Brewton—it’s cold and wet in South Alabama. Forty-nine degrees. In this part of the world, that’s cold enough to cancel school and make snow angels in the mud.
Last night, the town was supposed to pepper the sidewalks with luminaries—little paper bags with candles in them. But it was too wet.
It’s too bad. You ought to see those lights. They line Evergreen and Belleville and take your breath away.
Last year for Christmas, I strolled down Belleville Avenue with my wife to see the luminaries, I marveled at how beautiful they were.
There was a live-action nativity at the Methodist church. Children played the roles of Mary, Joseph, and stable animals. One kid was dressed like a cow with the biggest set of udders you’ve ever seen.
My connection to this city is my wife, she grew up here. Long ago, these people sort of adopted me, when nobody else would.
I’m in town for an early Christmas celebration with her family today. I stop at Walmart to buy a few things before the party.
I see someone I know in the produce section. They shout my name. I hug their neck. We talk.
I see two more people in the meat department. More conversation, more hugs. More talking.
In the beer aisle, I see five people I know. But we don’t even make eye contact. These are my fellow Southern Baptists.
I stand in the checkout line, and I’m behind a woman who I know from Pensacola. She is from my childhood. The mother of a good friend of mine. I’m surprised to see her in Brewton.
“What’re you doing in town?” I ask her.
“My husband’s family lives here,” she says. “What about you?”
“You know,” she goes on, “they say everyone in the world has SOME kinda connection to Brewton.”
And I think she might be right. I’ve never visited a place where I haven’t accidentally met someone from Escambia County.
For example: I was in New Mexico, this past summer. My wife and I were at a desolate gas station near Logan. A man behind the counter asked, “Where’re you from?”
“Florida,” I said.
“Hey, I know where that is. That’s about an hour from Brewton, right?”
I almost fell over. Of all the cities he could’ve named.
“Lived in Brewton when I’s a kid,” he said. “My dad worked at paper mills when I was growing up.”
And once, I was in Abilene, Kansas. I met a woman in an antique store who had hearing aids and carried a walker.
“You talk funny,” she said. “Where’re you from.”
So I told her.
She grinned. “Ain’t that near Evergreen, Alabama? My son married a girl from Evergreen. You ever heard of it?”
Heard of it? They could bury me beneath the Evergreen Shoney’s buffet when I die.
And just last week, my wife and I were watching the presidential funeral for George H.W. Bush. My wife pointed at the TV and shouted:
“Hey look! That’s William Lee at the funeral.”
Sure enough, there he was. A singular Brewtonite, attending the most famous funeral in the world.
Still, that’s not what makes this town special. Not to me.
You might not know this, but Brewton made me a writer. Before Brewton I wasn’t anything of the sort.
After I wrote my first book, I almost gave up on it. Besides, why would anyone care to read my stuff? There are hundreds of university English majors with beautiful dissertations that took five years to write.
I’m a community college grad who once wrote a six-hundred-word column about coaxing my dog to poop out a wedding ring.
That year, I ordered a box of ten paperbound copies. I was going to give them as Christmas gifts to friends, then forget about the book altogether.
One of those books made it to Brewton. Just one.
The next day, I had fourteen emails from residents in Brewton who wanted books. So I sent a few more.
A week later, I had fifty-some emails, mostly from Brewton, asking for books. So I ordered a case. I addressed almost every book to the 36426 zip code.
The next week, more emails. More boxes of books. It was one of the greatest Christmases of my entire life. The people of this town wouldn’t let me fail.
And that’s how I kind of began.
The people in this town changed me forever. I grew up with a broken family, our holidays were pitiful affairs. There wasn’t much to be happy about, our Christmas trees were crummy.
But this place. This town. These old houses. These sidewalk candle displays. They do something to me.
Anyway, if you ever get a chance to admire the Brewton luminaries this season, you won’t regret it. The lights in this town are breathtaking.
And I’m not talking about the ones on the sidewalks.
I mean the ones seated around the supper tables.