Sometimes a day is more than just a day, and a trip is more than just a trip, especially if it involves a day and a trip through old familiar places encumbered with memories etched deeply from telling and retelling, especially if the trip involves a grown son and his father. Then it becomes a special day that remains vivid over 30 years later, flush with memories called up that day, old memories, but newer memories too, memories that inform the older ones.
It was the autumn of 1985. I remember because Uncle Grady had passed away the year before and Sherrie and I would not marry until the following year. I had driven from Atlanta to Mississippi to visit my parents, when Father suggested we take a trip over to the Delta. Father loved the Delta, its flatness, its vast fields of cotton and soybeans, its lakes, brakes, and bayous. He had been born and raised there, and I had been born and partially raised there, enough so that even though I came of age in Tupelo, in some indefinable way I still thought of the Delta as home.
Father and I rose early the next morning. He was not one who saw the need to wait for daylight if you were taking a trip that day. After a hearty breakfast with Mother, biscuits, bacon, and eggs, off we went in Mother’s Buick, me at the wheel. Father had just turned 60. I was 32.
We took old Highway 6 west out of Tupelo, driving through rolling hills of farm and forest. The shadow of the Buick stretched far out ahead us as the sun rose behind us. The late September air was still warm, but had those first, hard to define hints of fall, a palpable dryness, perceptibly cooler nights.
We passed through Pontotoc, and as we approached Oxford passed the turnoff to Camp Yocona, the Boy Scout camp I attended growing up. This reminded us of the Milams, our next-door neighbors and their eight boys and two girls. Their third son Johnny was my age and we had gone to Scout camp together.
The camp is located just a couple of miles from the Yocona River, which was originally called the Yoknapatawpha, a combination of the Chickasaw words yocona and petopha meaning “split land.” The Yocona flows into the Tallahatchie River which flows into the Yazoo, which essentially meanders along the eastern boundary of the Delta before flowing into the Mississippi at Vicksburg.
And yes, that is where William Faulkner got the name for his fictitious county of which Jefferson stands in for his hometown of Oxford.
We zipped around Oxford on the bypass. When we had first moved to Tupelo in 1962, we would drive through Oxford and the Ole Miss campus on trips back and forth from the Delta. On every trip through the campus’s spreading oaks and stately brick buildings graced by tall columns, I dreamed of the day I might study there.
Those trips through Ole Miss had ended abruptly in October of 1962. James Meredith became the first black to enroll there, and racial tensions were running high. President Kennedy called out the National Guard and federal troops to restore order after the State Highway Patrol, who had been maintaining a semblance of order, were withdrawn.
That October morning, in the days when filling station attendants pumped your gas, checked your oil, and cleaned your windshield, we had stopped for gas on the east side of town. Imagine our surprise and unease to see the attendant wearing a well-oiled revolver in a well-used leather holster on his hip. Like their forefathers a hundred years before, apparently they were ready to take on the Godless Yankees. Sadly, some of them did. At least two people died from gunfire in the riots that followed.
That day Father wisely opted to take the newly-completed bypass around Oxford, and we did so from then on, initially for safety, later for convenience as we did that morning in 1985. Besides, we were planning to stop about 25 miles on at a filling station in Batesville at the intersection of Highways 6 and 51.
Our first home in Tupelo had been a rental on Madison Street. Next door was a small apartment house, two apartments downstairs, two up. That spring four young women, all student teachers, rented one of the apartments, and we got to know them as parking for our house and the apartments was in the shared backyard. One of the young women was from Batesville where her father owned a filling station. On our next trip to the Delta, we stopped and introduced ourselves. These stops became regular features of our trips.
After a short visit, Father and I headed west through town passing the Piggly Wiggly on the left and the offices of Tallahatchie Valley Electric Power Association, the local electrical co-operative, on the right. My grandfather had served on the board of TVEPA which involved monthly meetings in Batesville. After the meetings he would head for the Piggly Wiggly to buy staples for the farm: flour, cornmeal, sugar, coffee, tea, and such, essentially anything the farm did not provide. As soon as I could drive, I would drive him there and back whenever I was staying with them.
