It’s funny how we can grow up in a place, even own part of it, and take it for what it is in the moment. Never know the history behind it, the earth under it, the woods on it, and the streams running through it. Mostly, we take our lives for granted and never peel back from the surface or dig to find rich layers beneath. Or make discoveries. How much do we miss in life by seeing only what’s there now and not taking the time to wonder what was there before?
It scares me because I almost missed a great deal of my family’s story and how I align with historical periods. As a kid, I observed; as an adult, I looked deeper.
My grandpa was fourth generation in Kemper County, Mississippi. I’m sixth generation to still own a small tract of his portioned-out farmland, covered with woods and natural springs and a stream, along with poor dirt and scrub trees and a deep gully. It’s now a pine plantation.
Childhood summers, I visited that farm, ran over the pine-needled paths in the words, climbed trees, played in the creek, rode the old horse named Dixie, tried to dig up a grave with a tin can in the MacDonald Cemetery, and went with my grandfather to bring the cows home each evening before Wagon Train came on TV. Even picked cotton once. Ate blackberries, muscadines, and watermelons warm off the vines.
I remember the short jaunts to the watermelon patch. Grandpa took the kids—cousins, sister, me—on a slide, a flat wooden platform with runners on the bottom. He’d stand at one end holding long plow reins from Dixie’s harness, as she pulled us. We’d sit behind Grandpa as the slide scuffed down the narrow dirt lane from the walnut tree and henhouse on the left and the peanut patch on the right, past cotton and corn fields, until the road forked at the plum tree. The watermelon patch was south of the lane. One fork of the road turned north and went by the old family homesite, past a natural spring, and onto the land of my great uncle. The other road kept east and was not as well traveled.
I remember the push of the slide runners against the yellow sandy dirt prominent on Hardy Hill. This land was once covered by ocean. It was hard to imagine Kemper County, north of Meridian, under gulf waters. My grandmother hated that sand around her house because the kids were always tracking it onto the porch. She carried bucket after bucket and dumped it in the woods.
I looked at the weeds and cotton plants and dried corn stalks go by as the slide sashayed through the deep, soft sand, making a “sh” sound. The road was deeper than the surface ground. Maybe two feet in places. Little cliffs that kept getting eaten into and washed away by heavy rains rose up from the sandy bottom. I wondered if someone had dug out that road.
No. This was Choctaw Indian land. Thousands of Choctaws lived here back in the 1700s and 1800s. The Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty in 1833 opened Mississippi land for settlement, and white people migrated in and set up farms, towns, churches, and new ways. By the early 1900s, they’d put those Choctaws on a trail of tears and death west to open lands in Oklahoma.
My father said there are about seventy-five Choctaw graves on that land. Each one was covered with a big red-iron rock. My grandfather respected them and left them alone, but my grandmother’s brother moved in for a while and plowed all those graves up and hauled the rocks to storage in a storm shelter. A tribal community lived on our land before we did.
Those narrow roads were Choctaw trails, walked on and beaten down by the hundreds that lived and moved around on the site for two hundred years. Then came Hardy mules and wagons and horses and buggies and footsteps of a hundred children over a hundred years. Then the rains came and washed dirt from the sides and ran in streams down the trail, washing it out. It’s what you’d call a worn path. Worn deep down.
I try to imagine all these people of bygone days living, working, and walking across my land. And I figure their time overlapped; the Choctaws and the Hardys lived on the land together for some time.
I know this because when I did genealogy twenty years ago, I learned in church minutes that my great-great-grandfather’s sister got pregnant and had a child out of wedlock and got kicked out of the church. Her brothers covered it up, and she went down in family history as a “spinster, never married.” After this baby, she got married and had a family. I remember when I was a little girl, my grandmother snickered and told me one of the great aunts got pregnant by an Indian chief. I merged those two pieces of knowledge. Martha Hardy and a Choctaw Indian chief. So the Hardys mixed with the Choctaws, and it was not a good thing at the time, even if it was the chief, and even in my time, people didn’t want to believe it.
But I did. I like history and how I fit. I like to get on those worn paths and wear them down even more. I like digging around to find things nobody else has found and learn things about where I came from. I like the truth. I’m not satisfied with what I see on the surface or what little bit of information someone hands me and tells me to believe. I want more. I want it all. I want to know where those worn-down trails are going to take me.
It was a white night last night.
