And Patti Callahan Henry with the notable Jake Reiss from Alabama Booksmith.
But then I left early the next day and booked it to visit with other friends in Bulldog territory, where Bert & I did an authors’ talk at Starkville’s Book Mart. Fine people there. Always enjoy my stops there.
I had not intended to stop in Tupelo but how can a girl bred in the South drive by the birthplace of Elvis and not pay homage? I’ve been before with Sister Tater, a true Elvis lovey, but this time it was less about Elvis and more about just having a place to walk about quietly. I spent most of the time on the phone with a veteran friend. When we hung up there was a mother & daughter pair taking photos on the porch of the shotgun house where Elvis was born. (There’s no mention on the historical sign that identical twin brother Jesse Garon was stillborn in the same house 35 minutes earlier than Elvis).
I asked the mom if she wanted a photo together with her daughter and then we got to talking. Margarita Ainsworth and her mama were on holiday from Australia and making a swing through the south. They’d been to Graceland the day before and were enroute to Mobile, then Orlando. I knew I’d hear some funny accents in Tupelo but an Aussie one wasn’t what I had in mind.
From there, I headed to Main Street in search of coffee but happened upon The Gumtree Art Museum. Who can resist local artists?
I knew I wouldn’t find coffee inside an art museum but I did find Miz Martha sitting at a long table, putting stick-em thingys on the back of black exhibit signs.
You have time to sit down? she asked when she found out I was from out-of-town and a writer. I’ll tell you all about the Choctaws, Miz Martha said. Tupelo gum comes out of the trees. No mention of Elivs, but do you know, Miz Martha asked, about the 1936 tornado?
Nope, I admit. Hadn’t heard of it.
Just up that street there, there’s a place where the baseball field is now, a dip in the land. Used to be a lake. Gum Pond. So many people were killed during the 1936 Tupelo Tornado –one of the very worst to ever hit the US — that they had to drain the pond in order to bury the dead people. It’s been drained ever since. Then she tells me about the Trail of Tears and how the Choctaws were moved out of Tupelo but that I can still find some family names around town that are Choctaw and she names some I couldn’t spell if I tried. Miz Martha taught 4th and 5th grade for years before she retired and started giving all her time to the Gumtree Art Museum.
Do you know Jack Reed?
No, I say. I don’t.
He owns Reed’s Department store and bookstore. You come with me, Miz Martha says and I do because that’s how we do things here in the South. A woman you don’t know invites you someplace, you best go with her.
She takes me across the street, to coffee shop where the coffee sits in pots on a small dinette table between the front room and back room.
Miz Martha takes me to the back room where the several handsome men are sitting around a large metal table. Jack Reed is wearing a fine go-to-meeting suit, even though it’s Tuesday and nearly 80 degrees out. He doesn’t mention anything about his winning the Republican nomination for Governor back in 1987 but he does tell Miz Martha to be careful and not knock over his cane. He’d be trapped behind that table all day without it.
Any friend of Miz Martha is a good friend, Jack says and smiles with his whole face, eyes and temples and all. He’s a fine looking man. Thick white hair. Strong chin. Broad shoulders hunched with age but sturdy yet. He’s got that air of men of a respectable generation – like Billy Graham. You just feel better about yourself with him in the room.
Miz Martha explains that she just met me and that I’m a writer.
What’s the name of your book? Jack asks. So I tell him and everyone at the table laughs.
I’ll make sure to get that one in the bookstore, Jack says.
Jack invites me to join them at the table, sit a spell, but I can’t. I’ve got a piece of driving to do yet. But before I leave in comes Margarita Ainsworth and her mama. So I introduce them to Jack Reed and Miz Martha. They are hungry, looking for breakfast at half-past ten. Miz Martha walks me back across the street, away from the building that announces for everyone that in Tupelo this is still ONE NATION UNDER GOD.
I stopped by Jack’s bookstore before I left town and had a fun chat with Emily, who I’d just seen in Charleston. She was so confused at first, wondering how it was she just saw me in Charleston and now here in Tupelo, especially when I live all the way out there in Oregon.
It’s a long story and even longer drive. But Emily offers me coffee and then gives me a Reed’s GumTree Bookstore shirt so if you see me wearing it around town in Oregon just know it was a sweet gift from the lovely people at Reeds in Tupelo. Tupelo hands down is one of the friendliest cities in the nation. If you are ever in the area, be sure to drop by and tell Jack Reed I sent you.
Then I was on my way to Tennessee for the last leg of this trip.
But first, a little side trip and I just want to warn Poe that he better be on his best behavior when I get home because I know where this place is now…