Monday, May 21, 2007

They Call Her Mississippi (Parts 1-3)

Whenever Stacey is asked to recount a situation that she's blogged about, she tells people to "read the book." Well, in the case of recounting this past weekend, book reading is what y'all are about to do, should you choose to hang in there and sit through every detail of my weekend abroad, or at least a-state. So here we go, now all packaged together for one cohesive, patience-testing experience ...

Day One

I decided to start my trip by winding through the downtown Barbecue Fest crowd, just to see the throng and remind myself what I was escaping. After a multitude of near-misses with F-150s, I made my way to the open end of Riverside Drive and onto I-55. Traffic got lighter and lighter as I got further south, and by the time I passed Olive Branch I was able to set the cruise control to 72 (speed limit: 70mph) and leave it there until my eastward turn toward Oxford, David Sedaris reading to me and an assembled audience in Carnegie Hall the entire way.

I was still a good bit early for check-in, and I’d deliberately left the house without eating so that I wouldn’t chicken out on going to lunch by myself. I pulled into Oxford’s courthouse square and magically caught a parking spot right in front of Ajax Diner. As I disconnected my iPod from the radio and rearranged my bags so that they weren’t so openly begging to be stolen, I was struck once again by the unsettling put-togetherness of Oxford girls. Or women, really. It wasn’t just the clusters of perfectly dressed, coiffed and made-up sorority sisters and their cowlicked, pastel-Polo-shirted companions. Every woman on the sidewalk looked like she’d just stepped out of Southern Living, or some special Mississippi edition of Marie Claire. A woman of indeterminate age – lustrous, flawlessly bobbed white hair on the body of a 30-year-old, if 30-year-olds wore fiercely tailored Donna Karan linen suits – floated by my windshield and I nearly gasped, she was so lovely. I took a look in the rear-view mirror and was glad I’d decided on a dress as a comfortable driving outfit. I’m not sure I could have stepped outside the car in anything less formal.

Stepping creakily into Ajax, I got quite a few lingering but not nearly as admiring looks from the frat boys at the bar. I of course went straight to the bathroom before finding a two-top table facing the kitchen. Something about dining alone makes me feel like I need to be in direct sight of the wait staff, plus it gave me something to look at. The aggressively conventional nature of Oxford made me even more self-conscious about being alone, particularly because I’m pregnant. As if the other patrons were thinking, “Oh, that poor girl. Someone got her in trouble and doesn’t even have the decency to share a meat and two with her.” But perhaps I was letting my Memphis inferiority complex get the better of me.

I got my giant fountain Dr. Pepper almost immediately and my lunch soon after that. I’d been hankering for chicken and dumplings for weeks, and I decided to go with the least heartburn-inducing sides I could find, which resulted in the meal you see pictured over there (in homage to Stacey). Ladies and gentleman, I present to you: The Beigest Meal Ever! It was just as good as I’d expected, though, and the lunch I was hoping would kill an hour of my afternoon was complete in about 20 minutes. I wandered back onto the square and decided to do a quick reconnaissance mission. I grazed through several outdoor clothing racks before turning the corner and reaching my real destination: Bottletree Bakery. Mercifully, they had just closed for the day half an hour before, but I noted the Sunday hours and worked out how I could fit a slice of pie into my next day’s plans.

I continued my walk, blissfully aware that there wasn’t anywhere I could go that would cause me any trouble. The weather was almost disturbingly perfect, and even with a full belly (on top of another full belly), I felt buoyant as I re-entered the square and headed over to Square Books Jr. for some book-fondling. And a pee.

That mission complete, I got back in the car and re-read the directions to the cabin for the 48th time. The navigation was pretty simple, though, and except for missing the driveway on the first pass because of the very impatient Buick behind me, I got there without a problem. I pulled into the long gravel driveway and up to a house that looked like it had been lifted from a Cordova subdivision and dropped in the middle of 50 acres. Which is to say, it looked much happier here. I didn’t see any signs or indications of an office as I rounded the circular driveway, but my tires spinning in the rocks must have alerted my hostess to my arrival. I parked in the least obstructive portion of the driveway and was met by Lee Ann just as I got out of the car.

