Alabama For Beginners

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The contractors here, born Alabamians, call me Miss Jean. They refer to my brother-in-law as Mr. Danny. Beyond paperwork, surnames are ignored, as if they are only a nuisance, something that gets in the way. They also use “Ma’am” and “Sir” for punctuation, a habit I’ve already picked up, courtesy being contagious.

The women here are even more tender. They employ all sorts of endearments: Hon, Baby, Sugar, Darlin. The first time I ordered a sandwich at the local Subway, the girl behind the counter buckled my knees with kindness. The fact that she was brutally overweight and not blessed with movie star beauty made her benevolence all the more touching. People here understand, are born knowing, that civility is a form of wealth—the most important form—and the poorest among them can be rich beyond measure.

My wife and I moved to coastal Alabama six weeks ago. Many of our Napa friends worried about how we would fare in a red state, particularly as a couple. Well, it appears that a pair of gray-haired lesbians is not sufficient cause for alarm. Folks greet us as we greet them, with smiles and handshakes. There could of course be more to it. Maybe Cindy has gained standing by way of her new John Deere mower, the Ford Ranger she drives, or the shop she is having built. Maybe they like my plantings, the shutters we’ve put up, the well we’re having dug. Our neighbors seem to respect these things, practicality being the benchmark of worth in the deep South.

You don’t see many Jaguars or BMWs here. You see a lot of trucks, tractors and ATVs. The men driving these vehicles know how to fix them; they know how to fix and build all sorts of things. This is such a DIY kind of place that it’s difficult to find a handyman you can actually hire. Forget about consulting Yelp or Angie’s List—most folks here express themselves in person.

Laborers move with deliberation, keeping pace with the temperature, and “soon” is a term you learn not to heed. Take a deep breath and know you will not be forgotten. A promise is a promise.

Municipal matters in Alabama are not handled in deadbolt fashion. Clerks are merciful and will often bend the rules a bit to accommodate citizens in a bind. If you are a California transplant, this clemency, when you first encounter it, will undo you.

There are plenty of places I drive right past, things that don’t pertain to me, like churches, gun stores, pawn shops. There is no shortage of enterprise here, and no shame if these ventures fail. People just toss the dice again and hope for a win; maybe a skating rink next time, a cupcake stand.

Utilities, products, services—most everything is cheaper in Alabama. I don’t know if this is because merchants don’t realize they can charge more or if they actually care more about people than profits. There is an expectation of decency in the south, a collective innocence that shames me a little.

You see quite a few emergency clinics here (all the DIYers?), but I have yet to spot a plastic surgery center. Women are easier on themselves here, as if they are loved without condition, or at least feel that way. For women especially, the south is a good place to grow old in.

I think the region itself enlarges this feeling of ease: the spacious yards, the endless lawns, the smooth straight roads, the long hot days. Land and water for miles and miles, all you could ever want. Coming from California, where the landscape is chronically imperiled by drought and fire, I am stunned by the green abundance of coastal Alabama, the toads, and turtles and tadpoles, the squadrons of dragonflies and pelicans. And fireflies! Those beacons of my youth, lighting the night woods, assuring me that all is not lost.

I won’t tell you that the humidity is not oppressive, or that I wouldn’t mind a few more libraries, a few less gun shops. What wounds me most is the careless damage: the plastic bags stuck in roadside shrubs, cigarette butts on a trail to the beach. You don’t know what you have, I think, snatching up litter on my evening walk. You have no idea the trouble we’re in.

What is there to do but help, to try and make better whatever place you call home? There is no curbside recycling here, but you can find salvage bins near grocery stores and city offices. Rather than throwing everything into my single gigantic waste receptacle, I am separating the cans and glass and plastics and loading them into my car, teaching, I hope, by example, the way I am being taught the ways of southern kindness. It’s not much to pay for a brand new life, for fireflies and box turtles and the pleasure of being called Miss Jean.

Published by

Jean Ryan

Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. She has also published a novel, LOST SISTER. Her short story collections, SURVIVAL SKILLS and LOVERS AND LONERS, are available online. STRANGE COMPANY, a collection of short nature essays, is available in paperback as well as digital and audio editions.

19 thoughts on “Alabama For Beginners

  1. Dearest Jean, my heart melts and delights all at once when I read your musings. I’m so happy for both you and Cindy! I just moved son Shane to Wilmington, N.C., have dear friends in Atlanta and S.C. and now Georgia. At least you are on the right side of the country. Keep up the great work! Hope to see you soon.

    Jeff

  2. Oh I do declare, Miss Jean! This post warmed the cockles of my heart! What an exciting new adventure you are both enjoying! Are you on the Gulf?
    By the bye, I had a dream I was at a book reading of your new book. What could that mean?!?!
    More stories of this new chapter, please! X&O

  3. ❤️ the title , so appropriate. Very interesting and, as usual, well written. Certainly gives us Californians something to think about, the way of life there, sounds so peaceful and OMG, citizens are not out just to Make the “big buck”, that is refreshing.

  4. Ms. Jean, I have goose bumps and eyes filled with tears of happiness for you and Cindy. The south agrees with you and sounds like the perfect place for you two beautiful friends to retire. We miss you, but you made the right choice, it’s evident. Hugs n Kisses my friend. OOXX

  5. Love This… and as always your way with written expresion.

    Sounds familiar, only my new life is is Espanol instead of a Southern drawl.

    The kindness and care given to relationships above money here in Costa Rica is heart warming.

    I just returned from three weeks in California and the pace exhausted me.

    Y’all Enjoy, Miss Jean

  6. My dearest Yearling, I love this piece. And how happy it makes me to know you and Cindy are happily settled on this side of the Mississippi – close enough for me to drive to see you in less than eight hours. Your new home is a lovely testament to you and Cindy and the sweet way you treat each other and this tender earth. Respect and gratitude and lots and lots of love – your mantra – shines on brilliantly in Lillian, Alabama.

  7. Your writing brings the scene alive; I can “hear” the creatures and see the fireflies. Thank you, Jean! ❤️

  8. Dear Jean,
    I’m glad Alabama has welcomed you both. And the town is lucky
    to have such a great writer and green thumb in its midst.

    Kipp

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Kipp. And thank you for the compliments. I so hope to see you knocking on my door one day. You are welcome anytime.

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