By Catherine Gray
Your daddy never shot a deer, and your mama never took cotillion.
Mama has never cooked fried chicken, pimento cheese, or deviled eggs, and her cornbread is sweet and cake-like instead of salty and crumbly. She committed the cardinal sin of not finishing the wedding thank-you notes.
Right now, one of you is three months old and the other not yet three years. Someday, it may become clear we are kind of different from what people know of Mississippi.
Instead of watching college football on Saturdays — that’s the day people do that, right? — we drive down the oak-canopied Natchez Trace talking about rites of passage, Greek mythology, and the dark night of the soul. I can’t tell you the difference between Drew Brees and Eli Manning, and around here this feels like not knowing the names of all the books of the Gospel. But still, we belong.
Your mama’s an ethnically ambiguous Yankee, and your daddy’s a blue-eyed, Mississippi-born feminist. He bristles at labels and might not call himself a feminist, but don’t let it fool you. He lobbied to give up his office to a breast milk-pumping coworker who didn’t have her own office space. He brought gender stereotyped language in a brochure to a superior’s notice. He’s not too manly to do skin-to-skin with his infant, and he baby-wears you proudly on his chest like some men mount a 10-point buck on a wall. Know, however, that baby-wearing and hunting are not mutually exclusive. Our Mississippi and our masculinity are more nuanced than that. We’re complex, expansive folks who hold multitudes.
Sons, I tried to get you to call me “Mama,” and I’ve not given up, but you chose “Mommy” instead. We’re not teaching you to say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir,” but we hope you won’t settle into the irreverent “Yeah ...”
Your parents may not have many Southern eccentricities to pass down to you, but you’ll get some colorful Southern shading from Daddy’s side. Your Gigi says things like, “She doesn’t know me from Adam’s house cat” and “I have goosebumps the size of Mount Vesuvius.” Your Pop is a true seersucker gentleman who was editor of a newspaper whose masthead reads, “A Locally Owned Newspaper Dedicated to the Service of God and Mankind.“ Gigi says he’s so proper she’s never even seen his bare feet.
Don’t take them for any type of Southern stereotype, though. That’s not the whole story. They mostly watch documentaries about how our food is unethical and killing us and how our planet will be destroyed by the time you have kids. They buy a quarter of a cow from a local farm once a year, and they donate half of that to a local soup kitchen, and when they’re not eating an eighth of a “happy cow,” they often eat vegetarian. Gigi’s been reusing the same Ziploc bags for twenty years, and they collect eggshells and orange peels next to the sink to dump on their compost pile. They have cats named Frank and Estelle, after “Seinfeld” characters. And, yes, they watch their share of college football, basketball, and baseball, and some Friday nights they walk to the public high school’s football games. You could say they’re all-around good folks. I couldn’t be happier that they are our people.
On Daddy’s side, you come from a line of storied Mississippians. Your great-granddaddy Judge Ben Guider named the Ole Miss athletic teams the Rebels, and your great-uncle unleashed a truck bed of armadillos on the prized Ole Miss lawn. Your other great-granddaddy was William Faulkner’s priest and presided over his funeral. That’s the least of his legacy. There’s a lot more you’ll hear about him.
You’ll never meet your great-grandmama Ruthie, but in her final years, when I met her, her skin was thin as Bible paper, blue-veined with gold edges. Her words turned pages delicately and deliberately, in the slowly rising lilt of another genteel generation. She kept a binder of her impeccably handwritten luncheon menus, so she would never serve the same meal to the same group. When she traveled to England with her grand-daughters, she instructed them to leave room in their suitcases and then showed up at the airport with frozen casseroles and Ziploc bags labeled “1 T salt” and “½ Tsp oregano.” But that’s not the whole story of her either. Not at all. She’d take a shovel to the head of a copperhead with no hesitation.
At Thanksgiving, you can expect an excruciating choice between Great Aunt Beth’s black bottom pie, coconut cake, and banana pudding. Take it from me: Put all three on your plate. Get in the dessert line early.
You will get a different inheritance from my side. From the time you were in my belly, you marinated in the flavors of curry, vegan nut-butter smoothies, and paella. You floated in my waters, sourced from the Mediterranean Sea and the Mekong River. We eat at my French nana’s house every week, where we enjoy ham-wrapped Belgian endives in bechamel sauce. Instead of a “Meemaw” or “Mamaw,” you have a “grand-mere.” Someday, we’ll probably take a pilgrimage to the 19th century Schmidt’s Sausage Haus, which your forefathers established in the German Village neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio, and you’ll feast on all the bratwursts, kraut, and spaetzle your belly will hold.
