Way Down South in Dixie

I hope this title is not too off-putting to all of my liberal friends (I am one myself, you know) and does not attract all the KKK crazies to my site who think this is a coded message for a meeting of the Klan.

I certainly do not want to offend my friends who are black, African American or whatever the politically correct term should be these days. I do strive to be politically correct and think those that do not are pretty insensitive since I myself at the age of 60 do find being called a “girl” almost as demeaning as a black man finds it being called a boy. (I know, petty on my part, but just a position I have taken for various reasons.) Those who know me know this; it is the ones who do not that worry me.

The fact is I grew up in Dixie. When I say Dixie, I mean literally the name of the community that I grew up in and the school that I attended was called Dixie. It’s not the Dixie referred to in the song though I would guess the name was taken from there. I’ve never bothered to find out where it got its name; it’s not like the place had a chamber of commerce handing out printed brochures to prospective manufacturers coming to town. There was no town of Dixie. There was a community and a school called Dixie.

The only businesses in the community were the gins my father and the other farmers took their cotton to and two grocery stores sitting across from each other at an intersection of a gravel road and the highway down the road from where the school was located.

As I said, the only two businesses in the community other than the gins were the two grocery stores. One was a rather new early forerunner of a supermarket, although the size of it was not much bigger than today’s convenient stores. We never went there.

We and everyone else I knew went to Batey’s store that looked every bit like the most classic old time grocery store anyone has ever been in or seen in movies

Hershel Batey was a friend of my dad’s. He lived in a nice “modern” looking ranch style house that my dad and his crew built during the winter months, which is what my dad did when he was not farming. Batey, as everyone called him, had a motor boat and invited our family and a few other families to go with him to ski and boat ride in the relief “ditch” of the St. Francis River.  He was on the Dixie school board with my dad. His family and my family and a few others took turns having each other over for fish fries, card games and other get togethers. We and everybody else I knew went to Batey’s. Saturday night’s at Batey’s was fun.

The thing I remember best about the store was the feed sacks piled almost to the rafters in the back of the store near the wood burning stove where the men gathered to play dominoes. On Saturday nights, the other kids and I sat on the pile of sacks and watched Gunsmoke while our mothers bought big sacks of flour, big tubs of lard, cornmeal and sugar. The staples.

They did not buy many canned goods because they all canned their own. Did not buy many fresh fruits, except maybe apples, because oranges and bananas were luxuries one only got at Christmas. I do not recall there even being a produce “department” at Batey’s. I think fresh produce was one of the things the “supermarket” across the road had that Batey’s did not. Nevertheless, my mother would drive 20 miles into Paragould or Jonesboro to buy the things she needed rather than set foot in the upstart “super market”.

No one bought milk and eggs, because they all had chickens and cows. They didn’t buy meat because everyone raised their pigs and calves that they had butchered in the aforementioned nearby towns and kept what they didn’t have room for at home in their freezers in a “meat locker” in town.

That was just the kind of the mindset my mother and father and their friends had about supporting their friend’s store. It must have been the same mindset many others had in the community since Batey’s was always more successful and the “supermarket” went out of business long before Batey closed his doors because of poor health from old age.

The school is now closed and so is the store. Old times there are not forgotten, but we have all gone away from Dixie land.


Making it Right

My husband and I spent our honeymoon in New Orleans and since then have always promised ourselves we would be going back. Soon after our marriage we got busy running a direct mail advertising print shop that took all of our time and all of our money. Then Katrina happened and it just didn’t seem like a good time to be going to New Orleans. Finally, after twenty years with very little planning armed only with our memories and our GPS we went back to New Orleans.

We couldn’t remember the name of the guest house at the end of Bourbon Street where we’d stayed the last time so we couldn’t call for reservations. We remembered it as being a great place to stay within walking distance of all the action of Bourbon Street. The hosts were very pleasant and had given us helpful tips as to where to find great Eggs Benedict without paying the exorbitant prices of the better known tourist attractions (we couldn’t remember the name of that place either.)  We had loved our room as well as the reasonable price in the former “slaves quarters” behind the quest house’s beautiful courtyard and was eager to see it/live it all again.

