Roll, River, Roll

My brothers came to visit the second weekend I was in town. Since it was the first time we were all in Mississippi together in six years,Dad wanted us to take a family road tour through the Delta region in order to talk about the history of our family and community. I was excited – not only because this would give a lot of opportunities to get in and out of vehicles, to walk around, and to stretch my legs – but I had also majored in history and loved reviving the ghosts of the forgotten terrain.

We all got together in the afternoon in Jackson, split up in two SUVs, and rumbled north. There were only three of us in the lead vehicle – my dad, Ivory, and me. But due to our experiences and interests, it was actually the one where there would be the most discussion of history. We drove up to Yazoo City, then switched to Highway 49, where we were able to make our way up toward the agrarian towns of the Mississippi River. We passed alabaster rows of cotton fields stretched out beneath the blue sky as Dad pointed out dusty roads to places that no longer existed.

After over an hour, we had to stop for gas. The last time I been in the Delta, I’d needed frequent restroom breaks and felt quite guilty about how often I had slowed the trip. And once we would get to a service station, we would have to park right next to it because
I would become exhausted just trying to walk across a lot.

This time, we hadn’t even stopped for me. As Ivory drove to the gas pumps, most of them were occupied, so we had to park at the one that was farthest away from the building. When he asked if I wanted him to let me out, I assured him that I would be fine. He pulled up to the pump, and I got out, refused help with the door, then casually strode to the storefront. The restrooms were located in the rear of the store, so I wandered to the back, unphased by even more distance. I used the restroom, washed my hands, and came out to do a little shopping. After I paid, I made my way back across the sweltering lot. I can’t describe how good it felt to make that walk an easy one.

Our first destination was Greenville – the largest city in the Mississippi Delta. Since it was on the river, it had always been the major shipping hub of the region. It has since lost prominence with the expansion of overland shipping and the decline of importance of cotton and catfish. My favorite site – the Welcome Center– is no longer at the river crossing. The old Welcome Center is a model steamship. It sits in a shallow pond and has an iconic paddle wheel. I wanted to go and take pictures there, since the last group photo I have with my brothers is from when I was still using a wheelchair.

We parked right beside the boat. Then I realized that I would need to walk out onto the grass if I wanted to get the paddle wheel in the shot. I walked to the edge of the pavement and braced myself, because carpet and grass always created greater tripping habits for me. At first I thought about calling someone over for help. Then I remembered how important it was to keep gauging my improvement on this trip. Knowing everyone was there, I could just pause and ask for help if I needed it.

I took one step out on the grass. My foot didn’t catch on anything. Then I started walking. The ground was a little lumpy, but the grass was short and there weren’t any large holes. There was a sign that traced the course of the Mississippi from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The network of highway sections is known as the Great River Road. It has always been my ambition to drive this trek. Now that I’m recovering from a stroke, it’s a mission. By simply placing one foot in front of the other, I was soon at the sign. As I waited for Ivory and Jonathan to walk over, my heart swelled with pride.

Once we were done taking pictures, we joined my brothers’ wives, Sharon and Candice. They had taken Candice and Jonathan’s daughter, Parker, inside the welcome center. Since I had assumed it was closed, I was now curious about what was inside. Once inside, I found that the center had a second level. Everyone else went upstairs, while I sat down and rested on the couch because upstairs wasn’t air conditioned. It just seemed like unnecessary work to go all the way up.

Ivory came back and told me that there was a small museum up there. It probably wasn’t worth the effort it took to get up there. It didn’t sound particularly impressive, but going up there would be a feat. Everyone else had already come down, so I began climbing up myself. Grasping the handrail, It was no trouble climbing the first series of stairs. Once I got past the landing, the stifling heat caused me to sweat profusely. But it wasn’t more difficult, so I continued to the top.

