This isn't the south as in Junior League and pedicured toenails. This is the south as in collard greens, homemade lye soap and galvanized bath tubs. Although those two worlds sometimes collide, this is not the case in Fort Green.
This is where my grandfather was born and raised. He left and made a successful living in the 'big city' (St. Petersburg, FL), but the rest of his family stayed right in Fort Green, as the community is called. If you have driven straight across Florida south of Orlando, there is a good chance you have gone right through Fort Green, but you would never know it. There are no traffic lights, no post office, and one gas station.
Even though my grandfather left the place of his birth, he stayed very close to his family, visiting every Sunday afternoon. My mother tells stories of visiting Granny and Grandaddy's house before there was indoor plumbing, being terrified of late night 'bathroom' visits. She also tells of so many incredible memories, including seeing her dad with her aunts and uncles gathered around the piano singing gospel songs, her aunts and uncles spending backbreaking hours planting miles of orange trees, and country drives with her cousins.
I would have a hard time sufficiently explaining the impact my Fort Green family had on me. Even though I grew up in the city, on the beach, I spent several weeks in Fort Green every summer and even some Christmas vacations. I loved my time there. Fort Green was where I learned how to shell peas, recognize four-part harmony (Aunt Zula sang the baritone part, and I still can't hear the old gospel songs without hearing her voice), and to eat fried cornbread.
It was in Fort Green that I learned what 'yonder' meant, how to properly fry okra (don't stir it unless you have to), and the secret to the perfect glass of sweet tea (stir in about twice as much sugar as you think is reasonable). I also learned the value of the front porch visit. I would sit outside with my great aunt and uncle, my aunt usually had some type of vegetable in an enamel bowl (you know, the white bowl with the red rim), shelling or husking or seeding it, and truck after truck would stop by as the the hours passed. If they didn't stop, there was at least a horn honk and a wave over the steering wheel. Of course, back on the porch there would be plenty of discussion as to where the passing-by person was headed and why.
The conversation would sound something like this: "There goes Jimmy Rawls carrying (in the south, you don't drive someone somewhere, you carry them) his mother up to Frostproof to see the doctor." "Yeah, I heard she has the shingles." "Yes, bless her heart, this is the third bout she's had." "Mercy, that's bad."
If the passer-by stopped, they would usually acknowledge me with, "Patti Jo's daughter here visiting?" Then the adults would commence talking about anything and everything- who had died, who bought a new bass boat for fishing at the lake, and what they were fixing for dinner (which was lunch- the evening meal was supper).
Nothing special was planned on my behalf- no trips to an amusement park, or even a city park. It was just assumed that I would join in with whatever my aunts were already doing, including washing dishes, hanging clothes out to dry or attending revival services at church.
I remember during one two-week visit declaring to my Aunt Mildred that I was bored. She said in her high pitched exclamation-voice, "Bored?! Well, I declare," and promptly set me up with scissors and an old Sears catalogue so I could cut out homemade paper dolls. She also tried to teach me some basic handwork, but unfortunately her efforts on that front were in vain.
I feel tremendously blessed to have had a place like Fort Green to help form me into who I am today. I understand an entirely different group of people due to my time there, and I am a different person because of my time there. God's good providence placed me just where I needed to be, and gave me the experiences he wanted me to have.
I look back with gratefulness to God for the rich experience a simple place like Fort Green gave me. My aunts Zula, Mildred, Mae, Betty and uncles Tom, Clarence, Merle and Junior and so many cousins (Little John, Rufus, Bud, I could go on) all played an invaluable role in God's plan for my life. They never knew it at the time, but today I reap the benefits from my time spent in that special place.