EDITOR’S NOTE: Kelley Snowden, a frequent contributor to the Daily Yonder, wrote this essay in response to our series “Rural by Choice.”
I sat on the edge of the bed and watched my mom carefully wrap a crystal penguin I had given her for her birthday. I had spent the day wrapping and boxing the geegaws and books in my room, and now those boxes lined the hallway waiting for the movers.
I looked down at my hands. Somewhere along the line I had cut myself, maybe on the packing tape dispenser. It didn’t hurt, but it was red and raw. Tears welled up in my eyes.
“I don’t want to move.”
Mom kept working, the newsprint staining her hands a pale grey, “I know.”
“Why do we have to move?”
She sighed, stopped what she was doing, and looked at me, frustration evident in her eyes.
“To take care of my mother.”
“But why do you have to do that? Why do we have to move?”
We had had this conversation before, but that didn’t matter. A teenager will ask the same question over and over, always hoping for a different answer.
“Because that’s what you do.”
Because that’s what you do. Fifteen years later these words would echo in my mind as my husband and I prepared to move to East Texas. Years before, my parents had moved back to my mom’s home town so she could to take care of her mother. They had planned that after my grandmother passed away, they would sell their house and retire somewhere else. That didn’t happen. Homes get paid for, people grow older, and the motivation for a new adventure wanes. Instead, the red clay clung to my mother’s feet after years of walking the family farm, with no exit possible. And now it was my turn.
Because that’s what you do.
When my husband and I first settled in East Texas, it was hard. Life behind the Pine Curtain is like nowhere else. While I had visited relatives in East Texas all through my childhood, I had never lived here. I didn’t grow up here. My cousins had called me a “city slicker,” although under my mom’s tutelage I could name every tree and bird that wandered the farm, and hold conversations about cotton farming and ranching with the best of them. But despite this knowledge, I lived in the city, and thus was a “city slicker,” an outsider, an alien.
This was not going to go well.
I mourned the loss of bookstores. I searched for a job but was told repeatedly I was “over qualified.” Every time I turned around some relative was giving me unsolicited advice usually laced with religious platitudes. I had people up in my business with no place to go.
Despite this, I knew my primary job was to look after my parents. We had the same plan as they had had so many years before. When all was said and done, we would pick up and leave and start over again somewhere else, anywhere else, anywhere but here.
But the red clay is sticky. It clings to your heels. You scrape it off, but it keeps coming back. Eventually it becomes a second skin, and you no longer bother. With time the red clay makes you believe you belong, even if in your heart you know you don’t. It becomes home, and the motivation for new adventure wanes.
After my parents died, my husband and I sat down and had a long talk. We were free and could go anywhere, but where? We talked about moving back to a city and decided we couldn’t. We had lost our taste for urban life.
We no longer mourned for bookstores or coffee shops. We made do. We discovered Amazon. We haunted the local diner. We bought property and loaded it with livestock. By now, we were too invested to move easily.
But we talked about it anyway, the entire time knowing we wouldn’t pull up stakes, but we wanted to feel like we had made a deliberate choice to stay. We had carved out a new life, one we enjoyed, and one we didn’t want to give up.
We are rural by choice. While we may always be considered outsider by the local population and my relatives, we don’t care anymore. This is our home. Do we have regrets? Possibly. We have learned not to discuss politics or religion in public. We miss reliable broadband. Our property and animals keep us from visiting our friends who still live in cities. We can’t get away easily. I have to admit to feeling increasingly isolated; life behind the Pine Curtain does that to you. You can’t get out, and others don’t want to come in.
Despite these feelings, we remain. I love watching the sun come up over our pasture. It bounces off the back of our old bull, and we can almost believe he’s young again. On cool days the horses prance like yearlings when my husband goes out to feed them. In the spring the meadowlarks serenade us when we are outside doing chores, and the red-winged blackbirds flash their epaulettes as they fly towards the neighbor’s pond.
We watch and we listen. The red clay has long since left a permanent stain, and we tell ourselves we belong, rural by choice behind the Pine Curtain.
Kelley Snowden lives and works in East Texas.