Tag Archives: Mississippi Delta

One Day with My Father

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 hope. 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 Mary Ann 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.

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Beside Still Waters

I have recently completed the first revision of my novel, Beside Still Waters. Here are the first two chapters. More will follow. If there is interest!

WINTER, FALLOW

1 – IT HAD BEEN WINTER THEN TOO

The rays of the weak winter sun, diffused by high thin clouds, flooded the kitchen with pale, white light. The old man’s hands rested on the checkered tablecloth that covered the kitchen table, big hands, weathered, curled in repose.
It was warm and quiet in the kitchen. The only sounds were the susurration of gas vaporizing in the heater, tiny tongues of blue flame heating the waffle pattern of the ceramic bricks cherry red; that and the soft, domestic clattering of his wife at the stove. A one-pound coffee can half-filled with water sat steaming on the fender of the heater, releasing moisture into the stove-heated, dry air.
From time to time the northwest wind, sweeping unhindered down from the Great Plains and across the Mississippi Delta, would whip another gust against the house with enough strength to rattle the windows. But inside it was warm and protected and redolent with warmed-over leftovers.
The old man told a story which was at one moment rich in vivid, life-giving detail, draping flesh to bone, then opaque, lost in a frustrating paucity of telling features, like an old man’s memory, which it was, dredged up from over a lifetime ago, memories long buried, subsumed, as a long-suppressed shame, which in part it was, but recounted now with a firm conviction that the years of silent, unshared retrospection had imparted, obliterating any uncertainty or equivocation of thought, will, or intent that might have existed at the time.
He shifted his gaze from the boy across the table and stared absently out the window across the ocher stubble of the pasture and field to the gray smudge of the distant forest, a diminished remnant of what it had been when he had first come here, still rich in thick stands of oak, wild brakes, sloughs and bayous, small game and deer, gray and red fox, too. But it was only a shade of its former self, too little left to sustain the bear and panther which were hunted out long ago as the shadowed world they roamed was remorselessly reduced by axe and plow and given over to pasture and field, the woods still wild but no longer primeval, subdued now, diminished if not tamed.
His wife, almost as old as he, adjusted the heat on the stove as she warmed their supper and listened with belying inattention. She knew some of the story but not all. She never had. They were of a time and place, another world really, where the orbits of men and women, the things they shared and discussed, even if married to each other, overlapped far less than in these days.
But it was more than that, much more. There were things he talked about with men, men who shared the same goals, desires, and hopes: bank shares and loans, cotton prices and gin rates and yields per acre, things he would never have even thought to share with her. Just as he would never have presumed to interfere with how she managed their home and household expenses or raised their children.
But it was even more than that. There had been men he could not understand with motives he could not fathom and threats he could not ignore, things that he wanted desperately to shield her from.
But even that was not the whole of it. He had never shared with his wife, the mother of all his many children, the only woman he had ever loved, all that he had risked, all that he had dared, the part of him that he had sacrificed during that first year of their marriage.
The house in which they now lived was larger than that other one but still wood-framed, still simple, still painted white although green striped fabric awnings stretched over metal frames shielded the windows from the remorseless Delta summer sun. That other house, long gone now, had been warmed by wood-burning fireplaces, cooking done in a wood-burning stove. Now gas appliances made all of that easier, although he was not convinced it was better, only easier, but there was something to be said for that.
It had been winter then too, when it had all started, not deep winter with the ground frozen iron-hard and brittle branches rattling in the northwest wind like the sound their antlers make during the tentative jousting of bucks in rut, but that last gasp of winter when one senses that spring is just holding its breath waiting for the right moment to exhale.
The old man paused and without conscious thought ran the blunt fingertips of his left hand along the scar on his left temple just above the templepiece of his wire-rimmed glasses. The scar was as wide and long as his forefinger, not deep, not even puckered, faint, lighter than his sun-browned face, almost white. His big hand drifted down his cheek and across his mouth, then dropped back to the kitchen table.
“This all happened a long time ago, 1905, to be exact. Your grandmother and I had only been married about a year,” the old man spoke slowly, softly.
He hesitated and looked at the boy across the table not sure exactly why he felt compelled, after all these years, to tell the story or why he chose to tell it now, to this boy, one of their many grandchildren. Was it because the boy had spent so much time with them, had followed him all over the Place until he knew every inch of the farm and woods as well as the old man did, had listened enthralled to so many old stories?
His decision made, the old man continued, “You know, I’ve never told anyone this before, but I have to now. Son, old age doesn’t just take your strength, it takes your memories too. Almost everyone else is gone now. All but one, and she doesn’t know the entire story, no more than I do. When the two of us are gone it will be lost.”
The old man hung his head. “And I don’t want the story lost,” he said, even as he thought, too much had happened, things that had shaped him and consequently his entire family, even this smooth-faced, eager boy across that table from him.
He raised his dark eyes and looked into the boy’s face, unlined, innocent, trusting, on the verge of manhood, just a few years younger than he had been when it had all started. The old man paused. Could he have been that young, that innocent then? No, not quite so much. After all, he already had a family at that time and responsibility for a farm, the farm which he now owned and on which he still lived.
“I wadn’t much older than you when I first came to New Bethel,” the old man sighed. “But I already had a couple of crops behind me when it happened.”

