Hometown Stories

What’s so charming about the South?

Everything, it seems

by Thomas Smith


Southern charm. The words often are spoken with a kind of reverence. And the feeling they evoke is as pervasive as the air we breathe, and as elusive as a firefly on a summer night.


Mark Twain’s work reflects it. James Taylor’s songs glorify it. And Greg Smith and Steve Naifeh ran headlong into it and lived to tell the tale in “On a Street Called Easy, In a Cottage Called Joye.”


But what is this thing we call southern charm?


It’s learning from the time you’re old enough to talk that “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” are not options when addressing elders. It’s Easter dresses, bowties and new Buster Brown shoes.


It’s chicken frying for Sunday dinner and banana puddin’ — not pudding — for dessert. It’s all-day singings and dinner on the ground. It’s visiting grandmamma and granddaddy’s house, because there’s no better place in the world to visit.


It’s a buggy ride along a shady lane under a canopy of oak trees, or the smell of honeysuckle in May and the taste of a crisp Rome apple in October. It’s homemade vegetable soup in the winter, Brunswick stew in the fall, and the heady steam from a lowcountry boil when the seafood’s fresh.


And it’s grits any time.


It’s sweet iced tea by the pitcher, biscuits and red-eye gravy, and thick slices of country ham rubbed with salt and brown sugar and cured in a smokehouse.


Southern charm resides in the architecture; it’s evident in the simple elegance of Charleston row houses and the elegant simplicity of cozy country cottages. It’s grand old houses with names like Banksia, Rosemary Hall and Let’s Pretend. It’s at home in the gables that overlook the neighborhood and on the porches that invite neighbors to stop and visit.


But it’s not only the pitch of a roof or the curve of an arch that gives us pause. That’s design. It’s an intangible something that stirs within that skin of wood and stone, brick and mortar; the remnants of our antebellum history combined with the best of the modern era.


Southern charm is not just a sense of place, but also a sense of the heart of a place.


It’s being able to walk downtown surrounded by tea olive, sage and bougainvillea instead of concrete, steel, and glass. It’s a place where flowers add character and trees are considered part of the streetscape.


Southern charm is band concerts in the summer and hayrides in the fall. It’s found in the pews of little white clapboard country churches and in the carillons of high-steeple churches. It’s as constant as revivals in the spring and tent meetings in the dog days of summer.


Southern charm is evident in our work and in our play; hands that coax the bounty from the earth while guiding a plow or creating art from clay on a potter’s wheel. The heart of the southland is in that bounty. The fruit of her soil feeds the body, while the fruit of her soul feeds the heart.


Just a taste of that bounty is heady stuff: Ragtime and jazz, bluegrass and country, Welty and Wolfe, O’Connor and Sandberg. It’s guitars and fiddles in the parlor, and horns and strings in the concert hall.


It’s watermelon on the Fourth of July, fresh corn on the cob right out of the field and sandwiches made with tomatoes so fresh that you have to eat them over the kitchen sink.


What is southern charm? That’s easy. It’s just a little taste of heaven here on Earth.


Thomas Smith, a native North Carolinian, is an award-winning writer, repor

Leaving a legacy

by Lora Songster


Have you ever tried to help someone connect a name and face by describing that person? Over the years, I’ve wondered how I would be described. Tall, blond, silly, serious, squinty-eyed, funny, that girl on the radio?


Although I’m still intrigued by this, earlier this year a greater, more powerful question began weighing on my heart. How will I be described when I’m gone? What is my legacy? It’s a question worth asking every day.


In May, my family attended the 20th anniversary of the McNair Foundation. My father was the first director of the foundation and was honored posthumously as part of the celebration. After the festivities came to a close, a gentleman came to my family and said, “No one ever had anything but nice things to say about Jim Songster.” These simple words held great power and gravity that night — and at this moment.


My previous concern with a physical description of me seems so superficial now. How could I possibly live my life so that I could be thought of as my father was, and is?


My dad had a brain injury in 1996, which took away his voice — both literally and figuratively. Through his lengthy hospital stay, people we knew and some we didn’t told stories about him and the difference he made in their lives. They regaled us with stories of him as a coach, brother, employer and educator. His love for his wife and children, his education, his faith, and his abnormally loud and infectious laugh topped the list.


The stories I loved best were the ones that he never would have told. The silent, clandestine works of a Good Samaritan were revealed in the visits, letters and tearful stories.


Before you think I have my father up for sainthood, let me say this: He was not perfect. It might best be reflected in a conversation a counselor was having with my ex-husband and me. She told me that my problem was that I put my dad on a pedestal, and that no man could ever measure up. My ex-husband quickly shot her down, explaining that my father was one of those magical men who do great things and who should be on a pedestal. Anyone who’s gone through marriage counseling knows what a seminal moment this was.


