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!