Today’s guest columnist is Terry Barr.
Last week my wife and I ordered some Thai food from one of our neighborhood go-to cafes. We aren’t eating in restaurants until we all get a better handle and some perspective on this pandemic.
We want to support our local eateries who are striving to stay in business while offering quality, delicious food.
I was wearing my Alabama Crimson Tide gear, anticipating the SEC Championship game with Florida, and as I walked in the café to pick up our food, the young and clearly Thai woman who was checking me out also checked out my hat.
“Are you from Alabama?” she asked.
“Yes, the Birmingham area. Actually, I grew up in Bessemer.”
“Oh, I went to high school in Birmingham.”
“Ramsay High—it was great, and helped me so much. I had moved from California to Birmingham, and Ramsay offered me such a look into international studies. I loved it.”
“Wow,” I said. “Ramsay was where my father went to school back in the 1940’s; it’s where he graduated, and where my mother finished, too.”
I have lived in Greenville, SC, since 1987, ever since finishing undergraduate school at The University of Montevallo, and graduate school at The University of Tennessee. I have some Bama friends here in town, though none of them ever lived in Birmingham, much less attended a high school that I am biologically connected to.
The young lady at the cash register finished taking my payment and we wished each other well. I would have loved to hear more of her stories from her Birmingham days, but it wasn’t the time. Still, as I walked out, I thought once again about my own connections and how much I missed being “home.”
This is the first year that I haven’t returned to the Birmingham area…ever.
My father passed twenty years ago this Christmas Eve. He was a lifelong Birmingham resident—loved the city, and said that when he had to travel for work—he worked his whole career at Standard Jewelry Co., in the 1400 block of Second Avenue North—he always felt relieved, happy, when he crossed back over the Jefferson County line.
My mother passed just over two years ago, meaning this is my third Christmas without her. Until she passed, I would return to her home in the Lakewood section of Bessemer every Christmas to visit old friends and to drive her back to Greenville to spend the holiday with us, including her two granddaughters.
While in the Birmingham area, we would get together with old loved ones at Bessemer’s Bright Star and shop in Homewood or Crestline Village. I would drag my mother with me, haunting bookstores like The Alabama Booksmith and Little Professor, and she would haul me to antique stores on the south side. Sometimes I’d take her to lunch at Chez Fonfon, where she adored the crab cakes, or to Savage’s in Homewood which, according to her, made the best chicken salad.
I looked forward to these trips and would usually go back to see her a couple of more times each year, especially as her health began to decline.
Every time I went, I did feel like I was coming home, and it’s both strange and wonderful to associate home with Birmingham, Bessemer, and Greenville. How is it possible that a word like “home” can feel so natural in so many settings?
For the two falls after my mother passed, my older daughter, her husband, and I have traveled back to the area mainly to take in a game in Tuscaloosa. But we’d stay with my daughter’s college sorority sister—they went to Wofford College in nearby Spartanburg, but my daughter’s friend lives between Mountain Brook and Crestline, near Saw’s Barbecue.
While there I take my “children” all around town, visiting, reminiscing, and telling them the stories of my parents’ lives, showing them where my Dad lived, and the red brick apartments near the Botanical Gardens in Mountain Brook where I visited my grandmother every Sunday of my young life..
And on one visit, as we crested Red Mountain, I pointed out the grand building sitting just beneath the mountain, on a slight rise.
“Your grandpa went there, and for a while, so did your grandma,” I said. I didn’t tell them that my mother didn’t want to leave Bessemer and attend Ramsay, that her experience there wasn’t the close, high school golden age that so many have. That she hated her Latin teacher and felt out of place, not belonging to the marching band as my clarinet-playing father did.
But I do tell her that because my mother moved to Birmingham and attended Ramsay High, she met my father’s sister who, of course, introduced my mother to the man she’d marry—less than a year after their meeting.
You see, it’s impossible to dislike or dismiss where you’re from and what happened to you there. For every bad turn, try the next corner. For other lives await there.
Lives you might even engender.
So, as I said, this is the first year of my sixty-four years of life that I will not have set foot in the Birmingham area, much less the state of Alabama. It feels so bad, so wrong, so overwhelmingly melancholy.
Which tells me only, or mainly, how much I love Birmingham, Bessemer, and even Ramsay High, though I have never once entered its hallowed halls.
For in the end, you don’t have to have a tangible connection to experience the memories of love.
And next year, after we control the Corona Virus, we’ll be back, with that love and all the memories.
Terry Barr is a native of Bessemer. He has been a Professor of English at Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina since 1987. His most recent essay collection, Secrets I’m Dying to Tell You (Red Hawk Press), is available at Amazon.com, and you can find him at medium.com/@terrybarr.
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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.