But the question remains. What will they say when I’m gone? In truth, I have made a lot of mistakes. I have hurt and disappointed people whom I love and respect. I have said and done things that I wish I could erase.


My faith believes in forgiveness and God’s infinite ability to erase that which I can’t. There’s a quote from an unknown author that I gravitate toward: “Every job is a self-portrait of the person who did it; autograph your work with excellence.” Shouldn’t our self-portraits, then, be ones of kindness, love, charity and grace?


Although I’m married and use my husband’s last name, I remain Lora Songster professionally. Not only is the name a good fit for a radio host, but it’s also a daily reminder of who I am and whose legacy I represent.


How will I be described? My fervent hope is that it’s in a manner that will evoke swelling pride in my children.


Lora Songster can be heard from 5:30-9 a.m. each morning on WMAG. To learn more, visit www.995wmag.com.

Triad area authors blend history, fiction

Profiles by Danielle Jackson


They write about what they love, whether it’s the world of historical fiction or the beauty of baseball. And they all do it locally.


There’s no shortage of published authors in the Triad. Here, we scratch the surface, talking with area writers about their inspirations, as well as how the region plays a role in the stories they tell.


LeAura Alderson and Jill Coleman

Their inspiration: Coleman, a certified personal trainer with more than seven years of personal training experience, is a group exercise coordinator for Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. Alderson is an investor and mother of two who was able to resolve her chronic back pain and reverse bone loss through exercise and resistance training. The duo’s decision to write the “My Gym Trainer” series of books evolved out of a desire to share with others what worked for them.


Their published works: Three books in the “My Gym Trainer” series have been published, with more than 30 titles planned. The books are designed to be fitness tools, with tips and information to empower readers to become their own knowledgeable personal trainers.


Local influence: Alderson and Coleman are both longtime Triad residents, and the models and gyms used in the book’s photos were of local people at local facilities.


Mark Cryan

His inspiration: Cryan’s mother was a librarian and a voracious reader and his father was a college professor, “so the house was always full of books,” says the Burlington resident. “I read ‘The Hobbit’ when I was in third grade, and I was completely hooked,” Cryan adds. “I still read constantly, although I’m now most likely to be reading John Grisham or some other thriller.”


His first and only published work: “Cradle of the Game: Baseball & Ballparks in North Carolina” was published in 2008. The book tells the story of baseball in the state, city by city, with travel information like hotels, restaurants, attractions, and historical information on the people, ballparks, and notable players who make North Carolina such a baseball hotbed.


Local influence: “The Triad is loaded with great baseball and has a history in the game that stretches back almost 100 years,” Cryan says. He has interviewed former players and managers like Jack McKeon, who lives in Elon, and Durham Bulls founder and Greensboro native Miles Wolff. Even Cryan himself is tied to the game, once serving as general manager of the Burlington Indians. “It’s one of the strongest baseball regions in the country,” he says.


Catharine Dowda

Her inspiration: Dowda, a licensed professional counselor in private practice who also frequently lectures on domestic violence and victimization, was raised in a verbal family “where expressing yourself effectively was expected and valued,” she says. Her father was an attorney and an inspiration whose own mother was a published author. “Four years ago, I lost my remarkable father and gained an amazing grandson,” she says. “Something about those experiences made me feel that it was time to fulfill my dream of writing the book I had in my head.”


Her first and only published work: “Invisible Scars: How To Stop, Change, Or End Psychological Abuse” was published in April 2009. “It’s a compassionate look at abusive behavior and the options we all have to deal with it,” Dowda says. “I’ve worked with abusive relationships for more than 30 years and have lived through some of my own, which are relayed in the pages of my book without identifying which situations were autobiographical. Each experience is shared to help illuminate and understand our similar circumstances.”


Local influence: Dowda moved to Greensboro 34 years ago after growing up in the Washington, D.C., area. Her work with victims of domestic violence locally provides the backdrop for most of the book’s stories. “I work with individuals and couples in the Triad who struggle with their relationships,” she says. “I am continually impressed by their courage, compassion and desire to make changes in their lives.”


Emily Herring Wilson

Her inspiration: As a child, Herring Wilson — a graduate of UNCG and Wake Forest University — was encouraged by her two grandmothers, one of whom gave her a leather journal for her poems and the other whose published short stories in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution “inspired me to want to see my name and words in print,” she says.


Her first published work: In the 1960s, a single short poem was published in The Pilot, a Southern Pines paper. Her first book of poems, “Down Zion’s Alley,” was published in 1972 by Drummer, a Winston-Salem literary press.


