The music, man

I’m not sure how it happened, but I have a musical family.

Saturday two weeks ago proved it. My oldest son played trumpet in the University of Georgia Redcoat Band in a game against the University of Arkansas. My middle son played trombone in the Parkview High School Marching Band in the Lake Lanier Tournament of Bands competition. My youngest son performed the lead role of Professor Harold Hill in the Smoke Rise Academy of Arts production of “The Music Man Jr.”

Scenes from a busy musical weekend for the Wallace boys.

That’s a lot of music in one day for one family, particularly one without much of a musical pedigree. The confluence of performances prompted several people throughout the weekend to say to Carla or me, “Where do your boys get their musical talent?”

Or, as my younger brother, Lee, put it in a Facebook Messenger note about Carlton’s performance, “Was he adopted and we missed this info? This can’t be Lance’s kid! How are all 3 gifted musicians?!?”

Good question, Lee.

Maybe it’s Carla’s genes. She took piano for nine years and played flute for several years, including her freshman year of high school in which she marched in the Washington County Golden Hawks Marching Band. But she confessed that her musical interest was primarily motivated by avoiding P.E., and her talents have, admittedly, eroded somewhat in the intervening years.

My music career is much more checkered. A vocalist of questionable quality, I famously failed at several solos at church, including an infamous rendition at age 13 of “My Tribute” which still elicits peals of laughter at family get-togethers.

I am equally suspect as an instrumentalist. I earned a B minus in flutophone in 2nd grade, and for Lee’s wedding rehearsal dinner, I performed “You Are My Sunshine” on the harmonica after several months of practicing. The command performance at my own rehearsal dinner was no more impressive.

During the past month I’ve witnessed six shows of “The Music Man” and “The Music Man Jr.” I’ve marveled that Carlton can carry a tune while executing movement. I couldn’t find the right note with a map, and I can’t even clap in time with music, much less move rhythmically in a way that resembles anything other than a muscle spasm.

Over the past seven years, I’ve spent most fall Friday nights and many Saturdays watching my older two boys perform with the Parkview Marching Band. I love seeing the band march into the stadium with the drum line tapping out a cadence. I can’t help but feel the joy Harris exudes when blows a post-touchdown rendition of “Hail to the Victor” on his trombone, and it’s fun to see him lead as a band captain.

Barron is the one who had to break us in as band parents. He started with guitar in elementary school, graduated to drums and picked up a trumpet in middle school. He’s always been musically inclined, adorning the music room in our basement with a chalkboard sign that says “Without music, life would B♭.”

Get it?

Hilarious, I know, but it’s true.

This year he fulfilled a dream of playing with the Redcoats, and hopefully, he’ll march all the way to the national championship with them. A decade of labor is paying off. When he took the field at Bank of America Stadium for the Georgia-Clemson season opener, found his spot for the pre-game show, raised his trumpet to his lips, the realization hit him — “I’m really doing this!” he told us after.

I could write an entire essay about what it’s like for your kid to be a drum major, leading and conducting the band. Barron had two years of that experience at Parkview and a semester of it at Kennesaw State. We loved seeing him on the platform or at the front of the parade, and fortunately for him, he did not inherit my musical timing disability. The boy, and his brothers, mysteriously have rhythm.

Music means a lot to our family, and I’m grateful for this season of our lives. Given my lack of talent, I never would have predicted it. Hats off to all who dedicate their lives to teaching music in all its forms, particularly the teachers, theater directors and band directors who have molded my young men.

Right now our lives are filled with music and anything but flat.

Welcome to ‘Thrillburn’

Tonight thousands of Lilburnites will gather at Lilburn City Park for the Independence Day celebration known as “Sparkle in the Park.”

Or, as I like to nonsensically call it, “Sparkle in the Parkle.”

people on blankets with dogs and in folding camp chairs on a field enjoy an outdoor concert
The Fleetwood Mac tribute band “Rumors” rocks Lilburn City Park on June 4, 2021.

July Fourth is a time when our Atlanta suburb sparkles with more than just fireworks, and it’s the clearest demonstration that Lilburn is making strides in its effort to offer some of the same amenities that neighboring communities like Duluth, Norcross, Lawrenceville, Roswell and Suwanee have been rolling out in recent years.

People throw around nicknames ironically these days, and my own little corner of the world is no exception. We locals like to call our sleepy Atlanta bedroom community, “Thrillburn” to mock its unhurried attitude and tranquil spirit. The seven square miles that make up this little hamlet claims a population of 12,481, but the “greater Lilburn metropolitan area” is much larger.

It’s a tight-knit, primarily residential community with good schools, diverse religious environment and hotbed for youth sports and organizations like Scouts. The knock on Lilburn has been that it’s a great place to live, but there’s not a lot to do.

Truth is, Lilburn has become an overlooked and underappreciated destination that is working hard to make something of itself for the benefit of guests and residents alike. Located in the shadow of Stone Mountain, there is a growing commitment to improving the quality of life here.

In the “Before Time,” probably 2018 or 2019, our civically minded middle child, Harris, insisted on going to a Lilburn City Council meeting. He and my wife landed on a meeting night that featured a town hall with then Mayor Johnny Crist presenting plans for future development of the downtown area. They both came home breathless with the possibilities of the restaurants and improvements to the park that were intended to make what was being branded as “Old Town Lilburn” more appealing.

The plans have proceeded with the relocation of the city offices and police station to new facilities, freeing up space for the enlarged park bandstand, pavilion and splash pad. Interesting townhomes with character have gone up near the park, and an entire community designed for retirees is under construction nearby.

Dining and entertainment options are still modest, but there’s obvious progress. Our oldest son worked a summer as a dishwasher at 1910 Public House, named for the year Lilburn was founded as an agrarian town on the railroad line, and his friends frequently play gigs at Music on Main next door.

three young men pose for a portrait at a table in front of a brick and wood wall at 1910 Public House in Lilburn
The Wallace brothers – Harris, Barron and Carlton – prepare to enjoy a great meal at 1910 Public House in May 2021 before Barron heads off to his summer job.

Our family frequents Agavero Cantina Parkside, a Mexican cafe with outdoor seating attached to a rehabbed double decker bus. Thematically, it’s confusing, but if you’re downing an order of street tacos with a side of esquite on a cool spring evening, the luchadores painted on the side of the vintage British bus only enhance your experience.

The obvious changes started a few years ago when a community garden opened just across the tracks from the park, and the city completed work on a greenway trail. I trained for my last marathon 10 years ago on that trail, and it’s been improved over the years, despite the damage it suffered from a recent train accident.

About that time, Lilburn started offering free concerts in the park and bringing in food trucks for special events and “Food Truck Tuesdays” at the park. We saw tribute bands play the music of the Beatles, Jimmy Buffett, Fleetwood Mac, and the Avett Brothers in addition to the real Drivin’ and Cryin’ and local favorite, the Glow Band. Even more than the music, I enjoyed being with neighbors and friends from our diverse community.

In the New South, many small towns and other municipalities outside of the urban centers are putting resources into lifestyle amenities that blend the old with the new. When Barron takes his grandfather’s 1950 Chevy Styleline Deluxe out for a spin, he loves to cruise up and down Main Street. He likes driving an old car in an old section of town. Something old, something new.

bearded young man in a cap drives a 1950 Chevrolet by brick buildings in downtown Lilburn
Barron practices driving the column shifting 1950 Chevy Styleline Deluxe on Main Street in downtown Lilburn back in May 2021.

