Three Stops Along River Road in Columbus, Georgia
By: Christy Petterson
ONE: Picking Up Lunch at Clearview BBQ
“Oh we’re cash only, hon,” said the woman behind the counter, my debit card extended towards
I went from “wow, this order of six chopped barbecue sandwiches, one hot dog, three medium
sides and one small mac n’ cheese only costs $19.74!” to panic-stricken. Would I find even one
dollar in my wallet? Surprisingly, I had a twenty, plus four ones for the tip jar. I was at Clearview
BBQ in Columbus, Georgia on my way to visit family. Most restaurants in Atlanta, where I live,
had converted to cards-only during the pandemic, and even before that I rarely used cash. Once
I discovered that I was prepared for it though, I actually found this cash-only situation a bit
refreshing. I think about the future sometimes and wonder if all money will be tied to our identity
I joined my nine-year-old son, Emmett, at a booth by the window where he was keeping himself
entertained with a video game on my phone. While we waited for our order, I observed our
surroundings. Wood paneling, yellowed drop ceiling, lots of pig-themed tchotchkes. It looked like
the restaurant hadn’t been touched for 40+ years.
I’ve eaten Clearview BBQ’s delicious sandwiches my whole life. When I was a kid and I visited
Columbus with my parents and siblings, my grandmother always picked up barbecue
sandwiches or a bucket of KFC to eat at the house. Emmett and I went to the restaurant for the
first time a few months prior to this visit when we had stopped in to pick up lunch for the family.
During that initial visit Emmett was visibly uncomfortable: shifting his weight from one foot to the
other; standing so close that I put my arm around him; he had a worried look in his eyes.
Partially because the restaurant was busy and there was barely enough space for us to stand
while we waited for our order; partially because we were the only people there still practicing
lingering COVID protocols by wearing masks inside; partially because he hadn’t ever spent
much time in a deeply Southern place like this one.
Like me, he’s an Atlanta native. The difference is that I had Southern great grandparents to visit
as a child and Southern cousins to hang out with. He doesn’t have either and seems to belong
here even less than I do. Before entering a space like this, I gather my “yes, ma’ams” and “yes,
sirs” so I’m prepared for conversation with anyone older. I haven’t taught these pleasantries to
Emmett, but I should so he knows how to show respect when we venture deeper into the South.
TWO: A Turn Onto Roaring Branch
Emmett and I got our food and then it was a six minute drive from Clearview BBQ to my
grandparents’ house. My grandmother died in 2009 and my grandfather way back in 1991 so I
know I shouldn’t still think of it as My Grandparents’ House. Technically, it’s my Uncle Bill’s
Turning out of the parking lot of Clearview BBQ, we drove down River Road about two miles,
and then we went through the traffic circle onto Cascade Road. The traffic circle was built a few
years prior and felt very progressive and also maybe unnecessary. Once we were through the
circle and in the neighborhood, I knew the exact moment to turn my head to the right to see the
house that has a lake in it’s side yard with a fountain and a bridge that must surely lead to a
magical land. I have turned my head at that exact moment every visit since I was a small child
and first noticed the idyllic scene. The most intriguing detail about the nondescript drive from
Atlanta to my grandparents’ house has always been this lake-fountain-bridge combo.
A moment later we turned onto Roaring Branch Road. I think of my Uncle Henry whenever I turn
here because when I was a kid Grandfather told me of the time that Henry, his son and
namesake, fell asleep at the wheel. He’d just played in a football game for his school, St.
Anne-Pacelli Catholic High School, commonly called Pacelli. The story goes that Henry was
exhausted after the game, fell asleep at the wheel, and hit a tree. The car was totalled and he
was totally fine. This is what I remember of the story, which I’m quite sure Grandfather told me
at the formal dining table over breakfast one morning. But also I’m quite sure that I have a lot of
the details wrong, and I’ve never been certain that I correctly identified the exact location of the
incident. Yet, I think of this story every time I turn onto Roaring Branch.
