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THE FIRST TIME I heard Brooke Snead talk about her father's days with Robert E. Lee, I felt as if my high school history book had come to life.
Mrs. Snead, who died in Fredericksburg last year after 98 robust years on this Earth, was a real daughter of the Confederacy. Her father remembered Gen. Lee, born 199 years ago tomorrow, not as a misty figure from the past, but as the gray-clad commander who asked him to store some drums in April of 1865, just before surrendering his army to Ulysses S. Grant. Next to God speaking to him, Mrs. Snead's father once said, meeting Gen. Lee was the grandest thing that could ever happen to him.
For me, and for a significant but shrinking percentage of Free Lance-Star readers, such generation-jumping tales of "The War" resonate deeply. Born-and-bred Southerners of my age and older have grown up amid the controversy and pride of our Civil War history.
It's a legacy that has taught me the importance of reaching across racial divides, for I have no doubt that the life experiences of many black Southerners have been quite different from mine.
As a girl in Richmond, my mother ran errands for the elderly Confederate veterans who lived across the street known as The Boulevard.
As a mischievous youngster, my grandfather hurled rocks at the home of a female Union spy on Richmond's Church Hill in the late 1800s.
So how Southern are we in the Fredericksburg area these days? When will the Boston-to-Washington megalopolis swallow up the remnants of our Southernness? When it comes to news in The Free Lance-Star, should we be looking primarily to the North or to the South?
To that last question, my answer is: both.
The cultural diversity of our area enriches our journalism. We're one of the nation's premier centers of long-distance commuters, which strengthens our ties to the D.C. area.
And yet the South still begins somewhere north of the Rappahannock.
With historic preservation and Civil War tourism very much in the headlines, this area can claim a wonderfully mixed identity: a growing outpost of Washington where the War Between the States is still a breaking news story.
You'll see those tugs from the North and South reflected in our news content.
Last year we added an additional service from The Associated Press called the metro wire. This provides us access to local news stories from D.C. and its immediate suburbs.
Yet we also regularly devote pages inside our paper to news from elsewhere in the South, from El Paso to Savannah.
I like being in the midst of these swirling influences. As a lifelong resident of the area, I have found myself far more focused on the politics, sports and entertainment of D.C. than I was in my youth.
The Virginia of the 21st century, whose new governor grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, is far more racially and geographically diverse than the Virginia of my mother's or grandfather's youth. It's an exciting place to live.
Yet tomorrow, on the anniversary of Gen. Lee's birth, I will once again hike to the top of Lee's Hill in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, as is my annual habit. At the summit, with the guns silenced now for almost a century and a half, I will reflect on the crucial role our city played in the life and death of the Old South.
These are not matters best left to the dusty archives. There are lessons to be learned, reconciliations to be made, as winds from the North and South continue to buffet our area.
Ed Jones is editor of The Free Lance-Star. He can be reached