Thursday, December 22, 2011

I Have Arrived!

I haven't posted a blog in what seems like forever. Sure, I posted my backroads video, so I guess that counts. But not a real blog.

This city girl just turned around & left after reading this at the Cypress Preserve in Greenville!
But what's funny is I have 5 draft blog posts that have just gone nowhere. Draft titles such as "The Bible Belt", "We Got a New Preacher Today", "Cousins", "It's the Land Katie Scarlet", and one of my favorites, "Leave All Snakes Alone".

So, why didn't any of these make it to prime time? Well, the ones on faith were, perhaps, a little too personal and in my attempts to put them in context, they became too factual. That's a boring combination: personal and factual! And, as far as the others, life just got in the way and I lost focus.

But underlying all of these drafts and why they didn't make it to this blog is the fact that although I haven't finished my first year in the Delta yet, I have actually become a Deltan and not just its observer.

I hope that does not sound bragadocious, because if you are not from the Delta, you can't just claim this "title", you have to be given it. And, that is just what has happened to me twice over the past month.

Ruffin and I had a great trip to the 1,000 year-old cypress tree at Sky Lake
The first time came as I was having lunch in Belzoni with my cousin Ruffin. He asked me to explain what I did for a living, which is always a challenge for me, and we started talking about how the Delta was getting a lot of federal grant dollars to improve health. I casually said "If y'all get it, Memphis won't get it since we are so close". Ruffin immediately came back with "What do you mean by "ya'll", you are one of us now!". Wow, what a moment for me; and very special since it came from Ruffin, the Mayor of Louise!

Just this past week, a Facebook friend posted a story on yet another stranger that was looking for a place to stay in Rolling Fork and how the community opened its arms to find him a place for the night and a hot meal. This was the second such story in just 8 weeks! Back in late October, the hospital, which had the only handicapped-accessible room in town, opened its doors to Rich, who was hand cycling his way down the Mississippi river corridor, raising funds for Convoy of Hope and crossing an item off his bucket list! (Read about Rich's trip and scroll down for October 28 post to read about his adventure in Rolling Fork). This last week, Michael, a 29-year old Australian making his own trek down The River corridor, spent the night in Rolling Fork's B&B and was treated to a Flatland's Pizza dinner (Read about the hospitality Michael received throughout the Mississippi Delta)!

I was so humbled by the giving spirit of my friends in Rolling Fork that I posted on Facebook how I, too, had experienced the hospitality of "Rolling Forkians". Quickly, a friend posted back that they now considered me a "Rolling Forkian" myself.

So, you see, I have been given the titles of "Deltan" and "Rolling Forkian", titles that are near and dear to my heart. But titles that do come with a lot of responsibility. Now, instead of being an observer, I am a member of this great community and as a new year approaches I am committed to becoming more involved in the fabric of the Delta.

I am reminded of my very first post on this blog:

"So now I start a new chapter in the Delta. I have rented a little house in Rolling Fork, MS for an entire year. It's my little piece of the Delta. A base camp, if you will, to learn what it is like to really live there".

And a later post where I hoped that "Maybe, just maybe, some day, I can say I am from there."

I'm not sure I am completely able to say I am from the Delta, but I know I am closer than I have ever been to being able to say just that.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Taking a Back Road

Coming home from Nashville a couple of weeks ago, I decided to take the "long way home", the "slow way home".. Getting off the interstate and even the main highway just gives my soul a lift..I love seeing life as it is lived along the back is so much better than on the main road.

Here are my favorite back roads, mainly in the Mississippi Delta and a few other back roads, including that one I took home from Nashville, that have made my year special so far.

Friday, October 14, 2011

I finally put my two most favorite media together: music and pictures. Here is my theme song for my year in the Delta mixed with my pictures making up a day in the Delta. To me, this is a celebration of the beauty of the Delta tied closely to reconnecting with the real me as I explore a life in the Delta.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Being Southern

Being Southern is obvious. My accent, often lovingly referred to as a “drawl”, advertises my region immediately. 

Being Southern can be a real advantage in the work world, especially outside the South. People have told me for years that they just love to hear me talk (which is a good thing since I talk a lot!). Others have told me that they appreciate the graciousness, politeness, and the gentility that I bring to my job (well sometimes bring to my job). Still others, have been surprised when I proved to be a tough, successful negotiator.

But the ugly truth underlying all of this is that many think I am not as sophisticated, educated, or experienced as they are because I hail from the South. I’ve turned this into an advantage, but it is really sad and at times even makes me mad.

Last year I served on a national panel of experts in Washington, DC chosen because of our knowledge and experience in health policy. The panelist right next to me was talking about ideas that had been created “outside the beltway” and said “And, this idea came from Tennessee. Can you believe that anything creative really came out of Tennessee?”.  I was astounded, although not completely surprised because I often hear our region denigrated at conferences. I did interrupt him and in a joking manner reminded him I was from Tennessee. I laughed, as did the audience, but it wasn't really funny to me.