2 – THE FADING OF THE DAY

With a gentle pull on the reins and a light touch of the brake, the man eased the creaking wagon to a halt in the middle of the bridge. The mules stood patiently in the weak, late winter sun, their hindquarter muscles twitching in that peculiarly equine manner to the perceived presence of imaginary flies. The only sound was the soft rattle of trace chains and the occasional hollow thump of a hoof against the sun-bleached planks of the bridge when one of the mules shifted its weight.
The man draped the reins across his thigh, stretched his back, and lifted the brown hat from his head to run his fingers through his short, dark hair. Settling his hat back on his head, he re-gathered the reins, but instead of calling up the team, he leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and let his eyes drift over the edge of the rail-less bridge to the still, brown water of Flautt Bayou far below. The low-angled rays of the sun filtered through the trunks of the cypress trees rising from the murky water in fluted columns like ancient architecture, casting alternating bands of light and dark across the water, sun and shadow.
The man pulled his makings from his coat pocket, folded the paper into a little trough which he filled with tobacco from his pouch, and rolled a cigarette. He struck a match on a bolthead of the wagon’s seat, lit his smoke, and again stared at the water.
The sluggish water was brown, but not really muddy. It was so still that one had to take it on faith that the water in the bayou even moved at all, except after a heavy rain. Rather, silt and untold number of decaying leaves and other vegetation had released tannins giving it that distinctive flat, almost milky, brown color, like cloudy tea. The occasional bubble broke the otherwise surface, gas released by rot and decay in the murky depths. The man knew all these things without even thinking, knew it as one understands and internalizes his world.
Even seated on the wagon, it was obvious that the driver was a tall man. His attire was as dull and monochromatic as the surrounding countryside: hat, jacket, tie, trousers and boots, everything was some shade of gray or brown. Only his stark white shirt relieved the monotony.
He shifted on the hard wooden seat and stared at his wrists protruding from his coat and wondered why it was so hard to find a coat that fit his frame and had sleeves long enough to cover the wrists on his inordinately long arms. One of the mules shook its head. The abrupt movement was transmitted up the reins and brought the man out of his reverie. The day was fading, more cold already seeping into the chill, late winter air. He had just enough time to make his last delivery.
The fruit trees, their root balls wrapped in heavy burlap, had been delivered to the train depot in New Bethel from Stark Brothers Nurseries on Monday. The rest of the week he had been at the depot by dawn to rewet the burlap, load the wagon and make his rounds, delivering the trees that local farmers had ordered months ago. Many of the farmers ordered and planted in the fall, but some preferred the spring. The Mississippi Delta’s long growing season and relatively mild winters allowed for success either way.
As a representative for Stark Brothers, it seemed that between selling and delivering trees that he had met nearly everyone in Okaloosa County in the few short years he had lived north of New Bethel. But the time away from the land he farmed meant that fewer chores had been accomplished, although the extra money was welcome. Any money that he didn’t have to borrow to make his crop was money he wouldn’t have to worry about repaying.
After one last draw on his cigarette, the man rolled the last shreds of tobacco and flimsy paper between his fingers. The remnants cascaded from his fingers only to be lifted away by the winter breeze, as ephemeral as the smoke that drifted from his nostrils. He flicked the reins and the mules eased back into their plodding gait, pulling the wagon off the bridge with a clatter and into the ruts in the hard-packed dirt road. The Gentry place was not far, but it would be dark by the time he made it home. It was his last delivery and Mattie would have supper waiting, maybe squirrel stew, one of his favorites.
He hated being away so much this week and not just because of the untended chores. The baby was due soon, their first, and the strain on the once slender wisp of his young wife was obvious. Not that she ever complained. In fact, the patience and serenity that was so inherent in her character, if anything, seemed to be enhanced by the mere idea of the new life growing within her.
