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?