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BEST OF THE SOUTH COLUMN: Against All Good Sense

Is moving back home the best or only option?

jesmyn ward southern female writer

Photograph by Mike Stanton.

Last spring and against all good sense, I moved back home to coastal Mississippi to live with my mother. I say “against all good sense” because the previous two times that I moved back to live with my mother were disasters. The first was just after college. I was twenty-three and a recent Stanford grad so tortured by homesickness that I decided I’d try to search for a job from my little Mississippi hometown instead of a more likely place. Eventually, my mom grew so exasperated by the sky-rocketing phone bills caused by my panicked and ceaseless calls to potential employers that she killed our long-distance service. In desperation, I had to work the holiday shift at the Tommy Hilfiger outlet in Gulfport. That motivated me to go live in a world with more prospects (also known as New York City).

The other time was six years later, after I finished an MFA program in Michigan. It was early summer, and I packed all my belongings into my small two-door compact and headed south. I thought everything was fine at home, but somewhere in July, I returned from a trip to Miami with my sister to find that our mother had kicked me out of her house—again. I’d like to think the only issue was the phone bill.

Despite all this, and after living for a while in San Francisco and way up in North Mississippi in Oxford, I am once more on the Gulf Coast. Because I had a job waiting for me in Alabama and a little money saved, I could have easily opted for an apartment in Mobile, bypassing my mother’s house altogether in a fortuitous detour.

But I did not.

As much as I am a thorn in my mother’s side, when she told me that I would be doing her a favor by moving in again and helping her with the bills, I gave up the idea of living on my own. And it would be false for me to say that moving back home, as so many of my generation have had to do as the economy dips, was not helpful for me as well, since it allowed me time to regroup and to save money before deciding my next step.

It also allowed me time to figure out how I plan to live in the modern South.

Of course, there is nothing modern about what I’ve done. Folks have been moving back in with their parents in the South since way before our most recent financial woes. The substrata of socioeconomic space my people, black and rural, belong to often made it especially necessary. (That’s a fancy way of saying that my family has been really poor for decades and we’re quite familiar with the factors that make moving back in with Mom the best, and sometimes the only, option.)

My four uncles have been in and out of their mother’s house for the last fifty years—one of them still lives with her today, and he’s in his mid-fifties. My parents pulled us back to live with my grandmother during the mid-’80s, and that meant there were thirteen people (including my aunts, uncles, and all of their children) inside a four-bedroom house. But here’s the difference: For my mom and her brothers and other relatives who returned to the nest, it was a necessity. For me, it’s been a choice. In fact, it would have been far easier for me to stay out of the South and seek my fortune elsewhere. I’ve tried. When my two post-college attempts to room with my mom didn’t work out, I found good opportunities in New York City and San Francisco and Michigan.

But always, I wanted to return to the South.

And I have to ask myself the same damn question I’ve heard from incredulous reporters: Why in the hell did you decide to return to the South? Especially when so much about it frustrates the hell out of you?

This is how I answer. First: I’ve become mostly numb to the profusion of Confederate-flag paraphernalia (and the mind-set behind it). I say that, but the fact that the present Mississippi governor just signed a bill that will effectively close the last abortion clinic in the state when, six months ago, the people of Mississippi voted against an amendment that would make abortion illegal, fills me with rage. Much in the same way reading about the murder of Trayvon Martin and his killer’s attempted exoneration by Sanford police in Florida enrages me. I feel a bone-deep abhorrence rise up in me even without having to recall the recent death of a black mechanic outside Jackson, Mississippi, who was run over by a truckload of white kids intent on messing with some Negroes (they used that other N-word). But when I do recall that attack, I almost want to soak my region in lighter fluid and strike a match.

 

And yet—I love this place.

And if you were not from the South, and I heard you speaking ill of it, mentioning the same problems that I do, I’d want to knock you out. It’s the same way that I feel when I vent to a friend about one of my family members, and she decides to unwisely chime in and talk shit as well. The crossing of this fine line inevitably leads to me seething and saying something like: Look, that’s my cousin, and I can talk about him all I want, but you better shut your mouth!

Commiserate, yes; talk shit, no.

And that’s why I return here, really. Something about the South feels as familiar as family, as true as blood. I return because to smell the scent of burning pine needles gives me butterflies as shivery as a new crush. I return because I don’t feel like I’ve had my first real summer swim until I dive into an amber, warm, silt-ridden river. I return because when I sit out on the bayou and watch the sun set while the air smells like rotten eggs and mud and the cranes come and go and then roost on a cypress in the distance, I feel like crying. I return because when I go to San Francisco or New York City and try their seafood gumbo or fried catfish or beignets, the taste seems wrong and alien, but I keep eating because I can never get enough of anything that tastes of home, my home, even if it’s off.

And the greatest reason I return to the South again and again? My family, of course. There are hundreds of us in my extended family who still live here in Mississippi. Should I tell you that the women age on a twenty-year delay and hug me with soft arms underlain with hog-tossing muscle when I return, or that the men wipe sweat from their darkly freckled faces when they see me home, and the look on their faces says that they feel sort of sorry for me and sorry for whatever I’ve been through wherever I’ve traveled, since doing so has made me both skinny and pale, and to cover their expressions, the men say: You home now, huh? Yeah, we exasperate one another, and I’m sort of waiting for my mom to change the locks on her doors, but this is the South and this is my blood and this is my home, and—If you say one more thing about her, I will punch you in the face. I swear!

ART: “Good Game” (2011) by Kyle White.

 

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