Mississippi Moments

Monday, July 02, 2007

Mmmmmm, Kool-aid. Now, that's the taste of summer.
So, I have a few minutes to put down some impressions and such of Natchez this weekend. I am antebellum'd out, so to speak. It almost didn't happen. The car rental place in Clarkesdale didn't have a car for me on Friday afternoon after teaching and coaching all day. I was pretty bummed. There were none available for the weekend either. Finally, Sr. T solved it by having me drive her to the 15th year anniversary celebrations in Tutwiler and then letting me off on my merry way. I felt very Mary J. going off on my own to have an adventure...it was either feel like that or a hobbit, and I'd druther not have run into any dragons or ringwraiths. Big skeeters, yes. So, I was pretty tired but had an uneventful drive down-reached Vicksburg by the time the sun went down. There truly is nothing like a Delta sunset.
The first night in the antebellum home was something else. Old homses smell a particular way and I won't go into much detail here, but suffice it to say the great-great grandson of the family that bought it from the original plantation owners wasn't the only "family" member still in the home. It was a hoppin' place. The original plantation/town home that it originally belonged to, The Elms, was across the street and this home is huge and palatial. Privately owned and only open during the spring and fall pilgrimages. Natchez is not a large place, about 20,000 people. There are actual plantations all around it and the huge, historic homes I was interested in (and most of the folks who visit) are really townhomes for the planters and their families during the cooler months. Most of these families owned multiple plantations. So, Joe Stone, the host of the B and B was actually a classical pianist and clarinetist who went up to New York for most of his adult life to work and play as a musician. He is quite the "just so" person. Everything was attended to with particular attention and perfection. As I was falling asleep, this heavenly music was coming from the music room. He was giving a private concert for the 6 medical students from Jackson that were also stayng in the home. Breakfast was typical Southern but his own family recipes. Grtis with green peppers were new to me. The coffee was good. No espresso available in this town either. I almost drove 3 hours to Jackson to find a Starbucks.
I started the day with a carriage tour of downtown. It was lovely. Natchez was spared in the Civil War because it took about 5 minutes for them to surrender to the Union forces. Thus, all these amazing homes and the wealth that went with them were still in tact. The Visitors' Center was helpful in helping me to arrange several tours of plantation homes. I started with the home of a free person of color, William Johnson. He was a successful barber. He had been born a slave and then was manumitted when he was 11 years old. His wife was also a free woman of color. He kept a diary for over 25 years of life in Natchez between the 1830's and the 1850's. He was also a slave owner. His diary was discovered during some renovations of his actual home in the 1950's. He was murdered by a neighbor over some boundary issues. His journal reflects a time and a man of great contrasts.
I visited Rosalie near the River. I visited Melrose. I visited Longwood which is one of the most famous homes near Natchez. MAny of these are featured in Civil War movies. The interesting thing to note is that most of the these homes have the actual furnishings, china, clothing, books, etc. from the original families. My favorite tours were those that included details about the family life there or life from the African-American perspective. At the home run by the U.S. National PArk Service, one tourist asked if there were any ghosts in the place (I could've told her-yes) and the answer was, "The U.S. Government doesn't believe in ghosts." and then under her breath she said that her friend was giving tours last week and near dusk, she saw an older woman rocking in one of the drawing room chairs and approached to tell her to get up and as she came closer, the woman smiled and disappeared. She also blew most of the Scarlett O'Hara myths that the rest of the Garden Club tour guides were giving at the other homes about the ladies of the time.
Did I fail to mention that this tour guide was a teacher in training from Alcorn University and she was African American. She gave us details about ALL the people who occupied or worked in the house. She also said most of the fainting happened, not because of delicacy, but because of obvious reason #1; The girls couldn't breathe (corsets) and #2 Everything smelled so bad-b.o. beer, and bodily function smells. There was a home with an indoor shower and toilet--well ahead of its time in 1849. Some of the homes were unfinished due to the unfortunate interruption of the War. I walked all over town and found the basilica that was funded and built primarily by the rich French folks who had moved up the river from N'awlins. A tiny cafe and a quiet lunch. More exploring. Dinner -fruit, cheese, wine, a good book and my journal on the wrap around porch watching the world not go by. Was able to see a mockingbird up close and personal. My host joined me for a set and I listened to his stories about growing up in NAtchez. These women who run the show now and show began the touring of the big homes were Steel Magnolias in every sense of the word. I read up on the history of the Pilgrimages and it was another veritable war. Southern Women-harruumph. You do't mess wid 'em.
Sunday saw me at the early Mass at St. Mary's Basilica. More quiet exploring downtown before things got too hot. Out to anther plantation before I headed out of town and back to Jonestown. Things were fine until one of those sheet rain storms with lightning and thunder hit. I forget what to do, so I just slogged along and added two more hours to the trip home. There were alot of real plantations beckoning for exploring but I resisted. I also drove through historic Port Gibson which Grant said was too pretty to burn. That will be for future exploring. I met some nice people from MIssouri and Louisiana.
When I arrived back at SNJM house, Sister met me in the back with her bad news. I was shocked. Her SNJM friends, Sr. Maureen, Sr. Rosemary, Sr. Joan were there comforting her, bringing the whiskey and the dinner and companionship. It was an evening of support and care for her. She will be leaving early this week, on Thursday to head up for the funeral and family memorials. My schedule remains the same and we are going to finish up the summer session with a special program about the MS river. I have more to write but this weekend was a huge blessing just to get away. I surely wouldn't have wanted to have been a person in one of these plantation homes--and I hope I wasn't.


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