Sweet, adorable and still very Oxfordian in a t-shirt and shorts, Lee Ann eagerly showed me into the cabin, which was situated about 30 yards from the garage. I was a little surprised by the proximity to the house, although in my current state, reassured by the idea that it wasn’t too far to stagger if I had to get any sort of help, especially after I realized that I wasn’t getting any cell phone signal. The cabin was even more inviting than I’d imagined, with much of the slightly overdone themeyness I detected in the pictures either redecorated away or blown out the door on the perfect spring breeze. Lee Ann and I chatted for a few minutes about my store and my pregnancy, and then she left me to look around and inhale all the loggy goodness on my own.

The full force of my solitude hit me right about then, and I’m sure I had a very silly smile on my face as I walked through each room, opening cabinets and looking out windows. It was a little dizzying to realize that I could do whatever I wanted, and I had to stop and think about what that might be. It didn’t take much thought, though. I put up my hair, changed into flip-flops, grabbed a book and headed out to the porch, where I settled into the swing on the western, non-house-facing side of the cabin.

I read and swung and occasionally paused just to look out onto the field in front of me, trying to decide if I was comfortable enough to nap right there or if I should relocate to the new leather couch inside. I didn’t think my hips would be happy about a swing snooze, so I gathered myself up to go in, first making a lap around the porch and a visit to the horses inhabiting the pasture behind the cabin.

I left the front door open as I settled onto the couch, fully prepared for the fresh air and warm sun to put me right to sleep, but I couldn’t put my book down. It’s amazing how fast I can finish a book when I actually have a chance to sit and read it. After about an hour, I was turning the last page of a novel I’d been nursing for weeks. The only distraction I had was a quiet visitor who snuck in the open door. I heard tiny footsteps on the wood floor and looked up to see a sleek gray cat gliding into the room. This made me inordinately happy. I don’t know why it is, but I love a gray cat. I watched as he stalked his way through what is usually a forbidden area, only giving passing attention to me with a glance of his dark amber eyes. He slid back out shortly afterward, probably to get on with more pressing matters like chasing the birds from the feeders or the butterflies from the wildflower garden.

My book finished and my stomach still full from my giant carb-ridden lunch, I could no longer resist the siren call of the copper tub. I obliged myself to the complimentary bubble bath, which was apparently made of some space-age, non-popping polymer, put a CD in the laptop and sunk into the deep, perfectly angled tub. As I soaked, I realized that listening to music whenever I want to is something I’ve unconsciously given up with motherhood. I used to have music playing when I showered, when I cleaned the house, when I was falling asleep, but now my life is so full of background noise that I don’t usually want to add to the din. But there, in that intensely quiet Mississippi evening, it was perfect.

I could see the sun setting through the window when I finally emerged from the tub. After considering several appealing options, I settled back onto the couch to explore the depths of DirecTV programming. I was slightly let-down to discover that, despite a no-kids-under-10 policy, the channel options were decidedly family-friendly. After deducing that I had no premium cable choices, and that it would be insulting to the true Southerness of this experience to sit through either Sweet Home Alabama or Cold Mountain, I put in the first season of “The Office” and tore into my dinner of Cool Ranch Doritos and Mini Oreos. Oh, the ranchy-sweet comedic bliss.

Barely awake after the sixth episode, I got ready for bed (peed, brushed my teeth, took my contacts out, peed again), observed that there were still bubbles in the tub, and then gleefully (but carefully) went up the uneven stairs to my loft bedroom. The only minor disappointment about the cabin was that the windows didn’t open, as I’d imagined falling asleep with the night noises and May breeze drifting in under the gable, but it was so intensely comfortable up there that I couldn’t focus on that one minor loss. They had redone the room since taking the pictures posted on the cabin website, and the kooky mix of Southwest, mountain-man and North Woods was streamlined into a much more cohesive d├ęcor, with my favorite change being the replacement of a moose-stencil lamp with a unique biographical lighting piece depicting the major points of Abraham Lincoln’s life. I felt positively Ingalls-esque as I pulled up the hand-made quilt, set Windows Media Player to play, and fell into a deep, tranquil sleep.