Further proof that the townsfolks are embracing Lilburn’s new identity are the seemingly ubiquitous “Lilburn is Hip” T-shirts. You can pick one up at Citizen’s Exchange on Main Street.

Lilburn may be behind our neighboring suburban communities striving to create a sense of community, but it is catching up. I’m glad to see it and would welcome a few more eateries and a coffee shop, bakery or ice cream parlor among the establishments on Main Street.

If you have some time and are looking for something cool and quaint, you could do a lot worse than moseying over to Thrillburn. I promise it’ll add some sparkle to your parkle.

Making up for lost time

The anticipation of being with my brothers for the first time in six years exploded into panic when I reached the Atlanta airport main security checkpoint. I couldn’t find my driver’s license.

Somewhere between my car when I retrieved it from my wallet and slid it and my phone into the front pocket of my insulated vest, and the security checkpoint, it disappeared. I made an effort to remain calm as I retraced my steps back to the far reaches of the North Terminal parking lot, eating up the extra time I had allotted for pandemic protocols. I asked a custodian sweeping the parking deck and a security officer outside the lower entrance. Nothing seen, nothing turned in. I paused and took a deep breath. I decided to take my chances with my debit and library cards.

The TSA officer didn’t even blink when I told him I had lost my photo ID. I probably wasn’t even the first incompetent person with this problem he had encountered that day. They had procedures in place for idiots like me. They performed a few additional searches and screenings of my carry-on bags, but otherwise, it was smooth sailing from then on. I breathed easier when I sank into my redeemed SkyMiles seat.

I stepped out of the terminal at Love Field in Dallas and found April chillier in Texas than I had remembered. Not even two minutes later, I was enveloped in the warmth of good conversation when my youngest brother, Lyle, picked me up in his Jeep Cherokee. I couldn’t help but notice the driver’s side windshield sported an impressive web of cracked glass.

“You get in an accident?”

“Don’t ask,” he replied. “The basketball goal fell on it.”

I understood and let it drop. It’s the sort of thing that happens when you have four kids.

“What do you want for lunch?” he asked while navigating the crisscrossing highways of downtown Dallas.  

“When I’m in Texas, I try to eat Mexican or barbecue,” I answered. “It’s just different out here.”

He chuckled.

“Better, you mean.”

Lyle was six when I went off to college, and we have had precious few opportunities as adults to spend one-on-one time together. A pastor of a growing congregation southeast of Dallas and a Ph.D. student firmly entrenched in his dissertation, Lyle leads a busy life and our schedules rarely sync. 

When COVID prevented our families from getting together at Christmas at my parents’ house in Florida, Lyle suggested the brothers make time for a retreat… just the three of us. Surprisingly, we found the time in April, and my middle brother, Lee, booked us a place on Lake Palestine in East Texas. Vaccinations and easing of travel restrictions fell into place perfectly for me to follow through on the trip.

The two hours passed quickly. We ate tacos and shifted easily from reminiscence to ethics to current family updates to theology to jokes to church growth strategies. The conversation never lulled, and in what seemed like only a few minutes, we pulled up to the condo, the parking lot still wet from a fresh rain. Lee greeted us dryly but with undeniable excitement as we pulled our luggage, board games and other essential supplies inside. We paused for a selfie.

“Mom will want this pretty quick,” Lyle said.

three brothers on the porch. Lyle Wallace. Lance Wallace. Lee Wallace.
Can you guess who’s oldest? Lyle, Lance and Lee, slightly out of age order. We posed for a selfie for Mom right after we arrived.

We didn’t have to force smiles. It felt good to be together. Natural. Easy. Right.

Seconds after the impromptu photo shoot, Lee’s passion kicked in.

“Want to go fishing?” he said, his eyes twinkling with excitement in the same way I had seen in my dad’s eyes hundreds of times when the subject of fishing arose. “You know, we can talk and fish at the same time.”

“I need a fishing license,” I said. “And that’s going to be a little harder because I lost my driver’s license at the airport.”

I was out of practice being around my brothers. Otherwise, I would have known not to give them such good ammunition right off the bat. Being the oldest may have had its privileges when we were growing up. Now, though, I’m just old.

The inexperienced intern and his only slightly more experienced coworker managed to figure out how to sell me a temporary Texas license even without a driver’s license. My attempts at humor to help the transaction go smoothly elicited more than a few eye rolls from my brothers.

“Your dad jokes aren’t helping,” Lyle said. Lee was too engrossed in the fishing tackle to acknowledge my attempts at humor.

It didn’t take long before we had plastic worms rigged and were working the shoreline and the edges of the marina boathouses. Lee showed his prowess, catching three small bass before either of us barely wet our hooks. I instinctively kept score, but after our first day together, I questioned if scorekeeping was a good idea. Lee 3, Lyle 1, Lance 0.

As an associate pastor with lengthy experience working with youth and senior adults, Lee has always been a good planner. He filled in the important logistical gaps in our loose agenda with restaurants and meals to cook back at the condo. He also planned plenty of options to fill the hours around our fishing excursions. He found the perfect place for our first night of feasting — an appropriately named all-you-could-eat catfish joint in Tyler called “Happy’s.”

Happy's Fish House restaurant exterior.
The appropriately named Happy’s Fish House in Tyler, Texas, was the scene of our first night fried fish feast.
Plate of fried catfish
Indulging in the sin of gluttony, we all three got the all-you-can-eat fried catfish at Happy’s.

The rest of the night’s adventures included stops at Academy sporting goods and the requisite Wallace family visit to Walmart. We needed an ice chest to transport the bounty from the next day’s guided fishing trip, and Lyle needed a hat and sunglasses. I hate shopping as a general rule, but harassing my brothers while they tried to make purchases helped me tolerate it.

I introduced Lee and Lyle to the comedic stylings of Nate Bargatze on Netflix, and we hit the hay relatively early. Our guided fishing trip the next day was on Cedar Creek Reservoir, an hour away. The trip was a gift to Lyle from his church on the occasion of his seventh anniversary as pastor, and our excitement made rising early easier.

We were out the door by six the next morning, coffee and muffins in hand. With this half-day guided trip, we didn’t have to provide any equipment or bait. Jason of King’s Creek Adventures had grown up on Cedar Creek Reservoir and knew just the spot to put us on schooling sand bass. We laughed and reminisced, itching to get out on the water while Jason used his cast net to round up bait shad to last long enough for each of us to catch our 25-fish limit.

Lyle Wallace holds a sand bass
Lyle caught the first fish of the day on Cedar Creek Reservoir. It was only fitting since the trip was his church’s gift to him for seven years of serving as pastor.

The skies were gray, and I was glad to have my good winter coat and long underwear. Cold natured in my advanced age, I miraculously didn’t feel the weather when we arrived at our spot on the lake and Jason handed me a baited rod and reel. I had a bite on the first cast and caught my first white bass with my second cast. Lyle caught the first fish, but a backlash on his reel slowed him down. Lee was about to come unglued waiting for Jason to hand him his rod.

The excitement of catching fish must be experienced to be understood. The tug on the line and the struggle to get the fish in the boat never fails to get my adrenaline pumping. Jason did all the work. He took the fish off the hook, measured them, threw the keepers in the cooler, sent the smaller ones back into the water to grow up and re-baited our hooks. I felt spoiled.

