Feb 182011

Here’s a lovely, southern “What it’s like living here” piece from poet and Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate Cheryl Wilder (who graduated, got married and moved, all in the same year). Cheryl and dg both have an affection for tobacco, though they speak two different languages—what she calls “tobacco barns,” in the North Carolinian manner, dg calls “kilns” (dg grew up on a tobacco farm in Canada; Cheryl used to work for a wonderful North Carolina architect and visionary who published an amazing book of photos of, yes, tobacco barns).


What It’s Like Living Here

by Cheryl Wilder in Raleigh, North Carolina



A New Home

You relocated last summer and for the first time in seventeen years you feel at home.

Let’s clarify.

Your son was born thirteen years ago and you never felt more at home than when you went to see him after his birth. He was born at 4:56 a.m. and you’d been awake for twenty hours. After a nap you walked down the hospital hall with three bands cuffing your wrist, a nightgown brushing your calves, and a thin blue sweater around your shoulders. A nurse wheeled your son away from the other newborns and matched one of your bands with his. In the dimly lit nursery you caressed his arm and cheek, watched his chest rise and fall, felt as if you knew him well. The quiet hush of machines lulled you as the rest of the world dripped away. The nurse asked if he was your second child.


No, your first.

“You’re a natural then,” she said.

The best compliment you’d ever received.


The City

Traditionally you’ve found more home in people than in places, but finally you feel at home where you live. You’re in Raleigh, NC, nicknamed the “City of Oaks” thanks to the founders’ thoughtful planning back in 1792. It’s one of the few state capitols originally designed as a capitol city, and they took care in preserving the natural landscape. Maybe they were inspired by Savannah’s intertwining of commerce and parks and houses and walking paths—a city created underneath shade trees—both cities intelligently designed for the layers of heat in southern summers.

Tobacco revenue built the city, but the impetus behind its exact location was the proximity to the popular drinking hole of state legislators. As good a reason to love a city as any.

Speaking of tobacco, you live near “Tobacco Road,” where three major universities and infamous basketball rivals converge. They are within twenty-five miles of one another and when you see someone wear red or dark blue or light blue (your son’s color), you know the gangs they represent are either the Wolfpack, the Blue Devils, or the Tar Heels. It’s the “Triangle Area” because of these schools; and the Research Triangle Park, a mecca of pharmaceutical, technology, and education research and development, keeps the community thriving—even through periods of economic recession.

There’s an impressive amount of modern architecture due to the School of Design that was formed in 1948 at NC State. Your former employer and mentor began school there the year it opened. He instilled in you a love for design. While working with him you began seeing home as place, or more accurately, as space—space within outer walls, below a ceiling and above a floor—and how it is created to make room for living. Now you see space more often than you see things.

To meet people and see the city, you volunteer for a local modern home tour. Stationed at the Kuehn house, you usher people through, telling them to take off their shoes while you point them in the direction of the architect. After your shift you are to get on the bus and see other houses, but the architect knows your former mentor and you enjoy hearing stories of their good old days. Your mentor is sick, after all, and learning of his youthful ambition gives him new life, the life memories give you in moments of despair.

Yet beyond the progressive infrastructure and research in this new city, you’re still in a southern state. There’s a chess pie sweetness to the hospitality. And an appreciation for slowing life down a notch.

The Neighborhood

Living five minutes from the metropolis downtown you cannot see one high rise from your neighborhood unless a rough wind sways the trees from one another. There’s hills, not mountains, but that’s fine with you since you recently moved from the flat marshlands and southeastern beaches. You do miss the big sky, but driving is exciting again as you coast down hills and calculate turns. And the trees. Even with their bare branches in winter, you love them—the way they trace their charcoal grey patterns in the crisp Carolina blue sky.

You even enjoy how winter exposes the downtown skyline through them. Seasons are more distinct, too, and you look forward to your first spring.

Whenever you tell someone you live in “Five Points,” the historic neighborhood just north of downtown but inside the beltline, they exclaim how much they love Lilly’s Pizza. The best in town. A friend gave you and your husband a gift certificate for your wedding present last spring, a month before you moved, welcoming you both to a new commitment and a new home. Pretty smart of her, don’t you think?


