My Fifth Avenue

Not a summer goes by, not one, that I don’t think back to my childhood summers in the sweltering hot cotton land of the Mississippi Delta and the contrapuntal oak-lined Fifth Avenue that ran south from Highway 8 past the college and ended when it T’ed into Yale Street. Yale marked the end of town. There was a cotton field on the other side of it.

Cleveland

Fifth Avenue had sidewalks that were in solid shade from Yale ten blocks north to the college at Court Street.

That was my world in 1960 when I was old enough to ride my bike a bit farther than just in circles in front of my house on Deering, which intersected Fifth halfway between Yale and the college.

Fifth had been there a long time — more than forty years, because that’s when Delta State College was founded. The town was ninety years old by then. Houses on Fifth Avenue were established with their own tall trees and lushly landscaped front yards.

The oaks on Fifth Avenue were big and old and twisted up out of the ground to form a canopy over the street. Tree roots pushed the concrete sidewalk up and cracked it and separated it in places. That made it even better for riding bikes on. A girl needs a bump to ride over.

oaks

I got my bike for Christmas when I was seven. It was an aqua color with cream trim and a tan seat, from Santa Claus and Sears. I rode it until I married fourteen years later.

Summers would have been pretty miserable without that shady sidewalk. Up to the north six blocks was the Gold Star market across from the college. Mostly, though, I rode south to Yale Street, where a Standard Oil service station was my destination. I’d buy a six-ounce, ice cold Coca Cola, some bubble gum, and five red hot jawbreakers — the ones that were red and hot and melted down to white and then at the center was a black cool taste. I’d also get a few comic books — Archie, Betty, and Veronica or Tom and Jerry or Little Lulu. I’d drink my Coke and ride my bike back up Fifth in the cool shade, then turn right at Deering and pump hard three houses home over the hot concrete under a blistering sun. It was a hundred degrees all summer in the Delta.

comic

There weren’t many trees on my street. My Delta Heights subdivision was still fairly new. There were no amenities, no playground, no pool, no sidewalks, just houses back then. My parents knew how important trees were — for shade, to help with electric bills, to provide a sun cover for children to play — so they planted a walnut tree in the far back corner of the yard and two tall pecan trees smack in the middle of the yard. They planted tall hedges around the yard and some flowering bushes. Mama always had zinnias and morning glories. We didn’t have a mimosa tree, though, and I always wanted one.

Mama put up a badminton net between those two pecan trees, and we also played croquet in the shade of the trees. We had a swing set, a tall sliding board, a merry-go-round, and a sand box. I made many a mud pie in pecan tree shade. We stretched a Slip ‘n Slide across the yard and squealed and slid in the shade across that. We had a picnic table that Mama painted green and put under one of the pecan trees. I did all my summer reading on that picnic table in the shade of the pecan trees.

mudpie

Every fall the trees would drop nuts, and it was an ordeal for Dad who shelled them as he watched TV at night. Mama made countless chocolate cakes with chopped pecans on top, and every Christmas she made her famous toasted sugar-coated, orange cinnamon pecans. Dad would always accidentally leave pieces of the bitter quick in with the sweet nutty meat of the pecans, and it was a common thing for someone in the house to bite into it and yell a disgruntled, “Da-ad!”

Now I wonder what my life would have been like without shade trees. I grew up in the outdoors, playing outdoor games, loving the outdoors and trees and plants and flowers and fresh air and grass and stars and the smell of green growing things. My imagination grew there, too.

I’ve lived my life thankful for Fifth Avenue and for those Deering Street pecan trees. And grateful to my parents for teaching me to appreciate nature.

My dad grew up on a farm. I now own part of the land — which used to be in crops and timber — that belonged to my dad, my grandfather, his father, and his father. I’m the fifth generation. The land is now a pine plantation. Yes, I own a tree farm, a real Mississippi plantation. I own lots and lots of trees!

But I live in a new subdivision in Tennessee. We have no trees. We do have amenities; we have a half-mile sidewalk uphill and down to the playground and pool in direct sun — not a tree anywhere in sight, just hot concrete. I feel so sorry for the children who make that walk daily to the pool . . . or maybe they ride in a cold car . . . and I remember my Fifth Avenue and my bike rides in the cool shade of old oaks. And I remember my play in the shade of my back yard pecan trees. And I remember summer fun by the creek under ancient trees on my grandfather’s farm.

And I pity today’s children whose parents only value pools that are a long hot walk away and hot playgrounds and hot benches to sit on and watch their kids swing and play in a blistering hot summer sun.

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