If you care to notice, in May, the honeysuckle and gardenias mix to form a cocktail of intoxicating aromas. They are everywhere. You can stand on 2nd Avenue North downtown; even there the smell will be overwhelming. The whole metro area taken over by the scent of spring, making its last call, and summer, bursting onto the scene.
Living in this place seems significant. ‘Place’ had never been important before. As a pastor, such a thing seemed trivial and only to be enjoyed by those who were not pastors. It was a luxury I could not afford to care much about. I was to care for the people and shepherd them the best I could, but where I was, well, that was only significant in what it offered in the way of diversion. But not here. Here is home. I was born here. I was schooled here. I grew to be a man here. I met my wife here and I married her here. We spent our first night together here.
Now, the grass is green everywhere, and all the trees are full enough to give the shade necessary to survive a summer in Birmingham. It is June. It is hot. There is a collective longing for fall that is not due entirely to the coming football season. There are three months left of this heat, and though the nights are for the most part cool enough to enjoy, we know what is coming in the form of August.
I moved my family on top of Shades Mountain just a few weeks ago. Our house sits almost as high as is possible. The Native Americans used to travel along the crest, fearing the darkness of the valley not far from where I sit, looking into the thick growth of Shades Valley. Their preferred travel routes and settlements were atop Red, Shades, and Ruffner Mountains. Now, Shades Valley is one of the most preferred areas in the region.
We shop here. We eat and get coffee here. Sometimes, my wife says, “We live here now.” Often, when we’ve just hit the crest of a mountain road or dusk has settled on the horizon framed by tree-bejeweled peaks, I say the same thing back to her.
We moved back 7 months ago. Having never been difficult while we were away, living in other Southern and Midwestern cities,but now in retrospect, it is hard. Our time away was no exile, but for nine years, we were gone from the town we called “home” since the time the word had any meaning beyond bricks and mortar.
I can remember the front yard of my childhood full of lightning bugs. I would do all sorts of unkind things to them, but mostly, I just remember watching them light up the yard. As a child, this was the closest thing to magic I saw. Now, they cover our front yard. In fact, the front yard would be dark if not for the moon and the lightening bugs. And though my children are supposed to be in bed by eight, we allow them to stay up and catch a few.
In our time away, did we “miss out” on something never expecting that to be the case?
In fact, we never expected to move back. The idea of “missing out” was not even on the table. We had left never to return. But we did return, and though this is our city, the city did not wait on us. It kept growing and heaving and progressing, which doesn’t take away from the joy we have in being back. Nevertheless, it is hard to have been away. I hope it will not always be so. The roads I drive, full of curves, hills, and vales are now so familiar, I can foresee a time when it will seem as if we never left. One can hope.
The mountain views are what we notice the most now. We had grown up here, taking these hills, valleys, mountains, and dales for granted. We had forgotten the singular beauty of winding roads canopied in firm-rooted oak and towering pine. Now, all of this takes our breath away. Once, the familiarity of it all bred contempt and we were glad to leave it all behind. Now, we never want to leave. Taking it for granted would be a kind of leaving, which we would like to avoid.
Actually, I cannot even tell if Birmingham is a beautiful place or not anymore; it could be nostalgia and experience playing on my affections. Perhaps because it is home in a way no other place could ever be, I am incapable of evaluating my city. I do want it to be beautiful, but I am reconciled to my bias, and I am alright with not knowing. I just don’t want to lose the feelings – the emotion of being back for good– not just a visit through town to drop off the grandkids.
“We live here now.” This is home.