The rain drummed on the windshield as I steered my SUV onto U.S. 82 for the final leg of the trip.
I had vowed not to return to Alabama, to go home. I had cast it aside as racially ignorant, backward. There I was, though, with the windshield wipers turned on high, driving along a skinny stretch of highway as Simone and Nadia, 2 and 8 months, dozed in the back seat.
I was going home to Tuscaloosa, my mother’s hometown.
I reminisced as I drove the final leg of that journey. I passed a private school, where I had watched all of my girlfriends compete in a pageant. There was the armory, where I had attended a dance, and the hill, where my high school sweetheart’s family lived.
I guess it’s not so bad, I thought.
I was more familiar with U.S. 82 than I wanted to admit. I had sat alongside Ken as he drove the two of us to University of Alabama football games, and I had slept in the backseat as my parents drove us to visit relatives. Ken had attended the university and told me about all his good times there. Mom didn’t think much of the city, except for the mud pies she made – and ate – while growing up.
I thought about all of this as I traveled down the highway that morning.
A canopy of trees hung over the slick asphalt road. The rain eased a bit, and country churches broke up the landscape along with barbecue joints and an occasional group of cows.
Maybe I could learn to like it, I told myself. After all, I met Ken here.
Ken had long accepted the state and all of her civil rights blemishes. I was determined to run from them, setting up temporary roots in Tennessee and Florida instead.
I couldn’t escape the tug of Alabama. Ken and I would visit family and friends. I would start thinking about a permanent stay the moment we stepped in the rental car. We would inventory all of the pluses — family and friends, more affordable homes, a slower pace. I would sum up all the negatives– small cities, less to do, a slower pace. Ken had no trouble going home, but I was happy to visit and quickly return to less conservative climes, where folks didn’t see the need to plaster the rear windows of their trucks with the Confederate flag. I managed to set aside those thoughts – the good and the bad. Maybe one day, I told myself, but not now.
One day came sooner than I thought. That was why I was on that stretch of 82, clutching the steering wheel, still afraid of two-lane highways. This time I had chosen to return instead of having the state thrust upon me. When I was a child, Dad was in the Air Force, which had decided where we lived every few years. This time I had signed off on all the details and orchestrated the moved. Still, a part of me wished it weren’t so. Maybe Ken had been kidding when he told me he had gotten a new job. Maybe Ken had been joking when he said he had started searching for our new home.
I knew that wasn’t true. The hurricanes of 2004 marked the beginning of the end of our stay in Florida. Hurricane insurance premiums increased exponentially. Our three-bedroom, two-bathroom stucco house became less and less affordable. By the time Hurricane Katrina ripped pieces of the roof off the Superdome, it was clear we had better find a new place to call home, a more affordable place to live. By then, we had had Simone and Alabama was again pulling on us. After Nadia was born, we had decided to pull up our stakes and head north to the Deep South. The move made sense in so many ways. The girls would be close to their grandparents. Ken could once again watch his beloved Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and I could research a book about my late mother, who had been born in Tuscaloosa some 60 years ago.
Maybe I didn’t give the state a chance, I said to myself.
The rain stopped and gave way to an overcast sky. At last, U.S. 82 became a four-lane highway and the flat earth turned hilly for a while. Simone and Nadia awakened just a few miles from our new home, and I wondered what they would think.
I called Ken, the man I had fallen in love with all those years earlier, for the final instructions. He had somehow gotten me to do something I had thought impossible.
“You’re close,” he said. “You’re almost here.”
He was wrong. I was almost home.