Lance Wallace holds up a hybrid bass in a boat on Cedar Creek Reservoir in Texas
Lance caught this three-pound hybrid on Cedar Creek Reservoir. It was the biggest fish of the day.

Between fish, we swapped stories about successful and not-so-successful fishing trips we had taken as boys with Dad. We caught one fish after the other for nearly three hours. It was glorious. I now have a new standard for the phrase “time well spent.” 

In the end, we met our limit of 75 sand bass with five yellow bass and one hybrid for a total of 81 keepers. Lee caught the most fish, of course, with 74, including the little ones we threw back. Lyle caught 42. I caught only 30, but I won the prize for the biggest fish of the day, a 3-pound hybrid striped bass.

Lyle Wallace, Lance Wallace and Lee Wallace stand beside a wooden table covered with 81 bass laid out in rows.
Back at the Cedar Creek Reservoir marina, the Wallace brothers proudly display their haul of 81 bass — 75 sand bass, five yellow bass and one hybrid.

We celebrated with a Mexican food lunch in Gun Barrel City before heading back to the condo on Lake Palestine for a siesta. We succeeded in not only catching enough fish to feed an Alabama family reunion, we did something we enjoyed together making fresh memories to relish for years to come.

The rest of the night was uneventful. We watched more comedy and “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.” We couldn’t stay up too late despite our naps.

The next day, rain was in the forecast for the afternoon. Any fishing we could accomplish would have to be done in the morning. We went back to the marina on Lake Palestine and fished around the boathouses with success. We fixed a big breakfast back at the condo when the rain started, and settled in for an epic showdown of the World War II strategy game “Axis and Allies” while watching the extended editions of the three Hobbit films. It’s the way we would have spent a rainy Saturday growing up, minus Dad interrupting every few hours with “Is that all you’ve got to do?” and “You guys should be out there chasing all those pretty girls.”

Lee treated us to dinner that night at Texas de Brazil, a belated 40th birthday present for Lyle and 50th for me. It was glutinous and not animal-friendly. We did stay up pretty late that night, but we didn’t have to worry about keeping Mom and Dad up with our laughter. For the record, I won “Axis and Allies.”

Lyle Wallace and Lee Wallace look at the Axis and Allies game board.
Lance played the Axis powers of Germany and Japan while Lyle and Lee teamed to play the Allies of the United Kingdom, Russia and the USA. Unfortunately for the good guys, Lance was able to re-write history and finally capture the Allied capitals for the win after a 14-hour marathon.

The next morning before we headed our separate directions, Lee hit the marina one more time to squeeze in a few hours of fishing. As dozens of boats launched to scour Lake Palestine for big bass as a part of a tournament held there, Lee pulled in a six-pound bass, the biggest fish of his life and of the weekend. I arrived on the scene on my morning walk just after he released it. He was still shaking with excitement. His fishing supremacy could not be denied. He not only caught the most fish of the three of us, he capped off his performance with the biggest.

Lee Wallace holds up a six-pound bass at Lake Palestine, Texas
Lee’s trophy bass on the last morning. His persistence paid off, and he removed any doubt that he was the best angler of the three of us.

The three days of togetherness ended all too quickly. We decided it would be too ambitious to try this every year, and our wives and families couldn’t spare us that often. If we can find the time and place to get together every two to three years, that will be enough to keep our bonds tight and remind us of the blessings of brotherhood.

Carla had overnighted my passport, so getting through security at Love Field was a breeze. I slept most of the flight back to Atlanta.

When I walked out of the airport to my car, I still didn’t have my ID. But thanks to my brothers, I did have a renewed sense of my identity, grateful for the chance to make up for lost time.

Southern Q and A


The following is a collaboration by Lance Elliott Wallace of New South Essays Blog and Tara Cowan of Tea & Rebellion Blog.  We are excited to share a Q&A on Southern life and culture based on questions we have received.  Before we jump in, we thought we would give you an idea of our conception of Southern culture.  Southern culture is, by its very nature, multicultural.  Historically, the South is rich in diversity with heritages including Native American, Spanish, English, Scottish, Irish, African, French, Mexican, and Central and South American, just to name a few!  A blending of many cultures and the passage of time has led to certain social trends, habits, and styles that can be identified as distinctly Southern.  At the same time, there remain many individual cultures within the South that maintain their own distinctive identities.  Self-identification as Southern cuts both ways, sometimes celebrating history and values that are not shared by the subcultures that make up the regional identity. It’s not always pretty, but the complexity provides endless opportunity for exploration and commentary. This is a broad overview to keep in mind as you read!

two hydrangea blooms
The hydrangea is among the South’s most beautiful flowering plants. Photo by Tara Cowan

Q: What are some beautiful places to see outside?

Tara: The South in general has some beautiful national and state parks. The mountains of East Tennessee and North Carolina are gorgeous any time of year.  Savannah, Georgia, is renowned for its many city parks. There is a lot of beauty in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia.  To me, the most beautiful place to be in the South is on the Gulf of Mexico; you can’t beat the pristine white sand or the emerald water.

Lance: Absolutely agree, Tara. Our family has vacationed at Santa Rosa Beach on 30A in Florida’s panhandle for nearly 20 years. The white sand and emerald green water are imprinted  on my psyche providing the backdrop for some of our best memories. I have hiked the approach to the Appalachian Trail with each of my three boys beginning at Amicalola Falls in north Georgia, and those vistas still come to mind easily. We have also spent time in the mountains of North Carolina. We enjoyed hikes and driving through the high country of North Carolina during several trips with friends. West Jefferson and Blowing Rock are particularly scenic. One of the benefits of living in the Atlanta area is that I don’t have to drive far to get to beautiful beaches or scenic mountain tops. The cities I like best for their beauty are Savannah, Charleston and Asheville. 

Q: Where are the best spots for food?

Lance: We have lived in the Atlanta area for 18 years and have enjoyed many wonderful meals in town for special occasions. Upscale dining in Buckhead offers the full range of world class fare while Midtown’s diversity has everything from updated versions of Southern staples like fried chicken and deviled eggs to Asian cuisine from every ethnic origin to fantastic Mexican flavors. As a native Texan, I have to put in a plug for the BBQ brisket in the Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio.

Tara: Yes! The South is famous for BBQ, and I think there is actually a bit of a competition between Texas and Tennessee (where I live)! For traditional Southern cooking, Tennessee is a great place—Nashville and Pigeon Forge particularly, if you are feeling touristy. If you want traditional blended with other influences (like French and Gullah Geechee), I’ve had fun exploring restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina. For seafood, I highly recommend Destin, Florida.

Q: What historic sites should I see?

Tara: There are so many different points of interest. If you are looking for an immersive historical experience, there is Williamsburg, VA, and several other Southern cities that put a premium on history, like Natchez, New Orleans, and Charleston.  Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, is a must-see.  McLeod Plantation Historic Site in South Carolina is a great place for a focus on the lives of an enslaved community and its descendants.  I recently visited Shiloh National Military Park—obviously, there is a lot for Civil War buffs to see, but there are also Indian mounds preserved within the park, which is unique, and the park overlooks the Tennessee River and has a really stunning view.

Lance: I lived in Macon, Georgia, for 10 years, and it is often overlooked as a historic destination because of Savannah’s obvious claim to that reputation. In his march from Atlanta to Savannah, Sherman went around Macon, so there are great spots that survived the Civil War. If you do go, plan to spend time at Rose Hill Cemetery, take in the view from the Woodruff House atop Coleman Hill, tour the Hay House and see a show at the historic Grand Opera House. Macon’s architecture is amazing, and seeing the city when the Yoshino Cherry Trees are in bloom in March enhance the city’s charm.

