Who better to share about the South than those who’ve been there the longest?
On July 27 on my Southern Experience road trip, I arrived to Memphis, Tennessee.
The next day I visited a retirement home, where I met Barry, Frank, and Margaret.
They opened up to me about growing up in the South, about what it means to be Southern, and about the struggle of growing old.
On a sunny summer Southern day, I entered Belmont Village Retirement Home in Memphis, Tennessee.
They were expecting me thanks to the arrangement I had made with Gena, the event coordinator. A receptionist walked me to the dining area that resembled a continental breakfast nook in a hotel–with a counter of bread, fruit, and beverages. At one of the tables sat residents interested in talking to the visiting writer.
Here were Barry and Robert.
Barry was the old school “city Southerner” I had imagined. A thin man with a distinguished mustache, he wasn’t just polite; he seemed every bit the Southern gentleman, speaking with a swaying accent equal parts reverent and soothing. The combination pulled me into his words.
Robert was the “plantation-type” Southerner I had imagined. A bit gruffer than Barry, but not “woodsy” gruff; Mississippi Delta gruff. Wait, I’m sorry. Let me get that straight: Missssippi Delta. His accent was easygoing; his body leaned back; his hair was combed back. This was one laid back dude.
After introductions, these two Belmont Boys asked about my trip thus far. I shared that this is my Southern Experience trip and that the first place I visited was Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“But Tulsa is West,” Barry interjected, which surprised me factually and because Barry the gentleman suddenly felt the need to correct me.
“You call that West?” I responded. “Then what’s Denver?”
“Way West,” they laughed almost in unison.
“Well..,” then men sang out in uncertainty. California doesn’t really count, they explained.
“That’s so west, it’s not West anymore,” I said trying to finish their thought. They agreed. And then I concluded, “just like Florida is so far south, it’s not the South anymore.”
To review, Barry lectured, “When you cross that Mississippi River, that’s the West. Even the barbecue is different.”
“What about Arkansas?” I asked.
“Well that pretty much mid-South, but don’t go any further than that,” Robert warned.
Here is some footage of their banter:
The two then shared about their lives and views on things.
Barry was 92 and from a tiny town in Mississippi called Duck Hill.
“Like your hometown,” Barry stated, having recalled that I told him I’m from Blackduck, Minnesota. He wasn’t just referring to the similarity of names, either. Like Blackduck, Duck Hill is tiny. “Your town: 700. We had 300 [people].”
The county doctor for Duck Hill was close relative of Barry’s.
“My grandfather delivered me into this world,” said Barry.
Barry was a WWII veteran, having fought at the Battle of the Bulge.
In his professional life, he worked a variety of jobs. One came to mind when I shared I grew up near Bemidji, Minnesota.
“I’ll never forget,” said Barry. “Working for Macy’s, we sold a lady from Bemidji a sofa, and she had it trucked up to her on a commercial truck. A sofa bed and reclining chair. She was giving it to her parents. This was years ago. It must have been 45 or 50 years ago.”
Robert was only 70 but lived at Belmont Village for health reasons.
“I’m from Tunica,” he said. Then Robert pointed across the table at Barry, “He said Mississippi. I’m from Missssippi,” he said lazily. “Thirty miles south of Memphis.”
The Mississippi Delta.
Robert never saw war but being a generation younger than Barry, did share his secondhand knowledge of Vietnam.
“My friend killed Vietnamese,” said Robert. “He said he wouldn’t put his son through that. He would move him to Canada.”
We talked some issues.
The men said they leaned to support Trump, because they don’t like Clinton. They also didn’t like Britain’s exit from the European Union—the “Brexit.”
“Dumb,” said Robert. “It’s like a school pulling out of the SEC,” he said comparing the Brexit to a university in the South leaving the Southeastern Conference of collegiate athletics.
They both think the future of America is bright.
I ask the men about misconceptions, inquiring, “What would you like others to know about where you’re from?”
Robert jumped at the question.
“I’m a cotton farmer. I raise cotton for a living,” he began. “And I have a farm. I don’t have a plantation. We don’t have slaves.”
Off to the side, Barry chuckled.
Robert continued, “We have tractors and tractor drivers…and machinery operators. A lot of people think the Mississippi Delta is still like we were during the Civil War. When I first started farming (43 years ago), I had 15 tractors. Now I have four… farming the same amount of land (7000 acres). Everything is bigger and better.”
