We were walking in the backyard at Christmas, stepping gingerly from grassy spot to grassy spot. The iron-red dirt had become mud in the rainy season, but it was 60 degrees out and the sun was shining. “Do you have any pop?” I asked.
Mom and Dad stopped and stared at me in disbelief. “Do we have any what? Did you just say ‘pop’?”
“Now, don’t you go forgetting where you come from, young lady.” Mom wagged her finger.
I was born and raised near Atlanta, GA, the home of Coca-Cola, where “pop” does not exist. Everything is Coke. A typical exchange in a restaurant might sound like this: “What kind of Coke would you like? “A Sprite.”
I was weaned on Coke. My college education was paid for, indirectly, by Coca-Cola money, and my graduate education most certainly benefited from Coke philanthropy.
Me asking for “pop” signaled my parents that, since moving to the Midwest, I might be forgetting my origins and the events, places and people who shaped me. The only thing more unspeakable in their eyes would have been asking for a Pepsi.
That evening we ate at Cracker Barrel, and Dad bought me a GRITS sweat shirt. GRITS—Girls Raised in the South. I whispered, “Don’t worry Daddy, I know where I come from.”
The British author Rumer Godden once said “every piece of writing starts from what I call a grit–a sight or sound, a sentence or a happening that does not pass away but quite inexplicably lodges in the mind.” The same is true for me. My writing, and this column, is about the grit of life, all of those small happenings, sights and sounds from which we have so much to learn if we will just pay attention.
Grits can be an unremarkable accompaniment to a meal, or they can be turned into something truly elegant depending on how they are used. Have you ever eaten shrimp and grits at a five-star restaurant? It can be an amazing experience—simple grits an intricate part of an elegant meal.
The grits that shape my writing are the unremarkable and easily overlooked things in life: a baby blowing a raspberry, soap bubbles tumbling out of a washing machine, or a quiet walk with my parents. What seems unremarkable is often truly elegant.
I grew up exploring the woods along a dirt road in rural Georgia, picking blackberries and collecting rocks. I learned to fly an airplane before I learned to drive a car. My first job was as a disc jockey for a little AM radio station, W-R-E-D. I attended an all women’s college and then earned my PhD at a prominent university where my studies on worm sperm made a small contribution to understanding Alzheimer disease. After that, I delighted in mentoring undergraduates at a liberal arts college in Iowa. Now I am a science writer and editor for a biotech company in Madison. And, I’m a daughter, a wife and a mother.
The ordinary everyday things that are part and parcel of these experiences—these are the grits that have shaped me and made me who I am. These are the grits that I can learn from, write about and share with you.
So yes, I am a girl raised in the South. A Southern woman—a southern Wisconsin woman. I haven’t forgotten my origins, but now I don my Green Bay Packers sweatshirt on Sunday mornings and eat my grits with lots of cheese.
© 2008 Michele Arduengo All rights reserved.