Every time we pull out of the picnic area on Bay Springs Lake, way out in the piney woods of rural Mississippi near the unincorporated communities of New Site and Hobo Station, I can see the pensive combination of memory and mortality crawl slowly across my mother’s face.
She’s been coming to the Bishop-Downs reunion for years now, back when my father was alive and even before her mother passed on back in 2012. They gather here on the last September of each year, the descendants of Andrew Jackson Bishop and his wife, Rachel Downs. I never knew either of them; Jack died in 1985, leaving behind five daughters, five sons, 28 grandchildren, 43 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild, and the clan has only grown bigger since then.
My great-grandmother, Parlee Bishop, was Jack’s sister, and while the Bishop bloodline proliferates this part of Northeast Mississippi, family doesn’t mean what it used to, and over the years, attendance at the reunion has slowly dwindled. The older folks die off, and the younger generations feel a stronger kinship to the wider world than they do the past.
Gone are the days when family was the only thing you could depend on to build a barn or gather a crop. Sunday dinners around a farmhouse table brimming with home-cooked dishes and a couple dozen cousins running through house and yard are relegated to the major holidays, if they happen at all. The pictures and stories of weatherbeaten men and wizened old women, stooped from labor and carved lean by hard times, can’t hold a candle to Instagram posts and instant messages.
The old ways are vanishing, and my mom feels it. Hell, I feel it. I couldn’t help but notice my own son, who accompanied my mother and I last weekend to Mississippi, found respite from boredom on his phone while I listened to the elders tell stories about Mary Adaline Prather Bishop, Jack and Parlee’s mother. “Ma Bishop,” they called her, a rail-thin farmer’s wife who dipped snuff out of the tin with a toothbrush and sang an old folk song that my mother remembers as a girl — something about a mule, the lyrics hovering right on the other side of memory, just out of reach in that maddening way of gossamer threads from long ago.
The only ties my son has to those people and those times are genetic markers that have no ties to his reality. Genealogy is a hobby for older folks, and the past isn’t nearly as exciting as the present. Distant cousins are strangers, and now, with only a grandparent left alive, his ties to the past are even more tenuous.
I get it. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve come to understand how important family truly is, even though most of my connection comes from stories. I’ve always felt a deep and abiding kinship with this part of the Deep South, nurtured by childhood summers and holidays spent at my grandmother’s house at the end of a dead-end gravel drive on the outskirts of Booneville.
Her husband Bobby — my grandfather and Parlee’s son — died the year before I was born. His son, my uncle, died three years later. Combined with the loss of a brother, both parents and a granddaughter within the span of less than a decade, my grandmother’s grief was assuaged by memory, and I grew up hearing stories of Bobby and the life he made for his family in this rustic place. It was built on a foundation handed down by Bishops and Tidwells and Carmichaels and Streets and all of the other names who survive only on the tombstones in cemeteries scattered across the Mississippi countryside, men and women kept alive in the tales shared at gatherings like last weekend’s reunion.
Even then, they fade a little bit with each retelling. Those who bore witness to the stories slowly die off, and the details are lost in second- and third-hand recitations by descendants who rely on fallible memory. There’s no guarantee that everyone present will be granted a year’s reprieve in order to return to this place on Sept. 27, 2020, this pavilion of shared bloodlines and an afternoon repast beside the waters of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.
Such musings might seem morbid to some, but to the people who call this place home and have for more than two centuries, it is a reality. Already, names like Betty Sue and Becky Ann and Beth and Larry and so many others I don’t know and never met are talked about with reverence and a twinge of melancholy. Death is never welcomed, but it’s always expected, and for these people … my people … the best they can hope for is to meet it with heads held high and a life well lived.
No doubt, those thoughts were on my mama’s mind as the afternoon sun threw shadows across the two-lane leading back to Booneville. I marveled at the contrast: The older woman seated beside me, a head filled with thoughts of the past and the ones who live there, and the teenager in the backseat, oblivious to everything but a future that can’t start soon enough. It’s not lost on me or my aunt, who rides with us, that time is a wheel, because there was once a time when my mother, a restless teenage girl, could not wait to turn 18 and leave this place behind for a life that would take her to Memphis and Knoxville, where she lives today.
I don’t know if I’ll be around when that wheel makes another circle, but I hope my son may one day drive me to that reunion. I hope that the pictures passed around include some of my mother and her sister. I hope that the young ones more interested in the food and the playground than their kin find a renewal of commitment to the past as they grow older.
I hope they tell stories, and I hope my boy finds in them the same connection to these people and this land that I do today.