Upon our arrival in New Orleans my husband was able to drive directly to the guest house, The Bon Maison, as it turned out to be (I was sure it was on the other side of the street.) However, since it was Memorial Day Weekend it was of course booked and we ended up being lucky to find a room in a chain hotel outside of the French Quarter given how many other people just happened to be in the city for the holiday.

We did get to eat at Felix’s oyster bar the first night just as we had before where we got our fill of our favorite: raw oysters. While standing in line we struck up an acquaintance with a couple from Texas who were just returning from Alabama’s Gulf Shores. Funny thing about them was that even though I had been to Dallas countless times for a variety of reasons they had never been there even though they had lived in Texas all of their life.

My husband had recently quit drinking and was under 6 months sober so we were reluctant to visit many of the bars, although we  tried unsuccessfully to get into Pat O’Brien’s just for old time’s sake. My husband had fond memories of bringing the crowd to its feet after his request for Old Time Rock and Roll was played -–a fete he had tried to recreate in other places on several occasions without as much success.

The next morning we drove up and down the bumpy side streets of the French Quarter trying to find the place where we had had Eggs Benedict at such a good price. Finally my husband, who never meets a stranger, picked out an older man he thought likely lived in the quarter and asked him about the place. Even though he was a resident, he seemed confused as to what we were talking about until we mentioned that we had eaten there twenty years before. ” Oh,” he said with a flash of recognition finally coming across his face, “you must mean Petunia’s, yeah, they went out of business a while ago”

We ended up having Eggs Benedict on Texas Toast at a restaurant called Stanley’s over looking the Jackson Square and thought it good and reasonably priced. We were however, by this time starving since it had taken us so long to settle upon a place and the restaurant was crowded, but on this weekend what wasn’t?

What wasn’t crowded was the Lower 9th Ward, one of the neighborhoods that had the worst flooding from Katrina where we drove after eating.  Although we saw many, many neat as a pin houses in the neighborhood, we were just as likely to see sitting right beside them an abandoned house still off it’s foundation and the familiar marks of the rescuers noted on their doors. Even though I had seen picture upon picture of these houses and FEMA trailers on television, seeing them in person gave me such a chill—even in the 95 degree temperature.

It got to be too much for my husband who was soon ready to get back to the part of the city where decadence was not this ugly. I however, had one more stop to make. I put into the GPS an address I had gotten off of a website and asked my husband to please let me see this one last thing before we left the neighborhood. After following the annoying GPS lady’s urgent “Turn Left!” and “Turn Right!” directions we arrived in a neighborhood of brand new homes on concrete stilts and different looking modern roof lines and neat as a pin yards. We had arrived at houses built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation. The contrast was hard to take at first, having just come from a street where houses had been abandoned, and for all I knew, lives had been lost.

Since Brad is originally a Springfield, Missouri boy who lived not far from the Arkansas line where I grew up I’d always imagined we had some of the same sensibilities from growing up in basically the same region. Never had I felt this any stronger than I did after seeing the houses his foundation had help build. This sight was not only making it right for the residents who lived there but was also making our trip, with all of its disappointments right for me. Seeing the old city and the old neighborhood in rebirth was a great revelation. It made me fall in love all over again with the romantic city that had marked the beginning of our marriage.  Our marriage,  just like New Orleans,  had been through hard times but it and we were flexible enough to allow for a change in direction. The Lower 9th ward now sported modern, futuristic houses and we were able to  finish our visit of New Orleans  making new memories instead of  just trying to relive the old ones.

Kid’s: It’s Pretty Nice

“Promise me son not to do the things I’ve done”

—Kenny Rogers “Coward of the County”

Parents—mothers and fathers—will they never learn? Always wanting for their children what they didn’t have: a college education, a new car, pretty clothes, an easy time of it. Wanting their children to be better than they were, have better grades, be better behaved, be better athletes, prettier, wittier.

If children lived up to their parents’ expectations and parents succeeded in giving their children all they hoped for, we’d have a crop of the smartest, prettiest well-dressed athletes and beauty queens, generation after generation.

It’s a pretty safe bet neither children nor parenting are getting any better. Kids are still being made with the same weaknesses and strengths—equipped (or hampered) with the same human emotions—subjected to the same influences and pressures their adult counterparts were when they were growing up.