Q: What is your favorite Southern tradition?

Lance: Though not nearly as fanatical as I once was, I have a genetic predisposition to enjoy sports. There is nothing better on a fall Saturday than to boil a pot of peanuts and watch college football from noon to midnight, interrupted only by firing up the grill and cooking something delicious. I know they play football all over the country, but in the South, college football is on a pedestal. No matter who you root for, you can find a way to care about any game on TV.

Tara: Grilling and college football—yes, indeed! It’s hard for me to identify exactly what Southern traditions are because I’ve never lived anywhere but the South.  But I like the gathering (maybe someday again!), the close-knit families, the extensive Sunday dinners, and the ties to home.

Q: What is the craziest Southern tradition?

Tara: One that I hear people express the most shock over is our funerals.  It may be more of a Middle Tennessee thing—I can’t speak to other places in the South.  Funerals are a big deal in my area. A lot of what happens strikes me as very Victorian. You need to wear black or at least dark colors to the funeral. You stand in a queue and wait hours if necessary in order to talk with the family beside the casket, where you will be invited to look at the deceased for as long as you wish (and forced to do so if you express a wish not to). The deceased is open for viewing for about two days. The room will be bedecked with flowers people have ordered, which just before the funeral will be taken and set up at the site of the burial. Every person you know brings food until there is literally nowhere to put anything else. At the actual funeral, there is usually a preacher who delivers a message, and several songs will be performed. Funerals can run an hour or two hours long. Then, as if they were the royal family, the family of the deceased is taken to a motorcade where the funeral home employees have discreetly lined up the family vehicles in order of precedence (usually determined by relationship to the deceased). The other mourners fall in behind the hearse and the family if their vehicles have not also been lined up (and usually they have). A policeman (or several) leads the procession, and another usually follows. No matter how distant the cemetery, every person you meet on the road is required by social tradition to pull over on the side of the road. If you are behind a funeral procession, even on a highway, you are not to pass. At the cemetery, a tent is usually constructed over the burial site, where all of the mourners proceed, and you basically have another funeral. Then there is a huge meal. Some of it is amusing and exhausting, of course, but I think most all of it is done out of respect for the grieving family.

Lance: Having recently attended the funeral for my wife’s aunt, a beautiful service despite the pandemic precautions, I agree with Tara that the way Southern families conduct their funerals can be weird for some folks. One of my go-to phrases in conversation is “As they say at Southern funerals, ‘Don’t he look natural.’” Tara’s thoughtful response also reminds me of one of my favorite songs by Southern singer/songwriter Kate Campbell. It’s called “Funeral Food,” and it’s signature line will stick with you: “Pass the chicken, pass the pie. We sure eat good when someone dies.” 

I would add that every Southern town has a festival. These border on the sacred in some places and the utterly ridiculous in others. The smaller the town, the weirder their festival. My personal favorite is the Kaolin Festival in Sandersville, Ga. This celebration of white clay mined in the region isn’t a household word in areas of the world bereft of these clay deposits, but this celebration of a substance found in everything from paper coating to toothpaste has a wonderful parade, a Kaolin Queen pageant and the requisite carnival rides out at the fairgrounds. The pandemic has put too many of these festivals on pause. Here’s hoping they can safely return soon.

Q: Why do Southerners sometimes refer to people from the North as “damn Yankees?”

Tara: I do hear that occasionally.  It’s unfortunate and not very “Southern” given the emphasis on hospitality and friendliness in the South. The roots of the South using the term derogatorily are historical. Later on, it became a stereotype used when a Northerner did something displeasing to a Southerner, particularly something considered discourteous. Southerners tend to put a premium on social politeness, and there is a perception that Northerners aren’t as concerned with that. So when the stereotype is perceived as coming true, that is the label that gets stamped. Of course, none of this is really thought out by people today and stereotypes are just never fair. But history has a way of handing legacies down to us that tend to be perpetuated—however rude they may be!

Lance: All true, Tara, but let me take a slightly different approach here. Yes, there is still regional animosity between the former combatants of the “War of Northern Aggression” as it is still known with all seriousness in some quarters of the South. The phrase went mainstream in popular culture after the release in 1955 of the musical comedy “Damn Yankees,” which was adapted from the book “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop. It was adapted into a movie of the same name and released in 1958 starring Tab Hunter, Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston. The basic story is that a longsuffering Washington Senators fan, Joe Boyd, sells his soul to the devil to see his team beat the Yankees. I, for one, do not sit in judgment of the fictional Joe Boyd on that count. In real life, the New York Yankees have won 27 World Series titles since 1903, and they have been a nemesis of the teams I grew up a fan of—first the Texas Rangers and later the Atlanta Braves. It was painful to watch the Braves lose the 1996 World Series to the Yankees after jumping out to a 2-0 series lead, winning both games in New York by a combined score of 16-1. The Braves proceeded to lose the next four giving the Yankees their first title since 1978. Not prone to swearing, that series made me want to utter “damn yankees” more than once.

Q:  (Three questions actually follow from this one!) When speaking of a modern Southern comedian, Lance recently wrote in a blog post, “…[H]e does have strong Southern bona fides, a recognizably Southern rhythm and pacing to his storytelling, and an authentic Southern voice that isn’t a caricature.”  What do you think makes Southerners unique as storytellers?

Tara:  Authenticity is key in good Southern storytelling. There is usually something that strikes a chord or touches us in Southern stories. There is a willingness to settle in and weave an intricate narrative. I think that quality is the legacy of cultural heritages renowned for oral storytelling—Native American, Scottish, Irish, and African, to name a few. Storytelling is a learned and practiced tradition from childhood on in the South.

Lance: Time, place and adversity have shaped Southerners into good storytellers. The late 19th Century was a simpler time, and much of life in the South was agrarian. People had more time and spent it together on the front porch because there was no air conditioning. With the advent of radio and TV and the ubiquity of air conditioning, the culture shifted, but for at least a generation the prevailing form of entertainment was listening to your elders tell stories on the front porch after supper or after Sunday dinner with the family. The stories that held the most resonance were filled with humor and heartache, both of which were in abundance at the turn of the 20th Century in the South. Southern stories have an element of self-deprecation, a respect for ingenuity and distrust of progress and technology. The comedians, writers and storytellers that are known for being Southern have mastered their craft by being good listeners and refining their stories after many retellings as they see the response of their audience. That’s why so many Southern storytellers I have been around, famous or just family, can entertain even when they tell the same story over and over. They blend the familiar with a few twists to keep it interesting. We listen to see if it will be different this time.

Q:  What makes Southern storytelling’s rhythm and pacing distinctive?

Tara:  There is a certain musical flow to Southern stories, something that draws you in gently but immediately and then flows like a river as it unfolds from there. There is a certain pulling from the past/working toward the future dichotomy that makes it circular. And a distinctive tone to Southern storytelling reflects Southern speech patterns.

