Franny and I went to Asheville, North Carolina last week. We joined my sister and my niece at my stepmother’s house, the neo-Victorian cottage with the wide wraparound porch that she had shared with my father, to sort through his remaining papers and mementoes.
Asheville is sometimes referred to as the “Portland of the South” because its inhabitants are progressive and arty and drink a lot of coffee. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, this lush gem of a city is home to writers, artists, craftspeople, Northern retirees, Old Money Southerners, alternative health practitioners, therapists, a healthy LGBT population, and quite a few homeless brethren.
Southerners are known for storytelling, and Asheville has been home to some famous writers and literary types. Thomas Wolfe was born here, and pissed off some neighbors when he wrote Look Homeward Angel, his thinly-veiled account of Ashevillians; in fact he so angered people that he left town. Zelda Fitzgerald died in a fire here, in a psychiatric hospital. Gail Godwin grew up here.
One of my very favorite independent bookstores, Malaprop’s, sits in the heart of downtown Asheville. Franny and I stopped in for some hot chocolate, and a YA novel.
Near Malaprop’s is the Champagne Bar: a used book store inside a bar. Or a bar inside a used bookstore. I’m not sure which. Anyway, my stepmother, sister, niece, Franny, and Franny’s Asheville BFF Stella met there one night. The grown-ups lounged in a darkened nook drinking wine while the girls disappeared into a labyrinth of bookshelves…
…and were found, sometime later, ordering Shirley Temples at the bar.
Franny needed some new shoes, so we went to Top’s. Top’s has been around for years, and has gotten considerably more sophisticated than when I was growing up. My mother used to take me there when we summered at a nearby mountain retreat.
The salespeople at Top’s are very patient, and actually seem to like waiting on customers.
Franny got this purse at Loft…
…a store that sells objects I can only refer to as cool stuff. They also offer a design service to help you redecorate your home, using your own cool stuff.
We stopped by Constance Boutique. Constance has owned a few boutiques over the years, and the women in my family have dropped some serious change wherever she goes. When she had her anniversary party, my sister wrote a list of every piece of clothing she and her kids had ever gotten there, and the occasions they wore them. That must have taken a long time.
In between shopping, we had lunch at the Mellow Mushroom with my cousins.
We didn’t go to the S&W Cafeteria, but we admired it. It is a stunning art deco building in the middle of town. When it was still a cafeteria (it’s now a steak restaurant), I used to eat roast beef and chocolate pudding there.
I walked around a lot, through the neighborhood where my dad moved with my mom after they retired, then with my stepmother after my mom died. It’s a genteel, green, hilly neighborhood, full of old houses I like to imagine myself living in.
The night before we left, I sat on the bed with my niece and my sister. We deconstructed my parents’ marriage.
“Did you really think it was barren?” my niece asked. She reads my blog.
“Well, I think life just got hard for them by the time I was in the house alone,” I said. “Mom got tired from teaching full-time and raising a petulant teenager. I just remember her sitting in the arm chair doing the crossword puzzle and sighing, while Dad went to Bill Nye’s house to play pool.”
“When I was growing up, they still had fun. They played tennis a lot and had parties. It’s too bad,” my sister said, “ten years later, you got the worst of their marriage, and I got the best.”
Years ago, my sister and I would have argued about whose recollection was the truth. But at some point we realized they both were.
One thing we’ve always agreed on is how much we love North Carolina.
Especially Asheville. Which is very much in my mind today.