When I write about going to Mississippi, I usually write about how much fun it is to see family, or to spend time at the farm, or how it reminds me of the English Countryside of Jane Austen settings. All of those things are still true, but it isn’t entirely what compels me so much about that place. I usually leave out the darker parts that I am not quite sure what to do with or how to process. Nonetheless, I feel like I should say something about this, because I am more and more concerned with the degredation of rural America. It is a forgotten footnote to the cities and suburbs that dot the American landscape and command the attention of media because those places possess the consumer buying power that controls what places are worthy of attention.
Six weeks after my grandmother died, her house was burglarized in a pretty major way. My Aunt Barbara was living there at the time, and was at work, when the perpetrators cut a fence down the pasture and drove up a flatbed truck to remove whatever they could carry out. Aunt Barbara’s dog Petey was kicked and tied up in a dog house while they systematically removed anything that wasn’t tied down from the house. They got interrupted when trying to remove my Dad’s John Deere Gator. However, they took the keys to that as well as the keys to Dad’s tractor. They came back that night to remove the Gator, when Aunt Barbara was home. However, the investigator and a friend of my Dad’s had disabled the Gator. They came back a third time, but Aunt Barbara frightened them away with her handgun, nearly shooting one of the intruders.
The part that I find so distressing about home invasions is that they have no respect for the history of the person whose property is invaded. In American society, for better or worse, it is quite often our property, what we own, that defines us. The history of my grandparents and their home was taken away in one desparate crime. When the pasture was searched, we found family mementos that were valueless to these criminals but were priceless to us: Pa-Paw’s Polaroid Camera, for example. It was a symbol of our childhood, because Pa-paw followed us around everywhere snapping photos of my cousins, sisters and I at play. No, instead the intruders were more concerned with gathering up the unfilled prescriptions for Morphine and other pain medication that Ma-maw never took.
When the investigators came, they said that the door into the garage looked like it had been breached several times – opened with a sharp object. When Ma-maw was ill, she frequently talked about people coming in her home when she was there. She claimed that she could hear them talking. She claimed that she could hear them opening her closet door where she kept her medication. She claimed that one night, when she went to get a glass of water, she saw someone in her rocking chair. Now at this time in Ma-maw’s life, she couldn’t see very well. She had a brain tumor that eventually would take her life. We thought she was just seeing things, that it all was in her head. In retrospect, she probably wasn’t making it up.
There is this kind of desparation born of drug use in rural America. A few days after the home invasion occurred, an African American boy went to a pharmacy in a nearby town, trying to fill one of Ma-maw’s prescriptions for morphine. The security camera caught him, but the authorities never did. In fact, the authorities made little to no effort to apprehend any of the participants in the crime. The one person arrested, a girl, was the daughter of a recent candidate for Walthall County Sherriff. She is out of jail on five years probation. She didn’t give up the name of any accomplices. Her family claims that she is clean now, but Aunt Barbara said that she better not see her on the road to her house, otherwise… When the intruders returned to the house, and Aunt Barbara called the authorities, they told her that she was crazy like her mom, that she was just seeing things. They didn’t do anything. Law enforcement in rural Mississippi is a joke. During the Jim Crow era, they could be counted on to enforce racial separation and justice for no one, and now they delight themselves on being as corrupt as ever and protecting their own friends and family only. For the rest, we have no option but to attempt to protect ourselves, knowing that calling the police will bring a hasty response.
When Aunt Barbara and a neighbor observed a low flying aircraft routinely dropping packages on the gas pipeline, they didn’t call the local sherriff. They called the feds located in Jackson – the DEA. They came, and ran an operation to try to apprehend the cargo plane dropping drugs in a place that they assumed that had been forgotten. The plane came, lowered down for the drop, saw the agents, pulled up and never returned again.
Why do I write all of this? Because this is a place that is home to my family. It isn’t supposed to be that way in rural America. That is where we go to see the stars, to catch fireflies, to hear the birds sing. You can’t see the stars if you are afraid to go outside at night.
There is a heaviness there. The place has so much history and so much hardship. But that same heaviness does make for great stories and great storytellers. Could William Faulkner have come from anywhere else? I love it but I confess that it does make me a little afraid.
I should say, these things happened four years ago. Since then, Aunt Barbara has said that she hasn’t had any problems. They think she is Annie Oakley out there with her gun. But should it have to be that way? Shouldn’t we care about the blight of drugs in the country? Walthall County, and places like it, are so far from the radar of any presidential candidate or person of influence or power.
I feel guilty. I sometimes think I should never have left the South because there is so much work to do here.