Chapter One of INTO THE DELTA, a novelized account of my family’s move from the Mississippi Hill Country to the Delta.
They had been driving nearly all day. Grady glanced over at his mother in the passenger’s seat. Stray strands of her auburn hair had slipped from under her hat and whipped in the wind. Her cheeks were ruddy with the cold. He assumed his were too as well as those of his three sisters huddled in the back seat. Not that is was particularly cold today, not for January anyway, but unlike some of the newer models, their Model T had no glass in the windows on each side, only a windshield.
The first part of their trip, winding through the wooded hills of Choctaw County on gravel or dirt roads, had been dusty. But most of the roads in Montgomery County and now in Carroll County had been paved, thankfully. Still, they had stopped often at places like French Camp, Kilmichael, Winona, and Carrollton, for gasoline sometimes, but mostly to stretch their legs and step into a local store to get warm.
Here, the road was as straight as an arrow, due west through alternating stretches of fallow, brown fields and thick stands of forest, black tree trunks and limbs bare of leaves. A pale-yellow sun hung low in the sky ahead of them. Grady estimated it would be dark in two hours. They chugged up the next hill, slowing as they neared the top. Grady reluctantly downshifted. They topped the hill and started down the far side just like they had been doing for the last three hours.
Grady’s father and his brother Morris Bailey were somewhere ahead of them in the two wagons loaded with all the family owned. They had left three days earlier. Grady and his mother and sisters had stayed with Granpaw Lige and Granmaw Becky on their place outside of Concord, giving the wagons a head start. Grady expected to overtake Father and Morris Bailey by the time they reached Greenwood.
The Model T crested yet another hill, and Grady quickly braked to a halt right there in the middle of the road. They were atop the last hill. From here the road went down, down, down to a flat expanse of farmland, clad in winter’s ochres and grays, broken only by thin verges of brown forest and the serpentine courses of rivers and bayous, some fringed with evergreen cypress. Sadie Belle, Willie, and Maurice craned their necks to see. Sadie hung her head out of the window.
Grady stared straight ahead, his eyes drinking in the view, as he spoke, as much to himself as to his mother.
“I’d heard about the Delta, how flat it was. Father described it often, but I was not prepared for that first time I saw it last month with Father. Seeing it is another thing altogether, isn’t it?”
He turned to look at his mother who was staring straight ahead at the flat expanse before them.
“What do you think, Mother?” he asked.
“I think this place will be good for us, for all of us. Your father is a good farmer,” she said.
He turned back to stare across the Delta. He stretched out his left arm and turned his closed fingers perpendicular to his palm, then measured the distance from the sun to the horizon, just like father had taught him, an hour per hand-width, fifteen minutes per finger. Yes, they would reach Greenwood before dark.
“I imagine that it will not be long before more of the family heads this way. Your father’s parents are already considering the move,” Mother added.
Sadie punched Grady in the shoulder.
“When will we get to Greenwood?” she asked. “I want to see a real city.”
“Me, too,” the other girls chorused.
“And I’m cold,” Maurice, he youngest, added.
“Not long at all,” Grady answered. “Should be a good road, and flat.”
He imagined that he could see Greenwood from the hilltop although he knew he could not.
“Carrollton was our last stop. We’ll be there soon.”
Grady had memorized the map, knew every town and distance between Ackerman and Greenwood and on up to Friendship just west of Sumner. He pressed the pedal to engage low gear, pulled down on the throttle, and they started down the last, long hill into the Delta.
To his mother he added, “Still, it is hard leaving all of our people back at Concord. Harder than I expected. Won’t you miss Grandpaw Bailey and Great-grandmaw? I know I will. Father’s folks too.”
For the first time in his life, Grady felt somewhat lost. He had grown up surrounded by kin, mostly Catledges, Granpaw Lige’s two brothers and their families, five of Father’s six surviving brother’s and their families, but also Mother’s father and grandmother, the Baileys and Porters, and Mother’s sister and her family, not to mention all of Granmaw Becky’s Blackwood kin. They were leaving all of that behind, along the hills and creeks he knew so well, for a flat, near featureless land filled with strangers.
