even begun to view with a somewhat bemused respect the spunky little girl who knew so many delightful places—but never her place.