Anyone who has ever lived in — and left — a small town knows what it’s like to return. In a step-by-step journey of memory, a writer recaptures her hometown and lets the groundswell of emotion remind her how much she loved it there.
Of the many feats I witnessed in the semi-lawless and microcosmic confines of a Rutherford County school bus, the most memorable was the afternoon a boy sewed his five calloused fingertips together. He opened and closed his fingers, and the thread slackened and tautened, the threaded needle still dangling from his thumb. Coming in at a close second were the pair of boys who gave themselves tattoos with straight pins. The trudge of the bus and the distance from downtown to our long driveway allowed plenty of time for these dubious amusements because we lived “Out.” Far enough out that we had a well and a septic tank. With regards to the former, on freezing nights I watched my father’s flashlight winking from the edge of the woods as he headed for the pump house to check the pipes, and with regards to the latter, I wasn’t allowed bubble baths.
I longed to live in town, where there were sidewalks. Sidewalks went past Miss Lou’s, who always bought Girl Scout cookies from me, and Mrs. Freeman’s, who gave me piano lessons. Failing a sidewalk, I’d have liked to live in Forest Hills, where my friend Dianne Draughon lived in a genuine split-level, and moreover, had a subscription to TV Guide. Failing a sidewalk, or a split-level, I’d have liked to live in the house on Main Street that had the lushest, thickest, softest-looking and most perfectly mowed grass I’d ever seen.
“Zoysia,” my mother said dismissively when I expressed my longing aloud.
“How do you spell that?” I asked, intending to look up the word at the Norris Library the next day. I liked to know how things were spelled.
If you’re a native, here’s how you spell — and say — Rutherfordton: R U L F T O N. Not Ruvvertun. Not Rufftun, Rufftown, or Rulverton.
• • •
We are defined by our places. On Wednesday afternoon, I walked from Rulfton Elementary to junior choir practice. Wednesday was the day the weekly issue of the Rutherford County News came out and the day that nearly all the downtown stores closed at 1 p.m. I left the school building, where in the cafeteria at lunch I’d been lucky enough to be served the hoped-for corner piece of cornbread — simultaneously chewy and crispy — from the institutional pan, and I slathered it in butter from a brick-size chunk that was dotted with black crumbs from others’ knives, which had scraped across the burned bottom of their own pieces. Meatless Wednesdays at school left me with a lifelong love of pinto beans, and Fish Stick Fridays left me with a lifelong loathing of those, though I’d wager there wasn’t a Catholic within 40 miles of Rulfton.
Outside Mrs. Buff’s seventh-grade classroom, where I was studying North Carolina history from author Hugh Lefler’s two-toned blue textbook (Carolina and Duke colors, come to think of it), someone had thrown up on the wide hall’s wooden floors and everyone was dodging the scarily green sawdusty stuff the janitor sprinkled over the mess. Next door was Mrs. McDaniel, who pitched books out of the open windows to explain action verbs and who made Jimmy Hodge write across the floor in chalk: A preposition is always followed by an object.
From school I stopped at The Showroom, where out-of-town ladies came to buy Tanner dresses. For several summers I earned money retying sashes and refastening belts and rebuttoning buttons and rehanging dresses at The Showroom. As a town of only 3,000 people, everything in Rulfton was “the,” not “a,” because only one of whatever it was existed. My father was an executive with Tanner; he worked at The Factory. My friend Jill’s father worked at The Ford Place. My friend Pat’s father worked at The Plant, and my friend Patty’s father worked at The Clinic. Across the street from The Showroom was the bus station, from where I sometimes departed to visit an even smaller hamlet — Walnut Cove — where my grandparents lived.
Next, I’d stroll past The Sylvan Theatre (“Sylvan Theeater, this is the Sylvan Theeater,” the telephone recording droned.) with its tiny bay-window box office and concession stand no wider than my arm span. The Sylvan alternately ran Elvis and horror movies, but only on weekends. To see The Sound of Music required a trip to Charlotte, as did orthodontist appointments, and, well, buying avocados.
Choir practice didn’t begin until 5 p.m., so I had the luxury of lingering at Norris Library. A reader, I loved its hush and organization. There, I shunned books with too many I’s, though I’d go on to write four of five novels in first person.