The road stretched away through gray, fallow fields, stubble from last season’s cotton was barely visible, having been cut and plowed under after last season’s harvest leaving softly rounded furrows after the winter rains. Soon turning plows and middle-busters would be digging deep beneath the dry surface to reveal the moist, black earth below where the moisture from those winter rains and snow was stored. Jake knew from experience that the Delta got more rain in the winter than in the summer, his rain gauge and records didn’t lie, but it sure didn’t seem that way.
Maybe it was because he was indoors a little more in the winter, or maybe it was because in the summer he was always concerned about whether he was getting too much or too little rain. Too much early rain could flood the fields and drown the crop; too much rain later could mean that he wouldn’t be able to plow the rows to kill the weeds that would sap the moisture and nutrients and choke his crop, compelling him to the alternative of sending the hands into the fields for the exhausting, back-breaking work of chopping the weeds out with hoes. Too little rain at any time could stunt the crop, and if it was dry for too long it could burn the cotton up in the fields. A lot could go wrong, either way, during the planting, growing and harvesting seasons.
No, he thought, winter was somewhat of a respite for farmers. Not from work, there was always plenty to do, but it gave them the opportunity to think of weather in the abstract rather than the particular. In many ways it was a hard life and a challenging one, the only life he had ever known. It was such a part of him, so deeply planted, that he never even thought in terms of whether he actually cared for it or rather he would rather do something else.
Making a crop was what he did, how he provided for himself and his family, but it was more than that, too. There was a deep satisfaction that he felt but hardly ever articulated, even to himself, but it was there nevertheless: the relentless, renewing wonder of growing things; empty, desolate fields erupting with life; then tended, cared for through growth, blossom, maturity, and harvest; ever new and ever beautiful, but in its own way a violent struggle, the struggle for life anew.
A wagon wheel dropped into a rut with a jarring thud, jerking the man from his contemplation. The fields on either side of the road were giving way to the scattered frame houses of farmhands on the Gentry place. Twisted tendrils of woodsmoke curled upward from brick chimneys into the still air before slowly dissipating among the bare limbs of black-trunked trees spreading above shacks of weathered boards huddled desolately along the road.
As the road curved, the man could just make out Mister Gentry’s Commissary through the oak saplings, saplings he had delivered here only a couple of years ago, his first season in Okaloosa County.
A sharp crack almost like a pistol shot shattered the winter stillness. The man jerked his head around toward the nearest house to see two men, bodies clutched together in a frantic, clawing embrace, hurdle off the porch and land with a dull thud on the hard ground.
The man hesitated, realizing he had only heard the door of the hovel slam open against the wall. It looked like it was barely hanging from its hinges. He stared at the motionless bodies amid the softly settling dust. Slowly the more slender man, the one on top rolled to the side and up onto his knees, his mouth bleeding, a smear of blood on the front of his patched and stained overalls.
The man hauled back on the reins and flipped them around the brake pole and leapt from the wagon before it even stopped rolling. Charging across the yard toward the two men, he came to a halt and gaped at the body of the larger man lying face-up on the ground. Thick, dark blood, nearly black in the fading light, oozed around the blade of a small hunting knife which jutted from his chest and was already soaking into the man’s clothing. The man recognized the body still sprawled out on the ground. It was one of Gentry’s hands, Rad Timmons.
The man’s mouth tightened into a grim line as he stared at the kneeling man. “What happened here? You hurt?”
The smaller man gradually became aware of his presence and pulled his stunned, anguished face up from staring at his cupped, bloody hands. Tears pooled at the edges of his eyes and made moist tracks down his dusty cheeks. It was not a man. It was only a boy, Rad Timmons’ oldest son, Henry.
A flat, hesitant voice answered, “I – I don’t know, Sir. It’s hard to say just what happened. Is he dead?”
The man squatted by the body carefully avoiding the spreading puddle of lifeblood, already beginning to soak into the packed dust, and kneaded the still-warm flesh of Timmons’ neck, searching for the pulse he never found. The sweet-sick miasma of cheap liquor hovered around the dead man’s face. The man grimaced, swallowed the bile rising in his throat, looked sideways from under the brim of his hat.
