There’s Something About Mississippi
You were warned. As I mentioned before, if I’m going to write for this website five days a week, you’ll have to ride shotgun when I take a trip.
I don’t travel much. I’m unemployed, remember?
I spent last weekend in Oxford, Mississippi, though. One of my favorite places.
William Faulkner once said, “To understand the world, one must first understand a place like Mississippi.”
I like this quote so much that I have a copy of it hanging in my house. Unfortunately, as is the case with much of what Faulkner wrote, I’m not exactly sure what it means.
I’m convinced, however, that having Faulkner on your wall makes people think you’re smart, so there’s that.
I do know this: In the past decade I’ve begun to get to know Mississippi.
And I’m captivated by the place.
My first trip to the Magnolia state was in March of 2008, my daughter’s senior year in high school. We’d done the obligatory college tours of Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, but she just wasn’t feeling it. It made me sad. I fell in love with Elizabethtown College in bucolic Lancaster County, PA on my first visit during the fall of my senior year.
I wanted her to experience that same sense of seduction.
Unbeknownst to me, she’d applied to Ole Miss on a whim. She didn’t mention it until she’d been accepted and offered a scholarship.
Which was how I found myself flying from Newport News to Memphis 10 years ago for an “accepted students weekend.”
I insisted we head straight to Graceland. Figured it might be my only chance to pay tribute to The King, never guessing that she’d actually go to Ole Miss.
Next, we drove to Oxford, a little more than an hour away.
As I turned the rental car into campus and we rolled through the entrance to the University of Mississippi, my daughter murmured, “I could see myself here.”
I just smiled. I knew that feeling.
Whether it was the magnolias, the lovely Southern architecture or the leafy 10-acre Grove in the center of campus, I don’t know. Maybe it was the dean of students offering to walk us to the art department when we were lost. Perhaps it was the stories we heard about Eli Manning’s years there. Or the sweet reverence toward Faulkner and other great Mississippi authors.
Maybe it was that the school just felt like home.
Within hours of stepping on campus, she’d made up her mind.
And suddenly, we were Mississippi Rebels.
I always knew my Virginia Beach-born kid was a Southerner. In the best sense of the word. There was never a question of her heading north for college
She was smitten with Ole Miss. So was I.
Plus, SEC sports.
She wound up staying in this cool college town for a decade. During that time I made scores of visits and bought season football tickets, came each spring for the Double Decker Arts Festival, got to as many baseball games as possible.
I flew when I could, drove when I couldn’t afford it.
Part of the magic of Mississippi is that it has produced so many fine writers: Faulkner, of course, Eudora Welty, Shelby Foote, Richard Wright, John Grisham, Donna Tartt, Ellen Gilchrist, Wright Thompson or one of my favorites, Greg Iles, who paints such a vivid picture of Natchez in his rich novels that my daughter and I eventually made a pilgrimage to that storied city on the banks of the Mississippi River to see for ourselves.
There’s Mississippi food. Mississippi blues. And friendly Mississippi people.
Last weekend, my daughter’s fiancé earned his PhD from Ole Miss and I got to spend another three days in Oxford.
Commencement weekend was damn near perfect. Sunny and hot with low humidity.
We even did the tourist thing and took a Double Decker bus tour of Oxford. Jack Mayfield, Oxford’s unofficial historian and my daughter’s former neighbor, was the guide. I learned that Oxford has streets named for the first 12 American presidents with the exception of Polk. How did I not notice that in 10 years of driving all over town?
Last Friday we managed to snag a late-night table in one of famed chef John Currence’s restaurants, Snackbar. I’m not a foodie, but good Lord, that man knows how to cook.
The commencement speaker, former journalist, author and New Orleans native Walter Isaacson, actually delivered a terrific speech on Saturday morning in the Grove under blue skies and light breezes. I bought a copy of his new book on Leonardo da Vinci from Oxford's fabulous independent bookstore, Square Books.
It’s signed, too. No, I won’t loan it to you.
And on Saturday afternoon, once the ceremonies were over, the family photos were taken and the caps and gowns were replaced with shorts and T-shirts, there was Ole Miss baseball at Swayze Field, which may be the prettiest college baseball stadium in the country.
I begged my daughter to name my granddaughter Swayze Grace in honor of that lovely place, but she stubbornly insisted on naming her own baby.
Baseball is almost as big as football in the SEC and the Rebs have an exciting team this year. Yes, they swept Auburn last weekend. And after the third win I ran the bases with the little girl whose name should be Swayze, making it an absolutely perfect day.
We finished our trip with Mother’s Day breakfast at Oak Hill Stables, a gem of an inn about five miles outside of Oxford that we discovered in the fall of 2008. It's a 500-acre horse farm with rolling hills and the warmest hosts in the state. Over the years I’ve come to think of the owner, Laura Peddle Sale, as a friend. She sure knows how to make Virginians feel welcome. And Jeanette Vaughn - cook and caterer - knows her way around a kitchen. Sunday morning's fare featured homemade syrups from fruit trees on the farm to pour over the fluffiest French toast in town. Happy Mother's Day to me.
Here are some of my pix from the weekend. Nothing I can shoot with my iPhone can capture the charm of this town. If you’ve never been to Oxford, you should visit. If you’re a college football fan, you simply must come in the fall and experience what’s been called the “Holy Grail of Tailgating” in the Grove at Ole Miss.
They say it's Mississippi’s largest cocktail party.
I may see you there. The Bama game falls on my birthday weekend this year.