One thing a lot of people don’t know about me, is that I have an older brother. Andy is 6 ½ years older than me and, since we have different mothers, we have never lived in the same house for more than a season. When I got married, I noticed how big of a difference there was between siblings who grow up together in the same house and those who don’t. Even though Andy and I love each other like brother and sister, we don’t share the same memories and annoyances that most siblings enjoy.
This week I am joining my dad and his older sister on a vacation to visit extended family (whom I’ve never met) and tour their hometown of Leeds, Alabama. I have few experiences in my life that are more hilarious than watching these two grown children pester one another. More than the live comedy, watching them become heavy with sweet nostalgia is a treasure I’ll never forget.
Let me paint a picture: My dad is a 57 year old with abnormal energy, a brain full of knowledge and spirit for tireless pestering. My aunt Susie is a 60 year old, pocket sized, spitfire with the heart of a southern bell and the mouth of a sailor. Take Leave It To Beaver antics and bodily function over-shares, mix in a few hundred swear words and a whole lota laughter, and you’ll have an idea of the free show I’m enjoying.
Before this, I had never been to Alabama. While we drove into town, my aunt shared stories about my Nannie and Papa, her childhood friends, stopping by the local icehouse to make homemade ice cream, and memories of the KKK riding horses down the street. Intense!
Our first stop was my great Nannie and Papa’s (my Nannie’s mother and daddy) home built along the railroad. As a boy, my dad would find a broomstick and hit rocks while his older sister learned to hang laundry from the clothesline out back. They remembered this house being much bigger, surrounded by lush gardens, fig trees and filled with family. No one lives here now and the St. Augustine grass has taken over. The paint has chipped away, the handrails are rusty and the gardens are gone, but the original clothesline is still there and the pecan tree is tall and healthy.
Confederate flags are a symbol of pride here. There are numerous cemeteries dedicated to confederate veterans, one of which was situated behind one of my Nannie and Papa’s first family homes. 50+ years ago my aunt had tea parties in a stone shed out back, climbed trees and floated down the Little Cahaba River.
Before visiting my dad’s aunt Carol and heading to Jacksonville, we took a winding road through the Koosa Mountains – all I could think was, “Ben would love to ride a motorcycle through here.” Unintentionally bringing this story full-circle, my family has always shared a childhood photo of my brother. In the photo, my brother is a toe-headed toddler, standing in the mist with a blue umbrella, in front of the mouth of a mountain train tunnel. It’s one of my favorite photos. My dad played here with his cousin as a child, so this place holds a lot of special memory for him.
I stood where my brother stood 32 years ago, and tried to recreate the umbrella photo. It’s not the same, but the perfect ending to a touching adventure.
What kind of family heritage stories and traditions do you have?
These are some of the coolest stories we can preserve and share with future generations.