My dad’s mom, Josephine, was from Mississippi (M-I- crooked letter, crooked letter, I-crooked letter, crooked letter-I-humpback, humpback-I)* and her accent was like music to me. It was soft and lazy, like a winding stream through a quiet holler. She was a firecracker, a live-wire packaged in a small, compact and powerful little body. Her hair was silver and caught the light when she moved her head from side to side, like a nervous watchman on his first night guarding the museum. Her hands were in constant motion, accentuating the words, punctuating the air with slices, finger points and shakes, hands to heaven and all manner of motion, like two birds caught in a tornado. She could transform the must mundane occurrence into an adventure just by her approach to it. Life was not meant to be lived, it was meant to be consumed, devoured and lapped up like gravy with cornbread. Nothing about my Grandma Jo-Jo was timid; I don’t believe I can remember a time when she asked anyone’s permission for anything. She knew her mind, her capabilities and no one was going to take that away from her or steal her joy in any way, shape or form.
When I would go visit her when I was very young, she would always ask me to give her some sugar. I can still remember how confused I was when she first asked me because there was no coffee to be seen anywhere and that was the only reason someone could be asking for sugar, right? Well, when that someone is Grandma Jo-Jo, the only thing sweeter than sugar was a kiss from her grandchildren, any and all of the seven of us! I loved that about her; it was like she had a secret language to go with that exotic Southern drawl of hers. Growing up in Northern California, the South was a very distant place (might as well have been the Amazon, as far as I was concerned) and her accent, the stories from my dad about growing up, there made it a place of mystery and magic.
I was able to finally go to Mississippi when I was married and a dependent of the United States Air Force, as my husband got stationed at Keesler AFB in Biloxi. It was not anything like I had imagined, as no one can adequately describe humidity to a 9 year old, nor did Grandma Jo-Jo mention anything about the crazy insect population they have there! Bugs flying around attached to each other in swarms, beetles so huge you could step on them with a US-government issued shit-stomping boots and it would survive the first stomp but usually crackle with the second. Holy mother of entomophia!
I was ill-prepared to deal with all of this, but once I found the on base liquor store and the largest bottle of White Zin I could find (in truth, every night for about a year) I adjusted fairly well and was chomping at the bit to get out and experience some of that magic I had dreamt about so long ago.
The Gulf Coast has a lot of things that I wasn’t prepared for, bugs and weather aside. For instance, I went into a grocery store in Gulfport and there was a lady at the bakery counter smoking a cigarette! Toto, we are DEFINITELY not in California. Now, this was the early 90’s, so the war against cigarettes hadn’t happened and the South historically has a much different relationship with tobacco than the West does. Also, you could take your alcoholic beverage ON THE BEACH! This was when the riverboat casinos had just been opened and operational, so you could play the slots, get hammered, walk on the beach, continue to get hammered and more than likely, sleep on the beach if you were a tourist or lightweight, such as myself. There were other places to go like New Orleans or Alabama Gulf Shores, as well as tons of state parks and beautiful antebellum homes lining the coast. Not to mention the food! I can’t even begin to address the food.
The other thing that I wasn’t prepared for but eventually came to love was the song that the crickets and katydids make at night. Night had always been my favorite time of day but when I lived in Biloxi, it was heaven. The sun was gone, the humidity still hung like drapes in the air, but it was the stars and the sounds that I fell in love with. We would get these thunderstorms that would light up the sky; sunsets would be blood red, purple and orange. I had never seen such magnificent skies in my life.
This taught me a valuable lesson; there is always a positive for each negative in life. Humidity, alien-looking insects and a tolerance for tobacco were balanced out by artistry in the heavens, symphonies in my backyard and the ever-present Southern drawl that was like a warm hug straight from Heaven. I didn’t stay long in Mississippi, but it’s magic has never left me.
My grandma Jo-Jo passed away when I was still pretty young, but I hear her voice in my head still, asking to give her some sugar. What I wouldn’t give to be able to have you here with me now, Grandma. I’d give you all the sugar your soul can hold.