Growing up, I spent many summers visiting Momma’s people in the Mississippi Delta. I loved it.
The excitement built as soon as the hills leveled out and the delta began. That was the point where Momma’s eyes begin to twinkle with mirth and memories of a happy childhood.
“I would ride on the cotton sack while Momma picked,” she said. “She would just drag me down the rows.”
Momma’s family has always been an interesting clan. The Yelvertons came to the United States from Scandinavia, and settled in Mississippi not long after stepping onto dry land. My great-grandfather, T.H. Yelverton, farmed the rich delta soil his entire life while raising four sons practically single-handedly through a depression and World War II. Three of the four left home for Europe and Japan to fight for freedom – two returning wounded.
During those days, the Yelvertons experienced what nearly every Mississippi family coped-- draft notices, the fear of telegrams delivering bad news, 12-hour work days just to put food on the table, and the possibility of another devastating levee break.
Living in a modest cypress shotgun house, the family survived every ebb and flow life dealt them. They just tied a boat to the porch in preparation for what the Lord had in store for them.
Through the years, the family persevered. They worked hard, played hard, prayed hard, and leaned on each other for support. And the tales they told about life left me wondering if they were fact or fiction. From experience, I figured out they were mostly fact with just a touch of Southern exaggeration.
I remember sitting in my Uncle B-boy’s (real name, Breland) kitchen listening to him talk about growing up with his three brothers – the oldest being my grandfather, Benoit. He spoke of riding through Belzoni, shooting all the streetlights out with a revolver. He laughed about Uncle Burnell accidently chopping off my granddaddy’s big toe while in pursuit of a rat.
Now, with all of my uncles and my grandfather gone, the delta holds much meaning for me. My ancestors thrived in that black, gumbo mud. The delta is a part of who I am.
Recently, I visited Tallahatchie Flats in Leflore County. For those of you who have never had the privilege of visiting Mr. Bubba and his establishment on Money Road just north of Greenwood, the experience is a step back in time, and it is completely worth the trip.
Tallahatchie Flats is a group of restored shotgun shacks situated on the banks of the Tallahatchie River. Guests can rent a shack for a night, a week, or a month and truly experience Mississippi’s past.
The beds are covered in handmade quilts and mix-matched printed sheets; the kitchen filled with cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens. Eclectic antique furniture is sprinkled sparsely throughout each shack. Handmade rockers line the front porch, and the view consists of acres of cotton and soybeans.
My stay at Tallahatchie Flats allowed me to become a character in one of Uncle B-boy’s stories. I was able to experience a taste of life through his eyes – and the eyes of my mother and grandfather.
I can now imagine how a family that large became so close-knit. Those shotgun houses did not allow for much privacy with its connecting rooms and open floor-plans. Unlike today, there was no place for a brooding teenager to retreat and wile away the time with video games and television. There was no video games and television. Most Mississippians in that time were lucky to have a radio. Families depended on each other for entertainment.
The front porch was a popular perch for most to bask in the fresh air. This is where so many families churned butter, washed laundry, and prepared vegetables from the garden. It was a place for families to spend time together, and with families like the Yelvertons, swap lies and laugh.
I learned a lot from spending time with Momma’s family. I learned coffee could never be too black and thick, there is humor in every situation if you just look for it, and even those who have long-departed this earth are just as close as ever in our memories. I learned who my grandfather really was, even though I never met him in person.
Most of all, I learned that life can be difficult and cruel and deal some a bad hand. But, if I just remember to tie a boat to porch, the waters will recede, and this too shall pass.