On a weekend trip last year with a colleague and some of her friends, a new acquaintance asked me what it was like to go to a dog fight. I looked at her quizzically and asked “what?” thinking maybe I had not heard her correctly. She asked the exact question again. Dumbfounded, I said “I don’t go to dog fights, I prefer a good cock fight”. You would have loved the look on her face! Of course, I immediately told her I had been to neither one, which I think actually surprised her.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about why others think it is ok to be so openly insulting of a region of the country that, more than likely, they have never been to and one which is so special to me. I won’t belabor that thinking here, but I believe it has its roots in slavery, the Civil War, and the poverty, poor health, and what is often considered “radical” conservatism many see in our region.

This is where the  movie The Help comes into this story.

I can’t remember when I have gone to a movie and laughed, cried, had personal regrets, and remembered the people I loved growing up that are now gone. I was transported back in time to the 1960's growing up in Memphis and the Delta.

The tears came early as I watched Aibileen lovingly teach her “baby girl” to say that she was smart, she was kind and she was important. All I could think of was Willie Belle helping my grandmother understand why I wanted to sit in the sunroom reading comic books instead of playing with local girls I barely knew. Willie Belle understood me in a way that even my family did not. Willie Belle was my Aibileen.

But not all of the memories evoked by the movie were fond ones.

I was reminded of a time that I, like most of the white women in the movie, lacked courage. The details are private because I was not the only player in the drama. But, suffice it to say that even today, perhaps 10 years after the event, I still feel guilty that I could not convince others to join me in making something right that had become very wrong. I was told quite strongly that I should not interfere because “I was not from there”. So when I could not convince the others, I stepped back and let it lay. 

There is a great moment in the film when a mother tells her daughter that “Courage often skips a generation” referring to the fact that her daughter was more courageous than she had been.  The irony is that this mother had just been courageous herself, showing us all that redemption is possible and it is never too late to live with courage.

I fear that Southerners will see this movie differently from those outside the South. Many of us will see it in a very personal way. It will evoke both fond and bad memories. It will cause many of us to reflect on our own lives and our contributions to furthering bad situations or helping to eliminate them.

Those outside the South won’t have the chance to see the movie this way. In a way, I feel sorry for them, as bringing my life to the movie enriched it so for me. I only hope that they don’t use this movie as one more reason to put space between us and them; to disparage the land, region and people I love..

Churches were prominently featured in The Help. Here is one of my favorites in Grace, MS
At the end of the movie, no one got up to leave until the final credits were over. Many of us clapped. Many were waiting for their tears to dry before they left the theater. I sat in my car in the parking lot telling Lee about my private lack of courage. And, I told him I can’t wait to get back to the Delta, where a piece of my heart will always live.

Maybe, just maybe, some day, I can say I am from there.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


We visited the Vicksburg National Military Park yesterday. I had originally thought that there was just something "wrong" about visiting a Civil War battlefield during the 4th of July weekend, but when I learned that Pemberton surrendered to Grant on July 4, 1863, thus ending the battle (seige) of Vicksburg, somehow it seemed fitting.

Interesting side note: July 4th was such a painful day for Vicksburg that it took over 80 years for them to start celebrating it again! As said on the Old Courthouse Museum's website: "On July 4, 1863, the victorious Union Army marched into Vicksburg, and the United States flag was raised over the courthouse.  Having to surrender was bad enough, but doing it on Independence Day made things worse for the citizens, and they didn’t forget the pain of surrender.  The city did not celebrate the holiday again for 82 years – July 4, 1945, at the end of World War II was the next official celebration in Vicksburg."

Vicksburg National Cemetery, burial ground for 17,000 Union soldiers
One of the most beautiful and moving stops on the battlefield tour is the Vicksburg National Cemetery, where of the over 17,000 Union soldiers buried there, 13,000 are "unknown". Many of the Confederate soldiers were buried in Vicksburg's Cedar Hill Cemetery.

I have noticed that cemeteries seem to be all around me here in the Delta and they show up in very unexpected places. Well, that is a nice way to put it...very weird places would be more like it.

For example, right here in rhe Rolling Fork, MS area, there is a cemetery in a corn field; another one behind a gas station on Highway 14; and another one next to a church. In Louise, the only cemetery I can find is along a creek bank. In Tunica County, a mound cemetery sits just a few feet off Highway 61.

In Memphis, cemeteries are behind stone walls, on the edge of town (or at least what used to be the edge of town), and are very formal, reverent places.

Down here, cemeteries seem to sprout up wherever they are needed. They are in the middle of something else. They just appear and seem to be a part of normal life.

I am used to putting death in its place. Because it is behind a wall, on the edge of town, I can deal with it when I want to deal with it. Down here, it just appears..totally unexpected...totally part of something else, like a corn field or a gas station. It cannot be avoided. It cannot be ignored.

Here in the Delta, death is not relegated to a part of town. It is not pushed off to the side. It is not forgotten. It is, indeed, always present. When death is always present, life takes on a different meaning and purpose. It is easier to remember that life is precious, all be it limited, when you have cemeteries that unexpectedly appear and remind you.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Cleaning Out Files

I dropped by my Mother’s yesterday and she was still in her pajamas at 4:00 in the afternoon.”Why?” I asked. Well, she had been cleaning out files.

