By Madoline Markham
Photos by Lindsey Culver & Contributed

Front-yard yoga, cross-country RV trips, career changes and moves—neighbors around Homewood share the new directions their lives have taken during pandemic times.

The Family Who Rode a Whirlwind

For Ryanne Player, the start of the pandemic will always be tied to the birth of her youngest child, five weeks before his due date. She and her husband were in the hospital when they  heard the news of the first virus case in Washington. Their son was healthy but had to stay in the NICU for two weeks to grow, and all along she and her husband worried he might lose his job in finance as the stock market prices dropped lower and lower. The day they left the hospital with their newborn was the same day the first case in Alabama was reported.

“Here we were with a preemie baby,” Ryanne recalls. “My mom had a flight, and she ended up having to drive from Dallas to Homewood. When you have a new baby, you want people to come see you, but we couldn’t do any of that. We felt trapped.”

And then in the middle of pandemic life with a newborn, they moved forward with their plans to build a new home.  But first they donated the house they’d lived in for four years on Morris Boulevard—yes, you heard us right. Through an organization called Build Up—run by Homewood resident Mark Martin—their house was transported to Ensley for a family who lives there. “It was the most entertaining thing for all of our neighbors,” Ryanne says. “The move was like a block party to watch.”

As they began to build a new two-story home in the footprint of the previous one, Ryanne says their family saw hope in the world, even as they were living in isolation. “It brought us closer as a family because my husband started working from home,” Ryanne says. “We ate our lunches and dinner together, and we would go look at the house together.”

Looking back on their year with a newborn and building a house in a pandemic, Ryanne says it was a whirlwind—but one full of trusting and hoping.

The Neighborhood Yoga Instructor

Like most people, Allison Crawford found herself at home all day every day when the COVID pandemic began in March of 2020. Instead of teaching group exercise classes and personal training like she’d done for the past 17 years, most recently at the Shades Valley YMCA, she was doing arts and crafts with her three kids, ages 2, 5 and 7. “Eventually I started feeling like I had to do something,” she recalls. “I didn’t have any outlet for myself and felt like I was losing myself.”

So she sent a message to the Forest Brook neighborhood GroupMe asking if anyone would be interested in outdoor socially distanced workout sessions. The response? They wanted yoga. So yoga she gave them. Starting in the early summer neighbors showed up in yoga pants or even pajama pants and brought their mats to her front yard for a laid-back yoga class with everyone spaced out by 8 feet.

Eventually they settled into meeting each Monday at 5 p.m., and cultivating community and relationships along the way. “I feel like it was more of a mental health thing for people versus getting a workout,” Allison says. “That slowing down of your body helps people feel like they can deal with things as they slow down and breathe.”

Sometime between yoga classes and kid crafts, Allison also began to focus on her own mental health mid-pandemic and started an Instagram account, @mamapajamafitness, to share about “how you can exercise without being obsessed with being skinny.”

Even as pandemic measures change, Allison plans to keep front yard yoga classes going as long as people want to come. “I feel like I’m in a much happier place than when I was working a ‘real job,’” she says. “It feels better for me.”

The Mom Who Wasn’t Afraid to Reassess

A few years ago Mary-Kate Carey would have told you she had finally “made it.” She finished her PhD in behavioral analysis in August 2018 and quickly reached the pinnacle of what she hoped to do in her field, working as a director of applied behavioral analysis program for kids with autism at a local nonprofit.

And then came COVID-19. “Then I was forced to stop this fast-paced working mom lifestyle and be still with my kids,” she says. “I started paying attention to this feeling inside me that was unhappiness. When I dug into that, I realized I was trying to fulfill this stereotype I had set myself up.”

Six weeks later she went back to work, but first she told her boss she wanted to move to part-time work to spend more time with her husband and 1 and 5 year olds. As it turns out, she is actually happier professionally doing autism research and training with the same nonprofit agency than in her previous position. “I loved the work I was doing, but it wasn’t making my core happy,” she says today. “It was validating for finding my voice and speaking up for what I wanted to do.”

Mary-Kate admits that some days she faces self-doubt about giving up the “dream positon” in her field. But when she thinks back on how some days in her previous life she would work all day and then drive an hour and a half to teach a college course—somehow fitting in pumping breast milk in between and not seeing her kids all day—she remembers what a game changer her new lifestyle is.

“I feel more connected and engaged with my kids and with my husband,” she says. “I went from doing something that made me marginally happy to what really fulfilled me, but that might look different for everybody else.”

A Homecoming Couple

Anne Marie Nolen and her husband, Clay, were at a crossroads in early 2020. Anne Marie was about to complete a two-year pharmacy residency program in Portland, Oregon, and it was time to figure out where they wanted to live next. They were open to anywhere.

“But then when the pandemic happened, it was difficult to travel home to see family,” Anne Marie says. “It made us reevaluate the priorities in our life. It was great somewhere beautiful like Oregon that was close to the mountains and beach, but at the end of the day what we were looking for was living closer to family.”

And so to family they came. All of Clay’s relatives live in the Birmingham area, and the couple had met in pharmacy school at Samford University—just minutes away from the home they’d buy on Broadway Street in Homewood in July after Clay made a day trip across the country to see it and put in an offer.

With a new house lined up, Anne Marie finished her residency on a Thursday, so they left Portland on that Friday, drove across the country and arrived in Birmingham Sunday night at 11 p.m. Clay started his job the next day.

The couple had only been married a couple of months when the pandemic began, so most of their first year and a half of marriage has been with a pandemic lifestyle. “We are newlyweds now, but it feels like we have been married for 50 years,” Anne Marie says. “It’s been a good road for us.”

And that road has led them back to a familiar area that Anne Marie points out is also close to both the mountains and the beach too. She and Clay enjoy trips to both with their COVID puppy, a miniature longhair dachshund named Dewey, which is short for Andouille sausage (an homage to where Anne Marie grew up in Louisiana).

The Cross-Country Explorers

In late April 2020 the Lewis family pulled out of their Homewood driveway in a 17-foot A-frame pop-up travel trailer with two weeks’ worth of groceries and headed west. School and work had moved remote, so why not see the country? They thought. “There wasn’t a ton of forethought,” Jennifer Lewis recalls. “We plotted out a month not sure if we would make it with four of us and our dog.”

But as the family made their way to Durango, Colorado, with their 3 year old and 10 year old, they started to get in the rhythm of camping in parks within their self-contained family unit. So they kept heading west until they were so awestruck by Northern New Mexico that they decided to stay in Taos for five days.

After they’d explored Yellowstone, they looked at each other, said there was nothing to do at home and asked why not keep going? So on they went to Seattle. “It’s been really neat seeing landscapes I hadn’t thought about and being completely awestruck by the size of the mountains,” Jennifer says.

It was early July by the time the Lewises came back to Homewood at last, when Jennifer’s mom’s Stage IV liver cancer took a turn for the worse after she’d been doing well on a clinical trial. There they paused, but a couple of weeks after her mom passed away, Jennifer says the only thing she wanted to do was get on the road as she grieved. So in September the family headed off to Florida and coastal Carolina beaches, this time in a 24-foot travel trailer with a slide out. “You’d be surprised what 8 feet (difference) will do,” Jennifer says.

As the family finally was preparing to return to “normal life” in late spring of this year, Jennifer reflected back on exploring Americana from the Florida Keys to Seattle with her family. “We have been bit by the camping bug,” she says. “I didn’t think I would like it, but I love it. It made our enormous country accessible.  You get to see slices of communities you would never have had an opportunity to live in before.”