Day Two

As peaceful and pre-schooler-free as my night was, I still woke up a few times. Even then, though, I noticed how calm and comfortable I felt – you know, except for the heartburn. The mattress was firm but forgiving, and with a giant, extra-thick feather pillow tucked between my knees and under my belly, I didn’t have a twinge of achiness. I’d expected to sleep until noon, or at least until my breakfast arrived at 8:45, but I was wide awake at 7:30. I opened the shutters to the eastern sun, sat listening to various critters scurry along the tin roof, and wrote most of that Day One tome you see down there.

Lee Ann rolled up with the breakfast cart right on time, noting again how happy her son was that someone had requested a sweet breakfast (it’s great to be the only guest at a B&B and get to choose the menu yourself) and thanking me for not going into labor in the middle of the night. She set my meal up at a wooden table on the shady side of the porch and left me to enjoy the waffles, muffins, hot raspberry cobbler and whipped cream with strawberries. The side of sausage patties was the only part of the spread that was not obviously and perfectly home-made, but even those went down just fine when followed by a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. I ate in near-silence, the only noise coming from the birds, bugs and occasional Wal-Mart truck heading down the state highway in front of the property. After meeting the resident dog, getting another once-over by Nickel the cat, and scaring the heck out of Lee Ann as she came to retrieve the dishes, I dragged myself out of the porch swing and got myself ready to face Town Folk again.

Opening a bathroom cabinet to discover a normal, modern shower inside was a pleasant surprise, as were all the included amenities (soap, shampoo, lotion and even a hair dryer). I leisurely showered and dressed and then packed up to head back into Oxford proper. Once I got to the car, though, my phone started making all sorts of noises at me. Apparently I only needed to walk 20 more feet to get a signal. Good to know, although also sort of strangely jarring. I realized I was actually enjoying being completely out of touch.

I drove into town and came upon a square much less bustling than the day before. That’s when all of Oxford’s quirky little bylaws came back to me. Oh right, I thought, this is the town where I can’t book shows on Saturday night because there’s a midnight curfew. Most of the shops I’d planned to browse through today were locked up tight. I pulled into a parking spot to call home and assure all interested parties that I survived the night. Then I circled the courthouse and veered off the square, hoping to find the coffee shop where I’d had the world’s best hot chocolate a few Double Decker Festivals ago, but all that I found was a big gaping hole where I thought it should be (much like the hole mysteriously left in my Mini Cooper’s windshield during that same festival). I swung around and drifted toward the highest concentration of parked cars, which fortunately happened to be in front of a coffee shop. I indulged in an iced chai and recharged my laptop, but unfortunately was stymied in my effort to get online, so this blog entry just got longer instead of being posted. (I am, at the moment, being stared at by a young man named William, who appears to be visiting Oxford from a country afar with his parents and older sister. I’d guess that the age range between the two children is the same as between Miss M and Baby SAM, and I got a little twinge watching the sister shepherd her sibling around.)

