I read this piece to the Jackson Writers Guild a year ago. Since then, we’ve not been able to meet. Here it is again.
A southern writer can collect more stories from a back-porch conversation than from hours of creative writing instruction or a ten-day cruise through the Panama Canal. It’s especially true on Friday night when everybody kicks backs, eats well, and can’t wait for Saturday’s football extravaganza. Most of my tales come from my home town, Jackson; others from all over the state. For me, they spring to life when somebody says, “Hush up, I’m fixin’ to tell a story.”
In my family of origin, I am the only person born in Mississippi, or in the south for that matter. My parents were from the Midwest, my grandfather from the small town of Pokeberry Bottom, Indiana, my only surviving grandmother lived in Ohio. Lucky for me, Mississippi took me into her arms the moment I left the hospital. After she’d kissed me with a soft April breeze, she whispered, “Welcome home, little girl. Open your ears and listen.” So, I did.
I listened when my childhood housekeeper, an African American woman who was a lifelong friend, patched up my skinned knees, then lifted me into her lap and sang. I got shoes, you got shoes, all God’s children got shoes. When I get to heaven gonna put on my shoes, gonna walk all over God’s Heaven. The she added in a stern voice “Everybody talkin’ bout Heaven ain’t going there.”
I listened when Bobo, an aged woman with a halo of white ringlets and a face patch worked from days in the sun, taught me how to pronounce Tchula, Kosciusko, and Pass Christian. She spoke in a deep honey voice as she described long hours chopping cotton and hoeing rows on a small farm in Holmes County, as well as riding a mule bare back along the Yazoo River levee.
I listened when Meg Thigpen drove in from Greenwood and dominated the dinner conversation while simultaneously slicing up a rare T-bone, draining a glass of Wild Turkey, and smoking several unfiltered Camels. No one dared interrupt; her tales of undercover antics at the DAR convention in DC were far too delicious.
I listened as neighbors gathered around a backyard grill and the fragrant smoke of spicy baby backs saturated the air. I heard them dispute the final 30 seconds of last week’s game, curse the heck out of a prejudiced referee, and lay bets on who’d win the Egg Bowl. I listened until some ancient misadventure finally emerged, and everybody laughed until their sides hurt.
Slowly, very slowly, I also learned to remember, especially when a musical southern voice told a story that outpaced Robin Hood by miles and made the stilted language of Treasure Island seem dreary and tiresome. I took care to pay attention when someone explained how best to avoid an aggressive rooster, or two women named Sister Baby and Tiny Belle discussed how to fry up a skillet of okra. I stood close and eavesdropped as Big Henry told his son Little Henry, “I’m older than you, but I can still cut up better than a pair of scissors.”
I listen, because wonderful stories are still here. They are alive and authentic. They tap me on the shoulder and peek around corners, quietly whispering, “Save the old stories; the new ones too. And while you’re at it, create some of your own.” So, I’ll keep listening when crickets thrum in the evening and a hoot owl wakes me at dawn. I’ll look out my window when rain rattles through magnolia leaves or a cranky old mockingbird caws at every blue jay he sees. I’ll lean in when a friend brags, “I know everybody in town and who their daddy is.” Most of all, I’ll listen because someone once said, “Welcome home, little girl. Open your ears and listen.”