The Murky Mississippi and Me
Written by Erin Norman on Friday the 7th of May 2010
am not one of those who in expressing opinions confine themselves to facts.”
Mark Twain, Wearing
White Clothes Speech, 1907
agree Mark, or shall I say Mr. Samuel Langhorne Clemens? Why do I so love cantankerous old men? Oh yes, I know! Because I was raised by one, and in the hometown
of one. That is, I had the most
cantankerous Grandpa ever, and grew up with him and my Grandma (and Mom and
sister, Kyle) in , , under the twitching whiskers of Mark
Twain. Perhaps no one realised the sarcasm
and satire was settling in to my foundations but indeed it was. Rather than just adding a lick of paint to
the attic of my brain it demolished any hope of a new build and set up camp in
the cavernous, echoing rooms, and somewhere I am still there clamouring around
playing with words. I've got nearly
every kind of room you can imagine now built into my attic brain but the
details are strictly secret... Back to the cranky old men though as they are
truly the reason I am here writing.
has long been a subject off limits with me.
I don't speak of it because I get irritated when I feel the urge to
justify the wonderfulness of my memories.
It is especially so since I've been in England, where the prevailing
opinion of small town America is Hicksville.
Well I don't dispute that element exists but I don't want my life
reduced to only that any more than every English person would like to be counted
the same as the Royle family. Hannibal
is also taboo because it is over and gone.
It was a time in my life I can not reclaim and the town itself is
unrecognisable, as is our old family home.
To put it simply; it is absurdly painful for me that these things are out
of reach. I tend to choose not to think
about them, it is all bound up with the relentless banging wish to force time
to do my bidding. I'm going to set all
that aside and tell you about the Hannibal I knew from the early 1980's, and a
few of the people who made it for me.
Don't expect it to be overly factual, and if you have your own first
hand experience of the place or people, don't expect to agree with me. This is my perception, my memories and
reflections of what I saw and knew of my world before I was ten years old.
banker is a man who lends you an umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it
back the minute it begins to rain.”
Mississippi used to hold infinite promise for me. I'd go down at the weekends and stare in to
the water and some days, I would see beauty; blue green water, shadows of fish,
a big, wide river full of mysteries, sunken treasure, huge trees either side, river
boats and barges going up and down.
Other days I would go down and see nothing but mud; murky, slodgy,
brown, meaningless mud that would bring forth nothing no matter how long I
stared; nothing magical or special or worthy.
Each time I stood on the river bank I was aware of history of the
place. History has never been terribly
far from me, it presses against my back like transparencies on a projector screen. Like the currents of the river, the people
and events of a place remain buffeting around.
Some days you sit and all is still and you feel you are the calm centre
and other days you are a wind sock. The
Mississippi is like any other place of interest in the world, infused with
fiction, truths, tragedy, humour, love and stories.
Mississippi decides it doesn't fancy behaving anymore, and bursts its banks. This is devastating to the human and animal
inhabitants of nearby areas. It is a
great irony that early settlers had to set up camp along the very waterways
that would plague their descendents. One
summer when I was very young, (I'm afraid I can't remember the year but I will
estimate it to be around 1984 or thereabouts), the Mississippi flooded. All of downtown Hannibal was underwater, and
that meant our banks were as well. One summer when I was very young, (I'm afraid I can't
remember the year but I will estimate it to be around 1985 or thereabouts), the
Mississippi flooded. All of downtown
Hannibal was underwater, and that meant our banks were as well. I remember this more from hearing about it in
the retelling than an actual memory of my own; I would have been six in 1985. They were rowing people in boats back and
forth across the road so they could withdraw money from their bank accounts,
and my sister (who would have been 11) and I, were rowed over to our bank with
our Mom's bank book to take our money out.
I shall forever think of sandbags, every summer, sandbagging at the
river. The flood of '93 was the worst
but I was in St. Louis by that time, although I did sandbag at River Des Peres
(only other St. Louisans will get that stinky joke).
"Don't part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you
have ceased to live.”
is very much on the North/South divide.
