In honor of the Salem Museum’s expansion, columnist Emily Paine Carter ruminates on some of the attributes that are uniquely Salem. Please enjoy this special column, and the special section on the Salem Museum on the following pages.
— Erica Myatt, So Salem editor
We’re from Salem, couldn’t be prouder!” goes our old school chant.
Why? What IS it about Salem? I’ll try tackling that, even though – gasp – I’m not Salem-born.
Some thoughts are familiar, but maybe worth repeating (a wag might add, “just like our state championships”):
Is Salem a State-of-Mind? There’s an ease here. And fewer of Life’s Little Irritants – like parking meters.
Come to our space, and you might think you’ve traveled in time, too. Your pace may slow.
There’s much to catch your eye. A veritable architectural buffet of pretty places: Roanoke College; gingerbready Victorians; iron fences; old churches aglow with stained glass; like-a-movie-set, false-fronted shops; colonials; charming cottages….Even cool alleys.
And oh, gardens! Visual and spiritual oases. Dogwood-lined streets (catch Pennsylvania Avenue’s flowery tunnel). Heritage trees (if one falls, it’s Big News – and you probably know the guy whose car it struck). Flags of whimsy.
But there’s more to catch your heart. Sure, you ooh-and-ah at sunset vistas and the bluest of ridges wrapping the golf course and ballpark. Yet other scenes warm the Salem heart: families sledding that timeworn hill. Kids playing ball-of-the-season. New generations romping on playgrounds, trying the Fishing Rodeo, feeding the ducks.
Salem is a living Norman Rockwell calendar – like the ones provided by blessed Brooks-Byrd pharmacy (along with honest-to-God, hand-squeezed orangeades and free delivery). Kids scrambling for Easter eggs at Longwood Park. Faithful flag-hangers. Trikes and bikes and wagons – maybe for a July 4th neighborhood parade. Trick-or-treaters – sometimes whole families in thematic homemade costumes. Children scurrying to deliver Christmas gifts. The classic Christmas parade – but also impromptu team-victory parades.
And a church carillon pealing twice daily. Sidewalk chalk. Lightning bugs in Mason jars. Lemonade stands.
It’s a HOME-town. “Good for families.”
And like a big ol’ family (with occasional adjustments), folks look out for each other; surely we’re concerned, not nosy. It’s where New York transplant Bob Rotanz would designate his closest Mac and Bob’s parking space for our Robbie Wheeler. Got a need? A milestone? For heartbreak or hooray, cue our potluck brigades, flower funds, gifts-for-grads, silly pranks. We share garden bounty, plants, baked goods; some saints even mow and shovel. And we flock to photograph and wave off prom-goers – consoling the parents, embarrassing the kids.
Like in bygone days, a child may address a neighbor as, say, “Miss Barbara.” And from our front-porch rockers we might correct each other’s kids. Maybe “Salem” keeps us in line: someone might tell our mamas? Mind your tongue; many of us are kin (call it “Six Degrees of Cousins”: keep talking; we’re bound to be related).
“The people” make Salem, say surveys. Strolling, we swap greetings – even hugs – at our bustling Farmers’ Market, in shops, on sidewalks (even early morning, I’m told).
Is Salem exclusive? Folks joke about needing a green-card to cross our borders. Ha. A Roanoke friend enjoys telling of a reporter’s fuming, “how long does it take to be accepted in Salem?” Replied another, “Generations, my dear.”
OK, it helps to sing honestly “I’m Salem-born” under football’s Friday night lights. To know the names behind the tournaments. And we do have a vintage garden club, and book clubs begat by grandmothers (hey, we have new ones, too).
But shucks, we’re friendly! And our well-used public schools mix many walks-of-life (some day you might recognize everyone at the courthouse). We might chat about Chaucer, then launch into local lingo; verily, “it don’t make no never-mind.”
Oh, we like recalling old buildings, old times (even that embarrassing time in middle school). And tales of town characters – heroic, poignant or flat-out funny – maybe in the right voices.
But see Salem Museum’s new-fangled “green” designs. And our public library buzzing with programs old and new. To be welcomed quickly, just “suit up and show up” at churches and countless volunteer opportunities.
Tease our old-school-loyalties, but many of us bonded in the sandbox. (One “most popular politician” is no government official, but a hot dog purveyor; we chuckle and we get it.) The poetic “garlands briefer than a girl’s” seem to linger longer on our athletes. Yes, someday we’ll shuffle our canes and walkers to Salem High School sporting events – encouraged by free passes for senior citizens. (Many still claim Glenvar; its kids used to attend schools in town.)
OK, Salem loves football, and you MUST attend the first home game. But we celebrate other athletes, scholars, artists, musicians….We feel drumbeats in our collective tummy when the SHS band marches by, or when its after-school practices reverberate through the ‘hood.
Salem seems proud of its “just do it,” rah-rah-reputation. We’re nostalgic, too: saving local mementos (even a bit of old stadium turf). Or marrying on the football field, or at Lake Spring (where the recently damaged gazebo was a crisis of epic proportions) or even by East Hill Cemetery’s Andrew Lewis monument (yes, you, Morgan Griffith).
If “to be a Virginian … is a benediction from the Almighty,” does hailing from Salem merit an extra Amen and Hallelujah?
We buy our landmark prints and shirts and charms, and “Another Salemite Satisfied” buttons. We display our treasures at our museum, and love recognizing names on trophies and brass plaques all over town. Yearly gratitude lists sport Salem-specific entries (I’m a fan of the Street Dept., and autumn’s gaze-worthy, mighty leaf-sucker truck).
Oh, some of us eagerly sought bright lights, big city – and anonymity. But we rejoice that the roads taking us away also lead us HOME, to sanctuary comfortable and comforting – even amusing. Like the ol’ joke about a guitarist playing only one note: “Those jazz-cats are searching all over, but I flat-out found it.”
—Emily Paine Carter is a recovering Andrew Lewis High School cheerleader.