My Mississippi trip was more like a family reunion interrupted by a funeral than a funeral accompanied by a family reunion. I saw some people I hadn’t seen in a quarter century, and I saw others who I had never seen because they weren't born or hadn’t married into the family. Even people I didn’t get along with seemed genuinely glad to see me, and I them, although by the time we parted we remembered why we had not gotten along.
Some stories and reflections.
The flight. I haven’t flown since long before 9/11, so I tried to imitate everyone else when I went through airport security An alarm sounded. The guard looked at me like I was supposed to know what to do, and I looked at her like she was supposed to offer some suggestions. The moments drug on, but I finally won. “Did your forget your cell phone,” she asked. “I don’t own a cell phone,” I answered. “Well, do you have any metal in your pockets?” “Yes, I have lots of that.” Who would have thought that TSA would expect me to unpack my own bag for them to inspect? I felt so…so virginal.
I told my seatmate on the plane that I had really wanted a window seat because I hadn’t flown in a long time, and would like to look out. He grunted and closed the shade. “The sun hurts my eyes,” he explained. When he went to bathroom, I leaned over and opened the shade. The snowcapped Rockies greeted me in all their majesty. When he returned, I asked to trade places. “I would have to move my things,” he protested. His things consisted of one paperback and one jacket. “Well, if it’s too much trouble…” I said. He traded.
From 31,000 feet, the Old Man didn’t look like a river. It looked like mud—beautiful, horizon-to-horizon, mile-wide mud. My heart leaped and became stuck in my throat. Then came the meandering Yazoo and the mysterious Big Black and, to the north where the earth drops away abruptly, the cotton fields of the Delta. I saw four lane roads that had not existed when last I visited, and I saw sprawl, more sprawl than I could have imagined. As the plane braked and grew silent on its approach to Jackson, I spotted the Ross Barnett Reservoir and the sandbars of the sometimes mighty Pearl. Memories of battles and freedom marches, of ignorance and poverty, flooded upon me, and I felt engulfed by compassion for my beautiful state that has suffered so much. “Oh, please don’t touch,” I implored the plane’s wheels, “let me love it from a safe distance.” And so I arrived in Mississippi.
The airport, which used to be called Thompson Field in honor of a Jackson mayor, is now Medgar Evers’ International. I know little of Alan Thompson, whereas I greatly respect Medgar Evers, yet I interpret the alteration as indicative of nothing nobler than a regime change. When the whites took Mississippi from the Indians, they renamed most things, and now that the blacks are in charge, they are doing the same.
The weather. Hot and humid by night and by day. My mother believed that night air contained vapors, so we slept with the windows shut when I was a boy. She also opposed drafts, so we slept without fans. Now air conditioning is to Mississippi what furnaces are to Minnesota. I didn’t mind the heat this time because I was like a tourist in pursuit of the full monte.
Heat and humidity multiply odors many times over, odors of flowers, of mown grass, of sub-tropical decay. The intensity was so marked that going to Mississippi was like going from not smelling anything to smelling everything, and I loved it.
Every afternoon, the thunderheads would build, the weather warnings would become frantic, the rain would descend, and the steam would rise. Five minutes later, the show would be over, leaving the air twice as hot and the odors of dirt and grass and asphalt twice as strong. This too I loved. Plants love it also. Oregon plants pop vitamins; Mississippi plants mainline meth. When I was a boy, plants like bananas and elephant ears that had big leaves and grew really fast scared me. I didn’t literally believe they would drag me from my bed and eat me, but I didn’t turn my back on them either. I used to be able to identify sixty to eighty Mississippi trees, many of them by their shape and shade of green, and I was sorry to discover that I’ve lost that ability.
Buckner. This is the town of 900 where we stayed. Like a lot of towns in the area, Buckner is 80% black. Peggy’s father, R.W., told us not to go walking at night, and to avoid some areas even in the daytime. I remember a time when I could walk anywhere at any time in any town or city in Mississippi. Now, Jackson hides behind burglar bars, and meanness sells newspapers. During my visit, a man was shot in the back because he refused to give a cigarette to a stranger. Another man was killed while sitting in his car, although he had complied with the killer’s demand for his wallet. Some people say that the killing is caused by drugs, but Oregon has a drug problem too. Since the meanness began toward the end of the civil rights era, I imagine a connection. Fear once kept poor blacks in check, and there didn’t used to be nearly so many of them in proportion to the number of whites.
