After I worked out, I biked home (uphill!) in the rain, ate some organically grown hippie food, drank kombucha and listened to The Decemberists before heading off to our local brewpub with some in-laws. I like where I live. I really do. Portland is a great city.
But it hit me yesterday that it's not home. Several things spurred my homesickness, which would be too much to go into now, but suffice it to say, I started absolutely longing for Mississippi yesterday. I thought a decent night's sleep would cure me of this homesickness, but I woke up this morning thinking about chickory-blend cafe au lait.
Several years ago, I was driving this stretch of highway 469 that goes between some railroad tracks and Whitfield, the local "state hospital," i.e. mental institution. It was around dusk and the sky was full of these dark, gorgeous clouds, which some might describe as "ominous" but I describe as thrilling. In that one moment, I felt so in love with my state. It was further along this same stretch of road a few years later with Ted that we came to the T-intersection and were waved on to turn left by some guy in a pick-up truck who didn't even have a stop sign. He just knew we were waiting to turn and decided to let us on by. Ted was in shock. I said, "That guy looks like my uncle."
There are a lot of talented people who have written much more beautifully about the south than I ever could (Rick Bragg's All Over But the Shoutin', William Alexander Percy's Lanterns on the Levee, etc.), so I'm just going to try to share some hodge-podge things I love about where I'm from.
For starters, our good friend Morgan is from Mississippi, and boy is it fun to share a Newcastle, a snuggle, and a dance at Ground Zero with the man:
Please excuse the shameless name-dropping. I was just genuinely hyper-excited to meet and chat with a movie star, especially while in the Delta where it was pretty unexpected.
The women in my Granny's yoga class show up in full make-up, hair fixed and heavily hairsprayed, lipstick in place. Their work-out outfits match. Afterwards, they sit at these round tables and drink stale coffee with the menfolk, gossiping about various church scandals and each other's extended families. I was sore for three days after this class. Those women kick ass (Can you guess which one is my Granny?).
It may be trite, but it really is true: no one makes sweet tea like a Southerner. And we don't call it iced tea. It's just tea or sweet tea; the only person I knew who ever drank hot tea was my great-grandmother, Granny Ford, and we all thought she was a little weird for it. When you order tea in a restaurant, you should specify whether you want sweet or unsweet, but why wouldn't you want the sweet stuff? I don't even mind the way it makes my teeth burn, feeling like the syrup is wearing the enamel off. Good stuff, good for the soul. In any Southern town, the locals know which restaurant has the best tea. One of the best compliments we got down at Jody's Coffeeshop in Hattiesburg where I worked in graduate school was that our sweet tea was even better than McAlister's Deli's tea. And McAlister's is known for their tea. Every time I go home, I have to stop in there to get my plastic cup with lid and straw of their tea. I drink about half in the restaurant, then fill it up before I leave, sipping on it for the rest of the day.
Any of you from Jackson may have noticed the Primos sign on that above picture. My friend Neola wrote a lovely piece in which she talks about the wonder of Primos. You should read it. I grew up eating at the Primos down on Meadowbrook when we'd go somewhere with my great-aunt, who everyone calls "Sister" even though she's only my Granny's sister (that's another thing about the South: most families have a Bubba and a Sister--for a while my little brother started calling me Sister, and I thought I was going to be the next generation for my family...but then I just became Lori again...sadly).
Primos is a locally-owned restaurant, specializing in high-end Southern food. It always made sense to me that we'd go there with Sister since I always saw her as my most aristocratic, upper-crust relative. I mean, she did live in Milwaukee for a long time, married my Uncle Ted from Poland, and her nails were always polished so pretty. Her apartment was and is filled with lots of gilded golden mirrors, thick carpets, and even a marble statue of David, whose strategically placed figleaf intrigued me as a kid.
She always serves us home-made pimento cheese, pineapples, ham, and wheat crackers when we visit her. She also always let us swim at her pool as kids but she was pretty vigilant about not getting the furniture wet with our swimsuits when we came in. She has hosted countless bridal showers and other parties at her place since it's the fanciest. She gave herself a birthday party when she turned 80, also the same year Ted and I got married, so she made sure to remember us at the party:
I could write a really lovely book about Sister, or at least a very long chapter about her, but I'll wait until I get my book deal for that.
