A lighthearted piece I wrote several years ago reflected on whether it was fair to say my upbringing was rural.
My examples caused some readers to respond in ways that took on something of a Jeff Foxworthy-esque form.
With an increasing awareness of how the environments in which we were raised impact our lives, I have sought to better understand — with appreciation yet honesty — the influences at play.
Some descriptors are easy to apply: I spent my childhood and youth in the same blue-collar, tight-knit, nurturing community. It was overtly white and Protestant.
I have described the religious diversity as being those who went to the Baptist church (as my family did); those who went to the Methodist church across the street (but were less spiritual because the youth had dances); and those in the community who went to neither church but were embarrassed by it.
That assessment is not fully accurate but not as far off as some might think.
But then it gets tricky, when trying to put labels on my somewhat hillbilly, rural, suburban, whatever upbringing.
Marks of Southern Appalachia were aplenty. My family lived on a ridge with a view of Lookout Mountain every clear day.
Yet, we were merely 10 miles from my grandmother and aunt’s house in Chattanooga, which we frequently visited and where I sometimes spent the night. Headlight beams from constant traffic created moving lines on the walls as they filtered through the slats of the blinds — confirming that I was not in my own bed.
There, the ice cream man, pushing a cart with a bell I could detect from blocks away, came along the sidewalk each day. And the city bus could take us to the stores along Market and Broad.
My family had indoor plumbing but not consistent or reliable air conditioning. On occasion, we had a secondhand window unit that lasted for a brief while. I remember many hot nights, trying to go to sleep and praying a breeze would stir up — while listening to the noise of the drag strip at the state line.
Having one bathroom for six people led to my primary goal in life: to never own a house with fewer toilets than the number of persons living at home. By that achievement, I considered myself highly successful.
However, I did spend a week each summer, along with my family, at the farmhouse of my mother’s relatives in the southern end of our county. They didn’t have indoor plumbing for a long time.
It’s hard not to claim a rural upbringing when you were part of the last generation to make use of an outhouse — though that’s not something I care to repeat.
Likewise, my great uncle on my father’s side had an open well in his definitely rural front yard. From it, we would draw water on a hot summer afternoon and drink from a common dipper. Germs be damned.
I may have set a record for childhood attendance at funerals that often robbed me of sleep. These were people unknown to me but traced to some limb on the family tree.
On one occasion, we attended a viewing in which the departed relative was displayed in the farmhouse living room. That cost me more than one night of rest.
Listening to bluegrass music still gives me pleasure (especially Flatt & Scruggs), but we didn’t make and run moonshine.
Once, however, when exploring the wild caves along Chickamauga Creek, my best friend Dale and I emerged to find a bunch of corn shucks along the bank – a sign that a still was surely nearby. We decided that was enough spelunking for the day.
While my relatives talked of brush arbor revivals, I was more accustomed to the church-based ones. However, the Baptist association camp in our community had an open-air, sawdust-floored “tabernacle” where the Spirit could move even when a cool breeze wouldn’t.
The food of my raising was certainly less than sophisticated, but tasty. We didn’t know that beets, sweet potatoes and radishes were “power foods;” we just knew they were good.
I didn’t go to kindergarten or take swimming lessons as a child. There were no tennis courts around — and mother’s morning out involved her hanging clothes on the line.
But there were two weeks of Vacation Bible School each summer — and on into my teen years I’d attend every camp for which someone else would cover the cost.
There was a church camp, Boy Scout camp, 4-H camp and more. I even attended Safety Patrol camp once, even though our school didn’t have a safety patrol.
My first church camp experience was before our community had its first pool. So, I stood about knee-deep in a muddy pond that wasn’t particularly inviting.
Boy Scout camp on the banks of Lake Ocoee was where I learned to swim and eventually met my goal of making the four-lap swim across the lake that equaled a mile. Then, at age 15, a series of Monday nights at the Baylor School provided the cherished Red Cross lifeguard certification.
Sitting in an elevated chair above a passel of swimmers sure beat loading and hauling hay bales on a summer day.
Other jobs, among many, included mixing mortar for inebriated brick masons, blowing fiberglass insulation into attics and shoving foundry sand. Staying in school was crystalized in such moments.
And as Koinonia Farm founder and New Testament scholar Clarence Jordan once observed, “A hot sun and a slow mule have called many a man into ministry.”
Often my friends will speak of their upbringings in clear and concise ways. Like, “I’m an Army brat; we moved a lot.” Or, “I grew up on a family farm.” Or, “I was raised in a mill town.”
I’m just not sure how to explain mine — but the fudgesicle on the city sidewalk and the Sunday night milk with cornbread were equally satisfying.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.