My Mother has been into genealogy for as long as I can remember. She has tracked her family back to Scotland, through Virginia to Tennessee.  We have family crests, faded photographs, burnt-edged court house records- all because she has taken so much time, effort and love to find out who we “come from”.

All of Mother’s records are on paper. She has file cabinet after file cabinet of original material, documenting every detail of “who begot who” throughout the generations.  But although paper was her preferred method, she has put almost all of her knowledge into Family Tree Maker as well, entering her family history into the digital era.

Etna Brown Upshaw, Plain Mamma to me, at age 18 in 1892
She pointed to a now empty metal brown file cabinet telling me that Plain Mamma, my great-grandmother from Louise, MS, had given it to her and Daddy after they had been married about a year. She laughed that she had kept it for 60 years and now it was empty and she would give it to someone else that needed it. She had such fond memories of Plain Mamma, my Delta great-grandmother, remarking how practical and honest she was, even when it was not politically correct to be so!

As we sat in her den, I asked why she was going through all her files that day. Without any hesitation, she said “I want to have it all done so you and your brothers don’t have to worry about it after I die”.

Her words were very matter of fact. I imagine, she was telling it just as it was, for her. But for me, my immediate reaction was “take your time. Don’t finish too soon. Keep working on it. For if you finish, will you feel it is ok to die?”

I know she is trying to get her life and her place in order. She will be 83 in August. I am sure her life and her death weigh heavy on her mind. She is getting ready. But for me, I don’t want her to get ready. I am not ready! I don’t think I will ever be ready!

For some strange reason, I am remembering my last month of pregnancy. All the old wives’ tales were showing themselves in me – I was definitely nesting. Getting ready for Lee by getting his room ready; his clothes ready; his bottles, dishes, diapers ready. Nature took over. I was on overdrive and God was showing me what to do to prepare for the new life that was about to join our family.

Grace Marie Hall Upshaw -- My Mother
I imagine my Mother is going through something similar. She is in overdrive. God is showing her what to do to get ready –ready for the new life outside this world that will be her’s at some point.

When we are preparing for new life, we build nests. When we are preparing for the life after this, we clean out files. Either way, I am thankful that God helps us on our journey.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


As the flood waters start to recede, and I am thankful that my Memphis home, Delta cottage, and Delta farm have not flooded, my mind is literally flooding with thoughts about the Great Flood of 2011. Here are a few:

The fear and uncertainty, that I felt only briefly and that others are still feeling, as we wait for the waters to recede, keeping our fingers crossed that the levees will hold until the gates can be opened (mid-June?) and the water levels drop in the backwater Delta.

The understanding that we better prepare, at least a little, for a flood that will hopefully never happen. Packing up silver, family photographs, and other special momentos of our life and lives before us so we too can pass these treasures on to future generations.

The tough morale decisions that had to be made to sacrifice the homes and businesses of a few to spare such a hardship on the many.

The realization that political decisions made over the past 84 years both saved the backwater Delta (through the development of a network of mainline and backwater levees, channels, and flood gates) and still left it vulnerable because the final stage of flood control, pumps on the backwater side of the levee, were vetoed in 2008 by the EPA.

Whittington Levee near our 5-Mile Farm, Louise, MS 5/28/11
The economic impact on farmers that lost their crops; small businesses in small towns that have been washed away; casinos closed for 3 weeks leaving many jobless and tax revenues diminished.

The isolation, and general hassle, caused by flooded roads and highways.

Old 5-Mile Road east of Whittington Levee, Humphreys County 5/28/11
The brutal fact that, as devastating as the flood has been, the clean up will take longer and cost more, prolonging the suffering and economic damage.

But as horrible as the flood has been, there have been bright spots as well.

Normal, everyday people, started facebook pages to increase availability of accurate information and dispel rumors that only cause panic.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proved that they are, indeed, one of our country's best assets, acting with knowledge, skill, professionalism, all to support their goal of protecting us from the flood.

It was fun learning about sand boils, spillways, and that Google Earth is the easiest website to find the sea level of your home or business (who knew I would ever care?).

And natural disasters, do, in the end, bring people together. They remind us of our shared interests as well as our shared risk, pain, and even reward. They help build community and bind us to each other.

The Great Flood of 2011 10 days after the crest at Memphis, TN 5/20/11
I wonder if my grandchildren will ask me to tell them the stories of the Great Flood of 2011 the way I used to ask my Delta grandparents to tell me, once again, about the Great Flood of 1927. I hope they do but I hope they will not live through their own flood, and will only have my stories to tell their grandchildren.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Out of Control

Refugees from the Great  Flood of 1927
I will always remember my Delta family stories of "The Great Flood of 1927". My grandparent's house in Louise, MS was forever marked about 6 feet up on the walls with a faint line that I was told was the flood water line. The story is that they built wooden platforms on which they placed their furniture, and then roped the platforms near the ceiling. I always wondered if these stories were true,  but my Mother mentioned it again even last we now are waiting for our own "flood of the century".

