I’m sitting on a friend’s back porch. It’s early November and in North Alabama it’s perfect weather. Today especially is a perfect day. Our children are out running the edges of her property, which backs up to dense forest and a nearby creek we can’t quite see, but we can hear gently gurgling in the distance. My friend and I are knitting and drinking margaritas and talking about our marriages and the complications of getting older. I have the first signs of rheumatoid arthritis in my left hand. She has some homemade ointment for that.
We pause our conversation a moment to holler at the kids to chase the chickens back up toward the hen house. There’s a hawk hovering overhead and some of the hens are too involved with scratching around in the tree line to heed the signs of a circling predatory bird, despite the roosters already growling and heading to safety. The children respond with, “Yes, ma’am!” and scurry after the chickens, who in turn bicker back at their pursuers and at each other, but do eventually high-tail it into their hen house.
The sun is bright above them, with a few passing clouds, and a subtle breeze. It’s cool out, but the sun warms their skin. Each child dons a sweater and a pair of boots. Each child has messy hair and dirty fingernails. There have already been some tears and some squabbles, but they’ve declared each other all best friends. My friend and I shake our heads and laugh and roll our eyes and sneak a cigarette when they aren’t looking.
I ask my friend, a recent transplant to Alabama, why she and her husband chose here, of all places, to buy up some land, a nice house, and 50 chickens. They’re retiring in North Alabama and I struggle to grasp their reasoning.
My friend is Puerto Rican and grew up in Boston. She lived in the heart of Boston for over 20 years before meeting and marrying her husband. She’s used to the noise, sprawling neighborhoods, and urban charm of big cities. She’s a product of a rough, inner city school. She’s been a waitress and a bus driver. Her mother is one of Boston’s finest, who regaled her children with stories of crime on the streets of Boston. She’s tough. She cusses like a sailor, and proudly tells her children, “If people don’t like you, fuck ‘em.” She talks about life as a Brown woman. She tells me about how she expected to be treated in the Deep South compared to what she found in her small community of less than 8000 souls.
The affordability drew them to North Alabama first. Cost of living in the South is low. Their two year old house, with 4 bedrooms, a den, formal dining room, eat-in kitchen, large master bathroom, 2 additional full bathrooms, hardwood floors, granite countertops, 11 foot ceilings, and 5 acres of land cost them just $350,000. “We could’ve gotten it all for less.”, she muses, and she’s probably right. TVA (the Tennessee Valley Authority) keeps her electric, water, and gas bill low too. For their buck, Alabama offered a lot of bang. A helluva lot of bang.
Price wasn’t the only consideration. Growing up in Boston with a single mother policewoman taught her a lot about how you wanna raise your kids. “I didn’t want my kids getting shot up outside school or while walking down the street. $350k gets a lot here. Not so much there.” She homeschools her two youngest children but her oldest attends the local high school: a small, 2A school down the road a few miles. Her oldest is “the only Brown kid” in the school’s marching band, but she notes that he’s flourishing. They all expected him to face some prejudice and she prepared him for it, but instead he’s found neither prejudice, nor special treatment. He’s a normal kid to his predominantly White peers. Another face in the crowd. Or trombone in the band.
Her Abuelita and much of her family still live in Puerto Rico, where she was born. The countryside and simple folk who wave to her and each other as they pass through her small town remind her of visiting family there. Her Abuelita keeps chickens and has ample advice about raising, killing, and cooking them. She’s passing that advice onto my friend who in turn is passing it onto me. She’s giving us some of her chickens and a rooster this coming Spring. She’s got more than enough for now and needs a second hen house. We’re part of a circle of family and community that spans generations, language barriers, and hundreds of miles. And it’s some kind of wonderful.
She sips her margarita through a Dora The Explorer straw and turns the tables on me. “Why did you come BACK to Alabama?”
She knows I have a love/hate relationship with the South. I was raised military, spent my childhood in England and Panama, returning to Alabama only once or twice a year for holidays or family reunions. I have a brain full of visions and memories from beautiful places most of my peers in the Deep South will never see. I describe my childhood as magical and idyllic, which it was. So when we moved to Alabama when I was 10, I grew increasingly resentful. I felt different from my peers. I didn’t have a Southern accent. I didn’t have a preferred football team and had never seen the Iron Bowl. I talked about sheep in Scotland and Coatimundi (or Kudamundi) in Panama, and they talked about Bo Jackson and Bear Bryant. I pronounced words oddly and I didn’t understand any of the Southern slang. People would say, “Slow down! You talk too fast!” I was misunderstood. I was weird. And I began to hate the South.
We moved to North Carolina when I was 14. North Carolina is still considered a Southern state, but it’s a bit different there and we were on the coast, just a few feet from the beach. I stayed there until I was 20 and I vowed to never return to Alabama. I did it anyways in 2005 when my grandfather passed away suddenly and my grandmother needed an extra hand around the house. I met my husband here in Alabama and away we went again in 2008…away from the South and into DC. And then I had my daughter, and after 2 years gone, we came back…again. Neither one of us could escape the South and specifically Alabama. We talked about it after moving here once more. We discussed work in Washington, Colorado, Texas, and California. But, we stayed. Because it’s affordable. Because people were relatively friendly. Because the crime statistics. Because the tight knit communities.
I tell her my reasons and she says, “And there ya go.”, winking and pointing a finger at me. She understands.
The sun is starting to set and the children are laying in the field in front of us staring at the sky and pulling at the grass. She glances at her cell phone and says, “Oh, shit, Alejandro isn’t riding the bus home today. He has band practice. I gotta go pick him up.” We’ve lost track of time and it’s almost 4:30. We call the children up to the porch and start the frantic search for missing scarves, mittens, jackets, and toys. We end up leaving a scarf at her house. We end up taking a stuffed unicorn home.
As we pull away her children wave wildly from the driveway. We roll down the windows and wave back, before disappearing out of sight. It’s a 25 minute car ride back into the nearest “big” city, which is still just a small town with 24k residents. We pull into our own driveway and my daughter is asleep in the backseat, the unicorn in her lap, and leaves in her hair.
I step out onto the first layer of jewel toned leaves littering our front lawn and pause for a moment under our oak and maple trees, now ablaze with brilliant yellow, oranges, and reds. The sky is a deepening purple and pink. It’s relatively quiet and still. The elderly gay couple next door are walking their dog. Four teenagers are riding bikes down to the corner store, bundled in hoodies, and laughing contagiously. Somewhere in my neighborhood someone is using their fireplace for the first time this Autumn. I can smell the wood burning. I can feel all the reasons I still live in Alabama.