As we left town, we took the bridge over the Illinois Central Railroad tracks, which was the original route of the City of New Orleans, the train immortalized by Arlo Guthrie in the song written by Steve Goodman. Later the City of New Orleans was rerouted through Yazoo City and Greenwood.
Unless one is crossing the Mississippi River, all of the routes into the Delta, whether from the east on Highway 6 from Batesville or Highway 82 from Carrollton or Highway 8 from Grenada or from the south on Highway 49 from Jackson, have one thing in common. There is always one last hill. Sometimes you top it and there stretching to the hazy horizon is a flat tabletop of land, green and lush in the summer, gray and fallow in the winter, cut by meandering bayous and brakes. Sometimes it sneaks up on you, the hill after hill getting lower and lower, further and further apart, until the land opens up around you, as flat as the surface of a billiard table as far as the eye can see.
Entering the Delta from Batesville is one of the latter. As soon as you leave town it begins to feel like the Delta, but when you see the old, narrow, concrete and steel truss bridge spanning the Little Tallahatchie River, old because it was built nearly 50 years ago, narrow because it was, well, built nearly 50 years ago when cars were smaller, you know you are nearly there. The thump-thump of your tires rolling over seams in the surface of the bridge that you are really back in the Delta.
For those born and raised in the Delta, something comes over you when rolling down that last hill or crossing that last bridge. For me, despite all the Delta’s contradictions, it is like returning to a place where I know I belong, a place where I understand the people, regardless of race, and they understand me. That must be why it feels like home.
Cotton and soybean fields stretched far into the distance. Soybean combines, their courses marked by the thin haze of chaff rising in the still morning air, worked back and forth across the fields. Large, green John Deere cotton pickers scythed across the fields eight rows at a time.
Soon Father and I crossed the bridge over the Coldwater River which flows into the Tallahatchie, bumped over the tracks of the new route of the City of New Orleans, and rolled into Marks. At the four-way stop, we turned south on Highway 3. Had we gone straight for another 18 miles we would have come to Clarksdale and the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, the Crossroads, the birthplace of the Delta Blues. In 1936, Blues legend Robert Johnson recorded “Cross Road Blues” later covered by Elmore James. Legend says the song refers to this particular place. Then in the late 1960’s Eric Clapton of Cream combined “Cross Road Blues” with another Johnson song “Traveling Riverside Blues” to create the blues-rock classic “Crossroads”.
Highway 61, sometimes called the Great River Road because it generally follows the Mississippi River, is also referred to as the Blues Highway because it connects the Delta with New Orleans, Memphis, and St. Louis. The highway runs within a short drive of Bob Dylan’s hometown Hibbing, Minnesota, whose album Highway 61 Revisited is arguably his best.
But we did not go to Clarksdale that day although a plateful of tamales at Abe’s Bar-B-Q is always a welcome treat. Instead we turned left towards Lambert, four miles south. Besides we were having lunch in Sumner with Aunt Charlene, the widow of Father’s brother Grady. Although dropping in on kin unannounced, even close to mealtime, was not considered rude in those days before cellphones, Father knew that Aunt Charlene would appreciate a call and that it would give her the opportunity to put together something special. So he had called her the day before.
We were ahead of schedule, so in Lambert, we cut over east to 6th Street and headed south on Highway 321, then as now, mostly gravel, running arrow-straight 12 miles to Brazil. Two miles south of Brazil, it sweeps to the left for four miles before intersecting with Highway 32 just east of Webb.
Brazil was our destination, or actually Hiram, two-and-a-half miles north of Brazil. That was where Father spent his last few years of farm life before joining the Navy in World War II, where I had spent summer after summer and countless weekends with his parents whom I adored.
In 1940, my grandparents’ farmhouse has burned to the ground. My father, the youngest of their eight children, was the only one still at home. He was still in high school. The three of them moved into Brazil. In addition to running the farm, Grandfather and Father cut cypress from the bayou and oak from the forest beyond the cow pasture, hauled the timber to the sawmill on the place, and began sawing lumber for the new house.
The next spring, Grandfather paid two brothers and a black man, itinerant carpenters, $300 to build the house that he had drawn on a piece of brown craft paper with Grandmother’s input. That was the house I remembered and the house for which we were headed.
