That's What I Like about the South

Trip Start Feb 15, 2013
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Trip End Feb 25, 2013


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Flag of United States  , Mississippi
Monday, February 18, 2013

By Rebecca

We got a fairly early start from Greg's house and went north on Highway 49 toward Bentonia, MS, in search of Dad's churches in the Bentonia and Satartia area. My family moved to Satartia from Natchez in June of 1965, the year I turned 9, and we stayed there for one year. I can remember coming home from school many afternoons to find Mother and Daddy sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and talking. I found out later it was the roughest year in their marriage and in my father's career. They pulled through it and decided to go to Atlanta the next year where my dad enrolled for a masters degree in sociology and religion.

My dad served three churches, each with a distinct personality. The first of these was Mt. Olivet in Bentonia. We entered the address I had looked up into our GPS, which guided us to an extremely poor, rural area. When we passed the GPS destination point and found nothing but woods, I suggested we go back about a mile and ask for directions from the nice-looking elderly man we had seen working on his fence. We pulled up and asked him if he could tell us where Mt. Olivet church was, and he miraculously turned out to be the former pastor of Mt. Olivet and the other two churches Daddy had served 50 years ago! We pulled our car into his yard and he made a call on his cell phone that went something like this: "Carolyn, do you have your shoes on? (Pause) How 'bout everything else?! (Pause) I've got two weary pilgrims here that I want to bring up to the house for coffee." His wife was game, so off we went up to the house and were blown away by the interior, which was literally lined with knick-knacks, books, and artwork. Our host had also been an auctioneer and through the years had acquired all manner of cobalt glass, figurines, decorative plates, religious objects and more from estate sales.

Our hosts were George and Carolyn Butler, two of the nicest people you ever want to meet. They told us all about their experiences serving the churches in the 1980's and confirmed my memory that Mt. Olivet was the largest and warmest of the three churches, Satartia was rather formal and somewhat stand-offish, and Wesley Chapel was tiny and barely staying open. George said that he thought the difference in the people was because Satartia was in the flatlands while Mt. Olivet and Wesley were made up of "hill people," who are generally less reserved. Mind you, these churches were no more than 10 miles apart. In another amazing small world episode, we learned that George and Carolyn both knew Greg in Jackson through Cursillo, a Christian retreat movement they all have been involved in. 

The word on Mt. Olivet was that they had torn down the church I knew and built a new one on the same site within the past year. George gave us directions to get there and from there to Wesley Chapel ("Turn left when you get to the dumpsters!") and Satartia Methodist Church. After telling us all sorts of other intriguing details about life and people in rural Mississippi and taking us on a tour of the house, George and Carolyn posed for a photo which we promised to send to them once back home. Since we first stepped into the house we had been feeling like we had jumped back 50 years through a time warp, and then Carolyn snapped us back to the present by telling us we could send the picture file to her via e-mail or Facebook! 

 We finally hugged the Butlers goodbye and headed off to Mt. Olivet, a sweet simple little church. The building was new to me but I remembered the trees! When I was a kid, we'd drive up for the morning service and all the men of the church would be under the trees talking about the weather and events of the week. This was the congregation that would always have fresh vegetables for us to take home--tomatoes, zucchini, and lots and lots of peas and beans to shell. I have a vivid memory of sitting on the stoop of a member's house with a group of women shelling purple hull peas until my fingers were sore and my thumbs were stained!

We drove on to Wesley Chapel, driving for what felt like a very long way and thinking we must have missed it until we spotted it perched on a hilltop. There was a church member inside cleaning in preparation for a meeting. When I introduced myself and told her about my father, she immediately remembered him! She said that the church was about to close, since the old members were dying out and the young people in the community had nothing to keep them there and were leaving as soon as they were old enough. She added that they were hoping to keep the sanctuary as a chapel for the old cemetery right next to it. This is a common story all over the country--in another couple of decades that way of life may be history.

Rich's Take
 
Going to Bentonia was one of those occasions when I got a glimpse inside the real world of where I was visiting and not just a tourists-eye view. It started with the astounding coincidence Rebecca talked about, when the man we happened to ask for directions to Wilson's three old churches in that region was the former pastor at the same three churches…and next thing we knew we were in George and Carolyn Butler's hand-built house with every square inch of vertical surface covered with antiques and old books and religious images and family photos and an entire shelf running the circumference of a room covered with stuffed animals, sitting in the living room listening to these gracious people talking in rich accents about the history of the region and the differences between hill people and Delta people and pouring more coffee for us. I felt like they were genuinely happy to share their home and history with us and find out something about who we are and what we do. Southern hospitality has now taken on a new meaning for me.

Rebecca's Story Continues
 
We took a short drive down to Highway 3 and made our way to Satartia. Sadly, the old historic school building I attended in 4th grade had been torn down. It was already ancient when I went there, so I suppose it was inevitable that it would go once the small number of remaining students were transferred to the consolidated school. The church and parsonage next door looked just the same, however. When I stepped in the door of the church, I was struck by the totally familiar appearance and smell of the place. I almost expected to see my mother at the piano and my dad in the pulpit as I walked in the door. At the parsonage, I could still spot the door to the storage room in the carport where our cat had three kittens behind the washing machine. When we lived there, we inherited a gigantic garden in the back yard planted by the previous pastor. I remembered harvesting corn, tomatoes, and beans that whole summer. Rich and I drove the U-shaped road that ran beside the house, my favorite place for riding my bike in the afternoon. The cotton gin was still in operation down the road along with the little general store. The biggest surprise to me was that the Yazoo River ran along very close to our house. I didn't remember it being there at all!

