During last week’s ice storm misery, I thought a lot about my southern upbringing and the good things I’ve received from my small, poor state with a jagged past and uncertain future. I received many of these gifts from loving parents, my scamp of a grandfather, and friends, but also from enthusiastic Sunday School folks, teachers, and pearls of Power School wisdom.
The true measure of wealth is not money; so, what have I received? Simple childhood lessons that can’t be duplicated or replaced, of courtesy and caring, of giving, and helping a neighbor in need, of one on one friendships with mismatched people, even if it’s just sharing a joke with a stranger. I learned these lessons sitting in a wobbly desk on the back row of Mrs. Whoever’s classroom. The same people who taught me to read and write also taught me to be kind, honest, and not to give up because “practice makes perfect.” They explained the golden rule, common sense, the tradition of fair play, and quoted George Washington’s cherry tree remark. Some say “I cannot tell a lie” is a myth, but the underlying importance of telling the truth still holds. They also told the story of Honest Abe Lincoln, even though I’d seen his childhood cabin in two difference locations. There was also the terror of “it rains on the just and the unjust” a mantra repeated by one of my teachers when a single student coughed out a wad of bubble gum and we all suffered. Not quite sure what she accomplished, but I’ve never forgotten the inequity.
I learned about families, big families. A second cousin down the road is just as important and the people living beneath your roof. And they love you just as much, even if you can’t remember their names and who is related to who. I learned that kinfolks may be chosen, not born of the blood. Uncle Cliff wasn’t really my uncle, neither was Aunt Ethel, but we called them kin. I had a white mother and a black one too, both still live in my heart.
I learned that “come over and play” meant anything from blowing bubbles to an intense Chinese checkers competition. We played games we made up ourselves, there was no practice schedule taped to the fridge. I dressed-up in Mama’s old clothes and worn out high heels. My dolls were not anatomically correct, except for a Betsy-Wetsy my mother conveniently misplaced after a week of mopping up. In short, it was a child’s childhood, full of unbridled imagination, the innovations of small children, lady bugs and green grass. It was also a time of innocence.
My second home on County Line Road taught lessons too. I can recognize the difference between a cardinal’s whistle, the caw of a blue jay and a mourning dove’s cry. I know if the owl perching atop my chimney has caught something or if it’s a false alarm. I’ve seen a row of baby possums follow their mother into the bushes behind our house. I’ve entered a staring contest with a pair of racoons and have run like the wind when an unidentifiable snake slithered across the front porch. I’ve welcomed cast-off puppies, homeless cats, and shooed crows away from tiny robin’s eggs. I know that nature isn’t always kind, and that everything doesn’t always end well.
Other things came later, but Mississippi continued to teach. I know the difference between authentic blues and a knock-off version by someone who never set foot in Mississippi or felt a blistering wind sweep across the Delta’s wide fields. I know where Elvis was born, as well as Jimmy Buffet and Jim Henson, and that amazing words and stunning music can rise in Mississippi brains. Power School also handed me a copy of Eudora Welty’s Why I Live at the PO and said “Here, read this. If you don’t recognize some of the words, look them up.” When I met Sister, Stella Rondo, and Papa Daddy, I remembered they’d sprung from the brilliant mind of someone from home. My home. I discovered that other writers were also from home. I read them too.
Mississippi taught me that good things often come from bad, and vice versa. I know the much of our past is sore and painful, and deep scars remain. I also know much is good, nourished by good people who practice that long-ago Golden Rule.
I remember Jesus loves me, this I know as well as his second commandment, love your neighbor as yourself. These are soul lessons I won’t forget.
So, the question remains, am I happy I was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi? Yes. It has taught me well, good lessons as well as bad. Here’s where I found my gift for words, however meager that gift may be. A lot is happening in our tiny state. Repentance and forgiveness are familiar concepts here. They are long practiced elements of faith binding us together with indestructible bands of steel. It’s been going on quietly for years, so quietly, that it’s often overlooked. But here, nonetheless. Our future is yet to be determined, but we’re working on it.
PS -When I first posted this story, I was contacted by a former classmate who criticized me for saying anything positive about Mississippi. I promptly banished him into the netherworld of the perpetually aggrieved. Hope he’s having fun, because I am. Writing about my home state is a particular delight because we have roots. Here stories spring up like weeds in a cotton patch and wave from the bed of a rumbling pick-up. Some roots are too deep to dig up. We aren’t trying to anyway.