It’s kind of funny how my memory works. Details about certain events escape me. I can’t grasp the when of an event: what year it happened, how old I was when it happened. I do remember things in relation to other things, however. Did Event A happen before or after Event B? It’s a different means of telling time, and one that I’m well familiar with.
It’s how we mark events here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, anyway. August 2005 left a clear demarcation in our time lines for those of us living here: things happened either before Katrina (B.K.) or after Katrina (A.K.). People older than I do the same thing with Hurricane Camille, which hit the Coast in August of 1969. Born just five years after that, I grew up hearing stories of what it was like B.C. or A.C.
I suspect that people in other areas that have been devastated by hurricanes–or other disasters for that matter–do the same thing.
I must have been a teenager–or very near it– when my family took a trip to Atlanta. I don’t remember much about the city. I do remember going to Stone Mountain, my mother’s quest for a roadside peach stand, and visiting an underground mall. The light show was fantastic, we didn’t find a peach stand, and the concept of an underground mall captivated me.
It was also Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, and the city was packed.
I *must* have been a teenager. After a very short window of time, I had zero interest in shopping, underground or not.
I do remember riding past the building for the Atlanta Constitution–now known as the Atlanta Journal Constitution–and really, really, really wanting to go in.
I mean desperately. It was more than a mere craving or hankering. It flew beyond the reaches of a fancy; it was a longing, a yearning.
At the time, the Atlanta Constitution was the newspaper which was the home point for Lewis Grizzard.
I had discovered him in our local paper–The Daily Herald, before it changed its name to the Sun Herald. A columnist who wrote about the South and the Southern experience, Grizzard was one of the few humorists who were genuinely funny AND clean. He found beauty and humor in small moments. He loved the South, and it showed. He wasn’t a comedian who mocked the South with ridiculous “You might be a redneck…” jokes. He wrote simply and beautifully, recalling memories woven like wisteria through the fence posts of his life in Georgia.
And we drove right on by where he worked.
I couldn’t sit still, my ass bouncing off the seat in anticipation. If I had a clicky-pen, I clicked it as if my life depended on it.
It was before I knew that people didn’t have to physically work at a newspaper to work for a newspaper. I didn’t realize that until many years later. But it was after I had discovered the joys and trials of writing. Or playing at it, anyway.
I was convinced he was there, in that building, at the very moment we drove past it. I remember looking at the windows and wondering if he would come to it just as we rode past.
That, after the camera in my head panned away, I would have just missed seeing his hands pressed to the glass like something out of a horror movie.
He was my hero.
I threw whatever a pre-teen version of a tantrum was. I say pre-teen because those days came before the real teenage tantrums after missed curfews and inappropriate relations.
But I knew that he was there, in that building, and that I was not walking into it.
I wonder if all my dental problems found their root in that vacation as I ground my teeth while I watched the building grow smaller.
I never got to meet him. When I learned that he had died, in 1994, I felt a dull pain. He was my hero, and I never got to tell him.
I just finished his book Don’t Forget to Call Your Mama…I Wish I Could Call Mine, and it was bittersweet. He wrote of his Mama, a woman who lost a husband to the after-effects of war, a woman who taught first grade after putting herself through night school, a woman who pinched pennies as hard as she could in order to send her only son to college. He recalled the home-made biscuits, the antithesis of what he called “whomp biscuits.” I grew up calling them “wop biscuits.” Different words for the same thing: biscuits named after the sound of the can hitting the counter. Whomp wop.
He was a Mama’s boy and made no apologies for it. He wrote of her food, of her hair he twisted in his sleep when he was young, her sickness that lasted the last twenty-five years of her life, and the step-father who showed up five years before her illness, and stayed with her until she died. He wrote of how she dealt with conflict, how she dealt with brothers who bullied her son: she took them to the movies with Lewis several times, bought them popcorn, and praised them for good behavior to their relatives.
The boys never bullied her son again, and Grizzard took note of how they changed.
There is so much love in this book, so much gentleness and grace. Not just about his mother, but also about his childhood in rural Georgia.
My relationship with Mississippi, and the South in general, is a complicated one. She’s like that relative who’s in and out of jail. I still love her, but I’m also aware of all the things she’s done. We keep trying to send her to rehab, but she’s sick: she keeps doing the same things over and over again despite how bad for her they are.
Grizzard’s writing represents what I love most about the South: the sense of family, the hole-in-the-wall eateries, and the overabundance of love dressed up as a funeral casserole. The summers of bike-riding along dirt paths and exploring the woods in all its fragrant wildness.
But a single sentence took me out of the warm memories of the South: his use of a pejorative I had heard from men who went to Vietnam and their families. And it’s there, nestled between stories of his father not coming back “right” after war and his declaring he wanted to be buried next to his Mama. And that is where racism lives: right between our fathers and our mothers, carried over from their fathers and mothers. Pinned under every day happenings, somewhere between the whomp biscuits and the honeysuckle, invisible to those of us who were fortunate enough to avoid it unless we were really looking for it.
I can love something without having to admit that it’s perfect. Like the South or our country or even a favorite writer from my childhood.
It’s not his best writing, but it is perhaps his finest. For me, it has served as a reminder that every moment with those we love is precious, that who we are is distinctly shaped by those who raised us, and how we are affected by their behavior. Either we see them as something to emulate or we view them as a warning of what not to become.
It has re-ignited my love for the South, a love that had been battered from the onslaught of rabid racism, now out in the open for anyone with eyes to see and corrupt politicians who vehemently oppose education and individual freedom, but rather support their friends and their pockets over the people whom they propose to represent.
It also reminded me, as I began the New Year trying to build a writing practice, that I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and, once upon a time, I even wanted to be a journalist. I had plans dreams of going to LSU and to study journalism.
That didn’t happen. At least not yet.
But the year is still new.
And right now–this moment–lies smack dab between the past and the future. It’s a bridge dividing our past from our future.
This moment is relational, and it’s the only moment that ever matters at all.
[Image Credit: Much to my Delight]