Once we had taken 10 minutes to see all of Satartia, we drove back out to Highway 3 and headed west on Route 149 to Route 61-N. We quickly found ourselves in the Mississippi Delta, passing mile after mile of flat fields of dark wet soil punctuated by tiny houses and trailers. I had made the drive many times in my childhood on the way to visit family in Greenville and the land looked familiar but I was struck by the obvious extreme poverty of the region, which I had never noticed as a child. We arrived at a Hampton Inn on Highway 1 in Greenville and called my first cousin once removed, Jessica Brent. She had contacted all of the Greenville branch of the Brent family and invited them to drop by to visit me at her father Howard's house. Howard was the youngest son of my father's brother Jesse Brent, who owned a river towing business, Brent Towing Company. My dad told lots of stories about summers spent with Howard running around the woods, swimming in the local swimming hole, and generally having one of those childhoods nostalgic books are written about.

I was a little anxious about all the family dropping by, but I shouldn't have been. It was lovely seeing people I hadn't seen in years, hearing stories about my dad, and being surrounded in the wonderful embrace of family. The whole gathering was so warm and felt so comfortable, I really hated to see it end. But end it did and we headed out to Doe's Eat Place, the site of many family gatherings over the years that looks like a hole in the wall and serves food that gets written about in national magazines and won a James Beard Award a few years ago. If you check out the website (<http://www.doeseatplace.com/index.html>) you can read the history of the place and have a peek at the menu. We ate with Howard and two of his children, Lincoln and Jessica (my contemporaries), and Betty Jo and Bob Boyd. Howard and Betty Jo are both children of my Uncle Jesse. The meal was fantastic and the company was even better!

Rich's Perspective
 
Greenville was just as memorable as Bentonia. I had met one or two people in this branch of the Brent family before and had heard enough about the others to know that if Bentonia was the Deep South, this was going to be the Deep South on steroids. I wasn’t sure how they would feel about this Jewish Yankee who had somehow snuck into the family. (Even if my background didn’t come into the conversation, I knew it wouldn’t take more than two words out of my mouth for everyone to know that I wasn’t from around there, and anyone who looks at me and doesn’t see I’m Jewish just isn’t paying attention.) Turns out I didn’t have anything to worry about. Howard, our host and a family patriarch and former Mississippi River tugboat captain, was warm and welcoming from the moment we got there, and so were the three of his four children who were there and a couple of dozen other relatives who dropped by to see their cousin Rebecca and this stranger tagging along with her. Lots of them came over to chat with me and asked about where I was from and what I did and seemed genuinely interested in the answers and laughed heartily whenever I said something intended to be funny, and I got warm handshakes or hugs from almost everyone when they left. Either I passed the test and really was welcomed into the family or they’re all Academy Award-caliber actors, which I don’t think they all are.

I particularly enjoyed meeting Howard’s children. His son Lincoln, who was the first one to talk with me, was super-friendly and kept checking in with me all evening to make sure I was doing all right. I had never met Howard’s daughters Jessica and Eden before but I knew about them, since they’re both singers we have CDs of. Jessica sings country and could cross over into pop any time she wanted to. You can get some samples of her singing on her website (http://www.jessicabrent.com/Mainframeset.htm — click on the link to "Listen").  Eden is for my money the best contemporary blues singer-pianist in the U.S., which is to say, in the world.  If you listen to any of her songs onYouTube, like the one at (www.youtube.com/watch?v=gf2CFs1JHMU), which she wrote, it won’t surprise you to find out that she’s classically trained on piano. (Better play that particular song when the younger kids aren’t listening.) Other pianists I know in the non-classical world who can play like that are Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, and Billy Joel, and I’d have to strain to come up with more. Talking to her about music in her father’s kitchen is something I won’t forget in a hurry.

I was struck by how different this gathering was from anything in my experience, and I don’t know how much of it was cultural and how much was this particular family. As many of you reading this blog know, my family parties are enjoyable but subdued affairs, with small groups of people quietly chatting about physics and politics and music and sipping wine and sometimes playing trivia games or Scattergories, with people occasionally sneaking off for chess or bridge. (That sounds kind of sterile when I say it but I don’t mean it like that—being the introverted geek I am, I love that kind of party.) The Greenville evening was nothing remotely like that. These were people who have known each other all their lives and obviously love and enjoy each other, and when they party they PARTY.  The beer and wine and bourbon and stories and jokes and good-natured insults flowed freely all evening, and the laughing never stopped, and I had a fantastic time. Next day as Rebecca and I were driving south to Natchez, we listened to a CD Howard gave us of Jessica, Eden, and their sister Bronwyn singing songs written by their mother, the late Carol Brent, herself a terrific singer and songwriter, and I appreciated even more what a talented family I’ve married into.

 
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Comments

Kenny on

I like the back-and-forth commentary. And what an opportunity for both of you to take a walk through Rebecca's past. Maybe you should just keep heading South until you get to Daddy's old home in Florida!

April on

This sounds wonderful! I recognized Carolyn Butler in her photo before I ever saw her name in your blog! I served on staff with her and her sweet husband George at Cursillo last year. They are a wonderful couple! I remember Carolyn referring to George as her "butler" and I thought that was so cute!

denise moys on

hello dear Rebecca and Richard - what a great way to procrastinate and avoid doing all my admin! Thank you! just lovely catching up with you and travelling again alongside you through these heart-warming rich experiences! Beautiful people and beautiful country - I particularly liked the open spaces and then the bare symmetry of the trees against the blue skyline - lovely photography as ever - wish we were travelling with you again lotslove D&M

pfra
pfra on

Wonderful.

Greg on

Rebecca, wonderful blog so far! I am just now catching up on them. Rich, you are right, the DELTA is a whole different world. They like to party and eat. As an example, I shot a photo of a watermellon martini on the cover of Delta Magazine once. Can't wait to read the other blogs.

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