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Author Patrice Gaines living in Washington, D.C.,
feels called to her new location in South Carolina
"Welcome to the River Hills Plantation," the woman at the homeowners association said to me, delivering with a smile the greeting she must have repeated a hundred times over the years to new residents of my Lake Wylie community. After the second "plantation," I couldn't contain myself. I burst into laughter.
For me, a black woman, it suddenly seemed hilarious to be welcomed to a plantation by a white woman, and it was funnier still that this new "plantation" should be my home -- by choice. But here I stood in front of a gracious woman, who now appeared baffled by my reaction, then seemed to think she may have offended me.
"It's OK," I said. "I tell my friends that I've returned to the plantation, only this time I'm paying to live here."
I bought a condo in River Hills (the development sign does not say "Plantation"), moving South from a suburban community outside Washington, D.C. I longed for a warmer climate, a slower pace -- and quite frankly, cheaper property. I never planned to move to North Carolina, though I was born in New Bern and lived in Charlotte in the 1970s. I certainly never dreamed of living in South Carolina, though I lived for a while in Beaufort as a child.
Yet I left Washington, once nicknamed "the Chocolate City" because of its large black population, and landed in a neighborhood where there are few black people -- I have seen one black woman at a Saturday Lioness Club sale and one little black boy riding his bike.
"I have found home and I ain't never leaving," I typed in an e-mail to friends.
The beauty is, I found home without thinking, or perhaps because I didn't think. When I entered through the gates of River Hills, my heart whispered: "Home." I heard that word clearly because I have learned to let my heart lead me. Of course, this practice has led to some unforgettable, painful episodes. But they don't stack up to the more incredible experiences and the eclectic assortment of people my heart has opened to.
It could easily have gone another way -- and I would have missed this lake I now love, the trees, the flowers, the walking paths, the birds and my kind neighbors. There were experiences that encouraged me to close up my heart and hang out a sign, proclaiming, "The world is cruel. I have suffered. Leave me alone."
I last lived in South Carolina in the early '60s when my father, a Marine, was stationed at Beaufort Air Station. For the first time in my life, I attended a segregated school, the only option for a colored girl in Beaufort. Sometimes the radiators stopped emitting heat in winter. Our used school buses broke down and some of our books had missing pages. White kids on the way to newer schools yelled racial epithets at me from passing buses.
But somehow, I kept open my heart, refusing to let hate mete a permanent scar on my life. I let my place in the world be defined by my own will. I collected friends of all cultures, classes and races wherever I went. I pried open my heart every time the world encouraged me to close it.
So when I went out to search for home, my heart -- which has always known who I am and what I need -- led me to River Hills. My heart knew I was not searching for a house. I wanted beauty of every kind. I wanted the home that Dorothy imagined when she closed her eyes and clicked her heels.
When I found it, my heart's whisper was immediately confirmed by kindness.
Gerry, my neighbor who lives behind me, walked over to greet me, offer tips about the neighborhood and show me his bonsai trees and roses. My neighbor Cynthia brought freshly baked banana nut bread. My next-door neighbor, Martha, gave me a tour that first Saturday, taking me to the library, the post office, the trash dump and consignment and antique stores, which we were delighted to discover we both loved.
Another neighbor, Elisabeth, came from the Welcome Service of The Carolinas. She had an "official" bag full of information, maps and coupons and a "personal" plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies. We laughed and talked about our lives, as we went through the bag of goodies she brought. One coupon from a salon offered a reduced price for a cut and blow-dry.
"That's nice," I thought, fingering one of my dreadlocks.
"Well, I don't know if they do specialty hair styles," Elisabeth said, gingerly.
I looked at this dear woman, who simply wanted to make me feel welcome even though the beauty shop obviously had no demand to care for dreadlocks.
We smiled at each other.
"You can always give it away," she suggested.
Then suddenly, we both broke into laughter, our hearts open wide, circles of sound christening the walls of my new home.
Patrice Gaines is the author of two books. She was a reporter at The Washington Post for 16 years and moved to the Charlotte area to start the Brown Angel Center, which will be a program for women who have been incarcerated.