Still in search of the interweb, I moved my car into the square and returned to Bottletree Bakery. At noon on a Sunday, however, I discovered that the place was packed with Ole Miss students, and not seeing anything appealing in the display cases, I backed out the door and headed toward the literary triple threat of Square Books, Square Books Jr. and Off Square Books. When faced with this overwhelming bounty, I try to restrict myself by only buying books by Mississippi, or at least Southern, authors. I did alright at my first stop, picking up Letters to a New Mother (which looks a little remedial to me but is by an Oxford-based writer, and I thought it would make a nice addition to the store’s library) and Mockingbird, a biography of Harper Lee which I’m sure will be even more interesting once we get through the copy of Capote that Netflix sent us during the first Bush administration. Next came Square Books Jr., where the helpful bookseller was sadly unable to provide me with a copy of The Princess Knight (we’re trying to do some deprogramming at SAM HQ), although I did pick up Pirate Girl, plus a sea creature puzzle for Miss M and a relentlessly cute monkey grab-toy for Baby SAM. Off Square Books was an afterthought and I nearly passed it by as I was gazing at all the other shops nearby, but it turned out to be my best stop. I got a $6 hardback copy of Eudora Welty’s Optimist’s Daughter, a $4 collection of Richard Ford stories, and then I broke my streak by grabbing a worn Roddy Doyle paperback. Weighed down by books but feeling the joy of mass literature consumption, I got back in the car and made my way south to the most famous house on Old Taylor Road.

It’s really dang easy to miss the turn to Rowan Oak, since it’s just marked with a tiny plaque smaller than the standard green street sign. But since I’d been by that way a dozen times or more, I knew where I was headed. I’d visited the grounds several times but was determined to actually make it inside the house today. Unfortunately, the Square Book trifecta took all but $3 of my cash and it was $5 to get into the home itself. Damn you, Roddy Doyle! The day was gorgeous, though, so it was still a pleasant and reflective experience to walk around the property, smelling the centurian pine trees that line the path to the front door, winding through labrynthine hedges and discovering hidden alcoves and benches. Mostly I reflected on how I’d never really clicked with Faulkner, and how they’d probably take a debit card if I really wanted to go in, but that it wouldn’t really have all that much meaning to me, unlike the pilgrimages I’d taken to Fitzgerald’s St. Paul haunts or Hemingway’s Key West retreat. My reflection came to an end as the industrial air conditioner behind me roared to life, and I decided it was time to go back to my own Mississippi estate.

I got back to the cabin, which I mentally caught myself referring to as “home,” and immediately got to the important business of doing nothing. I put on my maternity swimsuit, laughed out loud at my reflection, and then dragged a blanket, my iPod and a month-old New Yorker out to the side yard. And try as I might to say more about that, there’s really nothing else to add. After about an hour, the shade and my sleepiness caught up with me, so I went up to the loft, accepted the non-historical but nonetheless courteous provision of the window A/C unit, and took a light but thoroughly refreshing nap.

I woke up both hungry and sticky, so I made the decision to bathe first and then get onto cooking my elaborate last-night-in-the-wilderness dinner. I soaked until I could sense dusk approaching, then got out of the tub and began work on my meal. This involved a number of important steps: 1) place 6 Totino’s Pizza Rolls on a microwave-safe plate, 2) microwave on high for 60 seconds, 3) move cooked pizza rolls to larger plate, 4) repeat steps 1-3 with next group of 6 until all pizza rolls were complete. During the final step (#5: let rest so that the pizza rolls cool to a sub-nuclear temperature), I went outside to try to catch a cell signal and call home. I had to go all the way to the car, so I opened the hatchback and sat in the trunk while The Admiral summed up what I’d missed over the last 30 hours (mostly, numerous viewings of Alice in Wonderland and a narrowly averted poop crisis).
The sun was nearly down as we said good-night, and I went to take a few pictures of the cabin before the light was completely gone. Nickel emerged from under the porch and I tried to get him to stand still long enough for me to photograph him. I guess he found this insulting because what had seemed so far like a friendly relationship quickly soured into a more primal arrangement, wherein Nickel was the sly cheetah and I was the gimpy zebra. After repeatedly detaching him from my limbs, I hustled back inside, locked the door, and decided that was probably enough country living for one day.

After another unsuccessful trip through the DirecTV offerings (with a brief stop at Searching for Bobby Fischer, being broadcast in very poor quality by ESPN Classic), I dove back into “The Office” and made it through the first 6 episodes of season two before my Doritos, Oreos, Vitamin Water and general alertness gave out. I shuffled back upstairs, tried to think of at least three reasonable, non-boogieman-related reasons for the mysterious noises outdoors, wrote all the way up to this point here and then, I suspect, read a little and went to sleep.