This spring the South has been exceptionally challenged with what seems to be Mother Nature's unruly behavior. It actually started this winter when Memphis experienced a snow or ice storm every week during January. Even the Delta had more than its share (which is usually none) of snow and ice. The spring thunderstorms and tornadoes came quickly on the heels of the unexpected winter and have brought ravage to my three favorite states: Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. There I was feeling scared and "out of control" as I rode out my first tornado in my Rolling Fork, MS cottage not knowing that a mere two weeks later so much of my beloved Tuscaloosa, AL, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide (Roll Tide), would be demolished by an EF4 tornado. It sure put my little scare into perspective.

But if unexpected snow, ice and tornadoes weren't enough, all of us in the Delta are now waiting for "the flood of the century". As opposed to tornadoes, you can get early warning about a flood. The scientists can monitor the rising rivers; measure the rainfall amounts; track, graph, and forecast future water levels; calculate the amount of water that can be held back by the levees; and, alas, even model how far and deep the flood waters will flow. I picture some green eye-shaded scientists, number crunchers, and hydrologists (I just learned these professionals even existed) busily working in a basement to get all of this important information to the higher ups so that it can be used to save lives and businesses.

This very logical, business approach to gathering and disseminating information to people like you and me in advance of disaster has now been forever changed by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube; and smart phones and iPads. Officials used to have the keys to information and they shared it when THEY felt it was appropriate. Today, WE all have the keys to information and expect to get official news quickly. We are often unhappy (or sometimes down right angry) if we don't get that news when WE want it, not when the officials want to give it to us.

Facebook pages from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are keeping people in the Mississippi Delta, Missouri, Nashville, and communities potentially impacted by the flood up to date. Information on river gauge levels, including graphs and charts, are available on  the Corps of Engineer and NOAA websites. NOAA even has an "advanced hydrologic prediction service" on their site that shows past and future river water levels for several locations on any river you could care about! Easy access to these social media tools and sites "democratizes" information, making it just as available to me as it is to the green-eye-shade scientists and statisticians. And, this information is available when we want and need it. As an aside, Facebook has played an important role in mobilizing volunteers and donations helping the victims of the recent tornadoes. Toomer's for Tuscaloosa, Auburn students/grads/fans providing help for victims of the April 27 tornadoes, has over 80,000 "fans" and is mobilizing support all over the country for supplies and donations.

But not all officials are taking advantage of these new tools. For example, the Shelby County Office of Preparedness here in Memphis updates their website about once a day, usually in the evening. It appears they may update their flood maps more frequently, but they don't let anyone know when an update has been posted and don't date and time-stamp their updates either. They don't have a push strategy at all -- they expect us to come to them. Even the Memphis District of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn't have a Facebook page, so Memphis area residents have to rely on the other Districts for information.

Wolf River Greenway, Memphis, TN as water receded on April 30, 2011
So, all I can do is sit back and wait for the "flood of the century". I now have to worry about it for two houses!! In Memphis, my home sits almost on the banks of the Wolf River and has been off, on, and now off again the "likely" flooded list. In Rolling Fork, my house will flood (as will the entire city of Rolling Fork, Louise and all our farm land) if the Mighty Mississippi floods elevations up to 107 feet. The latest news I have (and I will be checking YouTube and Facebook right after I finish this post) is that they expect flooding up to 95 feet. So, for the moment both of my homes and communities are safe.

Having this information helps me feel a little more in control. I can at least think through contingency plans (e.g., have already moved the rugs upstairs and will move the upholstered furniture up there if we go back on the list; can go down to Rolling Fork to help move furniture out of the cottage next weekend). I can prepare myself for the fear, disappointment, and concern I will have if the flood does come to me and my family. I can begin to focus on what I can do to help others.

Estimated inundation of the backwater area May 2011
In the last "Great Flood" in 1927, 27,000 square miles were flooded with the flooded area being 50 miles wide and 100 miles long. It caused over $400 million in damages and 246 people were killed in 7 states. At one time, the Mississippi River reached a width of 60 miles, just south of Memphis. My Mississippi Delta grandparents saved their furniture by putting it on platforms and raising the platforms up to the ceiling.

Every now and then Mother Nature has a way of reminding us that we are not in control. I guess this season, she is taking several opportunities to drive that message home. I hope we are listening!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Abandon the Delta?

As I am beginning a new life in the Mississippi Delta, I was reminded of how insulted I was when a columnist in the Commercial Appeal suggested it was just time to give up on the Delta and "move the people to a place where they could be helped". There are so many things wrong with this statement..moving people..helping them (as if we want to be moved or need "their" help) that I could not even bring myself to deal with them all, but I had to voice my support for the Delta even back in 2009. I am not sure opinion has changed much since then, so those of us that care, need to still be vigilant and make the case for why the Delta matters! Here is my letter to the editor from November 22, 2009.

"In your Nov. 8, 2009 Viewpoint article "Bluer blues / Grim figures tell of region on the ropes," economist David Ciscel said, "It's probably time to recognize that economic development in many rural counties is hopeless. Yes, we should care about the Delta, but we should not try to improve it any longer. It is time to move the people to a place where they can be helped."

I guess that means we just turn out the lights, lock the gates and wave goodbye on our way out of town. After all, to an economist, it is "irrational" for people to be living in the Delta anyway. Since they are "irrational," we have to step up and help them. It is our duty. This is what Ciscel seems to be saying, and I find it totally unacceptable.

