Back before they opened up the highway between Pine Bluff Arkansas and Greenville Mississippi, we'd travel across Interstate 40 over to Memphis and then follow highway 78 down through Tupelo to get to Louisville. We'd make this drive maybe once or twice a year to visit Pepaw, my Mom's siblings and their families, and Dad's Mom. There were visits with both of Dad's parents. It's just that those are early and hazy memories. My Dad's father passed away when I was little. I vaguely remember seeing him in a hospital bed hooked up to all the machines. That was probably the summer Mom had to leave my sister and I with our Aunt Martha. That was the one time I remember flying out there. All the other times we drove, sometimes making a stop at Graceland and staring out the window at the endless fields of farmland. Sometimes we'd drive through during cotton season and you could see the bolls of cotton just cracking open to reveal the white fiber inside. Eventually the fields transition into tall pines and you'd pass logging trucks carrying recently harvested trees.
We took this same drive down through Mississippi on our way to the beach. For miles and miles we passed signs with names of towns so familiar to me; they are etched into my skin. Tupelo. Egypt. Starkville. Louisville. I was flooded with memories of those trips back when I enjoyed visiting this place. I remember playing with baby bunnies on Aunt Martha's rabbit farm and how she made pancakes for me for dinner because I wouldn't eat the rabbit that had been cooked. I know my Uncle Jimmy said something about it, but I don't remember his words. Only Aunt Martha saying "I won't make that baby girl eat the rabbit." My first introduction to vegetarianism. I remember sitting on Pepaw's back porch that always seemed to be practically enclosed due to the tomato vines he had growing up the trellis around the porch. Every evening we'd make ice cream in one of those old aluminium and wood bucket ice cream makers. Each of us taking a turn at the crank. Pepaw loved ice cream.
One summer we spent there was the hottest and muggiest of summers. My cousin Melissa pulled a pomegranate from my Memaw's pomegranate tree. I'd never seen or tasted pomegranate seeds before. We busted open the fruit on the concrete steps on the front of the house, the entry way no one every used. Everyone just assumed the back porch was the welcome mat into Pepaw's home. We ate those sweet and slightly tart seeds, staining our fingers and lips a bright fuchsia. I couldn't help but think I'd just been given the most exotic treat. That was the same summer Melissa found the used needle in the ditch as we walked down the street. She held it up for us all to see before dropping it back down in the ditch. That needle was a sign of the encroaching drug problem that was making it's way into the poor rural south. Even Melissa would eventually have her own battle with drug abuse. Finding that used needle was as shocking to me as the pomegranate seeds were exotic.
I remember playing with toys Pepaw found in the seat cushions of furniture he had reupholstered. Pepaw's upholstery shop was my favorite part of every visit. The building that housed the shop was not much more than a glorified shed. There were always piles of furniture outside in various states of disrepair, waiting for their turn to get new fabric. The inside always seemed dark and dusty. Roles and roles of fabric stacked every spare inch. I loved to run my fingers over the fabrics, feeling the various textures. I can clearly see my Uncle Russel sitting at one of the machines working on something with a needle or two held between his lips. I never saw Pepaw working, but always remember going in there and finding Uncle Russel talking as he ripped apart a seat cushion or tugging a new couch cover onto a new square of foam. I always thought of it as Pepaw's shop, but now I realize that by the time I had come into the family, it had passed over to Uncle Russel's shop.
The last time I was in Mississippi was for Pepaw's funeral, ten or twelve years ago. I don't know what it was about that trip, but I decided then that I would never go back or more like I didn't have a reason to go back. I want to say the decision to cut off that part was as abrupt as that. Instead it was more gradual. As I grew older it became easier to hear "nigger" and the disdain and judgment as they talked of people and cultures different from theirs'. I didn't know how to respond to people telling me how lucky I was to go to an all white school or how the black people where I lived "just knew their place." I knew without being told that this way of thinking was wrong and it made me shameful. Shameful for not saying anything about it and shameful for having family who could possible think this way. With every trip, I began to notice more and more the poverty of the area and the toll that poverty took on education. It was too easy to drop out and not finish high school. It was just this rolling ball of lack of education and ignorance leading to more hate and discrimination.
I felt the tears grow hot in my eyes as we passed the exit for Louisville. By now I was a mix of emotions. Sad for the good memories that had tarnished over the years. Angry with those who I let tarnish those memories, people who never cared to come to us for a change. Not even when Dad passed. Disappointed in myself for never standing up and saying "your language and your attitudes are wrong." When we told the Cabbage we were in Mississippi, she asked "what's in Mississippi?" I replied "nothing much." This is what I felt/feel towards a place my parents have always referred to as "home". My name is carved on a stone in the cemetery where all of my ancestors are buried, yet I never felt like one of them.
But then I remember the rabbits, the pomegranate, the ice cream and I turned to Michael and said "it wasn't all bad. I loved my Pepaw and I loved my visits with him." There is a bit of peace in that truth.