For some reason, I thought of ice cold milk and couldn’t get the picture of it out of my mind. It was really a day for water, and lots of it, with a heat index of 103 and humidity so high I could barely breathe. It was too hot to go to the Blackberry Jam music festival and sit outside by the Harpeth all day. It was too hot to stand outside and talk to a neighbor; it was too hot to walk the dog very far. And I thought of ice cold milk. I had to have some.
When I was a little girl and spent a week each summer on my grandparents’ farm in Kemper County, Mississippi, I drank their milk straight from a cow. My grandfather was the first one up every morning to go milk the cows, and he always brought a pail back to the house. It was not homogenized, it was not pasteurized, it was not like city milk from a carton. My grandmother put ice in a glass and poured the milk over it. We never did that at home.
I remember the look of it. The milk seemed a little thin and yellow against the white ice, blocky parts of which floated above the surface, coated with cream.
So last night I stuck my glass under the ice dispenser, filled it, then poured milk over it. I shook it and let the ice hit the glass and make noise. I grabbed a few M&Ms and went outside on the front porch to sit under a cobalt sky headed to darkness. Clouds darker than cobalt were furiously building and boiling upward from the day’s heat, and lightning was flashing behind their tops and among them.
I chewed my chocolate and drank my ice cold rattly milk and watched the storm move closer, the sky flashing white all around me and sending bolts downward. It was coming at me from all directions, white everywhere. It was all show for an hour—no rain, no wind—just white lightning, a natural fireworks display. When it was on me, the heavens and the air all around me flashed white. And I sat there and rattled the cubes in my glass and drank my ice cold milk and remembered storm traditions of my little girl days.
At my grandparents’ house, when a storm would roll in, my grandfather would go get the car and drive it right up on the grass by the front porch. He’d make the five grandchildren sit in the car with him. The rubber tires would ground us and protect us from getting struck by the lightning. I don’t remember my grandmother ever being in the car with us. I think she took her chances and got a little peace and quiet inside the house. When I was playing at my friend Mary Sue’s and a storm came up, her mother brought us each a foam rubber pillow to sit on as we played paper dolls or drew and colored pictures because it would ground us and keep us safe. We didn’t do any of this at home. The storms came, the lightning came, the thunder came, and we kept right on doing what we were doing.
And so I sat on the front porch and drank my ice cold milk and watched the lightning.
I bought a muscadine plant.
It was happenstance. I shopped for groceries last night at Publix and after I loaded them in my Outback, I returned the cart to the inside of the store, even though it was raining and I got wet, because that’s just the way I am. That’s when I saw them — about ten tall plants in black plastic pots sitting against a column in front of the store, raindrops running off their leaves. There were clusters of gold balls on the vine. I thought, No way, it can’t be, not muscadines, here, for sale. I stopped and reached down for the tag. “Muscadine Grape.” I went back inside and paid customer service $14.19, loaded up my selected potted vine and headed home.
So now, the Muscadine Lady has her own vine. Today, I must figure out where to plant it. Maybe tomorrow, I will pop one of those little gold balls in my mouth and savor it.
I first learned of muscadines and scuppernongs on my grandparents’ farm. There were two organized vines, though others trailed through treetops in the woods. One was on the side of the dirt road halfway between Papaw’s and Uncle Rufus’ house, near my great uncle’s barn, growing up a tall post and winding up a tree on a little island of scrub trees and brush between the road and a turn-off lane that led to the barn. I often took my bike to the farm when I visited in late summer and rode to the vine and ate the grapes handpicked and warm. Or I rode the old mare bareback and picked the higher-up fruit. The August sun beat down, my legs rested against Dixie’s warm wet back, and I smelled horse sweat, as I gobbled down the sweet grape.
The other vine was beyond Papaw’s barn, next to the gate that opened to the upper pasture and the pig pen and beyond that, the woods. My cousins and I would pick a handful as we ran down the cow path on our way to wade in the stream or play in the gully.
Those luscious days are long gone, and now, my muscadines are stories in an online journal: Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal. I like the rhyme — muscadine and line. “Dine” is pronounced with a long “i.” Some people don’t know that, and say “deen.” I like the clusters of short fiction and creative nonfiction.
Muscadines…reminiscent of those summer days as a girl, a sixth generation Mississippian, on land acquired by my great-great grandfather in 1850, in the red clay hills of Kemper County.