First, I can't imagine that the lights would be out for long. Someone would design a way to make the Delta productive; its land and resources are too valuable to leave fallow. But the people who had sweated for generations over it would be gone and it would be new investors who would profit. Maybe that's the plan.

Perhaps the problem is that we have been looking to 20th century solutions for the Delta. Little to no new manufacturing is being developed anywhere in the U.S., so why do we think it is the solution in the Delta?

What about micro-loans for new small businesses? What about continued efforts to bring needed 21st century infrastructure, such as Internet, cable and wireless communications, so new business models could work in the Delta? What about creating a spoke-and-hub system, capitalizing on areas that can become regional centers of growth and opportunity to feed the Delta's more remote rural areas?

My Delta grandfather always told me that our land in Louise, Miss., was holding the world together. If it weren't there, our world would fall apart. My child's mind could so easily picture that; it made perfect sense to me then and does to this day. The Delta is indeed important, and to suggest we just walk away from it is not an alternative.

Cristie Upshaw Travis

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Taking Time

I took my time on my last trip down into the Delta. A lot of time. For the first time, I spent 3 nights and had 2 full days at my little cottage. With so much time came new experiences and perspectives.

One of my goals in having my own place in the Delta was to really live there. I know that is not totally possible as my home is still in Memphis and, at least for awhile, I will be a visitor, although perhaps a frequent one. But living somewhere does require a commitment that just being a visitor does not require. For example:

When you live somewhere, you get to know your neighbors. My new next door neighbor dropped by one afternoon just to introduce herself. I was on a business call and could not spend time with her, but I thought about the hospitality she showed me, a total stranger, even though I wouldn't be there full time. I knocked on her door the morning I left, hoping to return her kindness, but she was not at home. I must be sure and reach out to her next time I am there.

Mont Helena goes dark during "A Dream Revisited"
When you live somewhere, you support local events. As luck would have it, a new friend of mine had an extra ticket to "Mont Helena: A Dream Revisited" and asked me to go with her, her husband and her mother. It was a wonderful, very professional performance in the very house where the main characters had lived, loved and died. There is no better way to bring a house to life than to know the family that made it a home. An added benefit of attending was meeting so many people! My hostess graciously introduced me to literally everyone and they were all so welcoming. I hope they will forgive me if I don't remember all their names!

When you live somewhere, you become involved. I already feel myself being drawn into the community. It started with a joke (well, at least I think it was a joke since it was followed by LOL) about volunteering at "A Dream Revisited" next year. I started to think about it and decided to take the offer up and suggest that perhaps there was a way to get involved at the fall festival. That's all it took, someone invited me and I said yes, and the opportunities are flowing in, including one to meet the hospital administrator in town to explore how I may be supportive.

My Great-Grandfather, the first of 5 Jefferson Davis Upshaws
When you live somewhere, you take the time to explore. I found myself half-way to Yazoo City one day so decided, what the heck, just go all the way there. I had not been to see Daddy since January and thought a trip to Glenwood Cemetery on a sky blue day would be a nice outing. Once there I did my usual thing, but because I had time, I noticed things I had never paid attention to before. I noticed that my great-grandfather, the first Jefferson Davis Upshaw, was born in May, 1861. That was just one month after the beginning of The Civil War (or The War, as we call it around here). I cannot even imagine what his parents were feeling with his birth -- the joy of new life and the fear of war and death.

A mass grave of 700-800 Confederate soldiers in Glenwood Cemetery
I also noticed a small American flag planted in the ground near a group of graves. I strolled to the spot and was surprised to find a mass grave of 700-800 unknown Confederate soldiers who fought to protect Yazoo City at the Battle of Benton Road.  What a loss it was for them, their families, their community. Every life is precious and losing so many at one time reminds us how bloody that war was for our country. As we recognize the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War this very month, we should remember that nothing has compared to it since in U.S. history.

When you live somewhere, you take what comes. Finally, I rode out my first tornado weather on this last trip to the Delta. Thank God I had so many enjoyable experiences on this trip because I needed them to make up for the rain, wind, hail and tornadoes! It was definitely un-nerving and perhaps scary, but my little cottage and I made it through unscathed. So, I have my first weather battle scar. I hope it is the only one I get, but I doubt that will be true.

I am so glad I took the time to get to know some of the people and places of the Delta. It is, I realize now, a journey I will be on all year. But the more time I take, the deeper into the fabric of the area I will go, and I think that is what having a place there was all about any way.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Figuring It Out

I've never had a second home. Many of my friends have lake houses; some have beach houses or condos; a few have hunting camps; one has a house in east Memphis and a condo in downtown Memphis.

These are the traditional second homes --- well, maybe not the condo in downtown Memphis. I have had to explain many times why I have a second home in the Delta. It's not traditional; it's not usual. My home is not on a lake filled with canoes, boats, skiers, sun worshipers. It is not a hunting lodge where you end a long day of solitude, cold, and wet with a hearty meal shared with fellow hunters. It is not a cool refuge offering a cold drink after a hot day on the beach,. So what is it?