If I had allowance, I’d stop at Smith’s Drugs, a long shoebox of a store, and order a warmed oatmeal-pie cookie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream at the fountain. The spinning vinyl seats, like the walls, were a pale, hospital green. (“How can you remember that?” my sister asks incredulously. “How can you not?” I wonder, equally incredulous.)
The Rutherford County Courthouse, all white limestone and grand steps, stood above Main Street’s sidewalk, and it was there that, sitting in an old-fashioned wooden school desk, I cooled out, fainting after having blood drawn, a required procedure to obtain a marriage license. Why this bloodletting was conducted in the basement of a courthouse is still a mystery.
City News was across the street from the courthouse. The nearest bookstore was in Tryon, and I was thrilled by the announcement of a real, live bookstore opening — in Rulfton! — but disappointingly, City News carried only magazines and a few paperbacks, though it did offer an excellent selection of whoopee cushions and flies embedded in fake ice cubes, coveted products I’d heretofore only been able to acquire in the metropolis of Cramerton, where I’d go with my friend Bobo to visit his grandmother. Just ahead lay the Winn-Dixie and its large, asphalt parking lot, where my father took us on Sunday afternoons to roller skate until my feet, clamped in the clumsy metal cages, burned and itched from friction.
I coveted a number of things during my Rulfton years. Sidewalks, split-levels, zoysia, gag toys: previously confessed. I also coveted Pat’s set of red-and-blue bound Encyclopedia Britannica; Patty’s refrigerator full of the yellow-lettered, pebbled-glass bottles of Tab; the navy blue, fake alpaca, V-necked sweaters worn by all the cool girls at Rutherford-Spindale Central High School. But mostly I coveted the Methodists. First Methodist’s classic architecture — red brick, white doors, tall steeple — mocked me as I walked past it toward my church: small, dark, stone-and-timbered St. Francis Episcopal, tucked under trees on a hill. First Methodist was so white inside, so clean and stark. At my church, people genuflected at peculiar moments in the service, we sang strange, chanty things, and the stained-glass windows were complicated. The Methodists had Fellowship Hall, another seemingly vast lighted area, home to Sunday evening Methodist Youth Fellowship meetings, from which I was excluded, naturally. We had The Parish Hall, where on Sundays I’d plink out “Fairest Lord Jesus” on the piano for younger children at Sunday school and thus avoid all that upping and downing and the prayers for The Whole State of Christ’s Church. My MYF friends went to Lake Junaluska in the summer, so familiar with a place I’d never visited that they called it by its first name — Junaluska — just as the one or two Rulfton geniuses would go to the single-named Cullowhee in the summer.
To reach our house, you passed Ledbetter’s, a service station with a wondrous assortment of penny candy. To this day, I still crave hard-to-find Kits, the little squares of a taffy substance likely manufactured in a test tube. You can practically taste the chemicals. Across the street was the Isothermal Motel, which my college friends still talk about. St. Francis held 100 people, but “Invite whoever you want to your wedding,” my mother said assuredly. “Who’ll come to Rulfton in January, two weeks after Christmas?”Everyone, as it turned out, and they stayed six to a room at the Isothermal.
Another half-mile and you’d reach New Hope, the cluster of homes where Carrie, who cooked and cleaned for us, lived. These days it’s a cliché to say a maid was a part of your family. Instead I’ll say this: When my father died, suddenly and too young, my 22-year-old sister never shed a tear until Carrie walked through the door of our Greensboro house. Only then did she break down, and pitifully, in the comfort of Carrie’s familiar arms.
• • •
“That was a remarkable existence,” my husband admits, scratching his head at the difficulty of capturing just how it was remarkable.
But he’s right.