I asked about migrant labor.
“I have one Mexican worker. And he came to me. I didn’t go to him,” Robert began. Then he shared the story of how he hired this man.
“The guy he worked for fired him, because he (the employee) is from Mexico and his wife died, and he went back home to bury his wife, said Robert. “And it was June, which is the busiest time of the year when everybody’s planting their crops. And this farmer said, ‘You left me in the busiest time of the year. I don’t need you anymore.’
“How can he help it?” Robert asked of this employee. “He had to go bury his wife… So I hired him. He’s still working for me today.”
“Was there any hesitancy on your part to hire him?” I asked.
“No. Everybody knew him. He was the only Mexican around.”
Robert also hires seasonal workers.
“We have a cotton gin. And Mexicans come in on a seasonal basis and do the ‘ginin.’ Then they go back home.”
“Are they illegal?” I asked.
“No. Every one of ‘em has got greencards… When his (the Mexican employee’s) card was running out, I had to take him to the immigration office to get it renewed. He showed me the green card and said, ‘expired, expired, renew, renew,’ I said ‘Okay, we’ll go out there.’”
Robert drove this employee to the immigration office several hours away to renew his green card.
“Has it shaped your view on immigration?” I ask Robert of this experience.
“Illegal immigrants. I don’t think we need ‘em. But he’s (his Mexican employee) as legal as he could be. He came across the border legally. He’s got a son that lives in Houston, Texas. Everything he’s done is legal.”
“Is there any prejudice in that town because he’s Mexican?”
“Not really, no. Everybody knows him.”
I admit it. His manner—which seemed open and honest—was surprisingly compassionate. I didn’t expect vitriol. But I had thought a farmer from rural Mississippi might be the kind of guy who would look down on certain others and be less open to help them.
As we ended the session, Robert had left and Barry walked me out of the dining hall. It was his turn to surprise me as he opened up about his impending death.
He first mentioned that his wife also lived here.
“She’s also 92. She’s got Alzheimer’s,” Barry said, which perhaps explained why she hadn’t joined us.
He then immediately followed it up with an admission that would dominate a normal conversation, but for him was just a detail.
“And I’ve got cancer,” he said casually. “I’ve got terminal cancer. But I’m not worried about it. I know I’m not going to be here long,” Barry said with a light laugh. “I mean at this age, people expire…even down South!”
“It doesn’t scare you?” I responded.
“No,” he said immediately, almost dismissively. “I know where I’ll be. I think I know where I’ll be. Hell or Heaven—you’ve only got two places to go. And Hell’s here on earth.”
“Is Heaven on Earth?”
“No,” he answered, before explaining. “It could be, but people won’t let it, because they are human. That’s the way humans are… We are controlled by our mental faculties.” He paused. “Believe it or not, you are, too,” he said looking at me.
“You’re welcome here,” he said. But though these words may seem to have lightened the mood, he said them with such genuineness and care that the mood remained as rich.
“I’ll tell you what,” he continued. “You’re going to have a different perspective on the South [by doing these interviews]. If more people would do that, it would help with everything in this country. If people talked and got along.”
My next interview took me upstairs. Having learned of my arrival days earlier, Margaret Friedman had asked Gena the events coordinator if I might come by her room to speak with her. The 98-year-old opened up about race relations through the years, the challenges of growing old, and the murder of her son.
I offer this recorded interview along with some photography:
(In the interview, Margaret describes the struggles growing old. If you would leave a comment for Margaret — or Robert or Barry — below, I’ll be sure to pass them along.)
I left Margaret’s room and discovered on her floor a common space where two employees were playing charades with residents:
I also think back to a picture another resident showed me:
I think back now on what Margaret said about growing old, and I wish I would’ve asked: Beyond resigning to the truth that growing old is lonely and painful, do you see these changes as the prelude to your next stage–not just as an end to the activity and memories made during this one?
This would comfort me in the face of life’s end–to look at it like Barry does. It’s not an end, but a transition.
In any case, it’s important we younger people offer companionship to those making this transition. More than being of service, we are greatly rewarded with the wisdom, perspective, and stories they have to offer.
Thank you to Gena and the residents of Belmont Village for allowing me to visit, connect, and grow.