Lance: My grandmother had a way of stringing the details of her stories together with the verbal pause “and uh” that gave her stories a rhythm. Like a sermon in the African American church tradition, her stories would start slow and build to a dramatic conclusion, usually humorous. She would often laugh at her own stories. She called it “tickled.” I am “tickled” anytime I get to hear such a story. I agree, Tara, Southern storytelling is musical, whether it’s read or heard. To get a sense of what I mean, pick up a copy of Rick Bragg’s latest book, “Where I Come From” or any of his previous works. Read a few paragraphs out loud, and you’ll hear it immediately.

Q:  Are Southerners caricatured in media such as movies, books, etc.?  If so, what makes a Southern voice have an authentic ring?

Lance: Without a doubt. As a fan of Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” television adaptation of the Cohen brothers film, though, I have to admit that any time a region becomes the focus of a story, the opportunity for caricature exists. I see it most when someone without experience or appreciation of the South attempts to tell a Southern story. They paint with too broad a brush. Because I like to listen to accents, no matter where they are from, it’s often the over-done dialect that makes it so egregious. I like it best when writers, storytellers and actors capture the specifics of a Southern place. There is no one accent or way of life down South. If they know us well enough to grasp the nuances, they can avoid caricature and actually tell a story with authenticity. My favorite theme is the underestimated Southerner that turns the stereotype on its head. I know that can be its own cliche, but I am drawn to stories that flip the script. As for authenticity, I think that emerges from directness, lack of pretense, and color. Honesty is often hard to take, but Southerners can speak from their heart with surprising frankness.

Tara:  That is a good point, Lance, that when any region becomes a focus there is an opportunity for or danger of caricature. I also see caricature a lot with religious or ethnic minority groups—any group that is numerically smaller in the broader culture. But yes, Southerners are caricatured broadly to the extent that when a character actually feels like a Southerner, it is a welcome surprise. Behaviors are stereotyped (wearing big hair, being backwards, practicing oppressive forms of religion, being prejudiced more than the general population, etc.). I agree that the accents are often the most cringeworthy. A Southern voice (and as an author, I can add any voice) has more authenticity when the character is first presented as a person and only then as a person who may have certain distinctive regional or cultural traits.

Q:  What makes Southern society complex and complicated?

Tara: History. The South has a troubled, or one might almost say tortured history. The presence of slavery deep into the nineteenth century, the forced removal of Native Americans, and an almost caste-based social structure have all made the South and its history complicated, to say the least. There is a history of deep prejudice that still gives the region a troubled legacy today. That’s not to say that the whole country, or every country, doesn’t have the same truth. Prejudice exists in the South and everywhere. To deny that would be to paper over the very real, lived experience of many.

Simultaneously, I think the South has been forced to deal with prejudice on a fundamental level in a way that other regions may not have. I recently read a study that found that quantifiable inequality (unemployment, home ownership, education, etc.) was several percentage points less in the South as a region than in the nation as a whole. But that is not the general perception of Southern society.

Adding to the complexity, the South has also historically been riddled with poverty, to the extent that the default “American” in media or popular imagination is not Southern. Not being the default obviously leads to some problematic handling of the region as a whole by the uninitiated. For example, we wouldn’t normally allow for critical caricatures of people struggling with poverty, but the stereotype of all Southerners as prejudiced somehow makes those depictions acceptable, which does real damage.

And yet, the legacy of an aristocratically tiered social structure does still persist. There is a bit of a “haves and have-nots” element to Southern society that adds another dimension to the complexity, all the more so because it isn’t necessarily in a good versus evil way of a Dickens novel. The complexity of Southern society is profoundly difficult to grasp, but I can say for certain that a lot of it goes back to history.

Lance: Well said, Tara. The South’s agrarian history, which is rapidly being erased, contributes to the complexity. Moving from an inequitable and exploitative rural economy to a high tech and services based economy has changed the landscape so quickly, many who control the systems of wealth and influence have leveraged the old prejudices to stoke division and maintain control. Race is just one level of the conflict. Class is another. And with the growing abandonment and diversification of religious practice, there are even more opportunities for cultural clashes. It’s complicated because it feels like whenever there is progress toward unity, there are ugly, violent events that remind us of the past and erase any gains in trust and goodwill. We’re never that far from what the Baptists call “backsliding.” It feels to me like an addict in recovery. We can never get too confident we’re over the old troubles. We have to take it one day at a time, with humility, and try to do better accepting people for who they are as individuals and not for their membership in a larger group identity.

Q: How is the South and Southern culture changing?

Tara: I think the concept of Southernness may be developing into something that reflects more of the diversity that we have talked about. I feel like there was a time when identification with Southern culture was more common among middle- and upper-class people of European ancestry. But it seems like that perception is broadening today to acknowledge and include the culture and contributions of more and more of those who live in the South. I haven’t researched in this area, so I base this on the fact that I hear people identify as Southern who might not have done so in the past and see Southern magazines exploring the Southernness and contributions to the South of people who may first identify as something other than Southern. This is definitely a great question for Lance!

Lance: This is the very question at the root of New South Essays. I’ve mentioned some of it above. We’re becoming more urban, technology dependent and diverse. Small towns are drying up because people are moving to where the jobs are, and population loss in rural areas is palpable. Family is still important, but jobs are taking people farther and farther away from their roots. We’re experiencing a mix of stubborn pride and pervasive shame over a past that we once reflected on and talked about often. Now, everything about Southern is being reinterpreted. I find particularly interesting the work that The Bitter Southerner and The Oxford American are doing in that regard. I hope one of the messages people take away from my blog is that it’s OK to be Southern and talk about it openly and honestly. It helps to be humble and self deferential with a healthy dose of humor, which I see as growing in the New South.

Q: What is the best thing about the South?

Tara: For me it is the hospitality.  Southern history is, of course, fraught and complicated, and, like anywhere else, it still isn’t a perfect place. But at its best today, there is a kindness to Southern culture, a sort of “welcome home” feeling that can and should be extended to all.

The best way to explain would be through a visit to Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room in Savannah, Georgia. There are ten or eleven people seated at a big table that is reminiscent of a Sunday dinner. You pass about a dozen dishes back and forth between you, making conversation all the while like you’re family. People line up and wait for hours for this experience with total strangers.  Both times I’ve been, people from different regions or countries want to know all of the details of Southern life, and of course the Southerners are happy to oblige. This leads to trading stories about our homes and the different ways cultures do things.  The last time I went, at our table were: my sister and me, a couple from Canada with their two children, an Indian American couple from Manhattan, and a couple from Alabama.  All were such lovely people, and if we had met in any other setting, we might never have been acquainted with one another well enough to have known that.  But when we left, we all talked about the connection we had felt. I still remember what all of their faces looked like, and for that moment, we were family. It’s a transforming experience, connecting with total strangers just because you can really feel harmony and peace around you.  I really think the world would be a kinder place if everyone could experience that type of distinctly Southern setting, because you get to see the goodness in people, and you remember that and carry it with you.  Southern hospitality mixing with Southern cooking is just one of the greatest things in the world.

Lance: I can’t argue with that, Tara! We’ve covered most of what I truly enjoy already, but I would be remiss if I didn’t devote some space here to Southern writers. I hope you will check out Tara’s books that weave history and relationships in a way that expose relatable truths. My favorite Southern writer of all time is Clyde Edgerton. I find the work of Larry Brown gritty and real. I’ve always enjoyed Rick Bragg, as I mentioned, and William Faulkner’s well-documented contributions inspired me to take up writing in the first place. You don’t have to be a Southerner to appreciate great Southern literature, and as it diversifies, its impact only grows.

