Saturday, December 23, 2017

Winter Rolled in on a Heavy Rain

And with it came cold weather and holiday activities...

Cliff's pecan pie December 2017
Cliff made a pecan pie. The recipe for this pie came out of a small booklet Cliff had been saving for many years. Until this particular pie, Cliff has always baked a pecan pie using one of his grandmother's recipes, and while that recipe turned out delicious, rich bodied pies, in my humble opinion this was one of the best he'd ever made. Drool a moment...

We also went back to West Point, Mississippi, a few days ago, hoping that our favorite waitress, Martha, was at the Main Street Market and Cafe to wish her a Merry Christmas. She and Cliff has hit it off over the past few months, and her story, like others I have met here in Mississippi is never just what they do. Martha is a waitress, but she is also a survivor of several health issues, which she has shared little by little with me and Cliff. But it is her unsinkable spirit and openness that endears her to us and I'm sure other people.

West Point was decorated for Christmas on our most recent trip, and it's nice to see that the street lamps were adorned with wreaths. The lamps themselves are nice and antique looking, which adds to the effect. Of course the Main Street Market Cafe was also decorated.

Cliff and Martha at the
Main Street Market Cafe
Here is Martha and Cliff in front of the tree in the cafe. We'd stopped in to see her and to have a piece of Elvis Presley cake, which is always good, though somewhat sinful, but the sin is absolved with strong, black coffee and a visit with Martha. We made sure to tell her about the pecan pie, which were made with pecans from the market. We have one bag of pecans and one pie crust left, which Cliff will use when he makes the next pie.

We learned of Martha's plans for Christmas, which in part involves making a soup for the Christmas get-together at her church. It's visits like these with people like Martha that makes for pleasant memories and knowing that Mississippi is much more than its bad reputation. People like Martha and others I have met here in restaurants, banks, coffee shops continually delight me with their sincerity and good nature.

After we left the cafe we spent a little more time driving up and down the downtown and getting a look at the Christmas decorations. On that day, we also drove through more streets lined with Victorian and Anti-bellum homes, and even though it's smaller than Columbus, the downtown there is nice, as well. Yes, West Point, like Columbus, has its big-box stores, but the real place is their downtown and historic neighborhoods.

Cliff is the shorter of the two figures
in case you were wondering
West Point has a beautiful park that runs through much of downtown. Here is Cliff standing next to the Santa in downtown West Point in the city park. Near this Santa is a typical southern town statue. The small towns commemorate either people or events with their statues, and while there is currently a movement to remove certain statues from prominence in many of the South's cities and parks I hope the small towns don't have to lose their singularity with an over-reaching enthusiasm for wiping out their history. And again I have to say that the people I've met in Columbus, Tupelo, West Point, Aberdeen, Starkville, Hattiesburg, or any other places I've been here in Mississippi belie the negative reputation that outsiders and those who have never been here seem to think defines this state.

Most of my experience with people in New Mexico is similar to the friendliness of the people in Mississippi. Of course I can only and always speak of my personal experiences. And I do have to say that added to their friendliness here in Mississippi (in the places I've actually been) are that people are open and not coy about talking about themselves, and they react quite willingly when you engage them in more than simple conversation.

The Virgin is the blue statue, visible just below the
bottom of Cliff's Jacket. She has been knocked over
by one of the sheep.
One of the popular Christmas displays in Columbus is the near-live Nativity on 3rd Avenue North, just two blocks from Main close to the downtown shops. In a neighborhood of historic homes and churches and funeral parlors is the Nativity with the live sheep and the statues of the Three Wise Men, Joseph and Mary, and of course the Baby Jesus. The sheep have access to the entire Nativity display, and so when we were there, one of the sheep came out of their hay-filled area to visit with us.

And now the weather is turning cold again, although the weather site I view has said that the deep south is due for a warmer than usual winter. I hope that's right, but we've already had snow and parts of the South are known for their winter ice storms.

Let's close out with a two-hour compilation of Christmas Blues...

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

'Tis the Season

Right after Thanksgiving...Columbus, Mississippi springs to life.

Or maybe I should say the pace of events speeds up. And as I've already observed, hardly a weekend goes by that Columbus doesn't have something going on. In just the last few weeks, Cliff and I have attended these events:

  • Lighting of the Christmas Tree on the Riverwalk, just off Downtown
  • The Christmas Parade—at night
  • The Wassail Fest in Downtown
  • Handel's Messiah

Actually it was the lighting of a magnolia tree. Local businesses served hot chocolate and cookies and provided kids' activities, attended by Santa and Mrs. Claus and a speech by the mayor before the lights were flipped on, flooding the magnolia with brilliant lights. There was even a fake snow machine that everyone delighted in, and this year, not long after that, Columbus was treated to a real snow that blanketed everything. Just a few days later we attended the Christmas Parade when it came down College Street. We were invited to a person's home where people have been going for over 40 years to watch the parade from the porch. The cost of "admission" to this lovely home is that everyone who attends brings some sort of food. Of course, most of the people who come have been doing so for many years, and my neighbor Sharon invited Cliff and me to attend. She said that next year we would be expected to bring a food dish. Much of the evening was spent visiting and getting to know people. Cliff spent quality time getting to know the owner who has been throwing the porch party all these years. I met a fellow writer who has promised to call me, so that we can visit about our writing. She and her husband got out of New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina, and they have been living in Columbus ever since.

A few days after the Christmas Tree lighting was the Wassail Festival, which each year draws hundreds of merrymakers to the historic downtown district. Nearly two dozen merchants competed for Wassail Meister bragging rights. Wassail is traditionally a mulled punch often associated with Merry Olde England and Yuletide. It is a mixture of juices and spices that has been served for centuries.  Wassail Fest has been selected as a Top 20 Event in the Southeast, and has been held for many years.

As it turns out, we also attended the local Catholic Church's annual presentation of Handel's Messiah, performed by local choirs and orchestra. Dr. Doug Browning conducted. The Columbus High School Varsity Singers also performed before the Messiah event. The high school singers are also under the direction of Dr. Doug Browning. Last year this ensemble earned all superior ratings at district and state festivals. The group needs chorus gowns, and anyone interested in helping can contact Dr. Browning at 601-826-9952. Cliff and I were invited to The Messiah event by my neighbor Sharon, and after that we went to dinner with her and her best friend Pat, along with Pat's sister and her husband, Judge Davies. This was on an exciting night, when Alabama's special election was coming to a close, but try as I might, I couldn't find out the election results until after Cliff and I got home. Enough said on the subject of politics.

