I hauled my wedding china up an outdoor iron staircase and into the second floor of a midtown Craftsman duplex on a broiling August day. It felt like being dropped on a new planet. If I’d ever seen heat make the air actually shimmer before, I hadn’t stayed outside long enough to remember it. And where the hell were all the lakes?
Growing up, my hometowns were like hopscotch. I was born in Minnesota to multi-generation Minnesotans, but then we moved to the Detroit suburbs, then to Pittsburgh, then back to Detroit, and finally back to Minnesota. After leaving for college, I spent the next five years outside Chicago, where I met a Michigander and well, reader, you know what comes next.
But then there was a job offer that couldn’t be passed up, and before I knew it, my fiancé was moving to Memphis. A year later, in the summer of 1999, I joined him. I was a newlywed. I was Mormon. I was 22 years old.
I worked from home for those first few years, and it took a while for me to find a way to fit. I’ve always been self-conscious about speaking around strangers, and it was the first place I’d ever lived where people knew I wasn’t a native from the moment I opened my mouth. It made me quieter. It made me listen more. As a lifelong writer, I started to understand this new language long before I could speak it fluently. Not just the y’alls and drawls, but the subtler differences in meaning. I learned that Yankees aren’t just a subset of New Englanders and that “be careful” was synonymous with “take care,” even though it sounded much more ominous to me.
After a year in that duplex, we bought a house and had kids, and I started to feel a little more settled in. I lost my Chicago job and wriggled into the legendary music scene as a booking agent, while also running a retail business and building a local mama community. But then I got divorced, closed my store, and everything shifted. It wasn’t the first time the metaphorical ground would move under me in this tectonic timebomb of a town. The next 15 years were spent in more homes, careers, and relationships than that newcomer newlywed ever expected. I know “change is a constant” is a cliché, but I feel like it maybe applies to my life a little bit extra. And yet the steadiest thing I’ve known, outside my own family, is Memphis.
This past June, I hit a somewhat shocking milestone. I crossed the point where I had lived in Memphis for more than half my life. When I realized the date was approaching, I did the math and put it on my calendar because, as a kid who went to elementary school in three different states and hadn’t ever been in any one place more than seven years, it was kind of a big deal.
What I feel for Memphis is a conscious, constant choice, even though being here isn’t, exactly. I’m lucky to co-parent with an actively involved father, and we realized pretty early on that, as long as our kids needed us both around on a regular basis, we’d stay near each other. That could have made me feel trapped, but instead it pushed me to root. I connect with Memphis in a way maybe only outsiders can, with a clear view of what makes it different and deep gratitude for how it’s welcomed me in. It is, as a viral video perfectly proclaimed, “the brutiful land in the world.” Beautiful and brutal. Brash and fruitful. Memphis means something. I love it as a place, I love it as a people, and I love it as a promise.
Sometimes when I’m back where I was raised, I sink into it a little and enjoy how easy it feels, but I don’t think I could live with easy anymore. I’ve internalized the hustle and the shoulder chip and the daily reminders that I’m not shit if I’m not doing my part. I know there are unspeakable injustices that continue to shape this place, but I live in perpetual awe and respect of the beauty that pain has produced. It’s a gift I didn’t earn, but it makes me want to try.
I’ll always call Minnesota home because that’s where my people are, but Memphis is home now, too. I’m not from here, but I am undeniably of here. It’s changed my language and my heart. It’s shaped my view of history and my priorities for the future. I left both the church and the marriage I came here with, but Memphis taught me how to make the love of my life an action, not an aspiration.
Virtually nothing is the way I envisioned it 22 years ago. Not everything is better than I pictured, but overall, it’s fair to say I came out ahead. I’m stronger but more vulnerable, kinder but more tenacious, steadier but more (selectively) reckless. Of course, some of that happens with time regardless of location, but I have to give the city her due. Memphis may not have made me, but I wouldn’t be me without Memphis.
Copyright (c) 2022 by Andria K. Brown. All rights reserved. Andria K. Brown has been publishing creative and journalistic work for three decades. She spends the rest of her time as a marketing executive, concert presenter and mother of two Memphians.