I recently picked up a copy of Sela Ward’s book “Homesick: A Memoir” because I’ve been missing my father a lot lately, and since Sela grew up in Mississippi, too, I figured it would, at the very least, make me smile.

It did, and it also reminded me of some of the silly and great things about our family visits to Yazoo City to see my father’s family.

Trips to Mississippi were always met with both a “yay!” and a groan in our house because as much fun as we knew we’d have once we got there, we also knew it meant the car ride from hell.  My parents weren’t into planes.  They flew when they had to for work or emergencies, but given the chance to drive somewhere, drive we did.

I don’t know if you’ve ever driven from California to Mississippi, but let me tell you, it is not fun.  We always had to go in summer because my parents would never let us miss school for a vacation, and so it meant heat that made the car feel like an oven even with the air conditioning on.  And my father was that father who only wanted to stop the car when he wanted to stop it.  That always led to some pretty tense moments between my parents, and inevitably, my mother asking me or, if they were on the trip, one of my older siblings, to tell him we “had to go” so he’d grudgingly pull over at a rest stop or restaurant.  For us, he would stop, but he wouldn’t be happy about it.

Texas… dear Lord, is there anything worse on a road trip than driving across Texas?  I’m gonna say no.  It would take us forever to get to the border into Louisiana (we were also visiting New Orleans to see Mama’s family, but that’s another blog entirely!), and on almost every trip, by the time we reached said border, my mother was no longer talking to my father, so I was in the front seat with Daddy, and we’d have a little celebration to mark finally being free from Texas as we made it onto Louisiana soil.

But the Texas crossing did bring one of my best and fondest memories of those trips.  After a long day of driving, we checked into a motel and went to get dinner.  Finding that they had “breakfast all day,” I excitedly ordered a full stack of pancakes and took insult when the waitress told my mother “you might want to get her the short stack.  They’re kinda big.”  My mom told her to let me have what I wanted, and then my dad ordered “the biggest beer you have.”

Oh, my goodness… the biggest beer they had proved that “everything is bigger in Texas.”  The mug was big enough to fit over my father’s head like a helmet, and it was filled to the brim.  I don’t even know how that woman carried it to the table, I just know even my dad had tears in his eyes from laughing over how ridiculously large that beer was.

Then my pancakes came… four of them, every single one an inch thick and about the diameter of a full-size dinner plate.  My mother eyed them and then looked at me, and we both knew the short stack would probably have been a better idea.  Still, I tried my best… but half that stack of pancakes never left the plate.

Another thing I loved about those trips was all the little roadside stores we’d stop at (when we forced my dad to stop) and the souvenirs I convinced my parents to buy me.  I loved these cheesy wooden games we’d find made out of tree sections and golf tees, and had I not lost them by the end of every trip, I’d have quite the collection.  But this was before DVD players came mounted in cars, and anything that kept me from asking 200 questions was a welcome friend to my family.  And of course, there was also the Whee-lo, which could keep me quiet for hours until the wheel eventually flew off and fell under my parents’ seat, and then it turned into my mother swearing a lot while she looked for it.

But then finally, we’d be in Yazoo City, where my family lived in three houses placed along the same street.  My grandparents house was up on this hill and I remember always being terrified I’d fall while trying to walk down.  My aunts, Joanne and Rosie, lived on opposite sides of the street a little ways down.

My Grandma Levy was a character and a half, and I know much of my father’s no-nonsense personality came from her.  She was famous for responding to a greeting of “hey” with “Hay is for horses.”  My grandpa, who everyone called Daddy Red, loved that I loved to dig for worms for fishing trips.  It was one of my all-time favorite parts of our visits there… digging in that warm mud and trying to find the best worms for my dad and grandpa.

One of those fishing trips turned into another family classic.  My mother, who is nobody’s outdoorswoman, trust me, got a bite and pulled in her line.  But she hadn’t caught a fish… she’d caught a snake.  My father, much to my Aunt Rosie’s amusement, responded to my mother’s screams and, seeing the snake, put his hands in his pockets and said, “Well, what do you expect me to do about it?”  Me?  I was busy ducking because my mom was waving that thing all over creation.

One not so found memory?  I was helping my Aunt Joanne take some jars of something into the house… preserves maybe?  I can’t remember to tell the truth, though I have a good excuse.  I stepped on an area rug with my hands full, and said rug took off across the wood floor with me along for the ride.  I saw the edge of a wooden table coming toward me and then the next thing I knew, I was on the couch in my grandparents’ house, my dad saying “She’s fine, she’s fine,” my mother crying, and my grandma looking down at me trying to decide if I needed a doctor or not.  They opted for not, and I survived, so it must have been the right call.

Those summers were full of my crazy cousins trying to teach me tricks on their 10-speeds, which were way too big for me, and riding bikes with the local kids who lived up the street, and trips into town to buy Munchos (but never alone; Levy kids never went into town alone because our family was a little too racially mixed for anyone’s liking, and you never wanted anyone to catch you alone), and thunder storms that could scare the daylights out of a kid from the California desert.  And as much as I hated being eaten alive by the mosquitoes, I always hated leaving more because there was just something so amazingly freeing about being able to wake up in the morning, walk down the hill (without falling!), visit both aunts’ homes, and then run back up to my grandparents without ever having to tell anyone where I was going or have someone worried about where I’d gone off to.  It was a sense of freedom I never got to experience at home, where there was constant calling in to say I’d gotten here or was going there, and for those few days every summer, it was heaven.

I haven’t been back to Mississippi for years now, real life, school, work, and trying to build a career all taking up too much time to make the trip.  But as Sela’s book drew out my own memories, it made me want to go back again so badly, not just because I want to see what it all really looks like now compared to my memories, but because, I think, there is something oddly poetic about the fact that my father passed away in the town of his youth on a visit home.  I know that even though he’s buried in California in my hometown, the fact that Yazoo City is both where his life started and ended will always make it a place of special meaning.

Of course, if I do go back now, I’ll have to wear a suit of armor.  Turns out adulthood has made me allergic to mosquito bites.  Oh, and I’ll be flying… because you can’t drive and play Whee-lo at the same time.

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