We also attended the sales event at Magnolia Antiques just after Thanksgiving. Magnolia Antiques in Columbus, MS, has been recognized as one of the best antiques stores in Mississippi and surrounding states. This annual event draws hundreds of visitors from as far away as Georgia and is not to be missed during the Christmas season, either. Both Cliff and I have bought luscious furniture from the store over the past year. Every year, this store brings in all kinds of food and drinks, and as it happened on the day we attended, we made a lunch out of the offerings and spent a good two hours shopping.

One of the things that Columbus, Mississippi, and other moderately sized southern towns still unabashedly celebrate is Christmas. I'm not commenting on whether or not this is considered "politically correct" because, after all, we are in the South and the celebrations of this season are still done in the ways they have been done for a long time. However, as will be evident from the video, here, it's an event that draws people together, people of all races and one would think all religions, Christian and non-Christian. Here is the vid and you decide...

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Place with Soul

...and Catfish

I held the first bite in my mouth letting the initial seasonings osmotically enter my tastebuds, and then I bit into the softly crisp batter and experienced another taste sensation. I was in heaven and I still had a plateful of fried catfish to consume, along with fried okra and pasta salad. That first bite told me I had just run across the best-tasting catfish in Columbus, MS—bar none. Cliff and I had made our first visit to Soul Fish Grill on the outskirts of Columbus on Highway 69. Next year, the cafe will have to change its name due to some agreement they have made with another restaurant in Tennessee with a similar name, which was established first. But for now look up Soul Fish, Columbus, Mississippi, and go as soon as you can. You don't even have to be a catfish fan to enjoy their other cuisine, all the creation of Chef Tavern Johnson. He studied culinary arts at Columbus's Mississippi University for Women (now co-ed) and simply referred to as "the W". According to Miss Barbara, Tavron's mother, Tavron has had plenty of restaurant experience, and I have to say his schooling and experience have come together to make one of the most authentic Southern cafes where I have had the pleasure of dining.

From the moment you drive up to the cafe and go on into the interior, rustic and down-home are words that come to mind. The ambiance of the place is rivaled only by the food, and it's the sort of place where you can watch the locals come and go, mainly waiting for take-out (at least on a week night), and the wait for the food to be prepared is worth every bit. Don't go on a Friday or Saturday night and expect to be seated right away. In its eleven months in existence, Soul Fish has developed quite a customer base.

And as in all the places I have been in columbus and elsewhere in Mississippi, people are friendly, eager to break into conversation, and Miss Barbara and Tasha were more than willing to talk to me and Cliff as we waited on our food, or to advise us on which desert to try, and to let Cliff take their picture, with me in the middle (fat and satisfied with my meal and the wicked wicked desserts Cliff and I shared, consisting of pound cake and peach cobbler).

Miss Barbara Johnson (left) Tasha (God Daughter)(right)
and me in the middle.
The atmosphere of the cafe is enhanced by the music, which the Chef also chooses. That night it was traditional blues and filled the cafe from an excellent sound system. Tavron on comes out of the kitchen, according to Miss Barbara, to change the music.

The cafe also serves wine and beer, along with soft drinks, tea, and coffee. The food menu is diverse and should be able to satisfy many palates, although when I venture into a new southern restaurant and catfish is on the menu, that's what I choose. Plan a trip to Soul Fish. Cliff had the shrimp and grits (a new favorite of his, which he has tried in at least three different restaurants in the area.

Finally, I have to say that I didn't like catfish before I moved to Mississippi. This can be explained by the fact that I spent most of my life in the desert of Southern New Mexico and any fresh fish we might have had access to was caught in our lakes or rivers and prepared by amateurs at home. The rest of our fish comes frozen and inevitably tastes fishy, and in the case of catfish, kind'a dirty. But since I've been in Mississippi, I've had nothing but fresh fish, and the catfish here is surprisingly light, tender, and white. I've had it grilled and fried, and there's just something about battered and fried that can't be beat.

Further, I've had to give up on getting authentic tasting Mexican food here in Columbus. But that is to say, authentic according to what I grew up with, including the famous Hatch chile, which you can now get across the country by savvy restaurants. But those down-home seasonings that distinguish New Mexican Mexican food just aren't replicated here in Mississippi, and so I've had to make catfish my food of choice when it's offered in restaurants I go to. Other cafes offer BBQ and chicken dishes, and when it's Southern it's the best. There are still many many area restaurants and cafes that I haven't been to yet in either Columbus or any number of towns within a hundred-mile radius, but so far, for my money I nominate Soul Fish Grill as the best.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Shake Rag Tales in Mississippi

The people, the place, and the purpose for the existence of Shake Rag, Mississippi...

This commemorative plaque is all that is left of an
all-African-American community of Shakerag in Tupelo, MS.
The term "shake rag" (or shakerag as it is often spelled) comes from several sources, but the most recognizable source was the small unincorporated community of Shakerag in Tupelo, Mississippi. Notwithstanding, there was also a Shakerag in Monroe County, Missouri. Both communities were populated by African Americans who wanted to forge their own lives. Both communities are now gone and live on only in the memories of either those who lived there or those who know about them.

Shakerag/Tupelo is significant not only for its vibrant but short existence, where businesses, cafes, churches, and the people prospered but also for its influence on Tupelo's most famous and beloved native son, Elvis Presley. He lived in "The Hill" area of Tupelo, which was adjacent to Shakerag, and he often went down to Shakerag to listen to the seminal blues and gospel music and was influenced by the music and the musicians.