The Contributors:

Tara Cowan the author of the Torn Asunder Series, including Southern Rain, Northern Fire, and Charleston Tides. She writes fiction set mostly in the South and loves all things history, travel, and culture.  An attorney, Tara lives in Middle Tennessee and is busy writing her next novel.

To connect with Tara, visit her blog at, follow her on Instagram, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

A former newspaper reporter and editor, Lance Elliott Wallace chronicles life in the New South from his home in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn. He is a Fort Worth, Texas, native who has lived in Central Florida, Alabama and Georgia, gaining a fascination with contemporary Southern culture along the way.To connect with Lance, visit his blog at He’s most active on Twitter and Facebook.

Inquiring minds

The South is a region of the United States that evokes strong reactions and many questions.

It’s the latter I’m interested in for my April post. I am writing a Q&A with my collaborator, Tara Cowan, a Tennessee lawyer and writer of historical fiction. We want to know any questions about life and literature in the South or really anything you’ve been pondering about this region. We will do our best to answer them thoughtfully.

rocking chair, porch, ocean view
The porch is the traditional spot where many of life’s questions are answered in the South. Photo by Tara Cowan

You can leave a comment here or email it to And whether you send us any questions or not, enjoy this lovely photo from Tara, and think about your grandma’s front porch and all you learned there. It will make you feel better, I promise.

Be back soon. In the meantime, check out Tara’s work over at Tea and Rebellion. Here’s the beautifully designed cover of her latest book, which is available on Amazon.

Pandemic Parenting

I’m no expert, but it’s not hard to observe that parenting has shifted radically in the new millennium, especially in the South.

Gone are the days when a child would have their mouth washed out with soap, their face slapped or their bare bottom switched. Now, we send small children to the timeout chair. We place our pre-teens and teens on restriction. We have serious discussions about expectations, choices and consequences.

We all feel so much more civilized about our discipline methodologies. It’s rare for somebody to get a whoopin’ in the New South.

But the new ways break down quickly when society is upended, and nothing in recent memory has brought us to the brink of a societal breakdown like the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re all — parents and children alike — pushed past the limits of our patience. Who among us has not at least thought about bringing back the old ways, just once, and giving our mouthy offspring a swat on the behind?

Parents joking about their failures and wishing to return to a simpler time of punishments fill social media. We respond with our LOLs and SMHs knowing the feeling all too well.

In the heat of the moment, when a transgression surfaces and must be confronted,  it feels like a life-or-death struggle against the galactic forces of evil. We believe our children’s belligerence and disrespect must be stamped out or civilization will fall and they will grow up to be misanthropes.

In these dark days, we resort to the only tool seemingly left to us: taking away screen time.

laptop, iPad, Nintendo Switch, wireless earphones
This is what disciplining children looks like in the New South. We hope by taking away the laptop, tablet, game system, and wireless earphones, we are getting our kids’ attention.

Pre-pandemic, this was a relatively mild punishment. Depending on the duration, our children might actually prefer to have their devices confiscated for a few hours. I know in our home, not only did grounding from screens restore stability, our children actually seemed happier and more engaged in creative pursuits like reading, music, art and cooking. Each punitive action produced a mini Renaissance that restored our hope in them and their future.

That was then.

Now, if we remove the devices from our children’s lives for even just a day, it feels like we are cutting off their supply of oxygen. It’s the only pleasure they have left, their only connection to friends, their only outlet to escape the drudgery of isolation and quarantine.

In the pandemic, taking away screen time is the nuclear option.

We have to be careful to avoid the brinkmanship that leads to that ultimatum. If someone goes to the “no screen time”  penalty too quickly, the wailing and gnashing of teeth that results has no remedy. All that is left to silence the outcry is lengthening the time of the restriction. It’s a vicious cycle that ends with the parent losing their sanity, credibility or both.

This is the universal parenting quandary of the pandemic, and it is not limited by geography. Parents in the New South find themselves grappling with the same problem as parents across the globe.

So, what’s the answer?

Like I said, I’m no expert. 

As with everything during these seemingly endless days trapped in our homes, all we can do is try our best, exercise as much patience as possible and ask for forgiveness when we go too far.

Oh, and start saving for therapy bills. We’re all going to need to talk this out with someone when it’s over.

Maybe you’ve found a solution. What punishments have you found particularly effective during the pandemic? Please, by all means, share! Leave a comment and let us in on the secret.

Discovering a new Southern voice in comedy

With all of this talk of viruses, pandemics and vaccinations, I’ve recently gotten a hold of some of the best medicine, thanks to Nashville-based comedian Dusty Slay.

I have reached the point in life when my entertainment choices can be guided by my children rather than the other way round. During the recent Christmas break, our oldest was at home for an extended period. Barron is always on the lookout for good comedians, and he introduced us to several he had discovered that he thought we would like. Among them was a gravel-voiced, bearded, bespectacled, long-haired dude in a trucker hat named Dusty Slay.

Comedian Dusty Slay

I was skeptical when the YouTube clip first appeared on the screen. It’s a shame, but I must admit I judged the book by the cover. I felt like my son’s tastes may not be as refined as mine and expected the four-minute clip of Slay’s standup would be mildly amusing at best, cliched and offensive at worst.

I was wrong. The clip, in which Slay talked about putting in your two weeks notice to quit a job, was genuinely funny to me. I LOLed, as the kids would say. Barron then took us down a YouTube rabbit hole for the next hour showing us clip after clip from Slay’s appearances on Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Comedy Central.

When we watched the clip of Slay demonstrating how the trucker hat changes people’s estimation of him, I was hooked. That’s when I realized there was a method to his madness, and his appearance wasn’t meant to be a cartoon. He was making a statement: “Don’t judge me by my looks, listen to what I have to say.” And for the last six weeks or so, I have been listening.

The child of divorce, Slay grew up rotating between his mom’s place in a trailer park in Opelika, Ala, and his dad’s farm near LaFayette, Ala. He was poor, but never lacked for food, clothing and shelter. He had all of the best and worst experiences you might expect from living in a trailer park: having lots of playmates AND getting into lots of scrapes. Not academically motivated, Slay did not go to college. He had a run-in with the law that kept him from the Army, and in his late teens and twenties dealt with drinking and drugs.

Still in his late 30s, he appears to have his life together. It’s been about nine years since he gave up drinking. He’s married and settled in Nashville. He’s been performing comedy steadily for the past 10 years and in 2018 he started to break through.

Driving back from my parents’ house in Florida at Christmas, we listened to both of his albums on Spotify, “Son of a Ditch” and “Makin’ That Fudge.” I laughed so hard at his stories about drinking gas, having your identity stolen and the rivalry between letters of the alphabet, I had tears. I released life’s stresses in a way I hadn’t been able to in a long time.

Since then, I’ve been catching up on his weekly podcast, “We’re Having a Good Time.” I went all the way back to 2018 when he and his Canadian comic wife, Hannah Hogan, began recording it. (I can’t help myself, I have to start at the beginning.) As a result, I’ve heard the evolution of his voice and delivery, learned his story and listened firsthand how his professionalism and identity have solidified with practice.

His YouTube series, “Dusty Slay’s Top 5 Country Songs About…” are worth your time if you, like me, appreciate the best of ‘90s country. He genuinely likes country music, and isn’t just making easy jokes at its expense.