I was talking about Primos before I chased that rabbit-trail about my great-aunt, which is I guess another thing I miss about the South: rabbit trails are not only tolerated in conversation but encouraged and indulged. Being able to weave in several side-stories to your main one, always managing to tie everything up neatly...that's a true talent.
Primos: just go read what Neola wrote about it. I just want to say that their caramel cake is the most delicious dessert you'll ever put in your mouth. I'm not sure what those other pink cakes are. Don't bother with them. Just always go for the yellow cake with caramel icing. The last time I was in Jackson, I brought a piece of it home for Ted, but he was nice enough to realize quickly that I'd actually brought it home for me, so he just took one bite and let me finish the rest. Good man.
My friend Angela married a good man herself, Dave. He's known around town as the Dean of the Honor's College at USM, but this isn't what impresses me most about Dave. What I like most about Dave is his truck. He proudly has this as his personalized license plate, giving props to his obsession/collection of anything rutabaga-related. Dave and Angela are most likely the silliest people I know and also perhaps the most southern, in the truest and best sense of all that means. I love them, and today especially, I miss them. I wish I could see them every day. Angela once came all the way to Slovakia to visit me and she even had a t-shirt airbrushed for me at K-Mart saying, "The Weena Grabba Winna." Timmah! (excuse the indulgence in inside jokes) They also make very funny videos that they put on youtube. You should check them out especially this one, in which Graham, Dave's son, goes on quite a bit about both buggies and "McAlister's sweet tea with three lemons." This video fills me with an insane amount of joy.
Speaking of friends, any friend you make in the south is gonna be there for the rest of your life. That's just how we do it down there. And age doesn't matter. One of my sweetest friends is this beautiful lady, Ms. Dot. Ms. Dot was my boss at the coffeeshop when I was in graduate school, and she is a firecracker. That woman not only knows everybody who has ever set foot in Forrest County in the last fifty years but also who their daddy is and what he does for a living. Though she was nearing 80 when I worked for her, she'd never let any of us help her, determined to climb the stepladder herself to restock the paper cups, thank you very much. When my Grandaddy died, Ms. Dot drove up to Jackson for the funeral, even though I'd only known her about six months. Heck, she knew half my extended family anyway. When I moved to Slovakia, she would mail me things occasionally, including that poem about how she wants to slide into heaven with chocolate in one hand and a glass of wine in the other (or something like that). Ms. Dot is fierce. I miss her a lot today too.
Then you have the kind of friends that become so close the line blurs between who's kin and who's not. I consider both of these people my sisters, truly.
And we're real careful to treat them just the same as the rest of us, don't you worry about that.
When I was in Mississippi earlier this year, the family got together for my niece's birthday, and I couldn't have been prouder of this group of people. Even with all the steps and exes running around, everyone was so much more than civil--they were all friendly and seemed happy to see each other. A few were so giddy, they started doing yoga poses out in the driveway:
I don't mean to romanticize things or gloss anything over. Every family really does have its own particular brand of discord at times. I guess I just have a growing appreciation for my own family, despite its lack of perfection. Maybe if I lived there year-round, I'd feel differently, getting sick of everybody...but I doubt it.
So this week it just started hitting me how much I miss that familiarity that comes with having family in the same town as me. I miss being able to call while I'm on the way over to my sister's house, knowing that I'm not intruding, that she and her family will just be glad to see me.
I miss sitting outside in the garage with my Granny during thunderstorms, watching the bottom fall out. I miss the simplicity of throwing a stick or an old milk carton to my dad's border collie Doc over and over until he passes out in exhaustion. I miss listening to Thistle & Shamrock or A Prairie Home Companion on Saturday nights with my mom. I even miss the smell of the paper mill at my Maw-Maw's house in Natchez and those perpetual three pots of greens always found on her stove: turnips, mustards, and collards. I miss the way my little brother sidles up beside me, resting his head on my shoulder to tell me that he misses me. I miss sitting on a metal glider like this, eating the blueberry yum-yum that Maw-Maw made just for me, cause it was a special occasion. I miss my accent something terrible and wish it would come back.
So for all you good folks out there who have cousins and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews all in the same town as you: go find them and give 'em a squeeze. Even if they drive you ape-shit crazy sometimes, hug them anyway. Tell them you love them. You'd be a different person without them. I know I would.