Your daddy’s family tree is more like a forest. My maternal line fades into autumn just a couple generations back, a story of French colonialism filled with documents lost in wars and quick evacuations and children born from the brief collision of bodies of the colonizer and the colonized. I feel the pulsing whisper of the stories untold and the people whose names I will never know. That’s partly why I’m here telling stories today.
The Mississippi you inherit will be different from the Mississippi of movies and news cycles, but that doesn’t make it less real. This is the Mississippi you know. This is the real Mississippi, too.
My Mississippi is full of so many vegetarians that when we eat at church for Sunday supper, it’s always a vegetarian meal. If you want meat, sometimes you can find it on the side, like a topping, stirred in as a flourish but not essential. Sometimes that meat is venison hunted by one of our dear friends.
My Mississippi is full of parents who let their sons choose gymnastics and ballet and wear their hair in ponytails. They buy their boys makeup kits and heart-shaped glasses for their birthdays, if that’s what they want. We sit and talk about how to raise white boys who know they are deeply cherished, one-of-a-kind beings while also making them aware of the long history of privilege and oppression they inherited.
My Mississippi is full of truth seekers, justice fighters, and norm challengers. It’s full of loud activists and soft-spoken female priests who point us to Biblical examples of what happens when a ruler leads his people by fear.
Yes, my Mississippi is full of food deserts, underfunded public schools, and insufficient access to health care. It’s full of white-hot racism and well-meaning people who think they don’t see color. It’s full of Confederate flags smearing the wind and staining truck bumpers. Last fall a white woman running for senator affectionately commented about someone at a campaign event that “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” And then we elected her.
I never want us to live so separate from those hard truths about Mississippi that they stop touching us. And by touching us, I mean shaking us. That Mississippi is ours, too. May our experience of this state never get so soft and comfortable we feel absolved of responsibility for facing its hardness and the hardness within ourselves.
White supremacy, poverty, health inequity, and legislatively-damned public schools are not just a Mississippi problem. Mississippi is the pageant of our country’s problems. It’s the pageant where the hair is big, the sparkle blinding, the tans fake, and the outfits revealing. It’s easy to laugh at us. Everything is more visible here. We are the fluorescent caricature of every blemish caked in concealer in these United States. And they’re not just blemishes; they are festering bullet wounds. This country was built by stolen people on stolen land. The cover-up is less obvious here, though many are still invested in it and call it “heritage” or Christian doctrine. When heritage and religion step on the dignity of people in the present, question it. Always.
To my two Mississippi boys, we don’t know who you are yet, but we do know people will identify you as white. If you’re also cisgender, heterosexual males, that gives you a big head start in feeling a sense of belonging, welcome, and inclusion here. If those descriptors aren’t true for you, know there is space for you no matter how you fit in your body, no matter how you express your gender, no matter whom you love. This can always be your home, but it doesn’t have to be. We will always be your home, and you belong with us exactly as you are. We love you exactly as you are and exactly how you love. We think you’re wondrously made. Period.
There will be times when you feel like you don’t fit in here. It may partly be because it’s Mississippi, but for sure it will be because you are a human in a messy world. There are times when I feel like I don’t fit in the Deep South, either. I’m 31 years old and have purple and blue streaks in my hair. I don’t do my husband’s laundry, and I haven’t ironed an article of clothing in years. I’ve tried saying “y’all,” and it just doesn’t feel natural. I write publicly about my vagina, childbirth, and sexuality. I don’t like using male pronouns for God. I’m a Christian who reads about chakras, astrology, and Buddhist philosophy and learns from it all. And this is my Mississippi, too. Mississippi is the longest home I’ve known. I am hers. She has claimed my heart, and I will keep fighting for the light I see in hers, where the shadows of racism, misogyny, and inequity cannot survive.
My Mississippi boys, your daddy and I are going further in our understanding than our parents knew to go. They went further than their parents. And you will go further than us. This is the work of healing and reconciliation. This is the reckoning and the liberation. Every parent gives their child a ceiling to break through, and by hell, I hope you break through ours, even when it hurts us.
You belong here, whoever you are. This is your Mississippi, too. This is your Mississippi to love and your Mississippi to change. It’s your Mississippi to know and your Mississippi to question. This is your Mississippi to support and your Mississippi to call on its shit. This is your Mississippi to share. We’ll seek rooms that are not white-oriented, male-led, and Christian-centric so you can learn just how much Mississippi belongs to others, too.
And should you have the desire to shoot a rifle in the woods at cold dawn, let’s just say we know some people.