On my husband’s first trip to Sweetwater, Alabama a few years ago, I was desperate for him to like the place where I had so many good memories. In a one stoplight town with no reception or wifi, there wasn’t a lot to entice.
In the end, it was the South herself that won him over. One night my grandmother made her seafood gumbo, a recipe given to her when she was fifteen and living on the bayou. The neighbors came over on nights like that and sat around the table after dinner playing dominos and “visiting” – an extremely southern practice. Mr. Newton, who had lived up the street from my Grandmama for decades, would joke in his big booming voice that his wife was cheating. And she, in her eighties, would start giggling.
For my husband, the South will always be seafood gumbo and playing dominos with Mr. Newton, even though my Grandmama no longer makes the complicated dish and Mr. Newton has since passed on.
Last year we moved my Grandmama out of her house. We had so little time before we all had to be back to work in Indiana, so we dug up a hundred and fifty years of family history in a week – photos of relatives long dead, my great grandmother’s sewing machine, the FBI file on my great uncle, my great aunt’s china, a family Bible with birth and death records from the 1800’s, a yoke from when the farm “equipment” was mules.
I remember realizing how different my grandmother’s world was then, looking at her things. They were beautiful, made to stand the test of time. And they were centered around hospitality. Beautiful linen tablecloths with lace trim. Gumbo bowls, enough to serve sixteen. The good china. She used to cook dinners that would take most of the day and several trips to Tippy’s store at the only stoplight in town.
In the mornings, before packing started, I’d take walks. If I talked sweetly in the neighborhoods I’d end up with a pack of dogs following me, most owned by neighbors, some strays. On the main road, where the logging trucks passed, cotton from the mill would always be gathered in the gravel on the side of the road.
I noticed when I passed Tippy’s store that it had closed.
Sometimes to give my Grandmama a break from cooking we’d go to Ezell’s fish camp.
If Sweetwater, my Grandmama’s home town, was in the middle of nowhere, Ezell’s was about fifteen miles past nowhere. It sat on the banks of a slow, brown river and served fried-everything – catfish, crab, chicken, hushpuppies (fried balls of cornbread). The screen door to the front porch creaked every time it opened and the walls were decorated with hunting trophies – deer heads, fish, a bobcat. While we were waiting for the meal, we’d drink iced tea and eat coleslaw on crackers.
Now that my Grandmama has moved in with my aunt and out of the town where my dad grew up, our only tie to that place is a few hundred acres of what used to be my grandfather’s cattle farm. He died when I was little, and the family planted the land in pine, a common cash crop in that area. My brother and sister and I grew up with the trees. In the next few years, it will be time to cut them.
To get onto our property, we go in through a communal gate off the road and down a two-track dirt path under dark green pines that sound like the ocean when the wind runs through them. But two years ago, the last time I walked the land, the property by the gate had been clear cut, the ocean pines gone. Stumps littered the ground around the two-track road, their roots halfway torn out of the earth.