“He certainly is, Son. How about you? You hurt?” he asked for the second time.
The boy, his blood- and sweat-soaked overalls and shirt plastered to his chest, rose slowly, unsteadily to his feet. Tall for his age, he looked no more than 15, and rail thin to boot. He was so thin and dazed that he looked insubstantial, as if he might disappear in bright sun or be completely dissipated by a strong wind.
No, Sir.” The boy’s voice was flat. “Only from being hit.”
The man stood too. “Wanna tell me what happened?” He prayed it was an accident.
“He come home drunk again. H–he kept hitting Momma. He wouldn’t stop. I tried to make him stop. You know how he could git.”
The man really did not really know that much first hand but had some idea based on his few experiences with Rad Timmons, what he knew about some of the company Rad kept, and certain things that he had heard, some of which he believed.
“Go on.”
“That’s when he started hitting me. I hit him back, the first time I ever did that.” The boy sighed. “That’s when he went crazy-like. He kept hitting me, harder and harder. The next thing I knew he had a knife. Everything else is just a jumble ‘til we landed in the yard. Did I really kill him?”
“I’m afraid so. Let’s get him covered up. Where’s your momma?”
He looked up to see a woman standing in the doorway, simultaneously tugging at her torn dress and apron while trying to push stands of her disheveled hair back under the faded rag tied around her head. Her thin, almost gaunt, face already livid red where her husband had struck her, could not hide the stunned expression on her face nor the deep lines that life had carved there.
“He’s daid, ain’t he, Mister Jake?” Her gaze was steady but the question caught in her throat.
“Yes, Vertie, I’m afraid he is. Are you hurt?” Jake felt curiously uncomfortable looking at her, kept involuntarily averting his eyes. He had never seen a woman who had been beaten.
She sagged against the doorframe and a sob wracked her shoulders, whether from the death of her husband or the fact that her son was responsible Jake could not tell. Both facts had distinct and profound dimensions that the new widow would be forced to plumb, if not articulate, after the shock wore off, but not now. Now they were just part of the enormity of a single act.
“I’ll be alright,” Vertie replied, gingerly drying her battered face with a corner of her apron. “Besides, a coupla bruises ain’t my biggest worry right now.”
As uneasy as he was looking at her, Jake could sense the weight that was beginning to settle on the woman, inevitable and crushing. She looked like she might collapse at any moment.
Jake started toward the porch, but the boy leaped up ahead of him, gently placing his arm around her shoulders for support, taking care to keep his blood-smeared hands and clothes from brushing her. Jake watched as the boy’s dirty, tear-stained face softened as he comforted his mother. Not the first time, I’ll bet, thought Jake.
The boy looked down into his mother’s upturned face. “Don’t worry, Ma. Everything’ll be alright,” he whispered.
Brave young man, Jake thought, especially considered what just happened. I hope he is right.
The distant, happy, unaffected chatter of children drifted over the fields in the crisp air and brought Jake’s attention back to the task at hand. “Where are the other children?” he asked.
“Down by the slough, playing,” Vertie answered.
“They weren’t here for any of it?’
“No, thank heaven,” she sighed.
“Probably for the best. Mister Gentry up at the house?” Jake wasn’t sure if the Gentrys had returned from their trip.
“No, he and the family’s been visiting kinfolk for the last coupla days. Should be back later tonight.”
“Sounds like him. Wouldn’t dream of traveling on Sunday or even being away from home, would he?”
“I reckon not.”
Jake thought for a minute. “If you’ve got something to cover him with, I’ll unload these trees over at the Commissary and bring the wagon back so we can load the body and take it into town. I expect I had better take the boy along with me.”
“No, no,” she pleaded, clutching her son more tightly to her. “Please don’t, Mister Jake. Henry’s only a boy.”
“I know that, Vertie,” Jake said, staring at the boy, “and I know how much you depend on him, but a man is dead. The sheriff has to be told, and he’ll want to talk to him. But first I ought to get this body to town. Doc Tate ought to have a look at you, too.”
Gathering herself together, she pled, “Oh, no, no, I cain’t go into town looking like this. Folks think poorly enough of us as it is. I’ll be alright. Besides, I got the kids to gather in and feed.”
“Well, alright then, but let’s get this cleaned up. Don’t call the children up ‘til we are gone,” Jake said with finality and turned toward the wagon.

