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Summer/Fall 2020

Dear Virginia

Therese Beale

Dear Virginia,

I suppose you think I abandoned you. Thirty years together and just like that, I sped north on I-95 without a glance in the rearview mirror. I was done with you. I was so eager to get on with my life that I didn’t bother to explain. This letter is long overdue.

It must have been a shock. You knew how attached I was to your mountains, your rivers, your footprint in the nation’s history. I adored the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Atlantic seashore to the east. You noticed my excitement to study state history in the fourth grade, soaking up the stories of settlers in Jamestown, the Revolutionary War soldiers in Williamsburg and then the heritage of all eight presidents birthed right on your soil. My family was firmly planted in Richmond. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else so I stayed.

What you didn’t know was the dissonance slowly creeping into our relationship. The picture of what it meant to be a Virginian didn’t look like me. Even the tourism slogan blasted on bumper stickers and billboards all over the state started to bug me. If it’s true that Virginia is for Lovers, why didn’t I feel the love? It wasn’t a single thing you said or did that alienated me. I started to notice small, seemingly trivial incidents that started to hang together.

Like that summer I interned with the city newspaper, my first professional journalism experience during college. I landed in the “women’s department” (yes, we had our own corner of the newsroom), writing the wedding notices and doing lowly intern things like taking phone calls for the society columnist.  Charlotte would whirl in, heels clicking, brunette bob bobbing, and scan the pink message slips, quickly sorting and tossing several in the trash can. One day when she left, I fished them out of the trash. All had the same three-digit prefix. All were located on the other side of the river, on the Southside where I lived. I cringed to know it had taken me 20 years, by happenstance, to learn that my type didn’t matter in Richmond’s social circles. Only “true” city dwellers would win a mention in Charlotte’s column.

One day I stepped out of the newspaper office into the daunting humidity of August and a middle-aged woman walked up to me, staring crazily into my eyes. “One of my granddaddies was white and one of my granddaddies was Black. Now, what are you doing to do about it!?” she demanded. Dazed by the heat, I was too stunned to answer. I’ve never been able to get her out of my mind. Biracial marriage had been legal only 10 years at the time. I came face to face with a stranger taunted by the discrimination of a preceding generation.

I grew up in the suburbs and had little interaction with people of color. Other than the handful of Black kids at my high school, my world was literally white. Downtown was where I saw Black people in the shops, waiting for the bus, living their lives. I learned the beautiful Colonial Revival mansion sitting just blocks from the state capitol was a private gentleman’s club that required women to use a side entrance when visiting. No Black, including the mayor, was invited to join. My world was out of balance but no one explained why.

I don’t think you meant to hurt me, but I noticed those side glances my mother and I would get when we ran errands in town. In the summer, my mother was a bronze beauty, her olive-brown skin a direct contrast to my fair sunburned complexion. I figured Mom’s glow was a consequence of the baby oil she slathered on at the beach or her lineage -- she claimed she was Cherokee. I remember a shoe-shopping excursion downtown to Miller & Rhodes department store. My mother’s brown eyes sparkled as shopping was her favorite passion. The trip was a special treat for me too, a gawky second grader with cropped blond hair, blue cats-eye glasses, and blotchy freckles. “Is she adopted?” the saleswoman asked. My mother laughed it off. I too learned to shrug off inappropriate comments.

In my first newspaper job, I recall approaching a city council member to ask a question after the meeting. The older man with graying hair and imposing belly loomed over me. As I asked him the rationale behind a budget decision, he reached out to caress my neck. “Now why would you want to know that?” he crooned. I resisted the urge to shrink back and looked him in the eye, waiting for the answer.

Bit by bit I was falling out of love with you. And so, Virginia, I had a fling – a day trip to Chicago on a corporate jet. Landing on an airstrip at the shore of Lake Michigan I could envision myself navigating my way around the skyscrapers, lost in a mass of humanity. My colleagues suggested I should move on, follow my intuition to move to a big city.

You’re probably not surprised to hear the first thing I did when I moved was to lose the accent. All these years later the drawl seeps out when I’m mad or excited as if my tongue can’t reshape the words fast enough to cover my roots. I  strayed first to Washington D.C., then further to Chicago where I met my true love. Yes, I married a Yankee from Massachusetts. When I eventually landed in Seattle my family teased I had moved as far away as I could get. I suppose they forgot about Hawaii or Alaska. 

I broke free to explore a world that felt more authentic to me, but Virginia, you never really let me go. Every year at Christmas family and friends send gifts to remind me of my Southern heritage. I confess my heart tugs a bit with each package opened. Virginia Diner peanuts, spoon bread mix, grits, Old Bay seasoning, peanut brickle, peach preserves. A Thomas Jefferson wine coaster, Very Richmond pewter Christmas tree ornaments, a cutting board shaped like Virginia, a James Madison University corkscrew. The strangest is the ceramic bun warmer picturing a Colonial dame with the verse: “The Virginia women are tall, slender, and have much more personality than other American women – Ferdinand Bayard, A French Traveler 1791.”

Truth is, I’ve not let go of you either. I follow the changes happening with you online with a subscription to the Richmond Times Dispatch, published in the very building where I once worked. When the Kehinde Wiley statue “Rumors of War” was erected in front of the state history museum, I beamed with pride across the miles. I watched, mesmerized, the day your governor announced the city’s Confederate statues would be taken down, beginning a new era of healing after years of controversy. I’ve applauded progress with gun control, ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, protection for LGBTQ individuals, and the rollbacks of outdated race-related laws.

I’m sorry I wasn’t there to experience these changes with you. I confess I miss things you’ll never find out here in the Pacific Northwest. Fireflies. Warm ocean waves. Decent hushpuppies.

Here in Seattle I’ve created a new life, settled for more than 20 years with my husband, two sons, a career, and friends. You’ll always be a part of my heart, even if we can’t live together.

Love,

Therese

[Check out Therese Beale’s back porch interview]