The Zero Mile Post marked the meeting of two railway lines and possibly the beginning of the city of Atlanta. Zero Mile is a series of sometimes fictionalized and sometimes real stories based on life in Atlanta, Georgia.
By Nicki Salcedo, contributor
We were scared the first time we went to Lake Allatoona. Rightly so. Wrongly so.
We were immigrants, legally documented, and naturalized citizens. In those days it didn’t matter. Immigrant was immigrant. I guess it doesn’t matter today. Immigrant is immigrant. I arrived in the U.S. at the age of two. Despite my Southern ways, I have almost always felt foreign.
My father had a degree from Rutgers University. My mother thought he was very American when she met him. Anyone who ever knew my dad will have a good laugh about that. Then again he was very American. What is American anyway?
Being American is going to see fireworks at Stone Mountain Park. Being American is going to the lake in the middle of July.
My mother would say, “I’m not American. You are. I’m doing these things for you.”
American things are strange. We gave out the best Halloween candy on our street. The good candy. Name brand chocolate. Snickers and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Kit Kats. Newly bought. Nothing strange. That’s American.
My mother would make a big Thanksgiving turkey. “You know I don’t eat turkey,” she’d say. But we needed it to be American. The turkey would sit in the middle of the table surround by Jamaican rice and peas. Some guests would bypass the turkey and eat my mother’s curry chicken.
We had a lot of people in our house on Thanksgiving. Often times real red-blooded Americans.
Our lawn was perfect. Our American flag never flew at night or in the rain. We were trained right in the ways of a strange country and strange region.
Being American meant a week at the lake every summer. Lake Allatoona. Cherokee County, Ga. A place named by the people who came before all of us. It made me feel less alien to remember that.
The lake was made by man and not nature. The lake did not always exist. It was strange. It was foreign.
Back then, we would leave the Atlanta suburbs for unlit highways and gravel roads. We were excited and American and immigrants and scared.
My mom would pack a cooler full of food. Eggs, bacon, milk, cereal, and meat for the grill. She would bring bleach and Pine Sol and rubber gloves and sponges. The cabin in the woods, by the lake, had to be cleaned when we got there. She could abide rustic, but not dirt. At the end of each week, the cabin was always cleaner than we found it.
My dad would tune up the car. Having a breakdown on desolate roads was unimaginable. He would check the oil, water, wiper fluid, and tire pressure. He would fill the gas tank past full. That’s how he always filled it until died. He never let the car get close to empty. That was being American, for us.
We spent a week in an A-framed cabin next to Lake Allatoona. Because of all the trees I don’t have many memories of the sky. When we saw it, the universe seemed dark and beautiful and deep like the ocean. Like us. We traveled with Scrabble and chess and books of poetry and Shakespeare. There was no TV. There were decks of cards when the rain came.
We weren’t afraid of the rain. We knew to expect rivers of red clay when the sky opened up. It was summer. It was America. I loved every minute of our time at the lake including the rain. If you ask me, I will tell you I had a perfect childhood with perfect summers. But something always bothered me. It was the lake. It was always having to be a little bit scared.
The lake water is murky. There is no natural shoreline. When a drought comes, trees begin to grow in the lake. If the water dried up, the lake would return to being a forest.
I grew up cautious. That little bit of fear followed us down deserted roads.
I grew up longing. Longing is wanting to be something and not knowing that you are already that thing. That’s part of the American dream.
I sent my children off to the lake. Same lake as my childhood. Their experience will not be mine. I don’t think they are afraid of anything except missing me. Even that they won’t do too much. The gravel roads have been paved. Neighborhood have turned those desolate highways into a regular town.
Red flags and fireworks.
I am proud. Then I am disappointed.
I like the sound of gravel under my feet and rain on unsure roofs.
I am American, I think. I am the whole Earth.
I am all of other places I’ve never seen, but am from.
I am all the unseen place I still want blessed.
I am the water that glistens in the night.
I am the earth that muddies the water.
I am trying to be American.
I am tired of being American.
I am trying to be human when I don’t know what else to be.
Nicki Salcedo knows the loops and the back roads of Atlanta. She is a novelist, blogger and working mom. Zero Mile stories appear on the Atlanta Loop on Wednesdays.