Being here in Monroe, Georgia with Eric has given me such insight into what it was like growing up in a small southern town in the mid twentieth century, that I just had to write about it. It really struck me when Eric and I attended the open house of the Monroe Cultural and Heritage Museum last week. It’s such a contrast to my New York upbringing.
The population of Monroe in 1950, the year Eric was born, was about 4,500. That’s small enough for everyone to know almost every other family in town. Case in point: the big event of Eric’s birth literally made front page news!!
Eric and his older sister Shannon have deep roots here: their great-grandfather, grandfather, and father, were all born in or near Monroe, and they’re all buried here. Their grandfather, Erastus “Ras” Roberts, was the city’s youngest mayor, taking office in 1907 when he was 27, and serving until 1915, when he was appointed City Solicitor. His wife, Norma Shannon, was a Sunday School teacher at the First Baptist Church for decades. So EVERYONE in Monroe knew the family.
Eric lived here until he was 5, and then spent a couple of months here staying with his grandmother when he was 8 years old. After that, there were frequent visits until his grandmother died in 1975. His grandmother lived in a beautiful old home, and Eric remembers the large dining room, always filled with people, and the original bathroom with the cast iron clawfoot tub raised up on a platform.
Eric told me stories about walking down Broad Street with his parents, and only taking a few steps before being stopped by friends and neighbors along the way. His mother would introduce him by saying, “Eric, you remember Mr. and Mrs. Smith…,” and Eric would nod and say something polite, not having a clue who they were. This went on and on as they made their way down the street. It was clearly a social opportunity for everyone!
Eric also remembers hanging out at the corner drug store/soda fountain on Broad Street, which you can see in the picture above. Classic Americana!
We had such a great time at the opening of the Monroe Cultural and Heritage Museum. We were admiring the exhibits, when a woman looked at Eric and said, “Are you a Roberts? Was Winn Roberts your father?”, and it turned out that the woman was a childhood friend of Eric’s sister Shannon! She said she recognized him because he looked like a Roberts – where does this happen?? She then called over several other folks who were a few years older than Eric, and they reminisced about all the families in town back in the 1950’s.
It seemed to me that they could recite who lived in every house on every street, along with a brief family history. Eric mentioned the house he lived in from 1950-1955, and they went on to tell him who lived next door, across the street, and so on down the block, and there was a story about each family. Many of the people we spoke with had lived in Monroe their entire lives.
They told us that Eric’s grandparents were known as “Ras and Miss Norma”, and it seemed everyone at the Museum knew who they were, which is pretty amazing considering Ras (pronounced “Raz”) died in 1939, and Norma in 1975.
Understandably, Eric feels very much at home here, and finds the cotton fields and the southern accent comforting and reminiscent of his youth. He’s able to recapture a real sense of belonging. The pace is slower here, the people extremely friendly, and the whole environment more relaxed. It seems like he could just move here to Monroe and pick up where he left off! I’m somewhat envious, but soaking it all up vicariously.
It’s a different world from my perspective. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in New York anymore….