And there it stood, still shaded by oak and mimosa, and protected from road dust by a tall row of hedges. The cowbarn in the distance, the chicken house out back, the smokehouse, they all still stood, though they looked a bit more rickety than I remembered.
We pulled in through the gap in the hedgerow and parked beside the cascading wisteria. The old concrete sidewalk was cracked but the steps to the front porch were in good shape. Before we even opened the screen door to the porch, several faces appeared in the open door to the house, black faces, questioning faces, the faces of an older woman and three small children.
“Does A.J. still live here?” Father asked.
Smiles broke out on every face.
“He sho do,” said the woman. Then I recognized her. It was Loovie, A.J.’s wife.
She invited us into the familiar living room, and there was the man that Father had plowed fields with, had sweated beside in the hot Delta sun, had joked and laughed with at the end of a long day. He and Father recognized each other immediately.
A.J. rose from his chair, and the two men shook hands warmly as A.J.’s grandchildren stared up at them with smiles. The two men looked into each other’s eyes and searched each other’s faces for traces of the young men they had once been. Although of a similar age, A.J. looked much older that Father, no doubt as a result of the hard years spent outside working and later managing the farm.
It had been at least 15 years since I had been in this house on this farm which had been so central to my life growing up. And, yes, it seemed surprisingly small. I had spent entire summers here as a child, and even up through my high school years would find at least a week or two to spend with my grandparents. I was glad that people who understood, people who remembered them, lived in this house, still tended Grandmother’s irises in the front yard.
Father and I only stayed a few minutes, long enough to catch up on each other’s families. A.J. and Loovie’s son Willy, whom I had played with as a child, was out working the fields, so we missed him.
We bade everyone good-bye, but before leaving the farm, we drove across the railroad to the Lot. The house where A.J. and his family had lived when I was a boy still stood on the left close to the peach orchard Grandfather had planted. The mule barn was a rotting derelict, but the tractor sheds were in good repair. Grandmother’s garden site was a soybean field. We decided not to risk the old bridge across Possum Bayou. The bamboo thicket, the source of material for spears and whistles, still flourished by the wellhouse.
Cool, sweet water still flowed from an iron pipe in front of the wellhouse. When I was very small, the women on the place still fetched water here. Waterlines had been run to all the houses on the place now, but the water still flowed from the iron pipe. Many times Grandfather and I had stopped for a cool sip on a hot afternoon, maybe even splashed a little water on our faces and necks. Father and I could not resist. We got out, placed our cupped hands under the flow, and took deep gulps. The water was as cool and sweet as we both remembered.
Continuing on south, we passed the Vinson place on the way to Brazil but did not stop as Mr. and Mrs. Vinson had passed away. In Brazil we were sad to see that Mr. Tate’s store was closed and falling apart. We stopped at Mr. Word’s store which was open, but we did not know the current owners. Where Miss Nettie’s store had stood was a pasture where two horses grazed leisurely.
The Brazil Baptist Church, built the year I was born 1953, looked exactly the same, a solid, brick structure with a small cemetery off to the side. Father’s family had attended the First Baptist Church in Webb until helping to organize the church in Brazil in 1940. Grandfather had lead the singing there when I was growing up.
On Sunday mornings he would tune the television to the Florida Boys or the Happy Goodman Family and sing along to the gospel songs he knew so well. He loved to sing and had a rich baritone voice. Grandfather’s mother was a Blackwood, the same family that had in the 1930’s produced the members of the Blackwood Brothers, the Grammy-winning Southern gospel quartet. As a child I attended Blackwood family reunions with Grandfather and Grandmother.
When it was time to leave for church, Grandfather would turn off the television, take his director’s baton from the mantel, and off the three of would go.
We left Brazil a little sad and headed for Webb where Father reminded me of Grandfather’s friend Mr. Ed Turner. Mr. Turner ran Turner Brothers, a clothing store. An interesting phenomenon of the Delta is the large number of department stores owned and operated by Jewish families, the Kantors, the Goldbergs, the Kornfelds, and in this case, the Turners.
When their house burned in 1940, the Father’s family had needed to replace everything, including their clothes. Mr. Turner had refused payment at the time, reportedly saying, “Henry, I know you’ll pay me when you can, but I suspect you have more pressing needs for your cash right now.”
