Sweet Home Alabama – We All Live The Same Lives, Just at Different Addresses

10 May

This is the second installment of my blog posts about our Alabama trip last week – in this one, I address the people – our dear friends Keary and Lisa, Chris (Coach!) and Sharon, Brian and Leslie, and Tammy and Jerry.

This trip to Alabama, as I mentioned in my last post, was borne from meeting Keary and Lisa at a resort in Cancun in 2007, which led to us rendezvousing on a beach in Grand Cayman in 2010, and a week together in Cancun last summer. Last summer, they brought along the rest of the couples mentioned above and we all became fast friends – the two city kids became honorary “Bamy’s” and we joined in the chorus of “Roll Tide Roll” every time Sweet Home Alabama was played by the pool. This trip was born when we were sitting around the pool in Cancun and after about the 50th time we heard “y’all gotta come down and visit us in Alabama, we’ll have so much fun”, Robin threw down “Ok, sounds great – first weekend in May, next year. I’m done with tax season, the timing is perfect.” With the date set, we were game on.

As we were preparing for this trip, we kept thinking of what a different life we were going to observe in Alabama – these folks live in a tiny, one-stoplight town of 5,000 – we live in a bustling suburb of 42,000 people, surrounded by an unending carpet of suburban sprawl. Their entire county has a population of about 70,000. Our Metro area has a population of 9.8 million and spreads more than 100 miles north to south and 60 miles east to west. Life HAD to be different. Right? Well … no, not really, in actuality.

The title of this post actually comes from my pal “GASHM” who coined it one evening when we were commiserating over raising teenaged kids and talking about how we all have the same problems, hassles, etc. “We all live the same lives, just at different addresses”, he said. Truer words have never been spoken. And it applies here – other than geography, these folks are in the same boat we are – either raising or just finished raising their kids (Keary and Lisa just achieved “empty nest status” in the last 2 years), working for a living, trying to find the time to do it all and balance it all, while still seeking to have fun.

There are some characteristics of these folks though that do make them different than what we typically see in the big city.  First of all, they are fiercely proud of where they live – and I say that not in a “boastful/prideful” way – which would be negative – but in a simple “they love it here” way.  Each of them is deeply connected to the area and the community.  They are all from either Rainsville or the immediate towns nearby – like where I’m from in Newton, IA, one gets the sense that people don’t move here, but instead are born here, and if they stay, well, they stay and love it.  Secondly, they all recognize that life there is different than it is where we live, but they don’t see that as a negative, just a fact.  They marvel a bit about things like when we talk about the fact that our high school has close to 5000 kids in it when their K-12 school has 1600, or that I work in a 43 floor highrise in downtown Chicago, and ride a train to work every day.  But that wonder is matched with a healthy dose of “better you than me, man!”  They love the fact that their idea of a traffic jam is when they catch the redlight at the intersection of Hwys 35 and 75 red, and have to wait one minute.  While they wish they had more choices for shopping and restaurants and gourmet groceries, they wouldn’t give up for a second their quiet, small town lifestyle.  They all want to visit us here in Chicago.  We can’t wait to have them.  And after their visit, I’m sure they will hit Rainsville again with newfound appreciation of the quiet, easy pace.

Although I covered this in the last post, it also bears mentioning again – the impact of the tornadoes of April 27th, 2011 is unmistakeable.  The week before we arrived, the town unveiled a large stone monument to the people that were killed in the tornado – this was aggressively pushed through the city and county government by a committee that included our friends Lisa and Tammy.  Coach took us on a 30 minute driving tour of the damage area – and I was literally getting spine tingles when he was identifying empty house foundations with “and three people died here, two here, 15 people were killed here where this trailer park was, I knew the kid that was killed here”, etc.  Everyone in that town knows or knows of everyone that was killed.  We all marvel when we hear the news stories of these events “and 22 people were killed and more than 100 injured” in the national news – for these folks, those aren’t stats. They are people.  People they knew and loved.

