I half-lie when people ask where I am from.
I tell them Royston, Georgia.
Truth is, I am from Vanna.
Royston is my hometown. It is where I attended high school and where I met the girl who would become my wife, the place we shopped for what was needed and, occasionally, what was simply wished for. It was the place of the Royce Theater and Wilson’s 5 & 10, of Wray’s Drug Store, of Pruitt Funeral Home, of Blumenthal’s, of Cunningham’s Furniture.
Yet there’s a difference between having a hometown and being from somewhere. "Hometown" is a place with a name. "From" has the taproots of history.
I am from Vanna.
The author at sixteen; photograph courtesy of Terry Kay
Vanna is approximately four miles south of Royston, off Georgia 17. Eighteen miles farther down the road is Elberton, granite capital of the world. Between Vanna and Elberton, one can find Bowman and Dewy Rose. (I mention this because I once rode the train from Vanna to Dewy Rose, crossing through Bowman. The train was coal-fired, clouded in steam; I was still young enough to look for the hand of an adult to hold. That ride remains a shivering delight of my life.)
It is recorded that Vanna was named for Vanna (or Savannah) Ballenger by Ezra Bowers, a mail agent on the Elberton Air Line Railroad, though time seems to have dulled some of the facts. Still, I like the story. I do not believe there is another Vanna in America—town or community, I mean. Of course there’s Vanna White of "Wheel of Fortune" fame, and that, too, is part of the legend of Vanna, Georgia. Once Vanna’s postmistress, Pauline Harris, mailed a postage mark to the producers of "Wheel of Fortune" and, lo, that postage mark was flashed across television screens throughout the land.
Of course, where I am from is not the same as it was when I was a child-boy. The land is there, yes, though the low places seem less low and the high places less high. Still, in the specks and flashes of memory, I am able to go back to it as it was—to the Big Gully and Beaverdam Creek, to Bakers Bridge Road and Ballenger’s Crossing, to Vanna Junior High School and Denny’s General Store, to the cotton gin and the depot and the warehouse, to the United Methodist Church where the Reverend Roy Etheridge had a remarkable resemblance to God.
And in memory, they are still there, the people of that time and place. My own sisters and brothers are there in the harshness and sweetness of family. My parents are there, both born of the nineteenth century, both wearing the look of time-spent labor and of hope far from reach.
In the work that I do, in the writing of novels, I have shamelessly stolen from those memories, fragment by fragment—a look, a word, a touch, a laugh, a wail—and each time I shudder over the second life found in the stealing. I am from Vanna, and Vanna—the Vanna of my childhood—had the deep-good feeling of wonder and promise. It is no surprise to me that before Vanna was Vanna, it was called the Friendship community.
I seldom return to Vanna, though it is an easy drive. The visits are always good, from our October family reunion to the calls on my sister and brother, who live on the homeplace, yet it is not the same. What stays ageless in memory erodes in time and is swallowed by the earth, and new sprigs from old seed pop up and grow and make another landscape.
When I return, I am aware of what is missing—my childhood home (burned), the school, the gin, the warehouse, the depot, the sharecropper shacks wrapped in tar paper. Denny’s General Store is caving in to rot, and the complexion of its patterned tin siding is that of an old man whose face is covered in dark scabs.
It doesn’t mean Vanna is dead. It isn’t. It’s different. On Highway 17, there’s the Vanna Country BBQ, with offerings so remarkable it’s worth a pilgrimage if one is not in drop-by distance. (Once I had lunch there with the writer Pat Conroy. He declared the pork ribs the best he’d ever tasted.)
And there’s something else that’s new: Vanna is on Facebook. Yes, it is true. You can look it up. Google the history of Vanna, Georgia, and you will see it. It is registered as growing up in Vanna, GA formerly 30672. A lady named Jane Phillips Leverette is the administrator. It is described as a page for those to share their memories of Vanna . . .
I am going to submit this article for that sharing, because it’s where I’m from.
Award-winning author and screenwriter Terry Kay now makes his home in Athens. His latest work, a collection of short stories called "The Greats of Cuttercane," was released last fall.