I have always identified more with the south, in the sense of the
surreal and the genteel. I have never
been very industrially inclined so that aspect of the north leaves me cold, as
does skiing and all winter sports in general unless one counts shopping. When I read Dr. Seuss I sound like Scarlett
O'Hara but really I am nothing, I am not of the South or the North, or America
or England. No one recognises my accent
as their own and I don't belong anywhere comfortably.
the house that I will always consider my original home, the home of my heart,
is a classically southern home. It
belonged to my Grandparents, Duane and Bernice.
It was big, wooden, and white, of the Colonial style. It had been around since Civil War times (a
southern lady once said quite rightly "there was nothing civil about it”) and there were rooms in the house that were
supposed to have been slave quarters in centuries past. I was positive if I looked in the right place
I would find a notch in the wall that a previous owner would have carved, to
install a secret door for the Underground Railroad. (I always wondered why this extraordinarily
brave system was called a 'railroad' when there were no trains or tracks.) Never mind that Grandma and Grandpa had
bought the house and it hadn't been ours for generations, I felt that it had
been ours spiritually, and there was no way a house which belonged to us could
be cruel to anyone.
was an artist, and a very temperamental one at that. He painted successfully commercially, but he
also did the most magnificent, dark and powerful paintings for his own pleasure. He built a garage/barn near the house and
above it was his studio which I only recall having a brief glimpse in to. At the end of the gravel drive was a very
heavy iron statue of a smiling black man in a red coat with his arm extended
outwards. I believe that this type of
statue was used to loop the reins of horses around the arm. Looking back on it there are racial
implications with a statue like that which I was unaware of then, but it didn't
feel bad at the time, and my family certainly had no malice. At any rate, I was in love with the man in
the red coat. He was just the right
height for me, and I held on to his extended arm and pretended to waltz through
ballrooms and fairy orchards. I sighed
over him and brought him flowers and prattled on to him and never understood
why on earth he was there in my Grandparents driveway.
had a large front porch that was raised off the ground; the sides were covered
in lattice woodwork. I used to crawl
underneath it with all of my imaginary friends who looked a lot like tiny
Ewoks. It's amazing that I did that as I
have a horrific spider phobia and it must have been full of them under there. We had Easter egg hunts in the garden, all
the grown ups sitting in folding chairs drinking iced tea and the children
obsessively looking for eggs. You do not
really understand this sort of day unless you own a devilled egg tray, but I am
not snooty and happily give lessons using my own devilled egg tray (thank you
Mom). On the side of the house was a
small apple orchard, it seemed huge and now there is no way of knowing how big
it actually was; I believe there are apartments built there now. I wondered around the trees for hours, apples
and twigs and leaves and treasures and eggs, and turning back to see the house,
and always, always making up endless stories and singing.
stayed at the house a lot, Mom, Kyle and I lived in another house in Hannibal
that I can hardly remember. I remember
the room I slept in at Grandma's and I remember her bedroom so well, how pretty
it was, with all her jewellery and perfume on her dresser. There was a dainty little balcony that looked
out of the front of the house.
once walked out of my room towards the stairs and I swore I saw the apparition
of a young black woman, in an apron and carrying a tray, coming up towards
me. I was frightened and I ran back into
my room, peaking out of the door. Then I
was ashamed of myself. Why, even if
there were a ghost, she looked tired, didn't she? I should have gone to help her instead of
running into my room like a ninny. I
lurked and waited for my chance to prove I could rise to the challenge but it
never presented itself, much to my disappointment.
can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy, you must have
somebody to divide it with.”
and Grandpa had some vegetable beds behind the house in which they grew
tomatoes. I informed my Grandma that I
did not like tomatoes, and she replied that that was nonsense and she would show
me that I was wrong. We were in her big
kitchen with the brick walls and pots, pans and spoons hanging up around us. She sat me down at the wooden island with
cubby holes on the sides, and old spinning stools next to it that I span on
until I was dizzy and sick. She placed a
bowl of tomatoes, a cutting board, knife, and some salt in front of us. Grandma cut a slice of tomato, not a cherry
tom, but a big one. My Grandparents were
practical people; I think they would have deemed cherry tomatoes a bit of an
extravagance. She sprinkled salt on a
slice of tomato and held it out for me to eat.