It was less than a quarter-mile to Gentry’s Commissary, a large, low building with a wide, deep porch that ran all across the front and halfway down both sides. As Jake suspected there was no light within. The Commissary would be locked. A black and tan hound resolved itself from the dusty gloom of the crawlspace as the wagon rattled up to the porch. The dog stretched, head low and hindquarters high, then clambered up the steps onto the porch, waiting expectantly to be petted.
Jake pulled the wagon right up to the edge of the porch for ease of unloading and stepped right onto the porch. The old dog ambled over and Jake scratched him behind the ears.
“Hey there, Old Fella,” Jake said into the deep brown eyes.
The hound closed his eyes in apparent bliss. When Jake withdrew his hand, the old hound moved aside, walked in a circle, and settled on the well-trod planks and dropped his chin to his extended front paws as he watched Jake unload the trees.
Jake lined the trees up neatly along the south wall to provide them warmth from the morning sun. He considered going to the wellhouse for a bucket of water to rewet the root balls, but decided against it. Too much to do, and the trees would keep until tomorrow when one of Gentry’s hands noticed them.
Jake reached down to pet the old hound one last time before settling back into the wagon seat and turning back toward the Timmons’ house.
By the time Jake got back from unloading the trees at Gentry’s Commissary, the last of the sun’s rays were brushing the distant treetops, burnishing them all golden even as their lower limbs and trunks were dissolving into gray.
Jake knew that Mattie would soon begin to worry a little, not much, but a little. She knew as well as he that a mule could pull up lame or a wagon wheel might cause a problem. Life had its uncertainties, as Jake knew now more surely than ever before. There was just not much he could do about it at the moment.
Vertie Timmons had cleaned her face, straightened her hair, and changed into a clean, though shabbier, dress than the torn one she had removed. She had also found a faded but clean piece of blanket to cover Rad’s body, the outline of a man’s body distinct despite the sickening way the handle of the knife held the blanket clear of the chest. Like a teepee, Jake thought.
Henry had changed his overalls and washed up. The boy’s hair was still damp. In his ragged coat, he stood beside his mother on the porch, his arm again around her shoulder.
“Time to go, Son,” Jake called softly.
What a grim job, Jake thought, having to load up your own father’s body, especially when it’s you that’s killed him. It was going to be a long ride into New Bethel.
Henry embraced his mother and reassured her again before stepping down from the porch to help Jake. They loaded the limp, sagging, unwieldy body into the wagon bed. There was nothing left but a small pool of drying blood. With the toe of his boot Jake kicked some dust over it, but though obscured, the stain remained.
Jake looked up. Vertie was coming from the porch with a sloshing pail of water.
“Leave it, Mister Jake. I’ll dash some water over it,” she said with finality and a sense of resignation.