This is one of the rare known photos of 13-year-old
Elvis Presley, outside the still existing hardware store
where his mother bought him his first guitar. There is a
woman standing in the shade (to the left) that is
thought to be Elvis's mother.
According to the Mississippi Blues Trail web site, "A local explanation for the origin of Shake Rag’s name refers to people 'shakin’ their rags' while fleeing a fight. The term was also used to describe African American musical gatherings in the 1800s and early 1900s and may be related to Shake Rag’s location next to the railway tracks; prior to regular timetables, passengers would signal for the engineer to stop a train by shaking a rag. Gambling and bootlegging were commonplace in Shake Rag and although outsiders often regarded the area as dangerous, former residents proudly recalled its churches, prosperous businesses, and strong sense of community, a quality highlighted in Charles 'Wsir' Johnson’s 2004 documentary about Shake Rag, Blue Suede Shoes in the Hood. Blues guitarists such as Willie C. Jones, Charlie Reese, 'Tee-Toc,' and Lonnie Williams played at Shake Rag house parties, on street corners, on a stage near the fairgrounds, and at the Robins Farm south of downtown, according to musicians who have stated that Elvis may have been especially swayed by the music of 'Tee-Toc' or Williams."

There's more to be said about Shake Rag/Tupelo and its influence on Elvis, but I will let local Tupelo folks tell it. Following the first video below, enjoy the music of Jack Rabbit Slim, who sings Shakerag and other songs...

Video: Shakerag mix with Jack Rabbit Slim...

Sunday, November 19, 2017

On the Road Again

A Return to Tupelo...

This Plaque outside of Johnnie's Drive-in
is about Elvis. As I've said, Tupelo is
proud of its native son
This time, I took my Mazda to Tupelo for recall-work, but that didn't mean Cliff and I would just sit at the dealership (which we did) all day. We're finally discovering that Tupelo, Mississippi, has a lot to offer, and it is a little over 35,000 people. Again, friendly, a bit more urbane than Columbus, Mississippi—at least one gets that feeling when in the larger downtown area of Tupelo. For one thing there's not that historic feel that you get in Columbus. In Tupelo the buildings have been modernized in the downtown more than they have been in downtown Columbus. Further, about that "urbane" feel, it's two things: the cafes along Main Street are numerous and funky, while others are classy, all within easy walking distance.

Tupelo is easy to navigate, in comparison to other towns of similar size, with three major freeway exchanges running north-south through the middle of town, and Main Street runs east-west and is easy to get to from the freeway. With our day divided into taking my car to the Mazda dealership and later walking the downtown, we had a busy day and evening.

Interior of Johnnie's
Drive-in—Cliff across the
room, regarding me as
I snapped his picture...
In fact, we ate lunch at Tupelo's oldest cafe, Johnnie's Drive-in. In the past, it is obvious that it was a drive-in, but it's also a diner, where we ate indoors. The cafe was established post-Great-Depression. One of the features of the cafe is its doughburger, which the waitress explained was developed during the depression and saved on beef by adding other ingredients to the meat to make it go further. It's served on a conventional hamburger bun. Nope, neither Cliff nor I tried it. Instead, we had a great old-fashioned hamburger and fries and soft drink. As with the vast majority of locally-run cafes we've visited, the staff at Johnnie's was southern friendly, talkative, and curious, and we were introduced to the owner, and he came to our table to talk awhile. He's an early Viet Nam veteran ('67-'68), and dedicates space to wounded warriors.

At dinner that night we ate at Kermit's Outlaw Kitchen, where the food is farm-to-table fresh, a fact the restaurant touts. Desserts are either made in-house or come from a local bakery; the meat is bought locally, never frozen (and...ahem...the prices show it). We had a delicious tuna steak, along with a plate of vegetables from local farmers, done up with a nice sauce of some sort. The made-fresh in-house bread pudding was delectable with whiskey and a peanut-butter sauce, topped with vanilla ice cream, which we enjoyed with freshly-brewed coffee, strong enough to get us through the night-time drive back to Columbus.

 The afternoon in downtown Tupelo was very pleasant that day. We had hit rain on our drive to Tupelo, but by just past noon, the sun was out, the breeze was gentle and we soon shed our jackets. Cliff is recovering from knee surgery, but he did well walking in the downtown area. Before dinner we also stopped in at The Crave coffee shop and bakery. That was a bit much to indulge in before dinner, but as usual it was worth it.

As I said up and down Main Street, right downtown, are lots of eateries and coffee shops, and as I indicated some of them are funky and the customers urbane. Customers seem mostly comprised of college-age students (though the closest university is 18 miles away) and young professionals and married couples. But overlaying it all is, of course, that southern accent. I've traveled in the deep south enough over the past two years to know that there's not one "southern" accent working, here. But that's another topic for another post.
We arrived at the restaurant early enough to get a table by the window and during the two-hours we spent there, the restaurant filled up quickly. They have both an upstairs and downstairs eating area, but upstairs that night were two separate parties of local businesses having a night out, so the seating quickly became an issue downstairs with even those with reservations having to wait until tables opened up.

The trip home to Columbus was an easy 70 miles on a good highway, though it turned this way and that and road construction slowed traffic for a few miles. The highway known as the Upper Natchez Trace runs near to Tupelo. The Natchez Trace Parkways in fact crosses all of Mississippi at an angle from Northeast Mississippi to Southwest Mississippi, and around Tupelo, just as it is near Columbus, the Trace is a beautiful highway, the traffic is light in most places and you're held to a steady 50 mph, which discourages heavy, high-speed travelers; and the Trace forbids commercial trucks. Here is a short video about the upper Trace. Again, the beauty of this highway astounds me.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Tennessee Williams' Home

And Columbus, MS, Welcome Center

The is the back of Tennessee Williams'
When you come into Columbus, Mississippi, from the west after crossing the Tennessee-Tom Bigbee River and pass the Columbus, Mississippi, welcome sign, you enter a small city with so much to offer that after more than a year, here, I've barely begun to visit all the places that make this city a special place. The places almost within walking distance of the downtown include the Mississippi University for Women (or the "W") (and on that campus is the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, one of the top-rated high schools in the United States, recently written up in The Atlantic), Friendship Cemetery, which is home to what is now considered to be the first Memorial Day celebration, the Rosenzweig Arts building (which has numerous events year-round, including this year a chance to see the Vienna Boys Choir in concert), not to mention the 77-year historic homes tour, and farther out of town, Waverly Mansion. But recently Cliff and I visited Tennessee Williams' Home and Welcome Center.

It is one of the first things you see as you enter the downtown.

