Graceland, Part I

miss grass

“The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National Guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the civil war
I’m going to Graceland . . . “
Paul Simon

I was humming those lines as I crossed the river from Arkansas, skirted Memphis, and crossed into the rolling wooded hills of northern Mississippi. Brown, thigh high field grass grew in the small clearings between wood lots, the fields lay fallow in the mid-winter, and the ridges rose and fell away at seventy-five miles per hour. My traveling companion was my fourteen year old daughter, and she was in a good mood after having been checked out of school early. We were on our way to Tupelo to help my mother recover from a surgery, and I’d asked her to come along and help out, and she’d agreed.

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In my mind I equated the offer to accompany me with a journey I’d been left out on when I was her age, when my father and brother and a couple of my father’s brothers made a trip to Illinois to see about my grandfather, who was dying. I’d been too young to go with the men of the family back then, and I’d been jealous of my brother. Even though I was too young to know about road trips, I sensed there was something romantic about traveling not for pleasure, but on adult business that was not for pleasure. I knew enough to know that men on a trip would act differently than they would otherwise, and they would be more likely to treat me more like a man. Of course, my expectations were different for my daughter. She wouldn’t breathe my father and uncles’ second-hand smoke, hear their coarse humor, or experience a 1970s era truck stop diner, but I did hope she would think about this trip as a rite of passage, an introduction to the experience of aging, failing bodies, and role transitions.

Whatever the reason, it had been a pleasant drive. We’d listened to music on the radio, a little bit of a Harry Potter CD, chatted, and for the last two hours she’d watched Mean Girls on a portable DVD player while I listened. Whatever the other merits—or demerits—of the movie, it provided good ammunition for easy life lessons: don’t be a mean girl; don’t be like Lindsey Lohan.

“Graceland” comes to mind whenever I return to Mississippi, my childhood—and a good part of my life thereafter—home. Whatever Paul Simon meant by the lyrics, I am always overcome by a strong sense of nostalgia whenever I go home, mixed in with waves of unease, regret, and even anger. Mississippi was, and still is, a complicated place, but, as I told my daughter at one point, there were a few good things about growing up in Mississippi during the 60s and 70s (and lots of bad things, many that I didn’t understand at the time, or even consider to be a problem).

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“Like what,” she asked. We were walking on a trail beside the Natchez Trace Parkway, a long, thin strip of a national park that traces the long woods road between Natchez, Mississippi and Nashville, Tennessee, over 400 miles. Once an Indian trail, boatmen used the Trace to travel back to Tennessee and Kentucky after floating flat boats full of trade goods down the Ohio River, down the Mississippi River, to New Orleans in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when Mississippi was as wild a wilderness as any place east of the big river.

“Like this,” I said, opening my arms to take in the whole world.
It was a beautiful winter day like we get in the south. The temperature had risen from overnight freezing into the low 60s, and there was a high blue sky and sunshine. Frogs croaked in the water lying in fields. I’d helped build the trail we walked on in the summer of 1976 on a job with the Youth Conservation Corps. It was a wonderful summer of hard work under light supervision, using hand tools to clear brush and smooth a trail, hauling wheelbarrows of gravel to create a trail bed, building a footbridge across a swampy lowland that was dry for the summer. It was hot work, and at one point my arm swelled with poison ivy blisters and chigger bites dotted my upper legs and crotch. We saw a lot of snakes.

It was also the summer of my first driver’s license and my first car, a 1970 Dodge with a V-8 and a 383 cubic inch engine, and I would see how fast it could go on the lightly traveled Trace at 6:30 in the morning, with Lynrd Skynrd blasting on the 8-track tape deck.

Teenage guys and girls worked together on the trail, and we were in a liminal space between high school and work where the rules of attraction were just confused enough that a gangly pimple-faced kid who wasn’t great at sports and didn’t know how to talk to girls, could make the leap to the ranks of the “Popular” kids. Those were heady times for a kid who had read all of The Lord of the Rings when it was still underground cult fiction, a kid whose life ambition was to become a mountain man and live in a cabin and wear knee-high moccasins in the snow. At the same time, though, I was a badass when it came to building trail. I could handle a Pulaski axe and fire rake, dig a posthole in hard clay soil, trundle a hundred and fifty pounds of gravel a couple hundred yards in a wheelbarrow and then race back to the pile for another load, and teach the crew all the words to the Steve Miller Band’s “Dance, Dance, Dance” while swinging a shovel. The lyrics, coming from a rock band sporting a folk-country sound, captured the spirit of that summer’s work and became our anthem:

My grandpas he’s 95,
and he keeps on dancing,
he’s still alive.

My Grandma she’s 92,
she loves to dance
and sing some too.

I don’t know but I been told
if you keep on dancing
you’ll never get old

Come on darlin’
put a pretty dress on
we’re going to go out tonight,
and Dance, dance, dance,
dance, dance, dance,
dance, dance, dance
all night long.

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Heady times indeed, not to be experienced again until college, another liminal space, and then here and there over the years. But how to tell your teenage daughter this? How do you tell her about when you were a teenager, now forty and more years gone? How to tell her what you’re thinking, other than just to say, “It’s weird to come home again, thinking about all the things you did here, how everything’s changed. You’ll feel the same way about where we live now, one day. It’s hard to explain.”

She shrugs her shoulders, gives me that “you’re being weird again” look.

“Let’s go down that way,” I say. “I want to show you a creek we used to hang out on.” And then we start for the water.

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