William Kammler: The Past is Never Dead

B&W photograph of little girl captioned "School Days 1946-47"

For the past two weeks I have been in Mississippi, attempting to come to a closer understanding of my family, the South, and the secrets they both hold. I flew into New Orleans and drove 60 miles with my maternal grandmother (affectionately referred to as Big Mommy) to the small town of Moss Point, Mississippi. Big Mommy and her siblings: Joyce, Jackie, and Bubba grew up in the insulated and once thriving town that sits nestled along the Mississippi coast line. What was once a rich and picturesque small Southern town has become a shell of its former self. The large and questionably homeless population seem to drift back and forth across Main St, bouncing between the endless sprawl of abandoned shopping centers, gas stations, pawn shops, and convenience stores. The town and the whole coast seem to be shell-shocked, still reeling from the series of progressively more and more dire circumstances they find themselves in.
It may sound unbelievable but things have never been the same after the Civil War (referred to by many down here as the War Between the States). In 1866, the year after the war ended, the State of Mississippi spent nearly 3/4th of its annual budget alone on prosthetic limbs. The way people talk about the War is as if it is recent flesh lost. Harkening back to the words of famed Mississippi author William Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Reconstruction, the Great Depression, the white flight of post-integration 60s compounded with consistent rankings as the poorest and least educated state in the Union led to a physical manifestation of this state’s pain in the form of Hurricane Katrina. The entire coast of Mississippi was decimated in the storm and its presence even today feels otherworldly. Empty lots, empty businesses, half fallen homes on every block, and crumbling infrastructure illustrate the painful deck this state has been dealt. In the post-Katrina narrative, the Mississippi gulf coast is often partially obscured or entirely excluded. Once described by CNN commentators as “that land mass between New Orleans and Mobile,” this region breathes an air of forgottenness.
The first four nights of my trip were spent at my second cousin Lane’s house nestled in “the nice part of town,” away from the formerly industrialized docks of South Moss Point. In this neighborhood Victorian homes, slowly being taken over by Kudzu and the eponymous moss, are jettisoned far from the bare shotgun styled single level homes of the predominantly Black area. Lane is in her late 50s and the weight of a life strung together with bad luck shows on her face. The first night Big Mommy and I arrived, Lane was in a manic state. She took us on a tour of her small bungalow three times, repeating the same stories and continuously pulling my grandmother into a series of strange dance/hugs. We couldn’t tell if she was high or had missed her medication and decided it was best to address neither. Lane struggles with bipolar disorder, something that I was surprised to find effects a large portion of the maternal side of my family. Lane is short with large saucer-like eyes and pale white inch long roots that expose her jet black hair. She has an incredible smile and is constantly laughing, refusing to take herself or the world with a dire or cynical outlook. Her voice is low and raspy, due to an extremely rare neurological condition (think random muscle spasms) that she has had for thirty years. She chain smokes cigarettes and insists that she never smokes inside. The smell in her house begs to differ. Lane lives in the shadow of her third husband, Peter’s, unexpected death in 2012. Peter, a former photographer for People Magazine, had a heart attack in the second floor bathroom of their home after twenty years of marriage. A year after Peter died, Lane was looking through the files on his computer when she discovered a secret that he had hidden throughout their entire marriage. Peter had struggled with pedophilia, or a sexual fixation on young children for what seemed to be his entire life. Lane refused to utter the exact words to me, instead circumventing it while repeatedly giving me enough to infer on my own. File after file, the discovery continued until Lane ended it with a baseball bat to the three Macbooks that held Peter’s secrets.
Lane discovered her first husband was gay nine months after their marriage began. She was 21 and he was 24. He put her in a chokehold when she confronted him and she snuck out a window with her dog and her mother’s china the next night. Eight years later Lane met the love of her life, a half Indian and half German man who swept her off her feet at a bar overlooking the levees of the Mississippi River. The first year of their marriage was everything Lane hoped for: happiness, fulfillment, and a passion that was lacking in her previous union. The two were school teachers, one at an all boys school and the other at an all girls school. The second winter they were together he left and moved to DC to become a congressional aid. She had made a commitment to see out the school year and promised to come meet him after the term ended. By the time May had arrived and Lane moved her entire life to DC, he had found a new woman and she became a fixture of his past.
Talking to Lane, having her show me around the home that exhibited the life she once held with Peter made me aware of the grief that resided in that house. This echoed throughout the next leg of my journey, as Big Mommy and I travelled 200 miles north to the state capital of Jackson. In Jackson I stayed with my aunt Amy, who I had not seen in 10+ years. Since our last visit, I had never seen a photo of Amy and spoke to her but once every two to three years. Amy was the keeper of the keys to Big Mommy’s storage unit, the initial and intended destination of my trip. These two storage units held every possession of Big Mommy’s from the first 55 years of her life. Twenty years ago, as my grandfather began his slow and unnoticeable descent into early onset dementia, Big Mommy was served with divorce papers. She had spent a 35 year long marriage with a man that had continuously been unfaithful so she packed two suitcases of clothes, packed all of her belongings in the two units, and moved to be with her newly born grandchildren in DC. These units held the family past that I had never been afforded, the physical manifestation of my mother and grandmother’s timeline.
Meeting Amy would have been almost sickly comical if it were not tragic. Amy is almost 6 feet tall, has wiry brown hair, a blinding and near constant smile, and is morbidly obese. She walks with a tennis ball walker that normally hangs out of the twenty year old Buick she received from her long term partner Frank. The Buick has no AC, no working seatbelts, the windows do not roll down, the ceiling lining hangs down to head height, and the trunk does not shut. When I first got in her car in the 100 degree Mississippi heat, she suggested as if it were the clearest option to “just keep your door open while I drive to let the wind get sucked in”. Amy is a hypochondriac, something that is dangerously mixed with her hoarding tendencies. Her apartment was filled to the brim with papers, boxes of canned goods, boxes of family items, old takeout, mail, and an endless sea of pill bottles. There is an immediate question to why complacency seems to permeate through her life but what I realized after a week there was that she struggled with grief in an alternate but equally potent way as my cousin Lane.
My attempts at accessing and recording the remnants of Big Mommy’s storage units were derailed by the absolutely deafening heat of central Mississippi and my Aunt Amy’s attempts to dispel my interest. The storage units to her represented hope and held the possibility of her parent’s marriage resuming. Working for days through the heat I was able to get 8 boxes of Big Mommy’s things and ship them back to DC. I will post scans of some of the amazing family documents I found there. Photos, diaries, letters, drawings, and the personal effects of my maternal family.
The past has not passed. I spent my days in Moss Point and Jackson with Lane, Amy, and most importantly Big Mommy, combing through family records, meeting my entire extended family, and filling out the family picture that had been absent for so long. I began to understand why my mother refused to elaborate on her childhood in Mississippi. For so long I chalked it up to self preservation but I understand now that it was an attempt to shield me from the uncontained inconsistency that is my family and Mississippi life. Life is depressed there and yet the people seem to swim through it with such unbridled optimism. I’m still trying to work through what exactly I saw and experienced, so thank you for reading through my partial musings.