Rulfton had no country clubs, no true restaurant, no private anything. My middle sister’s best friend lived in a trailer. Anyone who had the dollar admission could jump into The Town Pool, a suspiciously too-blue concrete pool beneath high pines. My father would drop me there on his way back to The Factory after lunch, and, for hours, I “held it,” reluctant to brave the dank bathrooms with wet floors and no lights, which were rumored to be commandeered by the high school kids so they could make out. Above the dirt-and-root-humped grounds of the Town Pool stood the Kiwanis Club, a bona fide log-cabin home to Big Ruth, who cooked slick, pink ham for the Kiwanis members, and site of my first kiss at an eighth-grade party while dancing to “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”
For my wedding reception, The Cabin’s one large room was decorated with January camellias from friends’ yards, and quince branches that my mother had forced for weeks in buckets near the basement furnace. Alcohol had been imported from Asheville. Rulfton was “dry,” a source of immense amusement to my boarding school classmates. When I was away, my hometown became a kind of comic, self-effacing, conversational currency. “It’s got five stoplights!” my Charlotte and Raleigh friends would laugh. “Do they roll up the streets at night? Did you hang out at the Putt-Putt?” they teased about the local — and only — hangout. Because of course I did, as a teenager, dressing carefully and dancing before the mirror to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” A Rolling Stone-like magazine published a piece about Rulfton titled “Death of a Small Dying Town,” and we laughed at that, too, outward cynics and sophisticates that we’d become. Inside, though, I was relieved and grateful to return on vacations to Rulfton, the cocoon of the known, where at home the swing fashioned from a conveyor belt still hung. Its thick loop of webbing still snugly fit my bottom; still dangled over the tree roots — the same spot where Bobo and I had constructed an entire kingdom featuring Matchbox cars; the spot that still overlooked the “circle” of our driveway, where we played croquet; still overlooked the doghouse, whose roof was made of a folded S&H Green Stamps sign that burned our thighs as we sat astride it.
Behind our house lay The Woods, where I built forts and futilely tried to dam the creek, and which served as the setting for an endless, dialogue-less and paragraph-less adventure tome — part Boxcar Children, part Little House on the Prairie — that I wrote and hid in a locked drawer. And above it all, on the horizon, the undulating, indigo peaks of The Mountains. How could I not love them, visible from the entire back of our house, both my bedroom and bathroom? How could I not memorize that gentle outline, in sunsets and shadows and snow? I carry that indelible silhouette in my heart.
• • •
One leaves a place by degrees. Small absences that stretch and lengthen: for high school, for college, for career, for marriage, and finally, for good. Circumstances contrive to separate you — or wrench you away — from the place that defines you. With marriage I moved to Atlanta, that umbilical-cord-cutting city, and my family left Rulfton for a new job in a new place, a city this time: Greensboro. In 35 years, I’ve returned to Rulfton for two readings, three funerals, and one wedding. Arriving early for one of the funerals, I parked at Norris Library and went indoors, knowing I’d find the obituary of this adult writ large in my childhood in the Rutherford County News, on the same newspaper racks of decades earlier. During the one wedding, I quietly fell apart in the now-beloved St. Francis church, seated in a pew where as a child, staring at the lettering on the beautiful and intricate stained-glass window, I’d tried to calculate how old the person in whose memory the window had been given was when she died. A sensation of loss and grief and the past overcame and overwhelmed me, and I sobbed silently, coveting now what I truly could not have: Rutherfordton as it was.
• • •
When I returned to Rulfton for this story, I traversed the familiar roads and haunts by car instead of on foot. The Winn-Dixie houses town offices now. The Putt-Putt is a small lumberyard. The medical complex is impressive and sprawling, and has subsumed Mimi Tanner’s house, where I first saw Dorothy Gale step into the Technicolored world of Oz on television. The Little League field where my friends and I scrabbled in the red dust on twilit summer nights is now three fields, with a groomed and spacious adjacent public park and picnic shelters.
I knew the streets and roads by feel, not by name or number. I knew them by where they led to: out of Rulfton. This was the road to Sliding Rock; this way to Morganton, and the interstate. This way to Spindale, this way to Asheville, this way to Lake Lure.
Rutherfordton isn’t on the way to anywhere. You have to intend to visit. Many who do are coming to the Doncaster outlet, and I went there, too. I wore Tanner clothes all through high school, and I wore them to “go away” at my wedding, and my bridesmaids wore them, too. As a child, my sleeveless button shirts were made from a pattern and whatever fabric was being used that summer for the famous shirtwaists of the ’60s. I gazed at the flat-roofed brick building of The Factory and wondered if its interior was as wondrous as it once had seemed, with bins filled with thousands of buttons, cool and silken and fluid in my fingers; with overhead metal racks that transported dresses from one area to another, so that we could fling ourselves upward, hold tightly, and ride empty ones like a monorail.