I’m not ready to put him in the pantheon of Southern comics like Andy Griffith, Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, James Gregory, Ron White, Jerry Clower or Minnie Pearl. But he does have strong Southern bona fides, a recognizably Southern rhythm and pacing to his storytelling, and an authentic Southern voice that isn’t a caricature.

He generally works clean, though sometimes his content has “adult themes.” I don’t expect everyone to share my reaction to his comedy. What people find funny is subjective. All I can say is right now, I’m into it.

Maybe my fondness for Slay’s work is all about timing. We are, after all, in a pandemic, and I am in need of the best medicine in the worst way. His jokes aren’t necessarily universal. It helps if you have worn a NASCAR T-shirt or are related to someone who wears NASCAR T-shirts.

I haven’t lived his life. I don’t know what it’s like to wait tables or pass out drunk. What I appreciate is that he finds the humor in the situations he’s found himself in. He possesses an infectious humility that draws me in. The truth is, Slay tells jokes I find clever. There is something very smart behind his self-effacing storytelling.

I can’t wait to see what he does next. I’m hoping for good things because we could all use a good laugh right about now.

When I’m listening to Dusty Slay, it’s hard not to be convinced of his signature line: “We’re having a good time.”

Happy birthday, Mama!

Carla and I call her “Mama.”

Our boys call her “Nanny.”

No matter what name she goes by, my mother-in-law embodies much of what I envision when I think of the New South. She retains a bit of the old-fashioned, Southern ways even as she embraces change. She came of age in a close-knit, rural community surrounded by family. Now she navigates a new life in an urban center with unfamiliar technologies and a faster pace swirling around her.

January 9 is her birthday. I appreciate her every day, but today is the perfect time to celebrate all the ways she enriches our family.

picture of Cynthia Barron standing beside a planter with coral-colored flowers
Cynthia Barron, AKA “Mama”, AKA “Nanny”

I love her Southern expressions. Her speech is always kind, full of grace and never “ugly.” Rooted in a past so innate to her, it wouldn’t occur to her to say things differently. She delights us with her “Nannyisms,” which include “mashing the foot feed” for pushing the car’s gas pedal; “playing on the sliding board” for going down the slide at a playground; calling a building a “house” as in “going to the school house;” referring to the movies as “the picture show;” drawing our attention to something by advising us to “look over yonder;” requesting a “dibble” as a portion to be served at mealtimes; and her go-to “golly pete” to express amazement.

We mimic and laugh, but we do so with affection, not ridicule. Her speech patterns and sayings are authentic, not put on. She talks like the women of her family have for generations. She is not a caricature Hollywood invented. When she slips in a Nannyism, it’s a treat that makes our day and causes us to love her even more.

I admire her courage. Humans are notoriously resistant to change, self included. In the past year, Mama sold her home in Sandersville and moved into an independent living apartment building near our home. She did the difficult work of letting go and moving on, parting with so many of the possessions she had held onto since her husband passed away seven years ago. We moved her to Lilburn on the Saturday before the COVID lockdown in Georgia, and although she chose independent living over moving in with us because of her desire to make friends and stay active, she was forced to quarantine and remain isolated in a new, unfamiliar place.

We kept close tabs on her, visiting her and having her visit us as often as we were allowed. The isolation took its toll. When her lease was up after the first six months, she made the bold decision to move again to another, newer, more resident-responsive independent living residential complex near us. They have managed the COVID-19 restrictions differently, and Mama is thriving with new friends, activities and beautiful surroundings. Through it all, she has been a trooper, adopting a spirit of “can do” rather than become discouraged by circumstances. She has thus far remained virus-free and inspires us with her resilience.

I marvel at her stamina in the face of many health challenges. Mama has battled chronic lymphocytic leukemia for more than a decade and held up under regular treatments and infusions that bolster her immune system allowing her to cope with a number of other chronic conditions. With Carla at her side or on FaceTime when COVID rules won’t allow her to accompany her mother to doctor visits, Mama has faced enumerable medical appointments, medicines and treatments. Every day she draws breath is a testament to God’s grace and her inner strength.

Born prematurely, Mama credits her Granny Fulghum with holding her, warming her and nurturing her to survive the first year of life at a time when medical technology was not as advanced at providing such care. Mama received her grandmother’s grit and determination during those months of swaddling and rocking. We are grateful she has fought so bravely for so long because each day with her is a gift.

I benefit from her perspective and good humor. Long after my attempted witticisms have ceased to have any impact on my wife of 23-plus years, Mama still appreciates my jokes, puns and anecdotes. Our three boys all work harder than a stand-up comedian at an open mic night to get her chuckling, and the affirmation we feel when she smiles at something we say is the embodiment of blessing.

She can also tell a good story. I enjoy hearing her reminisce about growing up and the circumstances that give her joy now to think back on. She loves her sister, Edna, and cherishes the memory of her brother, James, while missing her husband, Lanny, every day. Those remembrances are full of humor and love.

I am blessed by her kindness. The phrase “What would Jesus do?” or “WWJD” made the rounds a few years back in Christian circles, and I live by a close corollary: “What would Mama say?” She simply cannot bring herself to say anything bad about anyone, even if she has every evidence of ill motives. She is patient and extends the benefit of the doubt even when we feel she risks being taken advantage of. I’m sure she’s not happy with everyone she encounters, but she does not show it. Nothing makes her happier than to do something for others. She is constantly looking for ways to be helpful.

She will always be a teacher at heart. She taught children for 30 years in elementary school and Sunday School and can’t help but see craft projects and object lessons in every recyclable household item.

If I have a resolution for 2021, it’s to be more like Mama — creative and colorful in my speech, bold and courageous in my decision making, strong and dedicated to good health, creating space for listening and laughing, and showing kindness to everyone I come into contact with, including those I spend the most time with during this pandemic.

Happy birthday, Mama. We love you. You are worth celebrating.

Having Myself a Very COVID Christmas

Nothing has been the same in 2020. The holiday season is no exception. The 36 days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day that include Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa will be unlike any other in my lifetime.

We’ve reached December. The music, weather, and lengthy to-do list are the same, but many facets of the holidays are unrecognizable. Here are 10 ways I’m anticipating the pandemic will impact my Christmas celebration:

Exterior of house decorated with lights and wreaths for Christmas.
The 2020 version of our Christmas decorations feature new ribbons on our wreaths and new positioning of the floodlights. It’s the little things during the pandemic that bring joy.

No parties. Typically, our family’s calendar is filled with social gatherings for my wife and me and for our children. I have complained in the past of having an overstuffed December social calendar. Not this year. I have one event on the calendar at the moment, and it is a socially distanced, masked, hour-long party for my middle son. I’m sure a few more social occasions might trickle in, but they won’t resemble the festivities of years’ past.

No concerts. Our boys are musically inclined. Concerts, parades, and recitals are as much a part of our holiday season as parties. Sometimes the performances and parties occur in combination. I will miss my boys’ musical events and the way they set the mood for my Christmas celebration. Music fills me with Christmas spirit, but Spotify can’t replace the live performances that have become our tradition.

Shopping online exclusively. As has been documented in New South Essays in the past, I’m not a fan of shopping. I embraced online shopping a few years back, but I usually take the boys out for individual excursions so they can purchase gifts for family members and each other. We avoid the peak times, but these relatively short forays provide me with all the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping I need. This year, I’m planning for all of it online.

