Magnolia | Betsy Teter

December 9, 2020
Magnolia | Betsy Teter

As we look forward to our next 25 years "cultivating readers and nurturing writers" in Spartanburg and beyond, we thought it would be fun to look back on our first 25 years through the lens of the Hub City Press catalog. We begin by paying homage to our co-founder Betsy Wakefield Teter, whose essay "Magnolia Tree" appeared in our first publication, The Hub City Anthology. It is the book that launched 100 more.

The magnolia came west, riding in the scoop of a tree spade truck, bouncing slightly, ropes around its roots, wind in its leaves. Like a dog with its head out the car window, the young tree skirted the edge of downtown, hung a left at The Beacon, made the long trek down Reidville Road, coming finally to Anderson Mill Road to join us in westside Spartanburg suburbia.

Had I known we wouldn’t stay long, I might not have allowed the tree to be uprooted and brought like a foreigner to the new front yard. It was a house-warming gift from Dad, though, excavated from the wooded neighborhood off Pine Street where I grew up. I welcomed it at the time as a bridge, a connection to a sacred place and a warm family. 

John and I awaited its arrival at the top of our long cement driveway. We were among the first homeowners in this new development, a young couple starting out, planning a family, beginning careers in two different cities. We chose a dormered 3-BR with cream-colored pressed-wood siding and a white porch rail. We built a fence to hold a dog and buried bulbs among the little shrubs and pine straw that ringed the house.

This is how it starts, I remember thinking: You find a place, you make a home.

The subdivision was a cloistered, safe place out in commuterland, but I liked it most because of the dairy farm right outside the entrance and the 200-year-old Anderson grist mill just down the hill. Something inside me needed them. These were real places, I told myself: therefore I must be in one, too. Quickly, the neighborhood had begun to populate itself with transplanted Midwesterners, a few foreign accents, and lots of locals starting out or moving up. This was a place of anticipation, an insulated melting pot where new friendships flourished and home building was a spectator sport. Already there were garden club gatherings and Neighborhood Watch meetings The residents were coming together to discuss how to beautify their collective home and keep crime away. 

The tree-movers had prepared a deep, red hole that day for the magnolia and filled it with mulch and fertilizer. Soon enough, here it came, the little scoop truck climbing the steep driveway like a child presenting a fresh flower. The tree was placed in the ground, dirt packed up around its trunk, and we stepped back to admire it. 

The tree looked out of place from the start. It was scrawny and ugly with great spaces between its limbs and its leaves. Having grown up in the shadow of towering hardwoods, it had been starved for light, surviving by pushing up, not out. I had hoped it would bring a feeling of permanence to this place. Instead, it compounded the newness. I thought it looked ridiculous, and it made me sad. 

Pretty soon, the whole yard became infected with the same inadequacy. The azalea bushes died from drought two summers in a row. The backyard was too large to water. The grass, when it grew, was straw-like in texture, patches of green on red. I planted a willow in its center to provide a break from that vast, unshaded expanse, then hopelessly realized my unborn children would be near-grown before I could love that tree.

The neighborhood, meanwhile, filled in around us, but the foreignness of the place set in with me like an unshakable flu. Two doors down, a shocking blue house went up, its owners bunkered in behind a similarly colored fence. Houses spread down the cul-de-sacs, in one place bumping into a junkyard of rusted automobile parts and appliances. Outside the development, the neighborhoods were racing west with abandon, chasing the sun, a patchwork of sixty-acre enclaves connected only by increasingly clogged roads. At the end of my street, a woman built her swimming pool too close to an underground cable. Electricity was in the water like an angry poltergeist. 

I felt disconnected to myself. I missed my town. My old friends seldom visited. Church was downtown and we went only sporadically. It seemed too far to go. Even the birth of a child wasn’t remedy enough. On cold February mornings, when most everyone else was at work, I pushed Rob in his baby carriage down the soundless cul-de-sacs -- dead-ends, really. We paused, like an automobile, at the entrance to the neighborhood and looked across the main road at the dairy operation and the stoic cows that had tricked me into thinking I could be a part of this place. 

I lived on a moon. Home, yet not home. A community, yes. But also the anti-community. A subdivision. A place with a name like an algebra problem. 

What I sought wasn’t here, and perhaps it wasn’t even in the place where the magnolia had sprung. Something called to me from two generations earlier. It was a place under the cover of giant water oaks, where rootes frothed up uncontained, buckling the sidewalks and crawling down the curbs. It called from an old columned house on Mills Avenue with a coal-filled, dirt basement and an airy third-floor attic. It was the place my grandparents came fifty years ago, when Wakefields established Spartanburg as their home. It was the high-ceilinged bedroom and the four-poster canopy bed where I fell asleep many weekends to the train music of Converse Heights and awoke at dawn to the echoey cries of blackbirds in the trees. It was the little green boxcar I sat upon, pushing my way down the sidewalk, past the tree trunks and masses of roots covered with soft moss like a great king’s velvet cape. It was the symmetry and size of the place, a small town all by itself.