• • •
Michelle Yelton (“Are you kin to my friend Patty?” Of course she is.), representing Rutherford County Tourism, will tell you that people come to Rulfton now to see the largest collection of antebellum homes in the state, to visit the Bechtler House, once home to the gentleman who minted the first one dollar gold coin in America, months before the United States government got its act together and created an economy based on money rather than bartering.
I meet Michelle at The Firehouse Inn, a six-room B&B with an interior-design store occupying the retrofitted fire truck garage where, when I walked by as a child, a fireman or two would be lazing in the now-historic building’s shade, their feet tucked behind two chair legs lifted from the sidewalk, backs propped against the bricks.
“Where do people swim?” I ask. A nursing home facility had been built on the grounds of The Town Pool, and this is good, necessary progress, but — “Nowhere,” she admits, no doubt thinking I was crazy — or rude — that this peculiar question is the first one out of my mouth. We take the walking tour of Rulfton, 225 years old, and visit homes and churches proudly bearing plaques proclaiming The National Register of Historic Places. Who knew that those stained-glass windows I deemed complicated were complicated for a very good reason? Two of them are Louis C. Tiffany windows. A preponderance of silver historical markers for people and buildings and events dot the town, yet I’m perversely comforted by the fact that Michelle’s job requires just two days a week in Rulfton — it wouldn’t do to be too discovered.
But she senses something in my questions (“Where’s the elementary school now?” since there’s now a vacant lot in place of the building where my first-grade teacher led the entire student body every Tuesday in singing “Danny Boy”), and says, “I love it here.”
Oh honey, I want to tell her, I loved it here, too. You’ll never know how much. You’ll never know how grateful I am to have parked beside the Kut ‘n’ Kurl salon, painted a hallucinogenic pink. “We want Rutherfordton to be a destination for people interested in history and heritage,” Michelle says, and in the KidSenses interactive museum, a colorful, vibrant space teeming with children and exhibits, I find my history, inscribed on tiles honoring benefactors. There is one for my doctor, and for a teacher, and one that reads IN THANKSGIVING FOR THE LIFE OF CARRIE SMITH WHO LOVED ALL. Carrie, the member of our family for whose Saturday “sit-down big lunches,” with roasts and vegetables I was required, humiliatingly at the time, to come home from slumber parties to eat.
My greatest fear — that I would see a BMW — did not come to pass. I did, however, glimpse a bluebird in flight, bluer even than the mountains I’d trespassed down our driveway to view. The mirror at the 90-degree angle curve was still there, affixed to a tree, warning oncoming vehicles on the one-lane blacktop. But the gnarled wild pear tree at another bend, with its teeth-yanking fruit hard as a watermelon rind, to whose flowering branches my father carefully attached empty liquor bottles every spring, is gone. With luck, a pear formed inside, and my father decanted brandy into the bottle so that, displayed on the sideboard, the fruit seemed magically suspended within the beautiful brown liquid.
Along Main Street, the zoysia lawn is still here.
In her only novel, short-story master Alice Munro wrote of her autobiographical hometown:
It did not occur to me that one day I would be so greedy for Jubilee. I would want to write things down. I would try to make lists. A list of all the stores and businesses going up and down the main street and who owned them, a list of family names …
The hope of accuracy we bring to such tasks is crazy, heartbreaking.
And no list could hold what I wanted, for what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together — radiant, everlasting.
She might have been writing of me.
Still. I can give it a shot.
V.O. Cline, the vet; Ethel Ruff, the seamstress; Mrs. Williams, who read poetry aloud — “Casey at the Bat” and “The Highwayman” (Curfew must not ring tonight!) — to us on Friday afternoons; Mack’s Variety, with the Icee dispenser; Cowan’s Tire, where I bought a set of hot rollers with My Own Money; Mrs. Oates, the chorus teacher, who taught us “Give me your tired, your poor. …”; Fernwood and Forest Hills and Ruppe’s Grocery and The County Home and Miss Mattie, who cut my hair in a building that had been The Rulfton Jail, and …
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