Limited family interaction. Our biggest struggle this year is getting together with family. We traditionally go to Florida after Christmas to spend time with my parents. Occasionally my Texas-based brothers are able to join in, and our boys get to see their cousins. Such was the plan this year, but those plans are shifting. We have been taking precautions for nine months allowing us to stay healthy and care for my immunocompromised mother-in-law. This close to the distribution of a vaccine, we simply can’t risk a trip to be around out-of-state family. The fear of missing out is most acute for me with this component of our holiday celebrations. To compensate, I am placing a high priority on a trip to Texas when the pandemic ends.

Different faith observances. I’ve written extensively over at View from the Pew about how our church experience has been different during the pandemic. Our pastor is determined to make sure we have a Christmas Eve service. We’ll bundle up and gather outdoors, keeping our distance and foregoing parts of the service that bring us into close contact. I will welcome the Christmas Eve service in any form, but there are many other annual observances I am missing, especially our church choir’s Christmas music. Again, Spotify is an imperfect substitute.

Appreciation of health. I am experiencing greater appreciation for my health this holiday season. This year in which I turned 50 has been full of health challenges. In February I had a bout of the flu and pneumonia before COVID-19 raged across the country. Then in March I tore my meniscus which I finally had repaired with arthroscopic surgery in November. In spite of those setbacks, we haven’t had to deal with a case of COVID in my household. I am grateful and hopeful that continues into 2021.

Gratitude for each other. We will be around each other more this Christmas than any other, and while that contributes to the petty arguments and frustrations boiling over, it will also cement our family’s bond. Sitting around our Thanksgiving table and calling my parents later that day filled me with gratitude for the people in my life in a profound way.

Decorating early. I saw a lot of social media posts this year of people “needing a little Christmas, right this very minute” back on Nov. 1. We weren’t quite there, but this year I’ve forsaken my annual complaint of people skipping Thanksgiving and going right to Christmas. We all do what we have to do to make it through. Our own Christmas decorations didn’t go up early. In fact, because of some home projects, our tree sat lit but undecorated longer than usual, but early decorating is the rule rather than the exception in 2020.

Clinging to tradition. We’re not giving up traditions this year, we’re reinventing and re-interpreting them. We’re boiling them down to their essential quality and meaning and finding a way to do them safely. The best example so far is our Saturday after Thanksgiving trip to Ihop and Christmas tree shopping. This year, we made a huge breakfast at home, had a leisurely morning, cleaned up the kitchen together, and finally made it to the tree lot around noon. There was less time to decorate, but the boys agreed this may be a permanent change to our holiday traditions.

Seeking joy. More than gifts, food or nostalgia, I am seeking joy this Christmas. I cannot remember entering a holiday season in my lifetime with such a desperate need to be uplifted, encouraged and inspired. Whether it’s in the laughter of my family around our table, hearing the familiar words of Luke 2 on Christmas Eve or the strains of Harry Connick’s “Harry for the Holidays” album, I will savor the feeling of joy that has been so elusive these past nine months.

That’s my list. I’m curious how your holiday season will be different this year. Whatever may come, I hope your holidays are safe, meaningful, memorable and above all, joyful.

The official New South Essays Thanksgiving Meal Planner

As a public service, New South Essays would like to inform you that Thanksgiving is just 19 days away.

If you haven’t already started planning this year’s feast, now is the time to jumpstart your meal preparation. Of all the holidays and traditions we experience in a year, Thanksgiving is a meal-based celebration. It requires planning and pre-work, even if you are simply ordering a turkey and “fixins” from the grocery store.

The Wallaces at the Thanksgiving table in 2019.
The Wallace Family Thanksgiving table in 2019.

Allow me to alleviate your Thanksgiving preparation anxiety and introduce the New South Essays Thanksgiving Meal Planner. I’ll break down each decision, and you fill in the blanks. When you finish reading this post, you’ll be ready to head to the grocery store and get to work. This planner works best if you print it and have a black ink pen or no. 2 pencil handy. Better yet, laminate it for repeated annual use:

  1. Meat. Turkey, ham, turducken, tofurkey, BBQ, other (circle one). I’ve had all but the turducken and tofurkey for past Thanksgiving meals. Yes, I had pulled pork barbecue one year. An unusual choice to be sure, but it was delicious just the same. For some reason, this year my dad has taken to the idea of having BBQ on Thanksgiving. Maybe with this pandemic everything is so off-kilter that he’s thinking “Why not have a nontraditional protein for Thanksgiving?” We’re cooking a small turkey again this year, but we’re still undecided on whether to smoke or roast. We will definitely be brining for added flavor and moisture.
  • Vegetables. Sweet potatoes/yams, carrots, corn, green beans, squash – butternut/other, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, eggplant (I don’t know what you like!), okra, field peas, English peas, black-eyed peas, Swiss chard (just checking to see if you were still paying attention) and, of course, mushrooms. (There may be more than one correct answer). This cannot possibly be an exhaustive list, but it’s enough to get you started. You are allowed to write in the margins. I’m also aware that most vegetables get converted into their casserole form for Thanksgiving because we all love to take a perfectly healthy vegetable, soak it in cream and smother it in cheese, Ritz crackers or marshmallows.
  • Starch. Mac n’ cheese, mashed potatoes, stuffing – cornbread/bread crumb/other, dinner rolls, biscuits, other (circle all that apply). Now before you go arguing about the selections in this category, know that in my house, the mac n’ cheese at Thanksgiving has been one of the most divisive and hotly contested issues. While popular, it is decidedly not a vegetable, despite what you may see on meat-and-three restaurant menus in the South. Personally? I’m not a fan. I don’t dislike mac n’ cheese, I just don’t see the point. I will also not eat mac n’ cheese on Thanksgiving when there is just so much other goodness to be had.
  • Salad. Garden, chopped, spinach, cranberry, congealed (insert congealable substance here:___________), other, none of the above (Why waste room on your plate with salad?) I cannot help myself when it comes to my mom’s congealed salad. I don’t even know its proper name. I know it is yellow, has a foamy top, contains pecans and grated cheddar cheese, and tastes like Thanksgiving. This might be too personal a preference for you, but I do hold open the possibility that you have a favorite salad for Thanksgiving. I do not go in for pears with a dollop of mayonnaise. That ain’t a salad. And anything with Jello and four cups of sugar definitely counts as a salad, not a dessert. Speaking of desserts…
  • Dessert. Pie – pumpkin, pecan, apple, sweet potato, chocolate, coconut cream, chess, buttermilk, non-pie, other. (More than one answer is assumed). At my house we’re pumpkin and pecan people, but we have been known to mix in a sweet potato or chocolate pie on occasion. My youngest is obsessed with pumpkin spice, so pumpkin pie is a must. I’m partial to pecan and particularly enjoy the “Mystery Pecan Pie” recipe with cream cheese my dad introduced us to a few years back. The mystery is that the mixture flips during baking, and the pecans float to the top. My youngest insists there is no mystery. He says it should be called “Science Pecan Pie.” I don’t think it has the same ring to it. In any case, if you have something other than pie, I’d like to hear about it because it just doesn’t seem right. But I’m open to new ideas.

There you have it. Hopefully you used a pencil if you need to go back and make alterations to your menu. Just don’t take too long making up your mind. If you’re going to have everything ready by lunch on Thanksgiving day, you’ll have to start soon. You don’t want poor planning to cause a traffic jam in the oven and the turkey to be undercooked.

Here’s hoping this year, despite it all, you have reasons to be thankful and can enjoy your family feast.