Father’s brother Dick was an outstanding football player, and had once tackled an opposing player so hard that he knocked the ball carrier out. Father laughed again as he told the story of how he and Dick were in Turner Brothers the next week when Mr. Ed asked the boys to step into his office. Pulling open his desk drawer, he motioned to the revolver resting there, then looked at Dick and said, “Dick, if you ever hit me like you hit that boy last Friday night, I swear I’ll shoot you!”
Mr. Ed held out as long as he could, then erupted into laughter. The man loved a practical joke. Within a year, Mr. Ed had to make good on a promise he made to Dick. He had pledged to give Dick a watch the day he turned 18 if Dick agreed to foreswear Co-Colas, Delta-speak for any carbonated drink, until then, which Dick did.
Sadly, Turner Brothers had been replaced by a generic dollar store. In fact, Webb itself looked none too lively, so our stay was short. We still had a little time before we needed to be at Aunt Charlene. Sumner and Webb are less than three miles apart. Rather than head north on Highway 49W, we decided to take the old Webb-Sumner Road along Cassidy Bayou. We stopped at Woodlawn Cemetery to pay our respects at the Catledge plot. Grandfather had been buried there in 1972, Grandmother in 1974, and Uncle Grady in 1984.
I still miss my grandparents. They were such a formative influence on my life. To this day, any time I am in the Delta, I make time to stop by their graveside for a silent prayer of thanks for all of the love and discipline and instruction that they provided.
We still had a few minutes, so we ran by the Mississippi Power & Light office on the Square in Sumner. Mother’s sister Jean’s husband Charles might be in the office. He was and we had a brief but good visit, catching up on family. Aunt Jean and Uncle Charles had four children: Marsha Jean, Charlie who was my age, Sandy who was my sister Jo’s age, and John.
Charlie and I had played all over Tutwiler as young boys. We pedaled bikes or ridden motorcycles, dipped for crawdads to sell and collected Co-Cola bottles for the refund to buy Cokes and comics, climbed trees to swing on vines, walked the rails across the railroad trestle, hunted and fished, and hung around the airstrip where Uncle Grady and Bill Williams had their crop dusting service. Basically we ate and slept at the house and roamed the rest of the time. I could still hear Aunt Jean, “Cholly, Greg, you two get in here and wash up for supper.”
Charlie passed away in 2012. He was only 58 when cancer took him. His challenges in life were many. He has a beautiful daughter and a grandson that looks remarkably like him.
Bidding Uncle Charles good-bye, Father and I got back into the Buick for the half-mile drive to Aunt Charlene’s. When Uncle Grady retired from managing the Michener Place, he bought a house in Sumner, a spacious story-and-a-half wood-framed house with a wide, deep front porch supported by four stout columns. The house sits on Walnut Street on the south side of town and faces Cassidy Bayou right across the street. The backyard is dominated by an Indian mound crowned with three spreading oaks.
Before moving in, they had the exterior bricked. Ollie, Aunt Charlene’s maid and cook since forever, had moved into town with them but had declined the offer to move into the house with them. She had always had her own place and still wanted one, so Uncle Grady had purchased a mobile home and installed it in the backyard between the house and the Indian mound.
The first thing I noticed when we pulled up the gravel drive was that Ollie’s home was no longer there. I had forgotten that she had passed away. I had known her all my life. She often called me Little Jimmy because I looked so much like my father as a boy. I had visited her in her little wood-framed house out on the Michener place and I had visited her in her mobile home here. In the late 1960’s, she had sat with the family in the First Baptist Church when Charles Grady and Kaye were married. It was hard to believe, but she was gone now.
Aunt Charlene greeted us at the front door. She was a short, plump, bespectacled woman, wearing her usual print dress. Her eyes twinkled behind her glasses as she hugged and kissed us both. She still reminded me of Aunt Bea, only with less flutter. We retired to the parlor and began the delightful process of catching up on all the family news.
After a half hour or so, a stout black woman appeared smiling from the doorway to the dining room, wiping her hands on a checkered apron.
“Miz Charlene, dinner’s ready.”
