My childhood was marked by long car rides. We moved around quite a bit there for a while, all the brick houses a long highway's journey to my grandparents in Mississippi. Both of my parents were born and raised there; neither desired to stay. So I grew up comfortable with road trips; back in the good old days, of course, my father would remove the back seat of our minivan completely and my mother would sit on the floor with my sister and me playing Barbies until we fell asleep, curled in a pile like the litter of kittens that would inevitably be waiting for us at Maw Maw and Paw Paw's. No one spays a barn cat.
We'd visit one set of grandparents for a few days then get back in the car for a four-hour drive to the home of the other set. It was a seamless setup until the day my little brother accidentally kicked the gear shift and flipped the car and my un-seat-belted sister broke her leg and we all said thank God it wasn't worse and my uncle put a hot pink cast on her that itched and pricked and nearly thirty years later I'm still using that story to threaten my boys into their seat belts.
Childhood memories are like turtles, like hermit crabs: touch them too abrasively and they'll disappear into their shells. You don't get to control when they come out again.
When my dad's parents died in my twenties I mourned the loss of people I loved but not the place. When you're young you don't need to be rooted, you think. You've got a wide world before you and who needs home? I was tied to nowhere, a product of parents who followed passion and opportunity to tread across several states. We made fun of mom for how giddy she would get on those trips back home to Mississippi. She wasn't a silly woman, but the nearer we sped the more she would giggle at things that weren't funny. My dad's sarcasm pounced on it, affectionate in his own way. It was a ritual, and we teased her every time. Four hours to go and we cheer, gas station candy bars in hand. Two hours to go and mom can't sit still. Half an hour to go and she puts on more lipstick and fluffs her hair around.
What, I wonder, will be the rituals my own children remember?
We laid my Paw Paw in the delta soil on Sunday. We knew it was coming: 6-8 weeks
, the doctor had said, 6-8 weeks until the cancer takes him
. He made it eight weeks and one day, because he's a stubborn Southern farmer and he'll last an extra day just to prove you wrong.
You think you're ready for death but you are never
ready for death. Even still, even knowing that, I am surprised by the depth of my emotions. I loved him so. As a kid I would sit in his lap and listen for as long as he'd talk, hearing about cow shows and cotton and how much I looked like my mama. "She's Kay made over," he'd tell anyone who'd listen, pride dripping from his voice. I grew under the shade of his delight.
I am nearly thirty-five years old and to this day I adore the smell of cow manure. It smells like my childhood, it smells like freedom and breath and feeling deeply rooted. My grandparents' farm is home. It is the only place I can go to physically return to childhood memories. It was the only place in my life that had never changed.
Last week it changed. When he passed, the farm changed, the house changed, Sunflower County changed, the delta changed, Mississippi changed. I've never lived in the state and didn't realize that it was the only real home I had until this weekend when I was there and he wasn't. Part of the grief I feel is losing a man (a truly great, kind, generous man) I loved, and part of it is knowing that everything is changing and I can't stop it. But Maw Maw remains in their home; strong as a baby bull, that woman-- she'll probably outlive us all. Some years ago my uncle built a cabin 200 yards away, in the very spot where Paw Paw was born. I have a home there, I know; a changed home but a home still.
I could buy a plot of the family land, I could build a house there, we could make a life there. But outside of the haven of that farm is a state with a sordid history that it's still scraping the scabs off of, and I don't want to bring my multicolored family into that long fight for healing. We are charged with making a home elsewhere.
The world is the oyster of this generation; we follow jobs, we follow education, we follow appetites for adventure and sensuality. Home is wherever I'm with you
, we say, we sing, and I want it to be true but I'm not sure I believe it anymore. I'm not sure I believe it at all.