Given this is my first weekend, I don't know yet. I am still trying to figure it out.

There are some things that are easy:
  • Now I know that the grocery stores are closed on Sundays. Note to self, be sure you have everything for Sunday supper by Saturday night!
  • I learned last night (Saturday) that the Delta stays up really late! And, they love to party! It seems that Friday was pay day and with money in their pockets, they rocked until the wee hours of the morning.
  • I was reminded this weekend, that everyone pretty much knows where you are and what you are doing in the Delta. No hiding. No sneaking through town on a back road hoping no one will know you were there. Having a red car doesn't help me in that regard either!
But I am beginning to figure out some of the other stuff too:
  • I learned that although small, the congregation at Louise Methodist Church is dedicated and steadfast -- with a prayer list that is 5 times the number that attend regularly and loving volunteers that keep the church and its grounds spotless and beautiful. No paid staff here!
  •  I experienced a church service where there was a real conversation between the preacher and congregation and the congregation with each other. There were announcements and celebrations of victorious baseball tournaments: people were  added to or taken off the prayer list. It was a congregation that knew each other and used worship time to be there for each other. I sat in my Pa's place on the second pew on the left..I could almost feel his presence.
  • I figured out that there is a great divide between HWY 61 and HWY 49. In my summers in Louise, on HWY 49, we never oriented west toward 61..we always went east to Yazoo City and south to Jackson. I know that my family is disappointed that I am not in Louise, I am disappointed too. But the opportunity was here in Rolling Fork and I took it. So, now I get to explore and appreciate HWY 61. But it will never be HWY 49! That will always be home to me.

Delta egret near my 5-Mile Farm, Louise, MS
Finally, I am beginning to explore the cypress swamps and creeks of my own backyard and they are just as beautiful as the ones I have already found in other parts of the Delta. I continue to be amazed that the Delta is filled with beautiful land and beautiful people. But, I knew that already. I didn't have to figure that out!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Waking Up

I love the idea of "working" in the Delta. Now that I have my place in Rolling Fork, I can imagine going down on a Friday morning or even a Thursday evening and working from the cottage on the internet (yes, even in Rolling Fork we have internet) and cell phone (yes, even in Rolling Fork, we have AT&T coverage). After all, a lot of what I do is talk to people, either on the phone or on email, Facebook, or Twitter! Or I am researching on the internet or creating documents on my computer. I can do that down in the Delta as easily as from Memphis!

But today, I had a real reason to work in the Delta. I had an appointment in Clarksdale, MS, so I  headed south from Memphis after a morning meeting, having already plotted my path...Memphis to Tunica..have a late breakfast at the Blue & White on Highway 61...stop by to see if the eagles were still nesting and if "my" cypress swamp had changed with the seasons...take Old Highway 61 through Lula to Clarksdale...and find my way to my meeting.

What I didn't expect was how busy the Delta would be today. Just two weeks ago, there was no action in the fields. All was quiet and action for miles. But today, the Delta was a buzz.

I could smell the fresh, turned up dirt in the fields. I could see the dust thrown up by the trucks, tractors, and other farm equipment making their way down dirt rows or tilling new rows to ready them for planting. Even the yellow crop dusters were flying about. Every now and then, some piece of farm equipment blocked the road and slowed me down. But for some reason, I didn't just meant I could spend a little more time enjoying the moment.

I made several bat turns to go back to take a picture of a tractor tilling the land. I am sure the guys driving those tractors wondered why a middle-aged woman in a red Toyota Camry Hybrid was so interested in their work??? I mean, if you live in the Delta all the time, this is just normal activity. No big deal.

There is a cycle to farming. You till; you plant; you water; you harvest; you store; you sell; and then you start all over again. But for a city girl, there is just something about the dirt, the dust, the physical labor of it all. Something that just yells, "I am really working". This is not whimpy work; not virtual work through email, conference calls, Facebook or Twitter. This is get your hands dirty work!

My grandfather, Pa, knew this type of work. He, with the help of others, literally cleared his Delta land by hand. I have been told he used the "deadening" method of girdling the trees (cutting a band around the trunk), which, over about two years, killed the tree, making it easier to cut down. The tree limbs and, sometimes stumps, were burned, and hauled off.  We still call the first field he farmed "The Deadnin" after this process used to clear the land. At the end of the Civil War, 90% of the Delta bottomland was still undeveloped and covered by ancient forests and swamps. Thousands of people came to the Delta where they traded their labor to clear the land to purchase it for themselves.The Delta is what it is today, because these people cleared it and farmed it. I cannot even imagine how much work it required to change so much land!

There is part of me that longs to have this type of work. After all, you can see the fruits of your labor. You see the seedlings turn into productive plants that you then harvest, store and sell. You see the land turn over anew each year with the promise (or hope) that new life will grow in the old fields. You physically feel the work yourself: you sweat and ache from your efforts.

I bet my Delta friends and family are laughing at me for saying all of this. For, in reality, working in the Delta is not always this romantic.

