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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Hello there, and welcome to what you could call “Niceole unplugged” but what I think of more as “rambling with purpose.”  Too many stories to share — that’s my problem, so I decided, hey, blog some of them!  But first… let’s have proper introductions.  If you’re going to jump on board this train and enjoy these nuggets o’ silliness in the proper context, there are a few things that you should know about me.

1.  My body is a character in my life.  Seriously — it has a mind of its own that is wholly separate from Niceole’s mind.  Friday night, for instance, I knew I had to go for a walk and my mind was in total agreement — no skipping the work out!  My body?  Not so much.  It filed three formal protests–a back spasm, a flare of knee pain, and just for good measure, a cramp in my calf muscle that remained post stretching.  My body’s mind is evil and it often does not like me.

2.  My family is crazy… but crazy in the good “hi-larious” kind of way and not the way that ends up with a Lifetime movie “based on a true story.”  I love them dearly and yet often threaten to give them up for adoption.  I’m sure they feel the same way about me, they just don’t blog it, so I get to live in denial.

3.  I really love what I love and I really hate what I hate.  I can listen to you tell me why you love what I hate or hate what I love objectively and respectfully, just know that it will not change my mind.  For reference, see “Faux ‘Battlestar Galactica'” and my friends who love it but know this O.G. “Battlestar” girl will never watch a minute of it.  Also see The Dallas Cowboys and the UCLA Bruins.  Nothing will ever make that hate go away, even if a few of my friends wish it would.  But I love them in spite of their poor football fandom and university choices, and they love my USC- and 49er-loving ass right back.

4.  I love shoes… more than someone should love shoes… and chocolate… and coffee… and television… and football.  These topics will probably pop up often, sometimes no doubt as part of or as a result of (see coping mechanisms) one of the crazy family stories.

Given all that, if you’re still reading, here’s the first crazy family story.  File this one under “parental contribution to the child becoming a writer.”

July 4th made me think a lot about my dad because I spent it watching documentaries.  One was “The Tillman Story,” which was great, though it broke my heart to watch this family have to fight so much ridiculousness just to get an answer to the question “how did Pat die?”  The second was “Lt. Dan Band: For the Common Good,” which detailed Gary Sinise’s work to support the troops, much of which involves his band, the aforementioned Lt. Dan Band, performing shows for the troops and their families at home and overseas.

My dad was a 22-year Navy man, and he told me about some of the shows he saw while he was in the service, so I know how important it is for anyone with talent and the will to share it to go and entertain our servicemen and women.  My friend Jackie Kashian, who is a great comic, has done so as well, and I admire her more for it than I could probably convey (though I hope the homemade “welcome home: you’re awesome” cookies were a decent attempt).

Anyway, thinking about the military reminded me of my dad, and brought to mind this day when I was probably about 4 years old.  I noticed that my father was mostly bald, and then I noticed that he was bald in every picture we had in the house, no matter how young he’d been.  He had a halo of dark, curly hair, but mostly, the whole top was bare as could be.  And being a kid who asked questions, I walked up to him one day and said, “Daddy, what happened to your hair?”

“Well, (embarrassing nickname withheld to protect the innocent),” he said, “when daddy was over in Vietnam, one day this grenade flew over top of my head.  And right when it blew up, it grabbed all my hair and just pulled it right out.”

I know what you’re thinking.  But in my defense, I WAS 4!  What 4 year old thinks her daddy would lie to her about anything?

A few years later, I was busy playing some form of cops and robbers on the playground when suddenly that story popped into my head, and I had that moment of “wait, what?! if a grenade went over his head, how is his head still on?”  I got my Mama to call my dad’s older sister and told her the story, my mother trying not to laugh in the background, but my aunt couldn’t keep it in.  She laughed till she cried and said, “Girl, don’t believe nothin’ that man tells you.  You know how he lost his hair?  He walked some girl home in the freezing cold with his head all out, and then didn’t listen when I told him he had frostbite and not to put hot water on his head.  He put that damn hot water on there, and all his hair fell out, and it ain’t never come back.”

For the record, I think my dad was just cursed with a receding hairline that took its toll by the time he was in his teens.  Which is not to say I haven’t Googled “scalp frostbite baldness” in about twenty combinations just to double-check.  I like to cover my bases.

When my dad got home that day, he was met with my stern little face, arms crossed in front of me, body planted on the front porch stairs.  No doubt my hair was in two super tight long black braids, one on each side of my head, which was my mom’s favorite way to do my hair and which probably made me look a lot like a furious munchkin from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“Daddy, you lied to me.  No grenade tore your hair out.  Auntie said you got frostbite and that’s how you lost it.”

He laughed and shrugged.

“Well, I never told you it was the truth, now did I?”

Yeah, get hit with that when you’re 6 or 7.  I became super fact-check girl before I could write my name in cursive.  Suddenly every story my family told me was suspect… haunted attics in New Orleans?  Yeah, that needed research.  Mysterious graves with chains on them in Mississippi?  Someone would have to show me that in person before I believed it.

But I suppose my research skills had to come from somewhere.  A goofy story from my father about his bald head seems as good a place as any.  It’s just too bad I didn’t know about my dad’s love of a good fib before… like say when my siblings decided to tell me I’d been found in a trash can.  But that’s a story for another blog.

Stuff to check out:

http://www.tillmanstory.com/

http://www.ltdanbandmovie.com/

Jackie Kashian, Stand-Up Comedian