Going individual, as I mentioned above and in the last post, Keary and Lisa own one of the two funeral homes in Rainsville, AL. Chris is a History teacher and the head football coach at the local high school and his wife Sharon is a nurse in a medical practice in the next town over, Scottsboro. Brian and Leslie own a DJ business, and Jerry works for the local John Deere business while his wife Tammy is the clerk at the local court, and together they own a small cleaning services business. With employment in small town America being what it is, this seems pretty typical. There aren’t a lot of big employers – to work for a big company means a long commute to Chattanooga, TN or Huntsville AL – both cities about an hour away or more, so you work local – own a business, teach, work for the municipality, work in a local service business, etc. Last summer after our Cancun trip, I wrote about these folks, and in that I said something to the effect of “work, for these people, does not define them – it is a means to which they live their lives.” And it really is true.

About the only person in the group that I can see is a bit defined by work is “Coach” (Chris) – and that’s merely because he so clearly loves what he does. It is not a definition by status like you see around where we live. He is all about the kids and all about the game and the experiences it brings them. We had a very nice moment on Sunday when we were standing around outside Keary’s lake house enjoying the afternoon, and Coach, Keary and Keary’s son Blake were talking. Blake is 20 and played football for Coach. He said to Coach “You know, I don’t think I’d be who I am today if it wasn’t for you.” Obviously, as a teacher, and as Coach, well, you hear that and you know you’ve done your job. His wife Sharon is one of the kindest, and funniest people I’ve ever met. On our Cancun trip last summer, she was reeling from a huge tragedy in her life – the death of her sister, which happened just before we went. But Sharon still managed to be the life of our party, and quite frankly, the person who was able to get me to bust out of work mode and into vacation mode. She had me laughing the entire time.

One of the more interesting experiences for us was staying with Keary and Lisa – as their primary residence is above the Funeral Home. They have built a beautiful apartment above the funeral home (which is an immense building, in Rainsville scale) – it allows Keary to be close to the business, “on call” at all times when possible, and yet be able to get away for a respite upstairs in their lovely home. Their home looks like an exhibit from Southern Living magazine – beautifully and comfortably appointed with not a detail out of place. I need to hire Lisa to come to our place and detail it like that – we just don’t have the eye for it. But being close like that allowed us to observe the rhythm of it. Like babies being born, people die on their own schedule, and well, that means that this business can be 24×7. On our last evening there, a case that Keary had been expecting – a 15 year old boy who had gone into hospice care just before we left for the lake house on Friday – passed away. Keary got the call during a late dinner at Brian and Leslie’s house. One of his staff was dispatched to the boy’s home to pick up the body, and when we got back to the funeral home, Keary had to go to work embalming the body at 10:00 at night. Just a reality of the business.

On our first night of the trip, Keary, Lisa, Brian and Leslie joined us in Nashville for the evening – it’s only a 3 hour drive and they came up on their beautiful Harley Davidson Electra Glide motorcycles to join us for fun in Nashville. I covered the music scene we hit in the last post, so I won’t bother now, but what was fun about this was that they got to show us some of their favorite things. Among them are of course, country music, and the John Stone band. But in addition, we also were reminded of how we met Keary and Lisa in the first place. The two of them are natural “friend makers” and Lisa is the ring leader – she will literally go up to anyone and start making instant friends with them. Don’t be a hurry if you’re with Lisa walking somewhere as she’s going to chat with just about anyone walking by. It’s just her natural, outgoing personality and it’s really cute and endearing. The way we met Keary and Lisa in 2007 was similar – they were sitting on the pool steps at the resort, having a drink and chatting up another gent they had met there – we came and sat down near them, enjoyed our first cocktail in the pool, and when I got up to walk/swim across to the swim-up bar to get another, Keary said “well, y’all mind getting us another round”, while Lisa invited Robin to join the conversation. The rest is history.

Our second night, we had the fun of going to watch Brian in action – in addition to doing weddings and parties as a DJ, he also does Karaoke at local restaurants and bars. On Thursday nights in Scottsboro, he’s at a local Mexican restaurant – Margarita’s. Brian is great at what he does – he has this terrific, “made for DJing” baritone voice, he is a great singer so he can fill in when necessary, and his between-songs banter keeps the fun going.  He has a great sense of “party pacing” and it seemed like he knew every person in the place.  Which, I’d bet, he does. I came to call Brian “Chamber of Commerce” as he possesses a great local knowledge about both the Nashville area and about the Sand Mountain/Rainsville/Scottsboro area. Leslie, of course, is his ardent supporter – she’s busy raising their daughters, and until recently, had a small resale shop. In what Robin and I consider to be such a sweet gesture, Leslie organized putting together our parting gift – “Bubba” the Big Boy tomato plant, planted in Sand Mountain dirt. Sand Mountain, the area where Rainsville sits, is well known across the southeast for its farmstand produce, and especially tomatoes – something about the sandy, acidic soil is great for tomatoes. Leslie got a tomato plant, a bucket of Sand Mountain soil together and loaded us up. Bubba now lives in a place of honor on the sunny corner of our deck where we have big expectations for him of tomato goodness!