The front of the Columbus Welcome Center
We entered from the back, because just inside the entrance are a collection of brochures on Columbus, including free maps of Mississippi and the close neighbor Alabama. Columbus is only 7 miles from the Alabama border and an easy drive to both Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. In a small room off the back entrance is the Welcome Center gift shop. But of course, since this is also Tennessee Williams' childhood home, the welcome center downstairs has several rooms devoted to replicating how the home looked when Tennessee Williams was a child, but the real delight is upstairs, where a memorial room devotes what might have been Williams' life in a play, including Acts and Scenes depicted by photos from throughout his life and short biographical sketches in each Act of his life. It moves in chronological order from his birth to his death. Columbus is quite right to devote much of its admiration to Tennessee Williams who is arguably one of America's most important playwrights.

The Tennessee Williams Home and Welcome Center is the first home of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennessee Williams. The author made history with well-known plays such as "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and "The Glass Menagerie."

Williams, the man said to be America's most important playwright, was born in Columbus, Mississippi, on Sunday, March 26, 1911. He spent his early years in an old Victorian home that served as the rectory for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Williams’ grandfather, the Reverend Walker Dakin, served as minister for the church from 1905 through 1913.

Prominent in Friendship Cemetery is the Weeping Angel
monument, dedicated to one of Columbus' most beloved
citizens, the Rev. Thomas Teasdale
One morning Cliff and I joined others for a series of porch plays, which began at the Welcome Center, then en masse the group moved on to the next porch play at a home on Columbus' south side, home of some of the finest historic homes in Columbus. As I've said in other posts, I've visited Friendship Cemetery and enjoyed the MSMS student presentations of "Tales from the Crypt", an annual event, and I took Cliff there one summer afternoon and we spent a long while wandering through the cemetery, noting especially the area where Union and Confederate soldiers were buried. Even today both Union and Confederate war dead are honored each year. These days, it's important to note that while many Confederate statues are coming down across the south, Columbus, Mississippi, takes pride in honoring both Confederate and Union soldiers, without judgment, other than the lives lost on both sides. This tradition has been the order of things now for well over 150 years. Columbus is a place where diversity finds a home and all points of view are respected. It is what drew me to Columbus in the first place.

Columbus even has an annual "Stella Shouting Contest" and what better way to illustrate that contest than to view the seminal scene from Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire."

Saturday, October 21, 2017

On the Road to Tupelo... see the King, his birthplace and the Tupelo museum devoted to his early life when he lived in Tupelo.

Cliff and I left Columbus, MS, heading west toward Starkville and then turned north, which took us through West Point, MS. We had a straight shot to Tupelo about 50 miles away. It was a beautiful fall day with clear skies, and the land opened up into small farms on both sides of the highway, with cotton bursting to be harvested, grain of some sort being harvested with combines, and the ever-present rolls of grass hay drying out in the morning sun. Beyond the small farm plots, trees languidly stood, growing ever closer to dropping their leaves. But even in mid-October the land was green.

The Chickasaw County Courthouse dominates this
portion of the Okolona downtown
As I've observed, Mississippi is a state with small to medium sized towns, and with it's 82 counties ensures that there are at least that many county seats. The counties are small compared to New Mexico's, since New Mexico is almost one-and-a-half times larger than Mississippi and only has 32 counties, and within just a few miles we crossed from Lowndes County into Clay County, the outskirts of Monroe County and then into Chickasaw County, where we saw signs for the county seat of Okolona. It was a beautiful day, we were in no rush, and so when it came time to exit the highway for Okolona, we took it.

Okolona is a town of about 2,600 people. It has a small downtown running east and west along Main Street. I was glad to see that on that Thursday morning the downtown was busy, with cars parked up and down the street. The county courthouse sits on Main.

Wisteria arbor provides a nice
place for shoppers to sit awhile
Yes, as in many of the small Mississippi towns there were empty store fronts. Perhaps there was also an area of big box stores, which might have accounted for the businesses that had moved away from the downtown area, but we didn't explore that far. From what we could see of the small town, there were nice old homes, both along Main as well as on side streets. We got out and walked up and down. We discovered a wisteria arbor, with benches beneath it and we could both imagine how beautiful it would be in the season when the blossoms were full. The arbor is right on Main Street and during hotter weather it would be a good place to get out of the sun.

We had parked on Main, right in front of a cafe called Generations Sizzling Griddle Cafe. We kept it in mind for a break before we left town. We had arrived around 11 a.m. and we figured we could dawdle awhile, since from Okolona, Tupelo was less than twenty miles up the road.

This is the family that owns the
cafe. Left is daughter Maggie.
Middle is Mother Dena, and right
is Granddaughter Callie.
I took a few more pictures, but eventually we decided to check out the cafe, sitting prominently right there on Main, and the only cafe that we could see. Over the course of our stay in the cafe, we learned that it had only been open since February of 2017; Dena's son-in-law had done all the renovations. All the menu items were based on recipes from both family members and friends. The day's special was lasagna, which I got along with a delicious broccoli cheese soup and potato salad—each a special recipe. Cliff got the salad trio of pimento cheese, chicken salad, and tuna salad, which came with Club crackers and homemade pickles. The cafe is located at 253 West Main Street, Okolona, MS. It's open for lunch from 10:30 - 2 p.m., Monday thru Friday. It's open for dinner Monday and Tuesday from 5-8 p.m. If you want a nice outing, you can call the cafe at (662) 401-1752 or (662) 631-0734. Visit their Facebook page for more information.

Dena, her daughter, and older granddaughter are friendly and accommodating, and Cliff and I had a great lunch, interesting conversation and an overall pleasant impression of Okolona. We really hadn't planned on stopping in Okolona for lunch, but that's just the way things happen when you have leisure time and a beautiful day to travel.

Again, towns are much closer together in Mississippi than they are in southern New Mexico. Instead of having to drive 60 miles between towns, here in Mississippi, there are little towns 10, 15, or 20 miles apart, which allows for frequent stops if you choose.

Of course, our real destination that day was Tupelo Mississippi, a mere 64 miles from Columbus, and the entire drive is beautiful and green. We were intent on visiting the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum, which also includes Elvis's family home and the church he went to as a child. There is also a gift shop, theatre, and lots of memorabilia from Elvis's thirteen years in Tupelo, before his family moved to Memphis. Coming into Tupelo from the south on Highway 45, it's easy to exit off onto East Main and go directly to Elvis Presley Drive and the museum. There are a thousand pictures on Google images of Elvis's home and even the church that was moved into the museum grounds. It was a good day for contemplation of the King.

