Every time I take a road trip, the memory of a family excursion to see my grandmother’s sister and brother-in-law comes to mind. (I say excursion, because all of our family trips were just that. Huge undertakings. My mother was a perfectionist and vacations just magnified the difficulties she had dealing with a group of imperfect people.) When I look at houses along the road in what most would call the middle of nowhere and start to wonder about the lives inside, I am always taken back almost forty years to Auntnie and Uncle Frank’s house.
Uncle Frank had retired years before from wherever he worked in Dyer, Tennessee. The Pattersons, my grandmother’s family, all lived in Dyer. But when Frank inherited some land outside of Jackson, Mississippi, he convinced his wife to make the move. Escape the big city life. Land spreadin’ out so far and wide. Fa-a-rm livin’ and FRESH AIR! They would visit the city and her family often. I don’t know if they did and didn’t really care. I was five or six or seven.
But what did interest me was their life. It was so different. Open windows and a constant fan noise. Well water. Chickens. A couple of stray yard dogs that had no names and no food bowls. Vegetables growing in their very own garden. Wood screen door in the back with no lock. Front porch with pastel metal chairs that glided back and forth. A hanging porch swing. A tire hanging from rope around a tree branch. An outside cellar door I was forbidden to get near. (I wish they were alive so I could ask why it was off-limits.)
The television they couldn’t remember buying was a piece of furniture. It sat on the floor and there were frosted knick-knacks on top. The radio in the kitchen played preachin’ all day. Not the good kind, but the kind where the man’s voice was yelling at you for stuff you hadn’t even done yet. Auntnie called it “gettin’ church without leavin’ the house”. We had to hurry through Saturday night dinner to watch Hee-Haw through the static waves. My grandmother suggested they watch Lawrence Welk some time, but Frank was quick to say that he just didn’t have a taste for that kind of music.
I slept in a feather bed upstairs in a tiny bedroom. I think it was the equivalent of a loft. I remember jumping into it and being able to sink into the feathers. It was fun for jumping but not great for sleeping. I complained to my mother, but she just shushed me, because manners were still important in the middle of nowhere.
No matter where you went on their land, you could see the big road, Hwy 55, which streamed like a silver ribbon between two bright green blankets of cotton fields. The sun would sink right into that highway at night until it was pitch black except for one huge light on the barn and the thousands of lightning bugs that I’d try to catch in a mason jar Auntnie let me “borry”.
To this day, the details of them and their house – my most country childhood memory - are what come to mind when I see houses dotting fields along the highway. It feels like sinking into a really old-fashioned feather bed on a hot summer Mississippi night. Sort of sticky and strange at first, but a comfort once you get used to it.