Her latest creation: Herring Wilson’s latest, “Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence: Discovered Letters of a Southern Gardener,” is her third book about Lawrence’s life and work. “These letters to a friend and mentor, Ann Preston Bridgers, amount to Lawrence’s ‘autobiography,’ mostly recording her youthful apprentice years in Raleigh in the 1930s and 1940s,” she says. The book was released by Winston-Salem publisher John F. Blair.


Local influence: Winston-Salem — and Wake Forest University in particular — have a great influence on the author, who’s lived there for the past 40 years. “It has given me many resources, friends, and opportunities to write and be part of caring communities,” Herring Wilson says.


Rhett Iseman Trull

Her inspiration: Greensboro resident Iseman Trull’s biggest inspiration has always been reading. “I read far more than I write,” she says, citing childhood books like “The Fox and the Hound,” “Where the Red Fern Grows” and “The Yearling” as longtime favorites. “All of my writing is an attempt to recapture the kind of feeling that runs through me when I’m struck by the power of words.”


Her first and only published work: “The Real Warnings,” a book of poetry, was published last fall by Anhinga Press. “The poems are about a variety of subjects — love lost, love found, superheroes, mental illness — but the overall theme that I hope comes across is that life, despite its suffering and heartache, is wonderful and that love is always worth the risks,” she says.


Local influence: “With a rich literary history and an active literary scene, the Triad is a wonderful place to be a writer,” Iseman Trull says. “I continue to be amazed by how many talented artists live here.”


Cameron Kent

His inspiration: Kent, a Wake Forest University graduate who still lives in Winston-Salem, grew up in a house filled with books. And while his seventh-grade English teacher encouraged his creative writing talents, it was his high school English teacher, Julie Wilson, who provided the springboard. “She provided both the tools to become a better writer and the inspiration by introducing me to Hemingway and Steinbeck,” he says. “My last book was dedicated to her as a way of saying thanks for bringing out the writer hidden in me.”


His first published work: “Make Me Disappear,” a young-adult novel, was published in 1994. “It’s a story about magic, specifically of a young boy who runs away to the land where everything goes when it disappears,” Kent says.


His latest creation: “The Road to Devotion,” a work of historical fiction set in North Carolina just before the Civil War, revolves around an unlikely friendship between a farm woman and a runaway slave. “More than anything, it’s about how I believe we should treat each other, starting with the realization that we all have much more in common than we do differences,” he says.


Local influence: Kent’s latest book is set in both Winston and Salem in 1860. “I wanted to incorporate as many local landmarks into the storyline as possible so that even though it’s fiction, the reader can genuinely believe that it could happen in our own back yard,” he says. “We have a rich history here, so it’s as enjoyable to research a historical novel set here as it is to write it.”


Drew Perry

His inspiration: Drew Perry didn’t always know that he wanted to be a writer. But after signing up for a creative writing course in college, the Greensboro resident inexplicably felt right at home. “It was in my second or third class that a teacher finally told me I’d better start reading if I was going to care about this kind of thing,” he says. Since cracking open a book, Perry has found inspiration in writers ranging from Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor to Rick Bass and Wendy Brenner.


His first and only published work: “This Is Just Exactly Like You,” his debut novel, was published by Viking last spring. “When I joke around, I say that it’s about karaoke and dogs and fire and mulch and putt-putt and partner-swapping,” Perry says. “All that’s true, but the more serious answer is that it’s about one man trying to figure out how to parent his autistic son and be a better husband.”


Local influence: The book is set in Greensboro and Gibsonville, as well as in a fictitious version of Elon. “I’ve lived here for almost 14 years, so this is what I know,” he says. “The Triad plays a huge part in my being able to imagine the things I write about.”


Alice E. Sink

Her inspiration: Sink, who teaches writing courses at High Point University, can’t remember a time in her life when she didn’t write. “My Aunt Mabel had published a few pieces, and I thought that was the most wonderful thing in the world,” she says. When she was accepted into UNCG’s MFA in Creative Writing program, Sink knew that’s where she belonged.


Her first published work: “The Christmas Phoenix” was published in 1977. “It’s out of print now, and when I see a copy online for an unbelievably expensive price, I’m amazed,” she says.


Her latest creation: “Hidden History of Hilton Head,” her fifth book, was published by The History Press in May. The book features everything from poems written by locals and songs that guided slaves to freedom to original photos and Lowcountry recipes. “It’s a lively array of historical tidbits and tales focusing on people, lifeways, believe-it-or-not snippets, and beloved local places,” Sink says.


Local influence: Research for her latest book reintroduced Sink to the region, “where I uncovered those out-of-the-ordinary historical truths that rarely appear in books,” she says.

Danielle Jackson is editor of Triad Living, Wake Living and Fifteen501 magazines.