Run aground in the promised land. (On Being Southern).
For 20 years, we traveled with our three Sons to Mississippi on summer pilgrimages. We left our Kansas or Texas home to visit both sets of grandparents--one just outside Meridian, the other in Gautier, near the Coast. Summers for our boys meant escape from the city to the comfort of grandparents and the wonder of Mississippi. They'd swim in the rivers, take boat rides in the bayou, and fish for anything that would bite--in both locations. They'd tinker on old cars or plows with their grandfathers or work for days to repair a boat for a three-hour beach-combing trip to Round Island.
The grandfathers and their retired cronies delighted in teaching "Southern survival" skills to the city boys. They taught the basics: Horticulture 101, raising good tomatoes and tall corn; Botany 101, picking blackberries without getting snake-bit; and Intro to Biology, fishing, crabbing, and shrimping. In cooking tutorials, the boys learned to fry fish, smoke mullet, and boil shrimp--with a few new potatoes and ears of corn thrown in.
Naturally, our sons utilized their newly acquired knowledge immediately upon returning home. At the end of one summer, our youngest son, then 15, plowed up half of our Topeka, Kansas, front yard to grow a fall crop of corn. Fortunately, he added a few sunflowers for a Kansas flavor and suburban acceptance. Another summer adventure, the discovery of a dead loggerhead turtle and subsequent alerting of the Gulf National Seashore authorities, provided fodder for school research papers for at least three years. At Florida State, when the middle son wrote and produced "Shrimpin'," a documentary on the plight of the small commercial shrimper, Mike Belton of Gautier provided the key interview for the film. Mike had taken that son shrimping in the Gulf one summer.
Each son accentuated his stay in Mississippi by bringing a friend to relish in the wonders of the promised land. These companions, now grown men, have also elevated their summers in Mississippi to folklore status. At weddings and other family events, I hear them reminiscing about exploding catfish with fireworks, hunting for alligators until they were too scared to paddle, getting stuck in the bayou and being towed in by a passing fisherman, and turning mud-red after jumping into the Chunky River. They especially love to relive the time James, a visiting middle-school buddy, walked into the dark depths of the bayou. Their boat had run aground, and James, the tallest of the three aboard, was elected to dislodge the boat and get it back into water. James ended up trudging 50 yards, chest-deep in black, oozing marsh mud, tugging a three-foot rope over his shoulder heroically pulling the 15-foot aluminum "yacht" and the two sons aboard into navigable water.
Today, our sons are still practicing their Mississippi summer skills. The middle son, now on the West Coast, is the talk of the pier at Port Hueneme, a beach-front harbor town just north of Los Angeles. There he nets larger spider crabs than the native California fishermen. The secret to his prize catches--one crab measured 36 inches from claw to claw and weighed more than 10 pounds--he learned crabbing one summer in Mississippi.
Though all three sons are native Texans, wherever they live, they gravitate to people with Mississippi roots...a University of Kansas college roommate, and later groomsman, from Starkville...a Texas best friend whose grandparents called Moss Point and Wiggins home. Recently our youngest son, a Texas volunteer ice hockey coach, discovered that the mother of one of his 12-year-old players is from Gautier; the boy's entire family immediately gained friendship status.
We thought our sons' adoration of Mississippians and Mississippi was exclusive. That is, until Travis returned this summer. He's the kindergarten son of the couple across the street. They, too, have Mississippi roots. Each summer, his mother plans treks from Texas to Vicksburg for a grandparent visit. Upon his return, Travis trots over to chat, just to let us know he's back in the neighborhood. We always ask where he's been (though we know) and he explains that he's been to Mississippi. We ask, "To Vicksburg, to visit your grandparents?" "No," he says reverently, "to Mississippi to see Nana and Pawpaw." From the solemn tone of his voice, the elevation of his chin, and the awe-inspired look in his glistening eyes, we know that he, too, has been to the promised land.
In the past year, two of our sons have married, the third is finishing college, and the AARP applications are arriving at an accelerating pace. Friends have stopped asking "when" we are going to retire, and have started asking "where" we are going to retire. As we mull over the answer, we admit that caring friends, ample shade, a little solitude, and a good fishing spot are all we really need. Texas has been paradise for years, but, who knows, one day we might have grandchildren who'll need a place to stay in the promised land.
Diane Skelton, a native of Pascagoula now landlocked in Keller, Texas, teaches English and journalism. Her last "On Being Southern" piece, "There are No Strangers in Mississippi," appeared in January/February 1998.