Dear Mississippi, I miss you.
I left you over 20 years ago now without a single glance in the rear view mirror. Trunk packed, windows down while listening to Sting on the radio, I felt no remorse for my excessive speed. I couldn’t get away fast enough. Nursing open wounds, I was ready to move on to my new life complete with new faces. I raced past semi-trucks on a two-laned Highway 45, north to the Tennessee line. I can still feel that sticky August air on my elbow as it dangled out of the open window; that saturated air densely covering the soybean fields of my youth. Soft rolling hills flattening out through Biggersville into Corinth signaled the end of my Mississippi connection, and I had never felt such relief. Vowing never to return, I quickly created a life insulated from my roots, joining in with those around me who so easily disparaged you without really knowing you, whispering your name when asked from whence I came.
Twenty-four years have passed in a blink, and today I re-visit that August afternoon often. Time has worked its willowy magic, and now my hasty retreat reveals itself as an elaborate escape. Today, I speak your name with authority and when I feel the warmth of spring signaling summer, I am transported to a world replete with life, love and memory. Sensory images haunt my dreams of childhood . . . honeysuckle, anthills, dark red clay staining my sneakers while I hunt for muscadines. Sometimes I still reach and pull fragile dogwood blooms from their precarious poses and inhale deeply inside the open bloom of a magnolia. Life ripens in a unique way when left to your disposal. It took me twenty-four years and a few hundred miles of distance to fully understand that.
I do not hold the misplaced belief that my childhood ambition of finding an arrowhead buried beneath a clump of four leaf clovers makes me somehow better equipped to face a world of disappointment; however, the ground upon which I crouched with unrealistic anticipation bears the deep scars of war and loss . . . haunted like the low lying fog that so often covers it in the early morning light. When you grow up near the ghosts of the past, you learn to appreciate history and to walk carefully lest you repeat it.
From the first moment I learned to spell your crooked letter, humpback name, I was your child, Mississippi. Truthfully, I know little of the legendary River that secures your fame or the Delta that frames your infamy. What I do know lives inside of me now, informing my view of the world, a perspective I could not have embraced so many years ago. What I do know is when I cross your border, time still slows down. Distances shrink and people still value a conversation, best held on a porch. Food prepared with real butter still brings families to the table, enjoying one another for a brief moment, connecting in a way that transcends time.
Occasionally I meet another kindred soul who grew up under your weeping willows. Our eyes light up in instant recognition of a shared experience. No matter the city or town, the mention of your name brings a commonality that average Southerners have a hard time understanding. Whispered secrets and knowing nods frame a good conversation between native Mississippians. And no matter how long your conversation lasts, you are guaranteed a minimum of one common acquaintance.
Today I am faced with the realization that I may never again call you home. Nonetheless, the lessons you sang to me in childhood lullabies speak to me now. As I watch my son build his own imaginative ambitions, I find myself singing once again those dreams instilled in me long ago. Dreams I hope he lives out from time to time in the shadow of a Mississippi shade tree under an unrelenting summer sun.