“Thank you, Essie,” Aunt Charlene replied and we all rose as Aunt Charlene led us into the dining room.
“How you, Mistah Jimmy?” Essie asked.
“Fine, mighty fine, Essie,” Father answered. “How about you?”
“I gets by,” Essie replied. “I still stays up to Tutwiler. Comes down here to help Miz Charlene out from time to time.”
Essie looked me up and down. “My, my, this must be yo boy. He look just like you,” she said.
“He is. This is Greg.”
“Pleased to meet you, Essie,” I nodded.
“Likewise, Mistah Greg,” Essie replied with a bob of her gray head and a hint of a curtsey.
I did not offer her my hand. It would have made her uncomfortable. She knew it and I knew it. Ollie I would have hugged. In fact, I would have already been back to the kitchen to speak to Ollie, but Ollie was gone and Essie and I had only just met.
“I’ve knowed yo famly since, well, since forever,” she added which was no doubt true.
The Mississippi Delta is 200 miles long and only 70 miles wide at its widest and being farmland is sparsely populated. For instance, Tallahatchie County, where Sumner is located, has 24 people per square mile as opposed to 1,500 per square mile in the state capital, Jackson. The largest town, Charleston, has less than 3,000 souls. Sumner, one of the two county seats, had less than 500.
As a result, seemingly just about everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, either knows or knows about or is kin to or has a friend that knows everybody else. A common refrain when meeting someone for the first time is, “I believe I know some of your people.”
For instance, in July of 2016, I was in the Delta for my Aunt Jean’s funeral when I was ticketed for speeding out on Highway 49 just north of Sumner. I went to Sumner the next morning to see if I could pay my ticket.
I climbed the steps into the cool, musty courthouse, the very one in which the murderers of Emmitt Till were tried and acquitted much to the shame of all involved. There I was directed across the street to the Justice Center located beside the small brick building that had once housed the County Health Department where I would bring my grandparents for their monthly B12 shots back in the 1960’s.
The day was shaping up to be a hot one. I was already dressed in my black dress suit for Aunt Jean’s service and broke a sweat just crossing the street. The thermostat in the Justice Center was set to Arctic which immediately chilled my sweaty skin. There was a young black woman at a desk. I gave her my name and my business, and she checked her files. My ticket had not yet been turned in. Then she looked up at me.
“My granddaddy used to work for a Mistah Catledge up from Brazil,” she said. “You must be kin to him.”
I laughed out loud. “Yes, yes, I am. That would have been my grandfather,” I said. “My uncle managed the Mitchener Place for years before retiring and moving into Sumner.”
“You sounded like you might have been form a round here,” she noted and nodded her approval, an unspoken acknowledgement of what we both knew, that being from the Delta was like being a member of a club, a non-dues paying club, at least in the monetary sense, but a club that neither time nor space can ever weaken or dissolve the bonds that tied its collective members together.
We talked about the weather and what brought me back to the Delta. Of course, she knew the Thomases. Uncle Charles had run the Sumner office of Mississippi Power & Light for years. She offered condolences on the loss of my aunt. We were members of the club.
Now properly introduced, Aunt Charlene, Father, and I sat down at the table. Aunt Charlene insisted that Father sit at the head of the table. She took the other end and I sat on the side. Fine china, crystal, and silverware sparkled on the lace tablecloth. A platter of fried chicken was surrounded by a galaxy of bowls: butter beans, crowder peas, creamed corn, fresh tomatoes, squash casserole, and boiled okra. Steam rose from a plate stacked with wedges of fresh cornbread. The entire room was filled with the heady aroma of Southern cooking. It smelled like home.
We passed the dishes, loaded our plates, and ate to non-stop conversation, how Charles Grady and Mary Ann were doing in Atlanta, my prospects for marriage, Father’s plans for retirement. We ate until we were filled, then had peach cobbler with a dab of fresh butter and coffee. We complimented Aunt Charlene and Essie on a truly outstanding meal.
Stuffed, we retired to the den with a second cup of coffee and more conversation. Father had known Aunt Charlene since at least 1935. I had known her all of my life. During my college years in the early 1970’s, I had joined my friend Bobby Fancher for a weekend at Sumner’s First Baptist Church. Bobby was essentially interviewing for a summer job as youth minister at the church, a job he secured.