Henry survived this horrendous accident, graduated from Pacelli, graduated from Emory
University in Atlanta, served in the Army and Reserves, moved back to Columbus, married a
sweet gal, had three children with her, owned several small businesses, and went on to die
young. Not young like senior in high school young, but young like his death is still, one of the
biggest shocks of my adult life. He was only 55 when he died of a heart attack, and even eight
years later tears spring to my eyes every time I think of him.
Family gatherings are less jovial without Henry filling the room with his charismatic smile and
funny stories. He was the family member who exhibited an interest in my small business, offered
unsolicited but appreciated tax advice, and showed up unexpectedly to events I produced in
Atlanta. I miss his Bobby Flay mac n’ cheese on Thanksgiving.
THREE: My Grandparents’ House
Emmett and I drove from Clearview BBQ down River Road to Cascade and turned onto Roaring
Branch with our family’s lunch order that we would eat at Uncle Bill’s, which I’ll always think of
as My Grandparents’ House.
It was built in 1973, and my grandparents bought the house a few years later when Grandfather
retired as an Army Colonel at Fort Benning. At the time, they had two sons in high school and
two grown children. The most significant feature of the brick, Colonial-style house is its position
at the very top of a steep hill. It always felt grand to me with the sweeping curved staircase in
the foyer, formal living room where no one ever sat, and a study. Before the days of “work from
home” and “home office,” there was a study with built in book cases, a large wood desk, and
double glass doors that led out to the back patio. It’s the kind of room I fantasize about writing
in, instead of sitting on the couch with my laptop.
Through a series of complicated circumstances, my Uncle Bill and Mom were both living there
the day Emmett and I picked up lunch at Clearview BBQ. So when I’d said to him that morning,
“we’re going to visit Grandma” we drove to the house where my grandma lived. This felt odd to
me. But also nice because, while I wouldn’t venture to call it “mine,” it is the only house that’s
been a constant in my life.
Because my mom was living there, Emmett and I visited the house more that year than I had
any previous year since Grandmother died. At nine, he was about the age I was the first time I
stayed there for a week without my parents. I wondered, if left there long enough, would he
develop the same games I did as a child? Grandfather was away at work during the day, and
Grandmother, though kind and friendly, never planned any activities for me and didn’t invite me
to be a part of her daily routine of reading the paper, cooking, and tidying. I was on my own and
had to keep myself busy. My activities included:
- drawing decor from around the house in my sketchbook
- sneaking up on lizards
- following ant trails around the exterior of the house and along the brick wall that
enclosed the back patio
When Grandfather returned home, we went to a nearby lake to feed the ducks and he even took
me to the art museum downtown one time. On other visits that included my parents and older
sister, he drove us around to see the growing town. He pointed out Columbus Tech where he
taught and sometimes we would eat dinner at a Chinese restaurant or visit their Episcopal
church. After Grandfather died, we only visited Grandmother at the house. We never went on a
drive or out to eat. As little as I knew of Columbus as a child, I spent less and less time
experiencing it as a teen and young adult.
My son doesn’t know Columbus either. He’s been inside Clearview BBQ twice and through a
couple of drive-thrus. Other than picking up food, we drive from the I-185 interstate exit directly
to my grandparents’ house. We don’t really belong here in this town, and when we get back to
Atlanta I’ll promptly drop my “ma’ams” and “sirs,” and will immediately get reacquainted with my
debit card. The last time Emmett and I visited, I thought about pointing out the exact place to
turn your head to see the yard with the lake-fountain-bridge, but I didn’t yell it out early enough
as I was concentrating on driving. And maybe I want to keep that small tiny detail of this town to
myself anyways since I know so very little of the rest of it.
Christy Petterson is an artist and writer from Atlanta, GA. Since 2005, she has organized an award-winning craft market called the Indie Craft Experience, and since 2014 she's been a Teaching Artist at the High Museum of Art. She graduated from Agnes Scott College in 1999 with a BA in Literature/Creative Writing. Christy lives in East Atlanta Village with her husband and their son, and spends her time naturally dyeing fabric, printmaking, reading, and writing.
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