By Anne McKee / guest columnist
The Meridian Star
I was an only child, and he now was an only dog. This was the first of our many days and years together. We named him Skipper for the lively way he walked, but he was always just Skip to me.
— Willie Morris
These are words from one of my favorite Mississippi writers, Willie Morris (1936-1999). His book My Dog Skip is forever etched in my mind. The book eventually became a stellar movie, which perfectly described the sweetness of small-town-Mississippi. A later book My Cat Spit McGee became a southern-charmer bestseller as well. When Willie Morris died in 1999, we Mississippians, and indeed the entire world, lost a voice-of-the-south, a voice that defined the great blessings of living in small-town-Mississippi.
Willis Morris was not alone with his Mississippi/Southern sentiments. I remember William Faulkner’s famous quote: To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi, and Jimmie Rodger’s song Miss the Mississippi and You as well as Truman Capote (birthplace Louisiana, that’s close enough to count) when he said that all Southerners eventually come home, if only in a box. Yes, our Southern roots are deep and strong, and most of us are not willing to totally shake off the red clay dirt or Mississippi mud. Nope, it’s just not gonna happen for very long – we’ll eventually return to “God’s Country,” if not physically, then in the mind and spirit.
Can I get an AMEN?
I remember the words of Mark Twain, which I really love. He once had one of this characters say that the muddy Mississippi water is “wholesomer to drink than the clear water of the Ohio.” If the sediment settles in the pitcher, he said, what you want to do is “to keep it stirred up.”
I think we Mississippians tend to agree.
In the recent Smithsonian Magazine, 2013 listing (nationwide) of the 20 best small towns to visit, Cleveland, Ms, is listed as Number 2. In the magazine article, dated April 2013 and written by Susan Spano, there are some interesting thoughts, but not new Mississippi theories, at least not new to Mississippians: “… Creative young locals surprise even themselves by coming home to stay after college … No matter how hard Cleveland pulls toward the New South, it persists as an authentic Delta town where historic markers are about as common as stop signs.”
Yes, coming home to small-town-Mississippi.
Really, population-wise, Mississippi is one big town and that’s a good thing and each town a small town – even better. We enjoy the values and commitments of a small town, but at the same time, we shout the achievements that abound through our creativity. What state or city can compare?
One of my favorite books and movies is The Help – a recent bestseller and box office success. I’ve seen the movie five times, finally bought a copy of my own and I plan to read the book again next year – in the meantime, I’ll watch the movie again, methinks, now that I have my own copy. The author and Mississippi native, Kathryn Stockett, had one of her characters say "Mississippi is like my mother. I am allowed to complain about her all I want, but God help the person who raises an ill word about her around me, unless she is their mother too."
No, we are not perfect in Mississippi, but I think and I have written – ‘Mississippi is located just one block from the Pearly Gates – easy access when the time is right.’
So at the time of their deaths, why did William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Robert Johnson, Willie Morris, Shelby Foote, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmie Rodgers, and Barry Hannah (all Mississippi creative artists who traveled extensively) choose to return to the Mississippi soil for burial?
Dear, Mississippians, I think you know.
— Mississippi Feels Like Coming Home — may be one of the best State Slogans ever! As well as the sentiments of the song by the same name, lyrics and music by Raphael Semmes – the first verse:
Mississippi Feels Like Coming Home
Have you ever kissed a warm Gulf breeze?
Sipped iced tea beneath Magnolia trees,
or sat on the porch and talked a while?
Then I know a place that’ll make you smile.
Indeed, Mississippi is a place that will make you smile … the strength and generosity of a people who think with their hearts and love with their souls. Mississippi is more than back roads and cotton fields, more than Ole Man River and catfish, but a place of survival and the story of perseverance -- a state that would not die, a people who would not give up, and when disaster made a call, actually many calls, the population pulled together and united with unsurpassed courage each time.
I mean that’s Mississippi!
So, what is the draw, the wonderment of it all, the homesickness for Mississippi, and the ghostlike hold on our people? When we leave, for a day, a week, or even fifty years, we never truly leave. Oh, maybe in the physical sense, but never in our hearts or souls. Willie Morris knew, Faulkner, Sonny Boy Williamson, Welty, and Elvis, too.
I think Jimmie Rodgers (Father of Country Music and Meridian native) sang it best:
Miss the Mississippi and You (in part)
— Jimmie Rodgers
I'm growing tired of these big city lights.
Tired of the glamor and tired of the sights.
In all my dreams I am roaming once more,
back to my home on the old river shore.
I am sad and weary far away from home.
Miss the Mississippi and you, dear.
Nights are dark and dreary everywhere I roam.
Miss the Mississippi and you.
Small town Mississippi – there’s no place better!
Anne McKee is a writer and storyteller. Visit her web site: www.annemckee.net