I stayed the weekend with Uncle Grady and Aunt Charlene. I reminded Aunt Charlene of that weekend and of how she was appalled at what I had planned to wear to one of the events.
“But Aunt Charlene,” I had protested. “It’s just an informal get together at the church.”
She had brooked no discussion. “Come with me,” she had said. “You are not going to my church dressed like that.” She meant not in slacks, shoes, and a striped, long-sleeve pullover shirt.
“I assume you brought at least one collared shirt,” she then asked.
“Yessum,” I answered.
She opened Uncle Grady’s closet and lifted out a sports coat. “This should fit you,” she said. “You may select your own tie.”
Like practically every Catledge male I have ever known, I was already over six feet tall and well filled out at 18. Of course, the sports coat fit.
We laughed at the story all over again. In many ways, Uncle Grady was considered the dourest of Father’s brothers, but a heart attack and his subsequent recovery seemingly changed all of that. He became more voluble and genuinely seemed to relish time with his extended family.
But as a small boy, Uncle Grady had always treated me kindly, indulgently even. In addition to owning the 500 hundred acres that Grandfather had farmed for him and managing the he Mitchener Place, Uncle Grady was a licensed pilot and part owner of a crop dusting service along with Bill Williams which was based in Tutwiler.
I must have been no more than five years old the first time he took me up in a Cessna 150, just the two of us. He even put me in his lap so that I could pretend that I was flying. We buzzed my grandparents’ farmhouse and Grandmother, unbelievably small even as low as we were, came out, shielded her eyes from the sun, and waved. I waved back furiously.
One day, Uncle Grady even convinced Mother to go up with him, to my knowledge the only time she ever got in an airplane. She sat in the back and I sat up front with Uncle Grady. Mother was tense but seemed to enjoy most of the flight. It was the landing that really had her worried. Uncle Grady said, “Don’t worry, Caroline, it’ll be so smooth you won’t even realize when we touch the ground.”
We dropped down low over the grass strip, skimming along right off the ground.
“See what I mean,” Uncle Grady said. “You didn’t feel a thing, did you?”
Mother breathed a long sigh of relief. “Thank God,’ she said, just as Uncle Grady reduced power and let the plane drop the final foot to the ground.
Mother shrieked, then reached forward and slapped Uncle Grady on the shoulder, hard.
“Grady Catledge,” she shouted.
Uncle Grady just laughed. I did too.
Aunt Charlene, Father, and I laughed at the story all over again, there in the cool den.
Soon, all too soon, Essie appeared at the door.
“I’z finished cleaning up, Miz Charlene. I be calling Sonny Boy to come pick me up if’n that’s OK.”
As was customary and accepted, Essie had had her dinner, which was the same one we had, in the kitchen, then put away all of the leftovers and cleaned up.
“That’s fine, Essie,” Aunt Charlene answered.
Father placed his large hands on his knees. “I ‘spect we’d need to be heading back to Tupelo. We’ll be glad to take you home, Essie.”
“You sho that ain’t no trouble?” Essie asked.
As is usual in family partings, at least in the South, maybe everywhere, but certainly in the South, it took a while: admonitions for safe travel, love to be shared with this person and that, the seemingly small things that strengthen the bonds that tie people who love each other together. Father’s family was so close that in my very young days, I did not know which of my aunts and uncles were his six surviving siblings and which ones had married into the family. I still think that is special.
Eventually, we were loaded up and ready to go. We backed down the driveway and rolled down the windows for one last wave good-bye to the sweet woman waving back from the front porch. Aunt Charlene would survive Uncle Grady by 15 years. Several years later after she had moved into a nursing home, Sherrie and I paid her a visit. She looked remarkably the same, a little slower, a little more fragile, but her fingers were still nimble. Our conversation was accompanied by the soft clicks of her knitting needles as she worked on another placemat. A neat stack of her work was stacked on her desk, and insisted that we take a full set for our dining room table. We still have them.
