I went down to Mississippi to see the place; really, I was just passing through. Vanessa was with me and we stayed with my Uncle Pat and Aunt Terri for the night. I would’ve like to stay longer. This was several years ago. She and I were taking a road trip to Atlanta to visit another friend who we hadn’t seen since high school. We were on a schedule. Sort of.
We went down to the beach. We drove over to Suter Place to see the house where my family lived when I was born; it was the same as ever. The wrap around porch with its Victorian lace stood proud. The only difference was the historical plaque posted next to the front door and the chicken wire fence was replaced by white picket circling the small yard. It was lived in; that was nice to see.
We drove across Howard Avenue and the railroad tracks to see my grandparents’ house on Iroquois Street. That’s where things got strange. This was years after Katrina and Iroquois Street was a mud pit and we couldn’t even drive all the way through. It just dead-ended. I couldn’t even recognize the house. Everything was a sad mess. Later the house was torn down; nothing to save.
I showed Vanessa where my paternal grandparents had a house on the beach before Camille and where the Episcopal Church used to be next door.
Growing up, time was defined as “before Camille.” Now it’s “since Katrina.” When you come from a place known for hurricanes you learn to take it all in stride, you make comparisons, you never imagine the next one will be as bad as the last. Hurricanes come and they go. It’s a way of life, I guess. I remember Camille although I was only seven years old. Camille made a hole in the roof of our house when a tree fell. My maternal grandfather’s wharf was destroyed. The house on the beach where my paternal grandparents lived was wiped out. The day after the hurricane, my family piled into the car to check on my grandparents; we didn’t know if they even survived the storm. We found them wandering in a daze amid the debris of their home. We were without water and power for several weeks. You can’t talk about the Mississippi Gulf Coast without talking about hurricanes.
Personally, the land between New Orleans and Mobile fills an odd but vital space for me. Unlike my cousins who never left, I have no right to claim it as my home and yet I do. I have a very strong sense of place because of Mississippi. So many generations on both sides of my family lived and thrived there. My parents could not get away fast enough, but something pulls me back; I have never been able to let go of my connection to that place. I feel that place stronger than any other place I have ever lived. Mud in my blood.
My writing always takes me there. And my dreams. When we moved away, I was about eight years old, but I returned every summer to stay with my grandparents on the bayou. That marked me. Those summers made me who I am today. I am privileged to have spent my summers on the bayou picking blackberries, playing in the woods, sailing, riding my bike to Lovelace Pharmacy for a root beer (Barq’s, of course). I felt a strong sense of belonging when I was there. It’s hard not to when strangers approach recognizing who you are the child or grandchild of just by the shape of your smile or your eyes: “You’re not Scotty and Marguerite’s daughter, are you?” or “You must be an Allen (or a Byrd).” Yes mam, I am.
ALL IN MY MIND
I rarely visit. In many ways, it doesn’t even exist anymore. The Biloxi in my memory is so different from what you would find if you went there now. All places change but Biloxi then and Biloxi now, I think, are entirely different worlds. Casinos line the beach now. It’s no longer the seafood capitol of the world. I cannot imagine that it’s safe for children to roam freely about as we did back then. Maybe what I remember never was at all; maybe it’s colored, fogged by the passing of time.
I am glad Vanessa and I passed through the way we did. I got to see just enough. Someday I’ll return and stay awhile, explore old haunts and discover new gems. Until then, I can return to the gulf coast as it is in my mind.