Tammy and Jerry are such fun – Jerry is an easy-going, fun loving guy with great jokes. Tammy always has a big smile, a big hug and a big laugh for everyone. Tammy has hit the jackpot with her daughter and she is so happy for her – she’s finishing up at college with a very high GPA, has met a nice young man there and is set to take on the world. But in a great example of nothing ever goes as planned, Tammy and Jerry have taken in a young boy that is the son of one of Tammy’s family members – a bad situation where that family member wasn’t able to care for him – so right at the age that they thought they’d be heading into empty nester time, they are back in the parenting world again. He’s a nice young boy and I’m sure they will do great with him. Coach and Sharon are in a similar boat – they had one daughter of their own, who is a lovely girl in early high school – and with the death of Sharon’s sister, they have taken in her son, who is 11. I think the lesson learned here is that these folks take family seriously and it was never a question of if they’d do the right thing. The “right thing” is in their DNA. One of the best days at the lake house was Sunday, when all of the couples’ kids came out to the lake to join us for the day. They are a great bunch of well-behaved kids who are reflections of the qualities and values of their parents.  It’s not easy to raise good kids.  These folks are raising great kids.

Speaking of family, Friday was a special treat – we got a chance to meet the extended families on both Keary’s and Lisa’s sides of the family – first at a noon-time birthday celebration for Keary’s mother, held at the assisted living center where she lives, and then for a classic Southern family dinner at Lisa’s parents’ home. It was so special for us to, first of all, be able to meet the extended families, and secondly, that, as their weekend guests, they wanted to bring us around to meet the families.  Southern hospitality at its finest.  The families welcomed us with open arms (and in the case of Lisa’s mom – platters and bowls heaped with best Southern cooking!)  and a “y’all come back now” at the end. We will come back.

This arc leads me back to the beginning here – we all live the same lives, just at different addresses. Having grown up in rural Central Iowa, this was all very familiar to me. Geographically, the area that they live in reminded me a lot of the area around Greenwood Lake, NY, where Robin and I have vacationed several times in the past 10 years with the kids when I worked for a company based out there. We came into this trip expecting to see a very different lifestyle. In some ways, I guess we did – they don’t have the same access to big city culture, events and services that we take for granted here (example in point – we needed dry firewood for fires and when I said “well can’t we just call someone and have some delivered?”, all the guys broke out laughing), but that is really a minor detail. In the big city, we don’t think anything of a 15-20 minute drive to see something or someone – neither do they. Now in our area that drive will be through three other suburbs, while there it’s over a mountain and farm fields, but those are just details. Their lives are driven by family, work, friends and occasional fun, same as us.  Our biggest fun that we have at home is getting together with our friends for food, conversation and cocktails – the same with them.  They are very faithful people, involved in their places of worship, and we are as well – although their chosen faith is Christianity and Baptist, while ours is Judaism.  Nonetheless, faith and service to G-d plays a big part in their lives, as well as ours. We all struggle with parenting teen kids, but are generally successful at it – the same with them.  The same lives, just lived at different addresses.

We love our Sweet Home Alabama friends. I hope after this little introduction to them that you perhaps love them a little too.

As you were,

Stew

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2 Responses to “Sweet Home Alabama – We All Live The Same Lives, Just at Different Addresses”

  1. visit us July 27, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

    I’m really inspired together with your writing talents and also with the structure in your blog. Is this a paid topic or did you modify it your self? Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it is uncommon to see a great weblog like this one nowadays..

    • Stew's Brew July 27, 2012 at 1:55 pm #

      Thank you! What a kind comment! The topics and the writing are all mine. As I say in my byline “This is how the world looks from my baby blues.”

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