The entire compound takes up many acres, including a high-ground overlook with benches. The gift shop is a compendium of every conceivable trinket with Elvis's name and image, from cigarette lighters to key chains, T-shirts, billed caps, and even clothing. What struck me was none of this so much as the fact that Tupelo loves it's famous son, naming streets and building after him, as well as creating and maintaining the quite extensive museum. On the grounds is a bronze statue of Elvis at 13 years old, the year he moved to Memphis with his family.

The Baby Boomer generation of course can claim Elvis as is own, and sometimes it's difficult for me to realize that we're now all senior citizens and grew up on Elvis's innovative blend of blues, country, and rock 'n roll. In Tupelo, at least, Elvis is forever young. To really get into the visit at the museum and birthplace, one has to buy tickets to see inside his family church as well as his family home. But maybe that's for another day when family comes to visit us and we can take them around the state or at least the sights within a 60-mile radius. We have yet to visit the gulf coast, which is quite a bit farther from Columbus than even Memphis, which is where Graceland is located and contains a much more extensive collection of Elvis memorabilia.

The day remained beautiful, and so we drove over to Tupelo's main downtown, which is also Main Street. The courthouse, here is north of Main. While the outside is impressive, the inside has been insensitively renovated. Oh well...Across the street from the courthouse was a coffee shop and dessert shop, called Crave, where cliff and I also stopped, as it was coming up on mid-afternoon. There you can get anything from muffins to candy to ice-cream and a variety of coffees and teas. And so we did.

Elvis had 30 number 1 hits in his career, and it is really difficult to find a particular song that captures so much of his talent. So I've chosen Blue Suede Shoes to end this particular post (followed by a two-hour selection of songs from another enduring great in the blues field.

Any time I drive around in Mississippi I am aware of the birthplace of the blues, as well. All over Mississippi are plaques and places where renown blues greats performed, even if some of them are not particularly from Mississippi, and so I leave you with a two-hour video for your enjoyment of B.B. King's greatest hits.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

It was a dark and stormy night...

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in Columbus, Mississippi, that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. 

                             Edward Bulwer-Lytton in the opening sentence of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. wasn't dark the day we discovered Eggleston Hall, nestled in among overgrown trees, set back aways from Third Street North; nor was it stormy, since Columbus seems to be caught up in a mini-drought. Nonetheless, unless you're looking for this old ante-bellum two-up/two-down, you probably will pass right by it. As the sign says it was built circa 1847, which just might make this old house one of the oldest in Columbus. But it's one of the forgotten, hidden historic houses that has seen much neglect and ruin in the last few years. It was obvious (from the satellite dish) that it hadn't been completely abandoned too long ago, and there is also evidence that someone had made emergency repairs to the back of it, probably to make it habitable (barely) for whoever the last tenants were.

I couldn't find any extant photos of the house as it must have been in its heyday or later when photography made it possible to capture images for newspapers. Like many old homes in the antebellum Columbus, it survived the Civil War.

There are Egglestons in Friendship Cemetery, as well as references to Egglestons in Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi. But I've been unable to find any other information about this house. There are other Eggleston Halls in the U.S. and the U.K. Whether or not there is a direct family history (ancestor immigrant) to the Eggleston Hall in the U.K. and the home in Columbus is obscured by time—at least as far as access through Google goes. I'm not much of a researcher on genealogy, so I hope this post will inspire those who are to do so. And if any Eggleston family members have more information on the house here in Columbus, contact me through this blog and I will expand the information.

I could imagine a multitude of stories when I saw this house, a film perhaps with Gone with the Wind music and the drama of a young Eggleston daughter awaiting the arrival of another prominent family of Mississippi for a few weeks of visiting (as Southerners were wont to do), because she had met the young man of that family in a colder month, and the two families were betrothed through their daughter and son. Maybe it was cooler here in Columbus than it was down near Vicksburg, and so the visiting family came to escape the harsher heat. Maybe one of the Eggleston daughters attended the Columbus Female Institute, a private school founded in 1847 and the future site where the Mississippi University for Women would be established in 1885. Eggleston Hall, whatever its condition is today has seen a lot of history, even though it now crumbles quietly and forgotten amid the overgrown trees and bushes along 3rd Street North.

In my year plus four months in Columbus, I'm always discovering new places, but among the very best are those that are obscured by the overgrowth around them, lending an air of mystery and the passage of time from a languid and deep history. I've seen two other antebellum homes of the same era as Eggleston Hall rise from the ashes of decay and ruin when they were renovated, which now stand proudly, imbued of new life through the hands of dedicated renovators who love the old homes and buildings here in Columbus and Mississippi as my partner and I do.

But about those dark and stormy nights, there will be those, along with lightning and thunder and the sirens of tornado warnings, and maybe I'll be caught out in such a storm and when lightning illuminates the hulk of a building in front of me...abandoned and forgotten...I will think of stories to tell about it.

A little more about Mississippi...Enjoy.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Poets, Storytellers, Writers, Books

Thursday Nite and Friday Nite Events in Columbus, Mississippi...

As I might have indicated in earlier posts, there is virtually something going on in Columbus, Mississippi, and many other cities and towns in the state every weekend of the year—but the best part is how easy it is to get to many of these events within a five-minute walk, a short jaunt to the next town, or an hour or so drive time. Sometimes, the problem is that it's difficult to decide which event to attend to the exclusion of other events.

Looking out from the Coffee Shop at the back of Books &
Boards during a busy night.
Thursday night, October 5, at the Books & Boards venue on Main in Columbus was Open Mic Night, where poets, storytellers, and writers read their work before a nice crowd, filling up all the chairs and tables in the store, as well as standing in the aisles. During this entire time, people kept the pie and coffee shop at the back of the store busy, as well. The readers covered all manner of genres, from poet-rap (with audience participation) to dystopian poetry read with a soulful cry to one reader bursting into ribald song as his piece called for, which delighted the audience. I took advantage (again) of open mic to read from one of my published works. I've been doing this once a month as I work my way through Book I of the Summer's Change trilogy. My purpose for these readings is to introduce many of my character sketches.