But kids try. Even after they’re no longer kids they continue to worry what Mom and Dad will think. Some complain bitterly that nothing they ever did was good enough. Some speak fondly of the sacrifices and so forth. Some speak of the strictness of the rules, the harshness of the punishment even if that punishment was nothing but the silent disappointment in a father’s eyes.

And parents continue trying. Long after their child has reached adulthood they still hurt when their child is hurt and their stomachs sink each time their child fails because they feel they’ve failed, too.

Why? It’s probably the responsibility each feels for the other. Parents feel responsible for how their kids have turned out because of their early influences and examples. The children feel their parents are living vicariously through them; what they become affects the way their parents will feel when they review their life’s accomplishments.

But there’s more. I believe a person never finds, even if he or she runs through 50 wives or husbands, the kid of unselfish, no-ulterior-motive-involved kind of love kids and parents express for one another. Kids always believe (even kids who have been abused by their parents) that their mothers are the prettiest, their fathers the strongest. Parents always want to believe—though they tend to be more realistic than children—that their children are the brightest and handsomest.

And isn’t it nice to have someone around who is so unashamedly biased in your favor? Who feeds your ego, makes you feel good—for no apparent selfish motive?  It is that kind of love that is imitated and even recreated temporarily when two people first fall in love but that regrettably has to fade because of the self serving nature of the relationship. So, I hope parents never learn. And, by the way, have I told you about my son? He is the smartest thing….thinks I’m a great cook, tells me I’m pretty…I think I’ll buy him a bicycle for his birthday.

Published Monday, January 14, 1980, Courier News, Blytheville, AR.



Being Southern Baptist

A nation  looked on in surprise as an unheard of event was caused by an unheard of peanut farmer: the nomination of a southerner to the presidency of the United States.

I, too, looked on with surprise.  I wished him well but thought the nation probably would be better off  handled as it had always been….by Yankees. (Well, yes, there was Johnson but he did have a little help ascending to the presidency.)

A resourceful reporter from the Associated Press sent to write yet another story about a person everything had been written about, decided to explain the Carter religion. This religion the president adheres to, the reporter told us, is called “Southern Baptist”. Though the quotation marks weren’t there, the tone implying quotations marks was. The reporter wrote to inform the rest of the nation and probably did not realize how it would sound to us in the Bible belt.

However, reading it, I felt like I shouldn’t have, like I was eavesdropping on a conversation I wasn’t intended to hear. There wasn’t anything offensive about the article; I’m sure it was technically correct. It sounded familiar, but it reminded me of an obituary you read in the paper about a person you’ve known in life. In obituaries all the facts are always there: He had grandchildren. He was a member of the Kiwanis. He attended church at. . .etc.

What obits never tell you are how he gave away the extra tomatoes from his garden, how he’d walk around the neighborhood on Halloween slipping quarters into children’s sacks, how he always wore the same hat, etc.

And these human aspects were what was lacking in this reporter’s story. Not having had the benefit I had of growing up in a small Southern Baptist Church how was the reporter to know?

How was the reporter to know about how our legs, tanned by hours of bare footing it down dusty roads, looked against our white anklets and freshly polished white Sunday shoes?

How the boys jumped on and off the church porch where the congregation huddled saying their goodbyes during a spring rain? How the preacher had to be told to tone down his fire and brimstone speeches because he was scaring the little girl with Down’s Syndrome who came to church every Sunday.

What about the lady who walked a mile to church every Sunday and refused rides even in the worst weather? Or about the alto whose voice could be heard over the entire congregation’s and how everyone sitting next to her whether they meant to or not sang alto along with her?

How at the church pot luck dinner you always asked Mrs. Miller to bring dressing even though her dressing was about the worst, but no one wanted to offend Mrs. Miller.

The reporter neglected to tell how everyone was related to just about everybody else either by blood or by marriage and how the names on the tombstones in the little cemeteries by the churches matched the names of those on the church registry.

The reporter forgot: the toys that rattled in the purses of mothers with small children; the games of tic-tac-toe and hangman’s noose played on the church quarterlies by the school age children ; the teenagers grouped in pairs on the back row; the babies crying; the old men snoring.

How could that reporter have summed all of that up in a who, what, when, where and why story about these people called “Southern Baptists.”  That reporter couldn’t. So he didn’t even try.