A few black people came to the funeral home, and two of R.W.’s grandkids—who stayed at his house and attended the funeral—are half-black. Mississippi is the most integrated state in the union. Where there is separation—like in regard to where a person attends church—it is by choice rather than coercion. People in Oregon don’t want to believe this. What really irks me about people in Oregon is that they can go for weeks and not even see a black person, yet they declare themselves free of prejudice and believe they have the answer to every racial issue. The way I see it, such “racial” problems as do exist in Mississippi are caused by culture rather than race. Where there are only a few black people—like in Oregon—they adapt to the white culture, but where there are many, things are different. Yet, I fully believe that racial goodwill dominates in Mississippi. I saw too much of it to think otherwise.
The funeral. The casket was open for the visitation. Peggy hadn’t wanted it that way, but that’s the custom, and that was what her father preferred. The visitation started three hours after I got off the plane. I had slept two hours the previous night, seven hours the night before, and no hours the night before that, so I had a hard time greeting person after person, many of whom I was supposed to remember from long ago. God, but most of them looked like hell. Leave town for a couple of decades, and get a lesson in human frailty and temporality when you come back.
I was a pallbearer just as I was at the funerals of three of Peggy’s grandparents. One of the pallbearers was stung on the lip by a yellow jacket, but he toughed it out. Otherwise, things went well, with the afternoon’s five-minute rain occurring on the drive from the church to the cemetery.
I didn’t cry, although I tried. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to project a caring image as that I felt I owed it to Peggy to grieve. I tried to remember moments when Mom and I had fun together and other moments when she seemed happy, but they got washed away by angry memories. Memories of her ordering R.W. around like a slave, and of neglecting to stay in touch with Peggy. Peggy used to cry about her mother’s indifference, saying it was because we didn’t have children like her two sisters. Instead of boxing my anger up and putting it away when Mom died, I became madder than ever. I had wanted to love her, and I had wanted to respect her, but she was, by her own admission, a misery even to herself. I could but grieve over my inability to grieve.
My only remaining brother-in-law looked like he might be feeling pretty much the same, but then white people usually keep a stiff upper lip at funerals. This is another difference between them and black people. Black people howl, wave their arms, and throw themselves to the floor. White people might feel like doing that, but they would lose face. For some reason staying in control means more to us, even when our control isn’t believable.
The rest. I spent most of my time sitting around the kitchen table visiting. I enjoyed myself and wished that my life had more people in it with whom I could do that. The food was bad—lots of desserts that people brought over and nothing whole grain—and I pigged out. I can only say no to bad food by not being around bad food. The funny thing is that I don’t enjoy bad food a whole lot, partly because I can’t stop feeling ashamed of myself for eating it.
Despite R.W.’s warnings, Peggy and I took a walk everyday. One night, I stayed home while everyone went out to eat, and that night I walked for two hours. The songs of frogs and crickets pulsed loudly, and I thought about what a shame it was that everyone else in town was sitting beside their air conditioners.
I marveled at how beautiful Mississippi is, and I asked myself if I could ever move back. I could, I thought (the winters in Oregon get me down), but I knew Peggy could not, and I was grateful to be safe from the possibility. It’s as close to a third world country as I have seen because there is so much squalor and decay. Even the concrete looks different. Here it is made of crushed basalt. There it is made of chert, and looks bleached and ancient. I got the biggest kick out of just walking around staring at the concrete in Buckner, every slab of which was cracked. Maybe that’s why none of the many black men who didn’t appear to have anything to do all day messed with me—maybe they thought I was dangerously insane. Other than Peggy, I was the only white person I saw on the sidewalk the whole time I was in Buckner.
Another thing Mississippi has in common with the third world is that graft is considered more or less normal. For example, Mississippi has the worst schools in the nation, and Buckner has the worst schools in Mississippi, yet Buckner spends more than twice the Mississippi average per student, and no one seems to know where the money goes. They just see a lot of poorly paid state employees driving around in Mercedes. If I lived in Buckner, I would have to fight the corruption. That’s just how I am.