Friday, October 6, at the Rosenzweig Arts Building, several writers of the Columbus Writers and Storyteller group presented writing, in poetry and stories, in front of an appreciative group of listeners about "Livin' Mississippi." Angie Basson introduced the program to the audience and then read her piece "Mississippi You're a Crazy Quilt," and then because Deb (another writer in the group) couldn't be there, she read Deb's contribution to Livin' Mississippi. Jeanette Basson followed her daughter and read her piece about how her family came to Columbus, when she was a preteen and living on the west side of Columbus, and even how she ended up marrying the annoying boy on a church bus. Jeanette's piece took us back to a different time and evoked memories in the listeners, no doubt, of their own past. Jamella followed with an autobiographical sketch of her life and how she made it through as an adult, with beautiful daughters, after a lifetime of physical challenges, operations, and was inspired to be strong. I'd worked on my piece for several weeks and on the day of the presentation, I threw out everything I'd written and just spoke from a set of quickly jotted notes, which I used to initiate a thread that I could follow. It worked, and so I could spend more time engaging the audience than keeping my head buried in text. Donna Both, a retired teacher and grandmother used her time to read a poem she had written inspired by a local southern writer who had collected writings of her high school students into a book. Donna's poem, "I Know Things," hinted at a student in deep trouble, with a kind of cry of the lost, trying to brave her secret pain with bravado. And Donna's second entry was a children's story she had written for her grandchildren, complete with pictures about "Santasippi," a Mississippi version of Santa Claus. If I've left any of our writer's group readers out, I will correct this story.

Both events back to back on two nights is just one of the usual kinds of weekends we have around Columbus. This coming Friday at the Elbow Room Lounge is a free music night by a renowned blues musician—and this is just one venue.

I launched an ebook last September called Slices of Real Life, which is a collection of my essays written over several years and appearing in several literary anthologies. This year, this month, I launched a paperback edition of the same book. I worked for Amazon for many years, and now I am using their unique publishing venue to take care of a few of my writing projects in a way that makes them accessible to readers and to permanently capture them in book and electronic form. One reason I published this collection was to show readers of my fiction that my Common Threads in the Life Series, now seven volumes long (and finished) is not autobiographical. Slices of Real Life is autobiographical, and if anyone who likes my fiction wants to discover who I am (in part, maybe) my collection is now available. Slices of Real Life and the rest of my published work is available on Amazon. I'm currently working on spin-off novels for my Common Threads series and the next books in my fantasy series Twilight of the Gods.

One of the long-established southern bands from Houston, Texas, is ZZ Top. Their musical range spans several genres, including rock and blues. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Mother Goose Lives in Columbus, Mississippi

Mother Goose paid a visit the other day...

[Note that all facts and pictures of Edwina Williams (Mother Goose) come from the quarterly magazine Catfish Alley, Summer 2017 issue]

Edwina Williams
Photo from Catfish Alley, Summer 2017.
We were wrapping up work on Cliff's house, preparing for his move in, once the workers had finished installing the new (antique) chandeliers in the dining room, center room, foyer, hallway, guest bath, and kitchen, when Mother Goose dropped by with a friend named Charlotte. I knew immediately who Edwina Williams was when she came up the front steps of Cliff's house. Since moving to Columbus in May of 2016, it was impossible not to learn of the real-life "Mother Goose" (Edwina Williams), and I had hoped to be sitting in a restaurant when she would come in and break into song (never breaking character as she is wont to do) to the delight of the patrons. Instead, she came a-callin' to get a look at the house that neighbors had told her was being returned to a residence from it's former iteration as an appraiser's office.

Not to belabor the point, but from May until mid-August, I had been working on the house to get it ready for Cliff, and as news spread in the neighborhood that the old appraiser's office was being returned to a residence, people came to get a look at what was being done.

The guest bath in Cliff's House.
We were delighted to discover
that behind the drywall was the
original bead board. Nice and
rustic and the effect is whimsical
At first, we were standing on the sidewalk getting acquainted, and I noticed that passersby would wave and say, "Hi, Mother Goose!" Everyone knows who she is. So, then, I took Edwina and Charlotte for a quick look of the house. During the tour, I was delighted with Edwina's sense of humor. I pointed out that a French Empire chandelier was going in the dining room. She looked up at the pitiful incandescent bulb hanging haphazardly from the ceiling, and she said, "You're going to replace that with an old chandelier?" That was as if to say what a pity the dangling light bulb would be coming down. And then when I showed her the antique chandelier that was hanging in the guest bath, both Edwina and Charlotte chimed in unison, "How cute!"

As I write these posts on Mississippi, I have been struck time and again by just how varied and delightful the town of Columbus is, how historically significant in some ways, how creative it is in others, all colored by Southern hospitality and Deep South charm. One overlooks Mississippi's darker side as part of the Old South that continues to fight the Civil War, that continues to make headlines as a racially divided state and ultra conservative. It is and it is not. The "is not" part is what endears me to the state and mostly Columbus.

But I digress...

Mother Goose and Story Time at the Columbus
public library
Edwina Williams (aka Mother Goose) has been a fixture in the town of Columbus for many years. Quoting from Catfish Alley, Summer 2017 issue...

For generations of Columbus children, Mother Goose has been a source of love and affirmation, of encouragement and inspiration. For the adults, many of whom grew up on the floor of the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library listening attentively as Williams read to them during Mother Goose’s Story Time — something she has done every week since 1985 — she is easily the city’s most recognizable citizen. Her presence at an event gives the proceedings an air of legitimacy. It isn’t really a party without Mother Goose in the middle of it. And she is always in the middle of it, naturally.

And so, Edwina William's visit this month was one of the many delights I've experienced while living here in Columbus.

Cliff is now moved into his house. There's still work needed on the kitchen, but the beauty of the transformation from offices to a residence is astounding.

I just discovered Justin Johnson and wanted to share a bit of his talent on guitar. Wait for the rather messy intro to be over and then enjoy the music at around 0.55 in the video.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Echoes of the Past from a Real Place

The Haven, Columbus, MS

As Columbus, Mississippi, celebrates it's second-hundredth year, it's a rewarding experience to walk around the iconic buildings in the town. Just off the main drag through downtown and a couple of blocks west of the busy 5th Street, stands a house with a history that reflects what Columbus once was and still is—a place of change and timelessness. It's both the New South and progressive and not tied to stereotypes and surprisingly willing to accommodate both liberal and conservative voices and people; but it is also part of the Deep South, the Old South with its ancient prejudices and post-Civil-War attitude. Cliff had discovered a home in Columbus online called The Haven, which was built in 1843 by two freed men. And then one day, he and I decided to stop by there and look around. After many decades it is now for sale.

