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Iced Tea and Hospitality

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At certain times in my life, I have opened a book and discovered a friend. I have chuckled with Anne Shirley over her comical escapades in the quiet town of Avonlea. I have stood under the watchful eye of Aunt Polly and scolded Tom Sawyer for skipping school, only to shrug and offer to whitewash the fence for him once her back was turned. Once I even considered inviting Jo March to dinner, though this idea was quickly dismissed, for I felt quite certain that Jo would go nowhere without her three sisters in tow and before I knew it the entire March clan would show up at my door, for which I had neither the time nor the energy. At this thought I poured myself a cup of tea, took Little Women down from the bookshelf, and visited Jo at her house instead.

The pleasure I gain from each visit to the March household is not unlike that feeling of elation that follows a particularly successful tree climb, or a brisk walk, or any sort of activity involving lighthearted exertion, and it could not be more different from the sense of peace rendered by the easy embrace of those who inhabit the fictional small mountain town of Mitford, North Carolina, created by Jan Karon. From the beginning, feeling at home in Mitford is as effortless as putting on a pair of well-used slippers. When we readers come knocking, Mitford pats us on the back, invites us in, and offers us a glass of iced tea sugared with a generous dose of hospitality.

Our first encounter with the locals as we stroll through the centre of town is with Father Tim – small in stature, slightly balding, with lively eyes and a cheerful demeanour. This country parson – who will become the book’s most prominent character and our eyes and ears in Mitford – is brought alive for us before we even know his name. He is the man we absent-mindedly pass by on the sidewalk as he steps out of the Main Street Grill and breathes in the honest cold of a mountain spring. We hear his thoughts before we see his fac

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At certain times in my life, I have opened a book and discovered a friend. I have chuckled with Anne Shirley over her comical escapades in the quiet town of Avonlea. I have stood under the watchful eye of Aunt Polly and scolded Tom Sawyer for skipping school, only to shrug and offer to whitewash the fence for him once her back was turned. Once I even considered inviting Jo March to dinner, though this idea was quickly dismissed, for I felt quite certain that Jo would go nowhere without her three sisters in tow and before I knew it the entire March clan would show up at my door, for which I had neither the time nor the energy. At this thought I poured myself a cup of tea, took Little Women down from the bookshelf, and visited Jo at her house instead.

The pleasure I gain from each visit to the March household is not unlike that feeling of elation that follows a particularly successful tree climb, or a brisk walk, or any sort of activity involving lighthearted exertion, and it could not be more different from the sense of peace rendered by the easy embrace of those who inhabit the fictional small mountain town of Mitford, North Carolina, created by Jan Karon. From the beginning, feeling at home in Mitford is as effortless as putting on a pair of well-used slippers. When we readers come knocking, Mitford pats us on the back, invites us in, and offers us a glass of iced tea sugared with a generous dose of hospitality. Our first encounter with the locals as we stroll through the centre of town is with Father Tim – small in stature, slightly balding, with lively eyes and a cheerful demeanour. This country parson – who will become the book’s most prominent character and our eyes and ears in Mitford – is brought alive for us before we even know his name. He is the man we absent-mindedly pass by on the sidewalk as he steps out of the Main Street Grill and breathes in the honest cold of a mountain spring. We hear his thoughts before we see his face. Perhaps his unassuming manner is the reason I find it so easy to befriend Father Tim. He is far from loquacious, but his scattered musings make him a most enjoyable companion. My entrance into Mitford begins each time, as it should, with Chapter One. As I read the first few sentences of At Home in Mitford, I step into the tiny town under the relaxing rays of the early morning sun. Father Tim leaves the coffee-scented warmth of the Grill and heads toward the church office. He is delighted to find himself indulging in a luxury that his schedule rarely permits: he is ambling. I close my eyes and try to remember the last time I caught myself ambling. I recall instead dashes to class across a rainy campus, jogs with my father, and my brisk pace when marching with a particular goal in mind. After a few moments of reminiscing, I open my eyes and conclude that ambling implies a lack of concern that is certainly not in my nature. Indeed, Father Tim, you are not the only one who is surprised to find yourself suddenly carefree. For Father Tim these precious moments of leisure are short-lived, however, for as he reaches into his pocket for his key to the church office, his hand encounters something animated and cold and decidedly wet. Looking down, he meets the doleful gaze of an enormous black dog. Without a moment’s hesitation, the dog rears up and places two enormous paws on Father Tim’s shoulders before saluting him in canine fashion. A startled Father Tim reacts with his priestly instincts. In his sermon voice he shouts a verse from Ephesians: ‘Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth . . .’ Before he can finish, the dog removes his paws with a sigh. This enormous creature, it seems, is controlled by Scripture. Due to its uncanny resemblance to a particular church clerk he once knew, Father Tim names the black dog Barnabas. Barnabas, we find, is not only moved by the Word of God, he also shares Father Tim’s predilection for the poetry of Wordsworth. Barnabas and Father Tim become fast friends, and it is clear that the two were meant for each other. A shaggy, black, Romantic poet of a dog is not the only arrival to disrupt the tranquillity of Father Tim’s quiet life. Enter a lovable yet unloved boy desperately in need of a home, an attractive neighbour who causes Father Tim’s heart to beat unreasonably fast, and a secret that penetrates the history of the town itself, and before long the priest can only dream of finding himself with the leisure to amble. Though I have never known a dog named Barnabas or tasted eggs and grits at the Main Street Grill, the town of Mitford is not far from the places I have truly been, the places that are home to me. During my childhood, nearly every holiday or long weekend in our family calendar was spent at my grandparents’ house in Highlands, North Carolina. My grandfather believed that if Highlands did not have the same address as heaven, the two at least shared the same zip code. He would often take me, my brother and sister by the hand and bring us with him downtown. After stopping by the town visitors’ centre for the latest brochures, we would wander past the cheerful shop windows and duck inside Reeve’s Hardware Store, where Papa would introduce us to John the shopkeeper. Our next visit would be to the preacher of the First Baptist Church where my aunt had been married, and the pastor and Papa would smile and shake hands, and Papa would laugh in his good-natured way. No visit to town would be complete without a trip to the bank, where a bowl containing an appetizing array of lollipops would reward our ventures. At long last we would return home to the little grey house nestled among the rhododendron bushes. The screen door would give us a welcome slap as we stepped inside, greeted with a pitcher of iced tea and a cloud of savoury smells wafting from Nana’s kitchen. At Home in Mitford is the first in a series of novels by Jan Karon that follow the triumphs, disappointments, laughter and tears of a colourful cast of characters. No great feats of incredible daring are performed, no superhuman deeds are accomplished, and yet it is the everyday predictability of Mitford that renders it so unpredictable. When I curl up in a chair with my cup of tea on a quiet evening and tiptoe into Mitford, I am met with a down-to-earth reassurance that is more wonderful than the imagination of Tom Sawyer or the playful whimsy of Jo March. I begin to believe again in the miracles that lie hidden in the commonplace. Though my Papa passed away two years ago and any journeys to Highlands are now few and far between, I close my eyes and feel once again the firm grip of Papa’s hand round mine and hear his boyish laughter as we march down Main Street licking our lollipops. The story comes to an end, my empty tea cup rests on the table, the book lies closed, and yet the memory lingers. I don’t know what life has in store, what places I shall visit or what people I shall meet, but I do know that wherever I am, I will always be at home in Mitford.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 34 © Marie E. Wicks 2012


About the contributor

Marie E. Wicks is studying French, International Studies and Chemistry at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss. A literary town, Oxford is the ‘postage stamp of native soil’ of William Faulkner.

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