I can remember watching Delta farmers trying to salvage their rice crops after the winds of Katrina ravaged their fields...toiling to harvest whatever they could after all the rice had "laid" down with the counterveiling winds. I know that for many Thanksgivings, soy beans were left in the fields to rot because the fall rains came early and it just wasn't possible to get the beans out in time. And the years that disease attacked acres and acres of corn fields, leaving nothing for all the expense and effort it took to make the crop.

And, many Delta farmers have just given up. They weren't able to pay off prior year loans with the next crop and then had no collateral to offer up for the next year,,, so, out of business after a lifetime, and sometimes generations, of farming. Many had to either sell or lease their land to those few farmers that had the capital to farm. Or, as you can clearly see driving through much of the Delta, many farmers just let their land go to seed.. or waste.

So, I know that really working in the Delta is not quite the picture I paint in my mind. But I do love to see the Delta come alive this time of year. It is a time of renewal; a time of hope; a time of activity. After a long winter, it is good to see the Delta waking up.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Proper Grammar

Before any of you try to correct my grammar in my blog's name, know that the name is really a quote from Miranda Lambert's song "The House That Built Me" which has become my theme song for how I feel about the Delta.

Not because it was my home, because it wasn't. Not because it built me, because it didn't. But in many ways because I am reconnecting with who I am, which is what the song is really about.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Butter Knives

After Daddy died, Jeff and I got together to divide the "stuff". Walker couldn't be there, which was really dangerous for him, but we promised him we would be fair!

About a year before, I had taken the silver from Daddy's condo and inventoried it, sending a list to both Jeff & Walker to "protect" myself for sure. So when Jeff and I got together it was really just about seeing what was there and dividing it into thirds.

Miss Chris' coffee urn was very contemporary
My Delta grandmother loved sliver. She used it every day, as if it was nothing special. Although, she knew it was special and we knew it was special too. But she didn't keep it hidden away only for special occasions; she used it all the time. So, it was well worn by the time it got to me and my brothers. But, that was and is part of its charm.

It's funny how mores change. When I went to her home in the Delta, dinner was the meal in the middle of the day and she had all her finery in full show. Sterling silver place settings and serve ware. Crystal water glasses as well as ice tea glasses. Ice tea spoons that also served as "straws" (a real gem I wish we still had). Dessert forks, salad forks, salad knives and meat knives. They were all there and all monogrammed with a "U" labeling them as ours.

But the most special pieces were the individual butter plates and butter knives.I know fine hotels had place settings like these, but no one I knew ate like this at home. Only at my grandparents, both in Memphis and Louise, did we have such luxuries. I especially loved the butter knives. They were petite, sturdy, and beautiful!

When we looked at Daddy's silver, we saw there was a set of 12 butter knives. In today's world very few of us have 12 people for a formal dinner and when we do, we never have an individual butter plate for each person. What is the need for 12 butter knives any more?

So, we divided the 12 into thirds with each of us got four knives, and, I am sure, thinking, "when and how will we ever use these?".

My sweet niece Jennifer got married in December. I bought her the usual stuff a bride is excited to get...a mandolin, a stainless steel microplane grater, paring knives, and some type of pancake batter thing-a-ma-jig. But I also decided to give her a butter knife. A monogrammed butter knife from her great-grandmother from the Delta. They never knew each other.. but I hope that by having her great-grandmother's butter knife, she will, in some small way, carry the memory of the Delta into her life.

A Saved Chocolate

Funny how you just do some things and think back later and wonder why you did them.

I saved a chocolate from my stay at the Alluvian Hotel a little over a week ago. Why did I do that?

Well, probably because I love chocolate and just can't think of not taking a "free" piece with me when I leave a hotel. But, this piece, for some reason, was more important to save.

I think I was trying, in some small way, to save the memories of that Friday night.

Lee and I left Memphis for our first trip alone together to "THE DELTA". He was so sweet to agree to come with me to Rolling Fork to see my new place. But, we couldn't check in until Saturday. There was no way I was only going to have one night in the Delta, so we made reservations at the Alluvian in Greenwood for Friday night and ventured south from Memphis on a Friday afternoon.

Diners have their own private booths at the Alluvian's Giardinas
We arrived around 5:00 and had dinner reservations at a near-by restaurant at 6:00. With not much time to waste, we headed straight for the Alluvian bar! We started out at a table, but when a place at the bar opened up, we were johnny on the spot. I told Lee that it is always more fun to be at the bar and talk to the folks sitting there than to be at a table by yourself. Good advice for a 21 year old just beginning to understand bars!

Well, we were not disappointed. I recognized a regular right away. In fact, he was sitting in the same seat back last September when Pat and I had ventured into the Delta for a music festival. He was holding court with an old guard Leflore County  couple. He is from Tallahatchie County, which always makes me think about that tragic story captured in song about someone jumping off the Tallahatchie bridge!

As we got settled in, an older gentleman worked his way to the bar with help from one of the waiters. He had been sitting at a table too, just waiting for a spot to open up, just like us! He moved slowly due to recent surgery. He told us later he was in Greenwood for physical therapy.

What a great visit we had. We talked with him about college, film and media (Lee's major at Birmingham-Southern), Louise (yes he knew where it was), my new place in Rolling Fork, and his life in Sumner, about 30 minutes from Greenwood. He knew the bar tenders by name (as did the guy sitting in the corner) and they treated him and us with such grace and deference.