"The Haven is nestled in a shady lot just across from the Trotter Convention Center (downtown) and sits on a hill which, 170 years ago when the home was new, would have overlooked downtown antebellum Columbus," The Commercial Dispatch, July 19, 2017. According to the article, The Haven was commissioned—and possibly built by brothers Thomas and Isaac Williams, who were freedmen of color. And, also according to the article, Rufus Ward says, "...the real interest is that it was a freed black family that lived there in antebellum times." To me, this fits with the kind of place Columbus has always been, unconventional in super-conventional times like the old South. The Haven was (probably) built by and for freedmen, the Williams brothers, but it is not the only structure in Columbus that was built by former slaves. The first bridge over the Tom-Bigbee river was built by slaves, as well. According to the article, in the 1850s and in the years leading up to the Civil War, a lot of attitudes were changing toward free blacks. While early on the Williams brothers might have been accepted, they might not have been later. One of the brothers moved to Texas in 1858, and the house was sold to a man named Adam Gabs. The property stayed in this family for a long time.

And now it is for sale. The architectural style is similar to homes built in the Carolinas, and in fact the Williams were from there. They were also master builders. However, a visit to the realtor website will provide more information for those interested in the house. There you will see 24 pictures of both the interior and exterior. This is truly iconic and historical home in Columbus, MS, and shouldn't be missed.

Closer in time but still as integral to its past as the historic homes is the music that emanates from the Southern DNA. Below is a two-hour video, "Slow and Sexy Blues Music Compilation, 2017".  Put this video on and go about your business, just allowing the music to flow freely in your home. It's well worth listening to.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

First Impressions Shattered

Revisiting West Point, Mississippi

Looking North into West Point's
neat little downtown. Taken
from the city park.
West Point is the smallest of the three towns that make up the Golden Triangle area of Mississippi, known for its recent claim to massive investments from foreign and domestic industry to the tune of over eight billion dollars, including a Japanese tire manufacturing plant in West Point. On our trip through this part of Mississippi in 2015, when we knew very little of the Golden Triangle area, Cliff and I got gas in West Point after visiting Waverley Mansion just outside of Columbus, between Columbus and West Point. We stopped for gas at a busy little gas station on what turned out to be the outskirts of West Point, on the east end of its main street.

We were not impressed and wrote off West Point as disinteresting, doubting that it had much in the way of historic homes or history in general. But in the last few weeks, now that Cliff is living here in Columbus, we have been back to West Point three times and plan to make reservations at one of the town's locally owned restaurants to take in dinner and the usually great blues bands that play at Anthony's Restaurant each Wednesday night. We've been back several times, because our first ill impression of West Point has been shattered with each subsequent visit. I wrote about another cafe in West Point in my last post, and we have eaten there three times. But we've also found a delicious antiques store called Annabelle's and we plan to go back there, as well.

Howlin' Wolf is one of the
iconic blues players of the
South and a native of
West Point, Mississippi.
But our biggest misimpression was that because West Point is small (around 11,000 people) it couldn't have had much of a history. Not so; West Point is almost 200 years old and it has a treasure in its historic homes and bustling downtown, as well as a contributor to Mississippi's Blues history. Howlin' Wolf is one of the best known blues greats and is a native of West Point. His museum resides in West Point and a memorial stands in the city's beautiful park, which covers several blocks in the downtown area. This small city has another historic point of interest however that fits well with the history of Columbus, and that is its history of slave relations before and during the Civil War. Let me put that another way. I had already found out that Columbus has a progressive history, is LGBT friendly, and is the home of the first Memorial Day celebration. But Columbus and West Point have a shared history in how slaves and former slaves were treated, compared to other parts of the Old South. Word of mouth from native West Point citizens have told me that West Point was progressive and had elements of abolitionists there before the Civil War. But I will have to leave this notion to further research. Make no mistake, West Point is a Southern city and also has a long history of plantations and slavery. Still, there's no way to just write off this town. It has a great deal to offer. There is a busy section of big box stores, fast food joints, and other businesses, but there is also an interesting downtown, where the store fronts have been maintained and a collection of fun places to visit.

Like other towns in Mississippi, West Point has the annual Prairie Arts Festival.

39th Annual Prairie Arts Festival

Saturday, September 2, 2017

A greatly anticipated annual event in West Point and the surrounding area is the Prairie Arts Festival.  The Festival is held each year on the Saturday before Labor Day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in West Point's downtown. Including Fine Arts, Crafts, down-home southern cooking, four stages of live music, Classic Cars, Kidsville, and much more, the Prairie Arts Festival features more than 600 exhibits.
The festival has been recognized as one of the top ten events in the south, and is one of the largest arts and crafts festivals in the country.
 I leave you with a musical performance in 2013 by a band called The Kevin Waide Project, singing "Meet Me by Your Back Door" from their album Lost in Mississippi...

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Last One to Leave, Turn Out the Lights


Cliff entered Columbus, Mississippi from the west
and had I been standing on the steps of Harvey's
restaurant, as I was when I took this picture, I would
have seen his SUV clearly.
My partner Cliff arrived in Columbus, Mississippi, on Friday, June 30, around 7:30 p.m. He traveled for two days, spending only one night on the road in Weatherford, Texas, west of Fort Worth/Dallas and just barely out of the west Texas desert and into the rolling hills on the edge of much greener and wetter east Texas. He left Las Cruces, New Mexico, embroiled in triple-digit heat and a haboob, and after two days of grueling driving (with our cat Julia), he crossed the Mississippi River and drove through Vicksburg, Mississippi in a rainstorm—just exactly what my experience was one year and one month ago, when I entered Mississippi.