I gave up on my yard. I claimed it was too hot to tend. I needed shade. The willow died. A year or so passed, and then one day, we packed all we owned into a moving van, destination downtown. I left with no nostalgia, no turning back. The magnolia, still gawky and naked in places, remained behind, a testimonial to the fact that I didn’t belong. 

I am no pioneer. I am a root seeker, a nest clinger. 


So here I am on Palmetto Street, where the dirt is brown, not red. What that means, I don’t know. But I can hold it in my hand without recoiling. It is the color of the soil in my grandmother’s yard.

The spot where John and I have chosen to start again turns out to have once been the orchard of Dexter Edgar Converse, the nineteenth century textile baron who birthed an economy, brought the railroads, built a college, had a neighborhood named after him. I find him in the history books: a man with a bushy gray mustache, a stiff collar, and a face like a conqueror. This is the very place he, too, moved in from the countryside, establishing himself as a man at the center of his city. His three-story Victorian home is long gone, buried under the parking lot of a public library building. Sadly, there is little in my yard today that would be familiar to its former owner, save the soil. But the oaks he planted to section his orchard remain, now more than a century old, rising eighty feet into the air. The one at my back door can hold four children in its palm. I try to treat this place with the respect it is due. Each April, John helps me scrape away a rectangle of lawn for a garden, opening a window in Dexter Converse’s world. I feed my family with the vegetables that sprout there. 

This neighborhood doesn’t grow, doesn’t develop, doesn’t build out. It just turns over. I believe it is a place of consequence. My neighbors, who stretch eight blocks in three directions, grew up with me. They know my parents; some even remember my grandparents. I am a porch-sitter here, waving as the track team jogs by, conversing with the dog-walkers and the people on their way to the library. I watch the seasons pass not only by observing the slow changes in the umbrella of leaves above, but by participating in the string of holiday celebrations that take place at my front door. The Christmas parade passes a half a block from here. I have a front row seat for the Fourth of July cavalcade of kids on tricycles and homemade floats. My street is trick-or-treat paradise, a place so full of children I have to sit on the porch with a bucket of candy. 

This I have come to believe: Homes are not manufactured, they are grown. Continuity is precious, not easily established. Some of us, I suppose, are seeds that can start a family over in a new place. I am the branch of a sturdy hardwood, content with connection. 

I am drawn to the tiny garden in back, a ground zero for me. I plant the lettuce, the cauliflower and the broccoli against the background maraca-noise of insects in the bamboo. Their song is overlaid with the chiming of the bells at my own church, the sound of freight trains talking to each other across town, the distant booming of a high school band practice, car door slams at the library, sirens of the emergency vehicles screaming down the street where the trolleys once ran. It is the symphony of the city. As I bend down to pop the weeds from the soil, the shadow of the Converse mansion falls over my shoulders and covers the ground. 

Nobody sees it but me. 


I have not returned in seven years to the neighborhood in the suburbs, but today I will. Two children in tow, I head west in a driving rain to visit their pediatrician, who only last month has closed her office on this side of town and moved to a fancy brick office building out Reidville Road. I grumble about the cross-town commute but will use it as an opportunity to show my oldest son his first home. Both boys are eager to see it, even though they have heard little mention of the place.

The rain begins to let up as I make the two-mile drive down Anderson Mill Road. “You sure were a long way from church, Mom,” the oldest observes, and I smile, thinking we’ve raised him well. 

They sit forward against their seat belts as I turn into the subdivision. 

“A blue house!” the little one screams, bouncing on the back seat and pointing. “It looks like it’s been spray-painted!”

Both boys collapse into laughter. Again I smile. Out of the mouth of babes, I think. 

We make the second left turn and I stop the car in the street. There is my house, sitting atop the crest of the hill, but somehow very different than the one left behind. My memories for a moment disappear, washed away in a torrent of unfamiliarity. The lawn is a deep green. The shrubbery has filled in, circling and holding the house close as if it were the bud of a cream-colored rose. My magnolia tree towers above it, full and magnificent. It has grown healthy and strong here in the wide open sky without the taller trees to block its source of light. It has blossomed in its new ground.

I am in a good place, the tree says, as it looks down at my car. I have done what you asked and I am happy. I am where I belong and will live out my life here. You are the one who could not adjust. All I needed was time and love. You gave me neither. 

I sit uncomfortably in my car, all assumptions shaken. My lungs swell with the surprise of it all. I want to carry this discovery with me like a snapshot. “This is a nice house,” one child quietly remarks. 

Then I know what the tree knows: We all have our places. 

This just wasn’t mine.

Something in that yard holds me. But I know I cannot stay in this small world and spy. The neighbors will get nervous and call the police. They will say there is someone outside who doesn’t belong.

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