She is on a road trip right now. She has covered a lot of miles in the family minivan. She wears a scarf over her bald head. And she’s excited.
She’s moving back home.
“I’ve been away for thirty years,” she says. “I don’t call it ‘home’ anymore, and I’ve even lost my Alabama accent.”
She drives the van with her two teenage girls in back. Ahead of them, her husband drives a moving truck. They crossed the Alabama state line a few minutes ago.
Her husband called her cellphone just to say, “Welcome home, darlin’.”
In the last week, they’ve passed the whole world at eye-level. The plains of Texas, the hills of Oklahoma, the greenery of Arkansas, the Mississippi Delta. They’re ending with the Yellowhammer State.
They’ve taken their time, hitting all stops along the way, doing roadside tourist things. They had family pictures beside a sixty-six-foot tall neon soda bottle.
They visited the Arkansas birthplace of Walmart.
They met an Ozark couple who dresses possums in Biblical costumes for riveting reenactments of the Last Supper.
They took kayak rides on the Pascagoula. They ate ice cream in hotel rooms. They splashed in hotel pools.
She’s still recovering from chemo, but she is all smiles.
After a three-decade absence, she stepped foot in this state for the first time a few months ago. That’s what started it all.
“We came to Alabama on our way to Florida,” she said. “I wasn’t gonna do it, I was scared, but my kids were like, ‘Come on, Mom, we wanna see where you grew up.’”
Growing up. Yeah, about that. She had a bad childhood. Her mother and father died in a car accident when she was a teenager. She fell into small-town oblivion, and after that and never found her rhythm.
It’s the same old story. Another high-school grad from a small town shakes the dust off her boots and says goodbye to beauty-parlor gossip, two-room churches, and Friday-night football.
She ditched her accent. She worked at pronouncing words the Western way. She acted different, too. And she forced herself to forget a traumatic childhood.
And that was that.
But on that trip to Florida, they passed the Alabama state sign in a rental car, and something happened. She made her husband pull over.
She stepped out of the car lost the words.
“Welcome home, darlin’,” she remembers her husband said.
“Welcome home, Mom,” said her daughters.
Maybe you saw even her. She was the one standing before the sign, arms around her children. It was only a highway sign, but memories came back like gnats.
There was the time she and her father made a rope swing by the creek. The times she played in her grandfather’s barn. The one-story farmhouse her mother lived in. Her school. The well-kept residential streets.
A gas station. A bar. The railroad tracks, where she kissed her first boy. The funeral home—where a fourteen-year-old version of herself cried over two caskets.
“I never expected to start bawling at the state sign,” she said.
But she did. And she got her picture made in front of it.
In the photo is a woman who still waits for her hair to grow back. And even though the woman’s eyes are swollen and pink, she smiles.
Sure, California is where she became herself. It’s where she met a husband. It’s where she found a nice job, a nice home with a backyard swing set, and a minivan.
But she is no Californian. No way, nohow. She’s here. She’s this. She’s a survivor. If you look at her you’ll see that. You’ll see a woman who is not just in remission, but alive. Inside and out.
“It’s weird,” she said. “I think the cancer is what actually saved me, if that makes any sense.”
It doesn’t. But it doesn’t have to. Because this is a state that doesn’t care. The swelling green hills and tall trees. The big skies. She is on land that generations of her ancestors once worked. And she ought to be proud. Because in a few hours, she’ll be back for good.
And in a few hours, so will her accent.
Welcome home, darling.