This is the Haboob that hit Las Cruces shortly after
Cliff had left to move to Mississippi
But in fact, he was not the last member of his family to leave Las Cruces, New Mexico, for greener climes. His brother Clay and his wife Angie left Las Cruces a day after Cliff did. They were the last ones of his family to leave and to turn out the lights. I have to mention that Clay and Angie were in a caravan with friends driving trucks and trailers and hauling the great bulk of possessions, some of it was for Cliff's parents who had previously moved to Rosebud, Texas.

But in fact (yeah another one), Clay and Angie's three children are still in Las Cruces. The twins are entering college at NMSU, and their oldest daughter is getting married and will be living in Las Cruces with her husband.

But I digress...Cliff's arrival closed a chapter in our relationship—the one year and one month we were apart, while he sold property, bought property, closed the family business, and otherwise settled accounts in New Mexico, so he could finally leave. Now that he's here, he said—and I agree—this past year apart just seems like the blink of an eye. Cliff and our cat Julia moved into my house while his house is continuing to be renovated. That, too, is quickly coming to a close and in a few more weeks his house will be move-in ready.

On the night that Cliff arrived, we make a late evening trip to Harvey's Restaurant for a small meal and a dessert. It reminded me of our first trip to Columbus in 2014 when we first looked at property and were astounded at the sheer beauty of the small city, the friendly people, and the progressive atmosphere.

In the two weeks that Cliff has been here, getting settled, opening accounts, etc., we managed a delightful trip to West Point where we ate lunch at The Main Street Market and Restaurant. We were both astounded at the deep menu selections, including entrees from fish, chicken, pork, and beef. It is also a meat market, and when we left, we took both brisket and pulled pork. The decor is down-home with a nod to Mississippi's musical heritage and culture. There are two pictures of Elvis. The waitress Martha was delightfully ready to talk and answer our questions. One of the dessert items was called "Elvis Cake" and, as it turned out, that's what Cliff and I shared. I took pictures of our main entree, as well as convinced Martha to stand with Cliff in front of one of the Elvis pictures and jointly holding a serving of Elvis Cake. It is a basic white cake with soaked in brown sugar and pineapple bits, covered with a butter cream (cream cheese) and pecan icing. Martha told us that it was one of Elvis's favorite desserts. The chef of the Market recreated that dessert for his restaurant. Throughout our meal, even on a Monday afternoon, people came and went, mainly to get take-out. We had planned to eat at another popular restaurant in West Point, called Anthony's. But fortuitously it was closed and we discovered the Market restaurant, which Cliff recalled reading about in some Mississippi magazine.

Cliff and Martha posing with
the Elvis Cake
We do plan to return to this restaurant, and we know that our friend Jim (who hails from Arkansas) would love this place. Yes, I could have tasted their catfish on this particular afternoon, but I tried the small pulled pork sandwich, instead. I cannot imagine how big the upsize of this sandwich would be. I felt stuffed as it was with the small sandwich.

Once again, I find myself talking about the food and hidey holes in the area where I live. West Point is just minutes away from Columbus, and there are at least three stellar restaurants there. We had originally decided to make the jaunt to West Point to visit Annabelle's Antiques, which is also on Main Street. We'll be returning on a later date for that purpose, but I hope that we can take time to have another meal at the Main Street Market.

Cliff has taken it slowly in meeting people that I have come to know, here in Columbus, but we're both looking forward to a trip to Ruben's Fish House on the Tom Bigbee waterway, just outside the entrance to Columbus from the west. I've already eaten there. Ruben's has a colorful history. That restaurant sits on the banks of the waterway. That's where we're going with two friends of mine this coming Friday, July 14. And while we have been exploring Columbus a little bit, most of our time is taken up with overseeing the final touches to Cliff's house. It's coming along fine, with a few hiccups along the way. Sit back and enjoy a 26-minute episode of Mississippi Roads:

Friday, June 16, 2017

I've Been through the Desert on a Horse with no Name...

Actually, after leaving the desert of southern New Mexico...

When I arrived in Mississippi a year ago, just as June got underway, I looked forward (with some trepidation) about what the summer and humidity would be like. I knew (intellectually) that even if the temperatures were not in the triple digits in the summer in Mississippi, the humidity would be in the high double digits and that it would be a different but just as uncomfortable heat—maybe worse. In the desert in the summer when it rains (and I might add at higher altitudes there) the rainfall can be cold, and after a good rain, the air is cool and there is a respite from the baking temperatures and relentless sun. I didn't think the rain would bring as much respite from the summer heat in Mississippi.

I've only lived through one complete summer here in Mississippi, and we're moving into my second summer. June has turned out to be hot and muggy, but I was delighted that a cloudy day and a little gentle rainfall does wonders in a different way than the rainfall in the summer in the desert. Yes, it feels wet after a rain, and no, even if the temps don't plummet nearly as far as after a cold desert rain, it can still be quite pleasant. So, I'll go with the hope that, unlike last summer, we get more rain. Last summer much of Mississippi suffered a drought, but as Fall came on and through the winter, the drought lifted. The worst day I can recall from last summer was when I traveled to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in July to attend a book club meeting. I wouldn't have missed it, because they were discussing one of my novels. The sun was relentless that day, and the meeting took place in a strip shopping center in a Metropolitan Church meeting room. The L-shaped center faced right into the afternoon sun, and I can remember sucking in the hot, wet air before scurrying into the building.

There were also soul-sucking, muggy and hot days here in Columbus, when I stepped out of my air-conditioned car on my way into the post office, and thought, "yes, this is really miserable heat." But I'm really not complaining. I was grateful that I didn't have a job that required me to work out in the heat, and my heart went out to construction workers that were roofing a house or mowing the grass, and I hoped that they were getting plenty of water. Even here, I noticed that people seek the shade to park their cars under and pedestrians walk on the side of the street when they can to get under awnings or walk on the shady side of buildings. When I have to do yard work (now that I finally have my lawnmower and edger and other garden tools) I only do it in the mornings when it's not quite as hot or at dusk, just after sunset.

But this all adds up to the fact that if I made it through all four seasons last year, I can do it again this year. Winter was mild here, but not as mild as southern New Mexico. Even then I welcomed the rain and the clouds, but perhaps the very best difference between here and the desert of southwest New Mexico is the lack of incessant wind from the west, and a companion to that blessing is that here the dust doesn't blow non-stop and coat everything.

Now...about those tornadoes, warnings, and sirens...

Thanks America for your haunting lyrics