I took a bite; it was lovely, unexpected and made my mouth feel nice and
tingly. You can do the same with
sugar. When I was pregnant I used to
have a plate of cherry tomatoes every night, each one cut in half, 50% had
salt, 50% had sugar and I ate them like a true connoisseur.
Grandparents were the best people I've ever known. My Grandpa was crotchety in the most honest
sense of the word, but still very loving.
He once locked me out of the house and ate my favourite crisps in front
of a glass door, right in front of me standing on the other side, he was
giggling and I was irate. After his
strokes when he could no longer maintain the Hannibal house and its grounds
they built a house that was partially underground to maintain energy. It was all on one level, made for old age
living, and I used to walk round the back and climb the low hill that mounted
over what was the roof of their house, and look down over the front door as
other family members arrived for various family functions. It felt so gloriously detached being on the
roof, on a hill, and Grandpa often joined me up there.
Grandpa was very brave. For a man of his
generation who found emotions hard to speak of he was always remarkably
emotional with me. I never parted from
him without hearing "I love you” and being kissed, I was his pet. I was an impossibly troubled teenager with no
active father in my life. I had
"sexually available” written all over my pale skin and black clothes, but to
him I was always a fey little girl who wanted to read National Geographic
magazines for ten hours straight. He
worked up the courage to tell me not give myself away too easily, that I was
beautiful and precious and brilliant, and some man would one day want to lay
down his life for me, feel as he felt for my Grandma. I looked at him and wanted to cry, because I
knew then that he was the only one who would see me like that. Everyone else would see the pieces of me here
and there that suited them, or even that suited me, because I was never very good
at throwing open all the rooms in my attic at once. He saw that I was on a road which would never
be smooth and he knew enough to love me for it rather than despite it.
was a devout Christian who never made anyone feel bad; she only ever had kind
words to give. When someone had done
wrong she would say, and it stung, because disapproval from her was a terrible
thing to feel as rare as it was. She did
her best to be fair. She had so many
grandchildren that inevitably there were arguments over who got the biggest
piece of cake. She had the simplest and
most effective solution to this problem.
One person cut the cake, the other person chose who got the pieces; this
ensured everyone was meticulously fair. Grandma
always flirted with Grandpa as if she were still 15 and they had just met at
the dance, and he was about to go off to war.
Each time I phoned her from England, for all of the 7 years that I lived
here while they still lived she would answer and say "Honey, now, where are
you?” and I would say "England, Grandma!” and she would say "England! Dewey! It's Erin, she's calling us from England!” and
go into a breathless state of excitement, week in, week out. And by the end of the conversation she'd
always say she was floating on a cloud, she was that happy. No wonder I'm mad as a hatter with
temperamental Him and off with the fairies Her as my two dominant
and Grandpa were married for 62 years and they died 12 days apart from each
other. Grandma had Alzheimer's and
Grandpa had had many strokes, but was mentally able and clinging on to ensure
she was well looked after. They shared a
room in a nursing home, in another small town on the Mississippi. The last several times I saw them I had to
fly for 10 or so hours and coach myself to use the words of my youth rather
than the easy slang of England so that they could understand me. They still made me feel like the sun rose and
set on my shoulders. Grandma quietly
passed away and Grandpa announced he was done now, and 12 days later he
don't give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.”
and I agree on a lot (see my previous blog on pedantry).
thoroughly disapprove of duels. If a man
should challenge me, I would take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and
lead him to a quiet place and kill him.”
that remarkable efficiency? What a
scoundrel! A man after my own heart.
reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
told me not to go to Hannibal the last time I was in America. She said it would make me sad as it had
changed so much from when I was little.
I went anyway and drove to the old house. There were ugly buildings in the way, trees
cut down, a basketball net on the side of Grandpa's barn, and it needed to be
painted. This is the reality, this is
what a panel of disinterested men and women would say they saw if you paraded
them by and asked them. I don't like it
but it doesn't matter. If anyone else is
living there, if any trees are gone and my man with the red coat is gone and
the Ewoks upped sticks and left then the whole house and all of Hannibal may as
well be on the moon because it is all perfectly in tact, preserved somewhere