The Alluvian bar is a great place to really get to understand the Delta. People come there to meet others and to engage others. It is not a stuffy bar at all. It is about saying hello, and "where you from", and "do you know so and so", and "where are you going for dinner?" As you can tell, they have their own set of regulars. We even met a couple from Collierville, TN sitting at a nearby table. We were close friends by the end of the evening.

The art of conversation is definitely appreciated in the Alluvian bar.

The Alluvian bar is not the exception at all. It is the rule. People in the Delta are waiting for an excuse to talk with you! All you have to do is pause a little and they are pulling you in and out of your shell.

They say that the lobby bar at The Peabody Hotel in Memphis is the beginning of the Delta. If so, the Alluvian bar is in the heart of the Delta You never met a stranger at the Alluvian bar. You are "everyman" and you are talking to everyone at the bar..all connected by being there and in the Delta at the same time.

Putting on the Miles

One thing I have already learned about being in the Delta is that you drive a lot! Having a hybrid really comes in handy. Not just because you seem to drive about 30 minutes no matter what you want to do, so gas mileage is important. But also because it can be a while before you see a gas station!

Driving has its advantages. I have grown to love country music since moving back to the South 16 years ago and there is plenty of time (and open road) to turn the music up loud and "car dance" as you sing along rolling down Highway 61 or Highway 49 or Highway 149 or even MS 7! You can also find Mississippi Public Broadcasting and listen to the Gestalt Gardener (yes, that really is the name of his show!) or tune into American Family Radio and get some insights into creating a better family for yourself, your husband, and children. Now, before some of you object, they really do offer some good advice, grounded in common sense.

Found a dirt pull off near these old rows at Mont Helena in Rolling Fork.
You can also keep your eye peeled for photo ops. And there are plenty. However, you are lucky if there is a way to actually "pull over" and get a picture! For newbies to the Delta, vast sections of the highways have no shoulders at all. The rest have scanty shoulders, at best. You get excited if there is the occasional dirt pull off into a field near where you want to take your shot. I will also admit, that if no one is behind me, I just stop in the middle of the highway and take my pictures! If you put your flashers on, most traffic will slow down and go around you, but you better not count on that to happen!

I literally parked in a corn field at a friend's house near Louise!
Sometimes I have just taken a turn to see where it takes me. Now, before you think I am bold, trusting, or crazy, I do have GPS. It cracked me up the first time I used it to go to Louise from Memphis and realized that every street in Sidon, MS was on GPS and properly named! So GPS is definitely a must in the Delta.

Now one of the disadvantages to driving in the Delta is that you may end up going really fast. I know there is a speedometer on my car, but I rarely look at it. I usually use other visual clues; such as other traffic, signs, buildings to gauge my speed. Well, in the Delta, none of those exist. Just a word of warning, going 20 miles over the speed limit is very expensive in Leflore County! The officer was kind about it, but still wrote me up!

I've asked some family and new friends how they handle all this driving. It is not unusual for them to drive 75 minutes one way to go out to dinner! They just say they are used to it. I guess they are, there really isn't any other way to live down there. You just have to drive, and drive, and drive, and drive!

Why now?

My brothers -- Jeff and Walker -- and I spent many summers in the Mississippi Delta with Pa (aka JD), Mom (aka Miss Chris), Willie Belle, Velma Jean, LJ; our cousins Lexie, Lisa & Bill; Plain Mamma, Auntie, Aunt Ann & Uncle Billy; Martha, Hank, Sam, Bart and Sally. 

Lee took this picture in 2008 at 5 Mile Farm. It is so Delta!
We had weenie roasts; helped pick cotton; rode in the back of Pa's truck; shot turtles off the bridge at 5 Mile; went to "The Palce" every day; sat in the sun parlor reading comic books and drinking orange crush in a brown bottle; made daily trips to the Tastee Freeze and Hoovers.

We sang "I see the tanks of Louise" as we got close to town; sang in the choir on Sundays; watched Pa take his seat in the second pew at Church; often held our breath as Mom lead the church hymns; sang "Over Hill Over Dale" as we headed back to Memphis eating left over fried chicken.

To this day, we take some odd back way from Memphis to Louise because Pa shaved 10 minutes off his drive-time by going through Sidon.

We buried Mom & Pa, Willie Belle, Auntie, Uncle Billy and even Daddy in the Delta.

My son Lee never knew the Delta I knew. Sure, he made some trips over the years, but Mom & Pa's house was gone, and they were gone. It was a place to him, but not "The Place", as Pa used to call it.

After Daddy died, I found myself longing to go back "home" -- to his home in the Delta. For about 3 years, I have spent more and more time in what I have learned is called the "Deep Delta". I have developed a love of photography and through that hobby I have begun to see the real beauty of this place -- it's simplicity, character, culture & life.

So now I start a new chapter in the Delta. I have rented a little house in Rolling Fork, MS for an entire year. It's my little piece of the Delta. A base camp, if you will, to learn what it is like to really live there. 

Daddy would be so thrilled, and surprised! After all, I was never supposed to be the one to come back to the Delta!