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How Distant Is the Past?

I was ruminating on the passage of time, the way the years seem to slip by faster and faster the older one gets. For some reason I thought of something that happened the summer I turned eight years old.

It was 1961. As was not uncommon, I was spending the summer on my grandparents’ farm two-and-one-half miles north of Brazil, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta.

One day in late summer, August, I think , Pop – the same name my grandchildren who have heard and read countless stories about my Pop, call me – informed me that we were going to visit Mrs. Ferguson for her birthday.

Pop and Mr. Ferguson had been great friends. In fact, at one point Pop was purchasing a place out at Friendship (where my father was born) from Mr. Ferguson and his sisters in the late 1920’s when the Great Depression struck. Unable to make his annual payment, Pop asked for additional time. That was fine with Mr. Ferguson, but his sisters disagreed  and outvoted him. Pop lost the farm and every dollar he had put into it.

It is hard to imagine how crushing that must have been, but it did nothing to diminish Pop’s and Mr. Ferguson’s friendship which lasted until Mr. Ferguson passed away. Pop took over management of the King place shortly thereafter.

I was not enthusiastic about putting on church clothes on any day other than Sunday. Actually I was not very enthusiastic on Sunday either, but Cat – that is what I called my grandmother – insisted, and off we went.

What do I remember about that summer day in 1961? I remember that Mrs. Ferguson’s garden was close to her house and that she had rows of tall sunflowers down one side of the garden with blossoms the size of saucers tracking the sun’s progress. Sparrows and finches flitted among the stalks, chattering incessantly.  The house was wood-framed and painted white. Despite  the usual humidity it felt and smelled dry and slightly musty inside. The rooms were filled with curtain-filtered sunlight cascading through tall, open windows.

I approached Mrs. Ferguson cautiously. She was very old, thin but not frail, lively actually, and seated in a rocking chair where she was receiving her guests and well-wishers. I shook her dry hand and mumbled ‘Happy Birthday, Miz Ferguson,’ then got a cup of punch and settled into an unobtrusive seat in the corner.

Soon Mrs. Ferguson’s parlor was filled with people, mostly very old people to my thinking, and the stories started flowing with the gentle give and take of people with long and intertwined histories, but the parts that stuck out with me were the old, old stories. You see, it was not just any birthday. It was Mrs. Ferguson’s 100th birthday.

I may only have been eight years old, but I could do arithmetic and had some idea of the history of the South, so I quickly put together that Mrs. Ferguson had been born in 1861, the year before the Civil War began. She did not remember much about the War, but the hard times after the War were vivid. The stories eddied and flowed about the room, hard times and flush, good crops and bad, loved ones gone, nods of agreement and gentle corrections of imperfect memories.

So how distant is the past? Most people consider the Civil War ancient history, but it resounds in many families. Cat never knew her mother who passed away two months after Cat was born, and ironically Cat’s mother never knew her father who died of pneumonia in North Carolina on his way back to Mississippi from the surrender in Virginia. In fact, he is buried less that ten miles from where I in live in Charlotte.

And I am a white man. How much more must that war, that truly watershed moment, resound in the lives of the descendants of freed slaves?

Viewed in that light, the past does not seem quite so distant. A few years ago, I told the story of Mrs. Ferguson’s 100th birthday party to a black co-worker. He stared at me in disbelief, trying to process the concept that he was talking to someone who had heard stories of the Civil War from a survivor of that conflict.

 

How distant is the past? Both near and far. The span of long lives allows for the transfer of a sort of institutionalized knowledge, which only has value when shared and internalized and used to inform our lives and actions.

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The Mississippi Delta

I have just finished reading Richard Grant’s Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, and yes, the title is perfect because not only is there a Pluto, MS, but the Mississippi Delta in many ways might as well be another planet. Or former planet. Or dwarf planet. Or whatever.

Regardless, Mr. Grant’s book about a British travel/adventure writer and his then girlfriend who move to the Delta on a whim, grabbed me by the throat. Having been born in Greenwood and having spent an inordinate amount of time on my grandparents’ place two-and-a-half miles north of Brazil and generally roaming around the Delta visiting my 32 aunts and uncles and numberless cousins, the book was somewhat of a travelogue of my youth.

But more than just a travelogue of places,  more importantly it was a travelogue of the cultural, social, and racial geography of a place like no other. A place that one never quite gets out of their system no matter how many years pass or how far away they roam. I have not lived there in 54 years and presently reside in North Carolina, but I will always be a son of the Delta.

A place of friendly and open-handed people of all races, of wealth and soul-crushing poverty, of strangely institutionalized racism where people mostly get along with each other, the Delta makes me laugh until tears roll down my face, renews my faith in humanity, and breaks my heart again and again. Often all at the same time. And this is the part that Mr. Grant gets absolutely right, not just the dichotomies of the place and its peoples, but the polychotomies, if you will. People of the Delta cannot only hold two opposing views simultaneously but often several. With very little effort. That is just the way we are. That is just the Delta.

And this too is the Delta. I recently connected with a childhood friend that I have not seen or had any contact with since the third grade. He too has wandered far from the Delta, all the way to the west coast but has returned to land farmed by his great-grandfather. We have had a high old time catching up online, but that is nothing compared to the time we will have on my next trip to the Delta. We will travel some backroads, both actual and metaphorical, and continue to try to make sense of this place we still call home.

In the meantime, I suggest that if you get the time, correction, I suggest that you make the time, to purchase and read Dispatches from Pluto.

 

 

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Filed under Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Richard Grant