We drove back through the Square, across the railroad tracks and past the still stately but decaying Delta Inn with its mansard roof, gables, and balconies, and out to Highway 49E. On the short drive, Father and Essie spoke of their respective families, the celebrations, losses, and sorrows. Her family roots ran deep in the Delta too. Both families had sweated in the hot Delta sun and shivered in the cold Delta winters, although ours had certainly been the better off all those years.
It was only five miles to Tutwiler. As we neared town, we passed the airstrip tucked into the angle where Highway 49W and 49E converged. For reasons I have never been able to discover, Highway 49 begins in Gulfport and proceeds north to Jackson and on to Yazoo City where it splits into 49W, which runs roughly up the middle of the Delta through B.B. King’s hometown Indianola, and 49E, which runs along the eastern part of the Delta through Bobby Gentry’s (and my) hometown Greenwood. The two highways merge at Tutwiler and continue up through Clarksdale before crossing the Mississippi River into Arkansas at Helena.
Once in town, Essie guided us to her home in a set of row housing.
As Essie got out of the car, she said, “Thank y’all fo bringing me home. Can y’all wait here just a minute?”
Without waiting for an answer she hurried into her home and returned with a two-pound block of yellow cheese wrapped in plastic with a generic white label. In the early 1980’s the federal government began distributing stockpiled cheese to those individuals who were needy, on welfare, or on social security. Everyone called it government cheese.
Essie offered the block of cheese to Father.
“Thank you, Essie, but we’ve got all the cheese we need,” he protested.
“I knows you do, but I wants to say thank you fo going out your way to bring me home. ‘Sides, I know how Miz Carolyn like that gov’ment cheese.”
It was a moment fraught, weighted even, with so much of what makes the Delta the place that it is: an elderly black woman with very little, maybe just getting by, but offering a gift, a token of thanks, a statement of ‘I too have something to offer. I helped prepare and serve your meal and for that I was paid. I accepted your ride which, even though I know was freely given with no expectation, I would offer this thank you, this declaration that I too have something to offer other than my services.’
And Father understood this, as did I. “Thank you, Essie,” Father smiled, “She surely does.”
Father stepped from the car and accepted the cheese, then gave Essie a big hug. I got out and hugged her too, the mild formality of our earlier introduction gone now. We knew each other, had traveled together, if only five miles. I had eaten and enjoyed food she had prepared.
We were not equals, at least in our particulars. She was black, elderly, poorly educated, and poor. I was white, well educated, successful, and reasonably well off. But we were equals in our humanity, our need to love and be loved, our dreams and desires, the importance of home and family, our respect for other people, our respect for each other.
Leaving town, we passed the shuttered barbershop/pool hall/domino parlor of one of Grandfather’s cousins, Oraien Catledge. I had accompanied Grandfather there many times for a haircut. Oraien’s son, also named Oraien, although hindered by failing eyesight became a photographer of note in Atlanta, taking stark, unflinching portraits of the inhabitants of Cabbagetown, a former mill village just east of downtown Atlanta.
From Tutwiler, we turned north on Highway 3 through Vance, Longstreet, Denton, and Lambert, fading little towns with more storefronts shuttered than open. Combines and cotton pickers were still working the fields as the afternoon slipped away.
At Marks, we turned east towards Tupelo, the sun now sinking behind us. Father napped part of the way. We climbed into the hills, again our shadow raced ahead of us. We made it home just as the sun dropped below the horizon, just in time for supper. The last thing we needed was another big meal, but that had not stopped Mother from preparing one. Or us from eating it.
It was just one day, but a particularly good day. Father and I had just talked all day, letting the memories of people, places, and events pour out spontaneously. There had been other days with Father, many other days, my first dove hunt, my first college football game, days spent working in the yard, traipsing through the woods, learning to make a bamboo whistle, but those days became less and less frequent as I grew older, left for college and eventually a career.
As the years passed, and Father slipped into senility, we still had good times together, running simple errands around town, joining his friends at Shockley’s for coffee, snippets captured as time, distance, and other obligations allowed. But that one golden day with Father in September of 1985 was more than just a day or a trip, but a journey together, metaphorical as well as physical, and its memory still lingers enhanced by the accretion of additional memories, still rich and vivid, complex and comforting, especially as all I now have of Father are memories of our days together.