Day Three

I had another surprisingly restless night, with several unplanned wake-ups (yet none motivating enough to get me to navigate the bumpy wooden stairs in the dark to get to the bathroom). My last stretch of sleep managed to last all the way until 7:45, at which point I remembered how much I've missed being able to just lie in bed and read. So that's what I did, all propped up on my four giant feather pillows, bird calls and squirrel feet echoing over my head.

As breakfast time approached, I spent a few minutes doing some pre-packing but then stopped when it got too depressing. I took my New Yorker out to a rocking chair on the front porch and basked in the gorgeous morning as I waited for Lee Ann to roll up. When she arrived, we had a comfortable discussion about the joys and pitfalls of business ownership (she'd owned an antique store in Oxford before opening the cabin to guests, which explained a lot of the decorating decisions; except, perhaps, the empty shotgun casings that bordered the kitchen countertops, which I had started thinking about more intently while listening to all the clunky noises on the front porch the night before). She set my breakfast up on the porch again, and I got a little giddy with anticipation as she set out all the covered dishes. Just as my brain began to form the thought, "That breakfast yesterday was good, but maybe just, if it's even possible, a little too much sweetness for me," I lifted the plate cover to reveal scrambled eggs reveling in a bed of bacon, supported by an oven-hot peach cobbler. The basket that had contained yesterday's muffins now held wee little biscuits and jelly. So perfect I had to fight a fleeting urge to cry.

I ate my wondrous breakfast, read a New Yorker profile on Barack Obama and snuck what little bits of food I could spare to my canine dining companion. After I put down as much as I could stuff, I just sat very still in my chair, watching Lee Ann make the long walk to her mailbox and back, listening to the buzzing and singing and croaking in the air, relishing the mercifully cool, cloudless sky. But I had to shake out of my reverie and get myself going if I was going to make check-out.

Not really much else to report on the last hour of my trip. I showered and dressed, packed up my tiny bag of clothes and now even huger bag of books and collected the neglected fruit from the fridge. I sat down at the dining room table to record a message in the guest book, but had trouble expressing how deeply I'd enjoyed my stay on just one little page (obviously). I felt a knot forming in my throat as I carried out my bags and closed the cabin door behind me.

For me, Oxford was a perfect pick for a getaway, because I was familiar enough with the area that I could move around comfortably. I knew where things were, I had a few destinations chosen in advance, and if I did decide to just hang out and do nothing, it was by choice and not geographical intimidation. And by very happy luck, the cabin was an absolutely perfect fit for what I wanted out of the weekend. I'd originally thought I wanted to be way out by myself somewhere, but once the reality of being 36 weeks pregnant truly hit me, I realized that being in what was essentially a detached bed & breakfast was exactly what I needed.

I don't feel like I need to explain how I felt about this weekend by qualifying it with, "As much as I missed my family ..." Yes, I of course felt the tug on our intense mother-daughter bond when I heard Miss M's voice over the phone, but did I wish I were back home, or that she were with me? No, no I did not. Not even a little. I needed those two days as much as I've needed pre-natal vitamins or an unlimited supply of Honey Nut Cheerios. And I'll proclaim the universal maternal need for weekends like that to any mom who will listen. Even in almost 4000 words, I can't explain how good it felt to get away and breathe my own air for a little while. It's something every mother needs to do, the minute she feels ready to do it.


Stacey Greenberg said...

wow. sounds heavenly. can't wait for chapter 2.

and btw the read the book line originated with RJA.

Sweet Sassy Molassy said...

Words cannot express the depth of my envy. That sounds perfect!

I have to say that 1) I'm scandalized that you didn't think you'd find Faulkner's home meaningful, and 2) I would've watched Sweet Home Alabama just for the hot man factor (and Reese Witherspoon is at least a real southerner).