Averyell A. Kessler
Last week, I heard a remark in a silly romantic comedy showing on TMC. I wasn’t paying much attention until this “May the good Lord make you smart enough to live in a small town.”* How strange, a bit of wisdom direct from Hollywood to my southern ears.
During my growing up years in Jackson, this city had a dual personality – part state capitol and part small town Mississippi. My Belhaven neighborhood had its own peaceful identity. Perfect for children, wandering dogs, quiet nights, and ladybugs settling on the tip of my nose. The northern edge of Jackson was at the intersection of Old Canton Road and what is now Canton Mart Road. Beyond that, there was nothing except rolling pastures, a long aisle of cedar trees, and grazing cattle. The area had no name. It was just “northa town.”
Most off my childhood friends claimed family a few miles away, or down the block. I had a single grandmother residing in Ohio, who spoke in a rusty Midwestern accent that hurt my ears. She was not warm and snuggly. I had a single grandfather, WG, who lived in Jackson and was a world away from normal. He did not spend hours snoozing in a rocking chair, quietly thumbing through the Clarion Ledger, or wondering where he left his cane. There was no cane. He was more likely to tell dicey stories incorporating illicit words, to race trains, or invite me to wallow in a huge mud puddle in Avery Gardens. We only raced a train once, but my mother found out and we were reduced to counting box cars as freight trains passed his office window. He was warm and snuggly but smelled like cigar smoke and Dr. Tichenor’s.
Slowly, Mississippi’s traditions seeped into my brain, mostly by osmosis but also by the influence of my Laurel Street pals, Power School, and the aroma of peach pie. I heard tales of visits to grandparents in Tchula or Yazoo City and riding a plow horse across wide delta fields. I learned that some friends had too many cousins to count. The lucky ones were already learning to make biscuits or how to tell when the backyard tomatoes were ripe. Small town ethics abounded, Sunday School and Church were required, and acting up in school was a violation of all ten commandments. I had no idea if I was living in a small town or a big one. I didn’t care. Jackson was home, warts, and all.
My only visit to the “old home place” occurred when my grandfather took my mother and me to his childhood home in Poke Berry Bottom, Indiana, the ultimate small town. It just was a few unorganized acres a few miles over the fence from the Ohio River and Kentucky. The town wasn’t on the map, only in his memory. Somehow, we managed to find it.
Many things he remembered were missing, a small one room building called Shake Rag School and the country store where he bought hoop cheese and dipped his thumb into the mincemeat barrel. At the end of a long gravel road, we found his childhood home on a high, muddy hill. It was tall, austere, and breathing it’s last breath. The house was unoccupied, but the privy remained as well as a small tumbledown barn. We also found his mother’s Methodist Church and walked through the graveyard behind it. WG searched the graves and found the tombstone of his Uncle Ben Frakes. It had been knocked over with a sledgehammer and tuned upside down, so that the angelic hand pointing to heaven now pointed to a worse fate below.
“Oh, well,” WG said. “That was Uncle Ben.”
The three-octave pump organ from this church, as well as a hand-made oak pew are now in my house.
Over the years, he took joy in talking about Poke Berry Bottom, especially when a pretentious Jackson matron cleared her throat and explained the six glorious generations in her linage. He waited, hiding boredom, as she described their Virginia landing and magnificent progression from the southern nobility of Richmond to a cotton empire in the Mississippi delta.
“What happened in Virginia?” WG asked. “The sheriff run’em outta town?”
After the matron left in a huff, he’d explain his own heritage focusing on Poke Berry Bottom, his fourth-grade education at Shake Rag School, and the unfortunate antics of Uncle Ben. Apparently, Uncle B was a unique individual, and not everyone is able to climb an oak tree stark naked.
Jackson is still my home, although much of its small-town flavor has vanished. A few things remain – strong religious traditions, picking up a burger at The Beatty Street Grocery or eating redfish at the Mayflower, and rehashing Power School tales with childhood friends. Murrah High School is still here, and flourishing. Downtown is being remodeled and renovated. The old Kennington’s and Emporium buildings remain. They have new names now, but you can’t fool me. Most of all, respect and kindness still live here, even between strangers. I learned it from my grandfather, a rough tough guy with a tender heart. From my mother, a gentle woman with a Mensa brain, and my father, who was always courteous, even to the starched poohbahs at First Presbyterian church.
I passed a lady in the grocery store yesterday; we were the only ones in the store. I didn’t know her, but I tried to smile and say hello. Then, I realized that my mask had hidden most of my face. Hers too. I lowered my mask and said, “I smiled, but you couldn’t see me.”
She lowered hers also and answered. “That’s ok, I could see it in your eyes.”
I saw the same thing as a child in my small town, kindness in its eyes. Even in these troubled days, I hope the habit remains. It’s important. Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.**
*The Runaway Bride