Who’s Changed the Most?
Mississippi or Me?
Becky Anderson Sykes is one smart person, having taught Russian literature on the university level at Millsaps College in Jackson. She is extremely well traveled, including having been to Russia numerous times. She has roamed the world about as much as I have and that’s saying a lot. She also was instrumental in founding the Jackson International Ballet, which has a great reputation. She is extremely well read and always has a book in her hand—and belongs to many literary organizations. She is a fun and interesting person and just this past summer took an extended trip to Scandinavia with her granddaughter.
From her credentials, she would sound like any other social progressive I know but she turned out to be an enigma for me. On one hand she is extremely sophisticated and learned, yet she remains a preeminent member of the Jesus fan club and a far-right, spirited Republican conservative. In spite of her Russian literature background and ballet and her travels and overall literacy, she is in no way a social progressive like I am. In addition she does not own a computer and thus does not do emails, Google, Facebook or any of that. Her husband who died over ten years ago founded a large engineering firm in Jackson and she is quite well off. All of her children are doing very well and most appear to be as Republican conservative as she is. Several of them even looked at me askew as though I was probably one of those off-the-wall, weirdo liberals or maybe even one of those dreaded socialists.
Before I left Palm Springs, she telephoned me, asking if I smoked and was glad to find out I didn’t. She then said that she hoped I realized that Mississippi was a hot bed of Republicanism, Jesus and traditional family values. I told her I realized that and would not engage in any such conversations. While there no one asked me questions about my personal background — religion, sexual preferences or the like. I think Becky, who is a strong matriarch, had probably told everyone those items were taboo — hence, no problems whatsoever for me in those areas.
All this Mississippi religious and political right-wing conservatism only pointed out to me though how little things had changed in my home state in the last 62 years. Becky did break down before I left and said how happy she would be if I would become a Republican and vote for Romney.
Another thing that has not changed one iota back there is their love of tasty and delicious comfort food. Just like my mother and everybody I grew up with, cooking was and is an art and the meals are always good. People back there flat out know how to cook. While I was there, I got all my favorites and then some. I love fried Okra and had that many times plus chicken-fried steak, one of my all-time favorites and deserts galore. Southerners are heavy into deserts. (I’m living proof of that if you’ve seen photos of me recently!) Good food is where life begins and ends in the South.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the little town of Okolona has seen many better days in its past. Becky’s daughter-in-law is on the Mississippi state board that oversees renovation for small towns. Her board recently declared Okolona to be too far gone to restore. Tupelo and Amory though are doing quite well.
The comfortable ranch house where our reunion was held was air conditioned and kept that awful Mississippi humidity at bay. I thought Hurricane Isaac was going to be a nuisance but we dodged it completely except for a few bands of rain.
The Sunday I went to church where Ferman preaches, he introduced me to his congregation. He told them about our growing up together and all the dreams I had about wanting to go to Hollywood and write and act and of my great desire to travel. He said all those dreams had come true for me. He then said, “When life pulled us apart, Jack went to Hollywood and I went to Jesus.” A lot of amens were shouted out. Even so, after the service the entire congregation came up and shook my hand. Such friendly, nice people but all deeply Republican, conservative and fueled to the extreme with high-octane Jesus. I’m not anti-Jesus at all. It’s just that I don’t carry Him around on my shoulder every living, waking moment.
Overall my trip back to Mississippi was an extraordinary set of circumstances. I felt like I was in a time machine that had launched me forward 55 years —and in the case of some of my friends, it had been 62 years since I had seen them. I had to learn the names of so many of my friends’ children and grandchildren. The experience was quite poignant— meeting all these new people.
In driving from Jackson to Okolona, Becky and I dropped by Mississippi State where I had worked on my undergraduate degree. I had not been there since 1957—also 55 years ago. I hardly recognized the campus due to its extraordinary growth. Becky and I had lunch there. We talked with some of the students and it was very emotional for me. I wrote my first play at State when I was a freshman. My brother Paul was the stage manager and Ferman was the assistant director and general helper who made sure it came off. I took him a program from that play, which I had held on to for 61 years. My little three-act drama was called GOOD GRIEF. In that play, one of the “stars” was a certain Etta Mae Little—who became Etta Mae Fitzgerald when she married my brother—fifty years later. She and my brother had married other people and were widowed when they accidentally ran into one another a few years back thanks to an Amway meeting. And they got married—fifty something years after the run of the play in 1951.
I went out to the cemetery to see Mamma and Daddy’s grave and the experience was much like a performance of Thornton Wilder’s play OUR TOWN. Most of the elderly people I knew as a kid (and many of my friends and school teachers) were out there. In a way, my big reunion took place out at the cemetery that day.
Overall I had an excellent time on my return trip to Okolona, Mississippi. I did realize while I was back there the importance of Okolona in my writing. All my books, plays and screenplays contain people and places and events that came from that little town which once upon a time before it crumbled was known as “The Little City That Does Big Things.”
Yes, you can go home again but it’s a bittersweet experience. They are your people in so many ways but I found in so many other ways we had grown apart. Little southern towns like Okolona will for sure make you a people person and friendly and a lover of comfort food—but politically and socially you’re no longer joined at the hip. So, can one go home again? Yes, but only for short visits.