The House

A month before the wedding, two months before moving, you drove down every street in the neighborhood looking for a place to live. “Thirteen houses for rent in this neighborhood,” you tell the first, and only, homeowner you meet. “And as a woman getting married in a month, I need to rent one today.”

It’s a small bungalow built in the 1930’s with a screened-in front porch. And yes, there’s two huge oak trees out front—trees the electric company doesn’t cut down for a power line, but shapes around the power line. The move forced your family to downsize by 500 square feet, plus the loss of an attic and a garage. You gave away clothes your son outgrew, trinkets where you weren’t sure of their origin, and anything that carried no personal meaning. You threw away broken electronics that were saved to one day fix, shredded years worth of receipts and bank statements, and left old bicycles and a basketball hoop on the curb, of which the neighbors gladly took before you left.

And what you realize is that when everyone is home you’re usually spending time together anyway. Whether it’s cooking, playing games, watching a movie, cracking jokes and talking, or wrestling with the dogs, the house fits you perfectly.

Now you wonder what you did before, with all that space.


The Screened-in Porch

The porch isn’t included in the square footage—it’s a bonus, a win, a personal vacation just outside the front door. This getaway space is exactly what the family needs since you planned a wedding and relocated while you and your husband were both under-employed.

Screened-in is a luxury in the south. Mosquitoes and noseeums are kept away while you partake in bourbon and ginger as the sun goes down and candles illuminate your scene. You and your husband are in no hurry to buy a home. This is a big area and you want to take your time making that decision, settle in to jobs, wait for your son to graduate high school. You promised him you wouldn’t move out of his school district again, and your ideally located neighborhood makes it where you can’t afford buying here. A year ago this would have upset you, not having a home to call your own, not having the right to tear down a wall or uproot a tree. That changed the day you were married. You had always found home in people, but now you find home in the space between two people.

When you do find a place to settle, you both make note to have a screened-in porch, no exceptions. You plan for its size, and what furniture to go inside: a swing, like the one you have now; Adirondack chairs, like the ones you have now too, but wooden not plastic. Yet that’s as far as you go; there’s plenty of time for planning. Instead, you enjoy the now. Your husband sits in a chair with the dogs at his feet, while you soak up every motion of the swing, back and forth. Back and forth. Your son sits next to you. He likes to control the pace and the rocking is jerky at times. But you know he’s at the beginning of finding his own rhythm, so you let him.

—Cheryl Wilder

—post layout by Natalia Sarkissian

  18 Responses to “What It’s Like Living Here — Cheryl Wilder in Raleigh, North Carolina”

  1. Lovely, Cheryl. It makes me so happy to hear your voice in these words, and to hear your happiness in your voice. “Back and forth. Back and forth.” So like life.

  2. Very lovely and quiet. The bit about being a natural mother resonated well with me right now. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Beautiful, Cheryl. For so many of us, home is in the people we know and love, and in the spaces in between. Thanks for this.

  4. Thanks Nata and Emily. The weather is allowing a little “back and forth” this weekend. Hope you ladies get your too!

  5. Lovely, and so true, about finding home in people. And that last line about your son just *sings.*

  6. Beautifully written Cheryl. My now 15 year old said to me when she was only five, “Daddy, I know the difference between a house and a home. A house is just a building. A home has love in it.”
    Those words have stuck with me, and will stick with me forever.
    It sounds like you found a home…

  7. Lovely Cheryl…parts of it take me back to that fantastic lecture you gave in Montpelier and which I still think about. Other parts seem to invite me for bourbon and ginger ale on your screened-in porch, the ‘personal vacation’ you spoke of. Sounds delightful. It’s great to walk with you for a bit.

  8. What a treat to get this window into your world, Cheryl! And how I’d love to sit on that porch with you and drink some of that bourbon and ginger…

  9. Just lovely, I bet this makes some people want to move, just for the experience. I’m sure this description will draw more people to Raleigh area…looking for a “home” or a “personal vacation”; or to re-evaluate their own back-yard. Thank-you for sharing.

    • Interesting to think of inspiring people to move just for the sake of experience. You’ve given me something to ponder. Thank you.

  10. I’m so happy to read about where you live now. I love the image of you whittling your life to it’s necessities, knowing all the while that what remains is what matters. Go check out my friend’s place in Durham… they’d love to have you for a bevvy.

    • It’s amazing how much stuff we accumulate, thinking it is all so important. I must go see your friends!

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