From inside the house, I peer through the mini-blinds at my great-uncles. The folds in their leathery faces do not betray their ages as much as their salt and pepper hair does; black don’t crack, after all. These men survived George Wallace and so they are to be respected.
We are in Houston for my grandmother’s funeral, but they have made Bush country their Alabama backyard, steeping outside in the humidity like they own the air. Like they own themselves. They wear light t-shirts and shorts that just cover the knobs in their knees.
There is something about a man settled in the doorway of a home that whispers familiarity to spirit. Of metal folding chairs serving as makeshift tables for cartons of collards, black-eyed peas, and chicken and dumplings. Jack Daniels sitting pretty and amber near a paint-flecked boot.
The house has no wraparound porch or awning to speak of, but the mouth of the open garage seems just fine for them. It strikes me as country in a good way. The neighborhood is quiet as they sip beer and pretend to watch paint peel off the fence across the street. Houston decelerates in their presence. My uncles are slower than this city of beltways and loops, of megadomes surrounded by skyward steel boxes.
Occasionally, I hear laughter in guttural bursts through the window. I want to go outside and mine diamonds from the gravel in their voices, but I know: you don’t interrupt a gathering of elders. Especially if you are a girl child. Uncle Lindsey opens the door and surprises me with his gait. He is over 70 but has the kick of mules left in him. He makes himself comfortable on the couch and, in a few short minutes, his chin touches his chest in slumber.
I smile watching him. Easy like Sunday morning, this is the Southern heritage I claim: fabulous laughter, quaint mannerisms. Quite unlike the garish bars on that flag that misrepresents the South I love.
I was raised under the shade of Florida palmettos. I have never been to Brent, Alabama, where my grandmother’s people hail from, where surely there is red clay thick like their blood coursing through me. I confess: I have avoided Alabama in deference to my fear of swinging ropes chafing white into brown necks. But if my great-uncles can embody the beauty of the South without crumbling, then maybe, just maybe, it is time for me to go home. Perhaps my daughter will grow up calling the state by its nickname, Sweet Home Alabama.
Where is your ancestral home? Do you claim it?
13 thoughts on “On Southern Heritage and Reclaiming Alabama”
Oh, most DEFINITELY! I STILL call adults older than me by “Ms. or Mr. or Uncle/Aunt, Pastor.” Never broke the habit. My family is considering moving north and I will greatly miss the South; but like salmon croquettes in Detroit…the South follows you wherever you go. Thank you for stopping by 🙂
You took me back to summers spent in Bessemer Alabama!!!! I was born in Alabama and raised in Wisconsin but I have the soul of an Alabama girl! I got my degree in Mississippi, Jackson State, so I guess unknown to me, I keep trying to get back to my Southern roots. I did meet and marry a Mississippi boy (he is quite the man now) so we are raising our Wisconsin girls with a bit of Southern flavor – they know all of my friends and sorors as Mrs. Autumn, or Ms. Ann. hahahahaha.
:::blush::: Thanks! I actually only recently learned the name of my grandma’s hometown. I think my grandfather was from Tuscumbia, so I’m long overdue for an AL stay.
As a Bama native that has driven through Brent 3 or 4 times, it has a Mayberry vibe to it…your writing puts my writing in a headlock.
Thanks! I’m way more open to going now that I’ve thought about it. And I will DEFINITELY sit and listen to my uncles next time. From what I heard, they’re a hoot.
Good read. This is very descriptive. I feel as though I was there with you. I should tell you, having lived in Alabama for almost 9 years, it is now, just like every other city else you can think of. There is city, there’s country, there’s nice and mean people but mostly nice and there is the occasional unjust person set in his/her ways. I’d definitely encourage you to take your daughter, to learn of your heritage at least :).
You make it sound absolutely lovely. 🙂
I’m a Black GRITS and I lived this piece… Reminded me of growing up in rural Alabama, listening to the elders…
The Mississippi Delta. Any part of the Delta is home in my opinion, but Greenville is my city/town.
Thanks! What part of MS you call home?
That is so the south 🙂 I can see these conversations. They usually kick off anywhere too, porches and alleyways, church pews and cornerstores. Hey I am a child of the south born and raised in Mississippi. It’s really a beautiful thing, and I hope that you’ll get a chance to go and see your heritage. I hope that you get to engulf the remanants of what’s left. Again the south is so beautiful. I love Mississippi and it will always be my name wherever I am and go :). Great Post Dara.
I was scared to go outside and have them quit talking. I just wanted to be a fly on the wall. lol. I found it hilarious that, even though there was plenty couch space, none of them wanted to sit inside. They rather sat on hard folding chairs and made that comfortable for them. Tickled me.
I can see the images so clearly. This makes me think of Thanksgiving at my house where the uncles gather outside after the meal. I used to sneak out and listen to them talk. 😉