The first exhibit was a large replica of Kermit the Frog seated in a pond. It was an homage to muppet creator Jim Henson, who was born in Greenville. Henson was one of many entertainers and athletes who are native to Mississippi. Because the state otherwise gets so much poor publicity, it celebrates its native sons and daughters. There are more historical markers, restaurants, and small museums than many visitors might expect. And locals will often greet you and tell you all about their personal connections to the celebrity in question.

The rest of the “musem” was a wraparound display of a planter scene. It had a an actal plow and several agricultural products that are grown locally. Since I was sweating anyway, I stopped in front of a bale of cotton and asked Ivory to come back upstairs and take a picture of me. I put my cane down, stretched my back, and moppped my brow with the back of my hand, as though I was weary from a long day picking cotton under a sweltering Delta sun. With a feeling of accomplishment, I went back downstairs. We got back into the vehicles and headed out of Greenville along Highway 1.

Our next stop was at the grave of my grandmother. It’s in a cemetary by the side of the highway. Unlike a lot of urban cemetaries, it doesn’t have an arched gateway with a name to let the visitor know that she is entering a sacred space. As a child, I imagined that was because you are always in a supernatural space in rural Mississippi. Even Grandmother had a story of being chased through town by the devil who was riding a bicycle one night. I used to close my eyes when we spent the night in the Delta, imagining that there were ghosts and demons and wolves everywhere.

Grandmother was born in 1904. As a child, I had been fascinated by the stories she told. I never expressed how much I loved listening to the old folks talk about the past. It was the haunted feeling of listening to these stories that had led to my impulse to major in history. Standing at her grave, I thought of the African proverb “Every time an elder dies, a library burns to the ground.” I like to think that by being such an avid listener, I rescued several invaluable volumes from that conflagration.

Our next stop was the grounds of the Scotland plantation. Now a Monsanto crop development site, it was once under the Delta and Pine Land Company. My father had become familiar with the place because the families of the workers who lived there sent their children to Rosedale, Dad’s hometown for school. They were so socially close to slavery that the kids would sometimes name the owner of the plantation when asked by a teacher to recite the presidents in order.

We found the historical marker for the Mississippi River Flood of 1927, the most storied river flood I knew of. The river had swelled beyond its banks for miles in either direction. People from farther down the river will recall that this was the flood that caused people to discuss dynamiting the levees of Placquemines Parish to save New Orleans upstream. Families all up and down the river had been changed forever by the great flood. Our history had been diverted when Grandmother had escaped Arkansas in a rowboat and floated downstream until it reached dry land in Mississippi.

We left the plantation and drove a few more miles north to Rosedale – the city where Grandmother settled and where Dad was born. At the port of Rosedale, where the boats were loaded and unloaded, there was a tugboat pushing barges down the Mississippi – a scene that seems to always be happening once you get south of Missouri. I stared across the river to Arkansas, imagining children from the opposite bank. It felt so serene.

We climbed back in our vehicles and drove the last mile into the actual town. We turned right down a familiar street to Gospel Temple, an old building that had always seemed to bet he tallest one in town. This had been the black congregation during segregation and was still the beating heart of the black community of Rosedale when we were kids. Several times while Ivory and I were in elementary school, we had come here to Easter services to participate in giving Easter speeches — one or two quatrain poems that celebrated the death and ressuection of Jesus.

We lingered here, talking, taking pictures, and watching Jonathan play in the grass with Parker. Then, when we decided the tour was over, we turned and started for home. I watched the sun slowly disappearing and peeking from behind the trees. It had been an incredibly arduous two years of physical rehabilitation following my stroke. But I was finally starting to feel like I was living again.

When we finally made it home, the sky was black. No longer reliant on my cane to go in and out of the house, I reached out and grasped the door frame. Then stepping up with my left leg, I went up the steps into the house. With the diversity of exercises I was doing in the gym, a long day of standing and walking around the Delta was no more perilous than strolling down the sidewalk. I was learning to master my body again.

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