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                            Retirement Talk for Boomers, Seniors, and Retirees

Episode 125 Road Trip Part 17: Mississippi

Two of my favorite writers lived in Mississippi: William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. After visiting Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee it was impossible to not turn south and visit the home of each. Faulkner’s home is in Oxford which is also the home of the University of Mississippi, or Ol’ Miss as it is more commonly known. We had to stay in Batesville, a small town 25 miles east of Oxford, because all the motels were full. Oxford is a small place – 20,000 residence plus 15,000 college students.

This is Retirement Talk. I’m Del Lowery.

Oxford, Mississippi is a comfortable; charming little place. We found a coffee shop/bakery called the Bottle Tree that was jammed with patrons. We waited for a table and found it well worth the wait. The place was crowded and when I made a comment about a picture of a new stamp on the front page of the paper Brenda was reading the folks at the adjoining table must have heard me. I heard them say” “That won’t be a picture I’ll be hangin’ on my livin’ room wall”. The picture was of three blacks including Medgar Evers. The table next to us was occupied by two whites – definitely locals.

We browsed the streets around the town square and had a great conversation with two friendly owners of a local art gallery. They gave us a short geography lesson concerning the Delta area of Mississippi. That’s a real poor area where cotton farming use to be big, and so were the swamps. I guess the swamps are still big. They told us that much of the cotton farming has disappeared to foreign countries; seems like there is nothing that can’t be outsourced.

We walked down a narrow street for a few blocks and came to Rowan Oak. That’s the name of Faulkner’s house. By the way, there is not a Rowan Oak tree. There is a Rowan tree, it grows in Ireland, and of course there is an Oak tree. Faulkner combined the two for the name of his place.

There is a narrow curved drive that leads up between two rows of cedar trees to his house. There were no cars and it appeared empty. A small sign gave the days and hours of its’ opening for visitors. It was suppose to be open. Though looking closed, we tried the front door. It opened and two young college girls greeted us. One was from Michigan and the other was a senior major in Southern Studies and Communications, Amy.  She was black. We enjoyed a long conversation with her about race and changes at Ol’ Miss.

She thought lots of change had been made since James Meredith enrolled in l962. She told of doing a documentary on the erection of a civil rights monument on campus. A committee was selected to choose the design.. They chose a modern artistic design with inscriptions that were descriptive, honest and inspirational. Some folks might find them offensive. The inscriptions spoke truth to power. The chancellor vetoed the design for what many considered superficial reasons. A traditional bronze sculpture of James Meredith was then chosen for the monument. .Seems there’s still a lot of controversy over erecting any sort of reminder of segregation and the integration of ol’ Miss.

It was interesting to visit Faulkner’s house and think back over some of his great writings. His typewriter, his chair, his pipe, a portrait of him done by his mother, a portrait of him in his riding gear – he was a hunter – his writing room with “The Fable” posted up on the wall in story board form. It is done with grease pencil and graphite in his own hand. The home was interesting but I think my favorite memory will be the conversation we had with the young student, Amy, concerning the Civil Rights Monument.

It was a three hour drive to Jackson. Here, we enjoyed a two night stay with Brenda’s cousin, Beth and her husband Bruce. She is a retired, management level, food dietitian for a corporation. He’s a designer of the interiors of homes; expensive homes; like million dollar McMansions. He showed us some during our visit. They were great hosts.

They provided one of our most enlightening days of our trip with a tour around Jackson. We visited the home of Eudora Welty. It was closed but we at least saw where she lived for 76 years of her life. We drove around the grey, dark, brooding capital building. It looked like it needed a good bath; at least a good sandblasting. The downtown was deserted. It was a Sunday, but it was emptier than a Sunday deserved. I don’t remember seeing anyone in the downtown core. No restaurants, no coffee shops, no newsstands, no taxies, nothing. They have built a new convention center downtown but I can’t imagine anyone choosing this place for a convention. There are no convenient hotels, restaurants, etc. Our hosts told us that during the week people who work downtown come to work around 9:30 in the morning and leave by 2:30 so that they will never be there during darkness. It’s a crime ridden city.

We drove just a few blocks from the center and there were blocks of houses that had been burned out. Window glass was broken and gone. Rags hung from windows, Charred wood seemed to hold everything in place. It looked like blocks of crack houses that had been burned and abandoned. They wouldn’t take us across the tracks into the ghetto. “Too dangerous”, they said.

Then we went to view some McMansions: ten foot ceilings – maybe even higher, three laundries, indoor and outdoor kitchens, perhaps a swimming pool, 6 to 10 thousand square feet, four car garages. Just what everyone “needs”. Amazing!

“Everything is racial in Mississippi”, Bruce said. “It’s a way of life and you’re not going to change it”. They had moved to Mississippi from the Midwest. I asked them if it didn’t bother them to live in such a community. They said they had just learned to live with it. They didn’t like it but they learned to accept what they couldn’t change. They also said they liked the place because people were friendly, it was inexpensive to live there and the weather was great. Pretty appealing features for people who are retirement age.

We drove around Ross Barnett Reservoir. He’s a figure of historical importance in Jackson and all of Mississippi. He was a raciest – and proud of it. As governor of Mississippi he was outspoken in his opposition to James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi. He vehemently encouraged outrage throughout the state. For this he was fined $10,000.00 and sentenced to jail. But this was Mississippi. He didn’t pay one dollar of the fine, nor did he spend one day in jail. His legend does live on as an honored figure in Mississippi.

Our time in Jackson had been memorable. We drove out the next morning. Our next scheduled stop was Denver. We looked forward to getting west.

This is Retirement Talk.