Our trip in Mississippi was roughly planned, but we had wiggle room. The only reservations we made before we got on the road were at the Shack Up Inn because of their difficult availability on weekends. Other than that, we got up and kind of decided where we’d go and what we’d do that day. That was kind of how Oxford, Mississippi got rolled into the equation.
We were either heading to or out of Vicksburg when my mom remembered that our family friend, Julie, was from Oxford and her mother, Kaye, still lived there. She and my dad had been in touch recently regarding timber sales (she also has acreage where she maintains a tree farm, so to speak) and that’s how we eventually got in touch with Kaye. She invited us up to Oxford to stay with her and that’s just what we did after Clarksdale. Though we were only there for one night, little did we know that Kaye had our time efficiently scheduled so that we could see all the sights.
We met her for Sunday brunch at City Grocery, one of the more well-known restaurants in the area. Oxford has been getting a lot of shine lately for their food scene and John Currence, the owner and chef at City Grocery, has been mentioned in all kinds of articles about top Southern food gems. We showed up close to the end of brunch, but got in just in time and were able to leisurely catch up over bloody marys and damn good brunch food. Currence was around the restaurant, helping out with the re-tiling of the upstairs bar and Kaye called him over to introduce my mom and me. He was a soft-spoken and very unassuming guy who chatted with us about the undertaking of this upstairs tile job, his recent trip to Israel and his impression of the Israeli-Palenstinian conflict, and asked curiously about my mom and me and our trip together. If y’all are ever in the area, check this place out - the food will not disappoint, the ambiance is warm and inviting, and the chef absolutely deserves your business.
After brunch, Kaye drove us over to Rowan Oak. I was looking forward to seeing William Faulkner’s home, not because I’d ever read any of Faulkner’s work, but because it seemed like a quintessential Oxford experience. When we walked up on the property, Kaye casually started telling a story about how there was a young girl, Judith, who first lived in the house during the Civil War with her family and fell in love with a Union soldier. Her father forbade the relationship and she jumped from the second story balcony, fell to her death, and was buried under a magnolia tree. When Kaye was little, she would come to the house to play and Pappy would instruct them to write Judith notes and put them in the tree to communicate with her ghost. It took me a second to realize she was talking about William Faulkner. Kaye went to school with his wife’s granddaughter, Vicki, and would come over to play as a girl. She grew up coming by the house and has very fond memories of the Faulkner family. So as we visited Rowan Oak, Kaye walked us through the house and told us stories from her childhood - the kitchen where she ate tapioca pudding for the first and only time (she said it was like eating eyeballs), the tricks Faulkner’s daughter and niece, Jill and Dean respectively, would play on Vicki and her (a door would slam somewhere in the house and they’d say Judith must be about), how Mammy Callie, who raised Faulkner and then worked for him in his home for years, was part of the family and how much he loved and cherished her, how there was never air conditioning in the home and the day after his funeral, Miss Estelle, Faulkner’s wife, immediately put in an AC unit.
My favorite of Kaye’s stories goes as such: Every New Year’s Eve, when they were older, she and some of Vicki’s other childhood friends would come to the house. Pappy would pour a little champagne into all of the their glasses and they’d file out to the magnolia tree where Judith was buried. He would make a toast to Judith and they would pour their champagne on the grave. They’d go back into the house, Pappy would fill up their glasses again and then make a longer toast to what fine boys and girls they’d grown up to be. Soon after, they’d all gather in the den and sit around to tell ghost stories. As Southerners, the gift of storytelling was in their DNA and they all couldn’t wait to tell their best ghost story to the room, never realizing that they were “sitting at the foot of the master.” After his death, there was a story that was circulated where Estelle said to him at some point, “shouldn’t you let the children know that those stories were not true?” And he supposedly said, “let them have their imagination while they can.” Faulkner’s love of children was well known. In fact, Kaye mentioned that he loved children, old people, and black folks and the rest of them he could give a flying flip about.
I can’t tell you how magical it was to have someone with first-hand experience walk us around this storied property. It gave me the most intimate glimpse into the mythical figure of William Faulkner and painted a 3-D picture of him as a writer and a person.
After we left Rowan Oak, Kaye took us over to the University of Mississippi Museum where she showed us the paintings of Theora Hamblett (http://museum.olemiss.edu/collections/theora-hamblett/), who was a local folk artist. Kaye grew up taking piano lessons next to her home and got to know her over the years. Well enough, in fact, that she painted a picture of little Kaye Hooker (her maiden name) under a tree that is showcased on her wall among all of her other really incredible artwork. Hamblett’s paintings are done with a dot-like style. I’m sure there’s a technical name for this that I just don’t know so I sound real uneducated, but you can click on the link above and discover it for yourself. She painted a lot of landscapes of children playing games, biblical scenes, and also visions she had, which were the most interesting because of their mystical nature.
The other awesome thing at the Ole Miss Museum was this "blink and you'll miss it" display someone had put up ages ago of fleas dressed up as people. I somehow missed taking any pictures of Theora's work, but I did manage to get a close up shot through the magnifying glass of these fancy fleas.
In the evening, we went to dinner with one of Kaye’s friends, Sue, at this little place out in the country a bit called Ravine. Sue moved to Oxford about 15 years prior from Texas with her husband before he passed away. She and Kaye met when Sue moved into the same small subdivision they both live in off the square and have since become close friends and traveling partners, touring the world together. Ravine was a lovely restaurant and we had a fantastic Sunday supper, eating great food and sharing life stories.
When we left Kaye's home, we did two last quintessential Oxford things - visit Faulkner’s grave, which was lined with liquor bottles as an ode to the writer and his love of good whiskey, and checked out Square Books. This bookstore is one of the best independent bookstores in the country. For as long as I can remember, my folks have been collecting books - signed copies, first editions, rare finds - and my mom was anxious to visit this place as she’d bought several things from them over the phone through the years. It was a great little store with lots to choose from, a gorgeous little balcony that overlooked the square, and, as one would expect, a complete Faulkner section.
Before we set out to Oxford, I couldn’t have imagined all of the incredible things Kaye had in store for us. She was an amazing tour guide for her city and offered us an an experience of a lifetime along with a far deeper understanding of Oxford and it’s rich history.