Mother nodded and turned away from him.
“Yes, it is hard,” she whispered, the wind from the open window whipping her words away.
They sped down the flat, paved, straight road and soon reached the outskirts of the city. In the distance, water towers and tall buildings rose above the housetops. They rolled into town on the Carrollton Highway and crossed the railroad tracks just above the station. An engine sat huffing steam and smoke as passengers came and went while freight was loaded and unloaded. Warehouses lined the rails to their left. the streets were paved with brick.
“Grady, do you remember how to get to the hotel?” his mother asked.
“Yes, Ma’am. We take a right up ahead on Howard Street. The hotel just up from there on the left, the Hotel Irving.”
By now all three of his sisters were staring out the windows, pointing out this or that to each other. They did not sound cold or tired now. The passed by storefronts filled with merchandise, occasionally pulling around a horse- or mule-drawn wagon. But mostly the streets were filled with cars and trucks.
At Howard Street, they turned right and there a block away on the left was the Hotel Irving, four stories high, all brick, practically brand new, the finest hotel in Greenwood, maybe the whole Delta. Grady pulled up and parked on the curb in front of the hotel. He quickly got out and was about to open the door for his mother when he heard a clatter and a swish of spraying water. He leapt to the running board just as a black truck with a large black tank rattled by spraying water. On the tank it read “Commercial Division-Greenwood, Miss.-Street Cleaning Dept.” Grady stepped down to the freshly-cleaned bricks, opened the door for his mother, and helped her out. His sister tumbled out right behind her.
Holding the heavy door for all four of them, Grady entered the lobby of the hotel. He strode across the slick marble floor and up to the immense wooden front desk like he had been doing this sort of thing all his life, or at least he thought he did.
An elderly, bespectacled man behind the desk smiled.
“May I help you, young man?” he asked.
“Yes, Sir,” Grady replied. “We are the Catledge family. My father, Henry Catledge, and my brother should have already arrived and made arrangements for all of us.”
Grady nodded in the direction of his mother and sisters.
The clerk placed his forefinger at the bridge of his eyeglasses and pulled them down his nose to peer over the lenses at Grady.
“They have indeed,” he said. “And if I may say so, I see the family resemblance.”
Grady blushed slightly, embarrassment and pride comingled. He worshipped his father and secretly relished the comparison.
The clerk continued, “I believe your father and brother are in the dining room off the lobby. Do you have luggage?”
“Yes, Sir, we do.”
“If that is your car out front, I will have a bellboy take your luggage up to the rooms your father reserved. The ladies will be able to freshen up very shortly.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Grady replied. “I think we will step into the dining room.”
Grady turned. His tall, slender mother and his three sisters, stair-steps at nine, seven, and four years of age, all clad in dark colors dusty from the drive, waited with various degrees of patience near an array of potted plants. He smiled to himself as he crossed to them.
“Father and Morris Bailey are in the dining room. Shall we join them?” Grady asked, humor lacing his tone, a rare thing.
“What about our luggage?” Mother asked.
“It will be taken to our rooms. You will be able to freshen up soon. Let’s go see Father and Morris Bailey first.”
Grady extended his left elbow and his mother slid her right arm through his. Sadie took Willie and Maurice by the hand, and Grady led them all into the adjacent dining room.
The dining room was elegant, chandeliered and wood-paneled room, like nothing Grady had ever seen before. He heard a collective intake of breath from his sisters behind him, and Sadie whispered, “Golly.”
Soft light filtered through the tall windows and fell on the few, scattered patrons. China cups and saucers clinked above the low hum of conversation. Grady spied his father and brother immediately. They were seated at a table drinking coffee deep in discussion.
A young man approached and offered to seat them. Grady was about to answer when his father looked up and spied them. As his father rose a smile split the familiar angular features. Morris Bailey turned and his face too broke out in a grin.
The two groups converged and met in the middle of the dining room. Abandoning all decorum, they all embraced and kissed as if it had been two years, not two days, since they had seen each other. Grady did not mind at all. This was the first big adventure in his young life.