Rice and Gravy

Days bright with heat, afternoons merciful with rain. When I think of summer, I think of Mississippi. As a military brat, I spent portions of all my summers around the South of the United States and Germany, but in my memory, summer is tucked deep in the pocket of my particular corner of Mississippi.

No matter where we were stationed, we descended, a four-person exodus, upon the family farm. When you spend years away from the familiar, it's invaluable to have that homeplace, the touchstone of where you belong. For some, I'm sure it's a place you wish you didn't belong, or perhaps the place you never really fit. For our family, we knew when we turned on to King Bee Road, we were on the home stretch. The road seemed to lengthen, a loping black ribbon, shaded by pecan and pine trees. I'd clutch the back of the driver's seat, peering over my father's head for the first glimpse of my grandparent's house. We'd spill out the car, legs sticky with sweat against the seats, covered in crumbs. Tumbling into my grandparents' arms, there was that emotion like no other: We're home, singing through my bones. Sometimes we'd arrive in the night, and I would stumble blinkly to my room, a cocoon where my baby dresses hung in the closet, and a wooden puzzle spelling out my name stood on the shelf. The bedspread would whisper as I climbed into bed, a tired kiss ushering me into dreamland. I could hear the frogs and crickets through the window, the snuffling of Grandpa's dogs as they settled back into their own sleep.

We came home to things that didn't change, to the same old Reader's Digests in the back be the corduroy recliner. Grandpa would line Christopher, my brother, and I against the doorway to the kitchen, and chart our growth with the same knobbly pencil. We'd bang out "Heart and Soul" on the upright piano, over the drone of the local news. Sitting down for a meal, we'd feast of the best of Southern cuisine, roundsteak, green beans, fresh squash and corn, rice and gravy. Better than dessert, rice and gravy. After everyone else would finish, the grownups would gather their coffee. Grandpa and I would sit at the table, listening to the weather report, me polishing off the rice drowned in gravy, he sopping with a leftover roll. My grandma would sigh as she passed the table. "I can't believe you're teaching her to do that," she'd say, but we knew it was okay, it was "our thing". When it was time for bed, I'd splash in the same narrow bathtub, my eyes running over the peculiar wallpaper that held shapes like castles and a prince with a craggy nose.

The year we moved from Germany to North Carolina, my parents deposited us with our grandparents while they searched for a suitable house. Christopher and I spent an entire month in Mississippi. I'd hauled most of my books with me, from The Babysitter's Club to my boxed set of the Anne of Green Gables series. Grandma was notoriously hot natured, keeping the house's temperature close to that of an Eskimo's igloo. For relief, I set up camp on the front porch. I'd bring my pillow and settle on the swing, my glasses frosting as I stepped outside, enveloped in humidity. I usually balanced a snack of cold cornbread slathered in butter, and a cup of ice water. Many afternoons found me on that porch swing, safely immersed in story, unaware of the menacing school days ahead. The dogs would collapse around the concrete steps, seeking coolness. I'd hear a hummingbird's wings, a gentle thrum, as I fell asleep, dissolving in the damp heat. Storms would roll in with the afternoon, soaking the countryside, rumbling with thunder, sparking lightning on the horizon.

We played outside, too. Grandpa would load us on the back of his four-wheeler, our arms around the dogs, going fast to give us a thrill. We rode all over the farm, checking on cows, making sure no fences were broken through, that their water supplies were working. When it was hay-baling time, Grandpa would let us climb on top of the bales. He'd hoist the bale up with his tractor, and we clutched the dry, sweet-smelling hay, shrieking out of tradition. Carried aloft like a young prince and princess, all the way to the hayloft, we ascended to the upper floor of the barn. For that short time, we were farm kids, free to eat the blueberries busting off bushes, hanging over gates to chat with cows. Summers in Mississippi, you couldn't ask for a more innocent way to waste the days, stretching out like the dusty dogs, yawning in the heat, happy to be home.

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