by Kara Martinez Bachman
I used to think only rich people lived in Mississippi.
I got that crazy idea from my fourth grade friend, Tiffany. She was always primly dressed, her cotton gingham clothing covered in all manner of lovingly hand-shaped bows. Tiffany has these perfect corkscrew curls, blonde spring-like columns of hair that kinetically bobbed up and down when she walked. She was a mama’s girl; she was a teacher’s pet. And she liked to brag, especially about Mississippi.
“I’m going to the coast this weekend,” she would say, “I’m going camping, and going out in Maw Maw’s boat, and going to the beach, and riding Maw Maw’s horses.”
Based on her brags, I was sure everyone in Mississippi had to be rich, what with all the boats and horses and whatnots. I mean, nobody in the New Orleans suburb where I grew up owned horses, big boats, or anything like that.
A few times a year, my parents would make the hour or so drive to spend an afternoon under a beach umbrella while we frolicked in the dark knee-deep water and squinted out at the pleasant and tranquil sound.
What I recall most from those trips is passing the seashell and souvenir shops when we got to the coast. They were on Highway 90 as we first approached Bay St. Louis. There we would see the two souvenir shops, one on either side of the road, with what seemed to be giant conch shells piled outside. Those chalky twin piles always meant we had arrived, meant that the fun was about to begin. I used to dream of finding a large conch like those just sitting on the beach in Waveland or along the seawall in The Bay; on our visits we would naively busy ourselves with searching for the perfect conch, the one that had the sounds of the sea hidden deep inside.
Those souvenir places are gone now after Katrina; her surge and winds took many memories of our coast. But few kids who grew up in New Orleans and traveled U.S. 90 will forget those twin piles of shell, piles of promise and of mystery and sure signs of a proximity to nature that city kids could only dream of.
The houses that we passed on our drive were built high off of the ground, giving them a certain stature. Through a child’s eyes, they seemed to be mansions. Those leggy homes were surely where all those rich coast people lived; they were headquarters from which horse-and-boat-owning Maw Maw’s entertained their grandkids from the city with water sports and blackberry picking on warm weekends in the spring.
It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized the coast wasn’t filled with wealthy people; it was, indeed, a regular place, with people from all walks of life. This egalitarian spirit is one of the things I would come to love about this place. The love of the sand, and of the salt air, and of graceful egrets watchful in their still poses, unites people of all backgrounds in a way that is rarely seen in other communities. The coast is coalesced by the beauty that is all around.
There is no better equalizer. When someone takes a folding chair down to the beach in falltime to watch the sunset, nobody cares whether he is a prince or a pauper. And the thing is, the sunset looks the same whether he looks at it from a beach chair or from a yacht or from a beat up old fishing boat containing nothing but a trolling motor and a few rusty hooks. The egret seems just as still. The flounder fry tastes just as good. When the glow of a full moon casts those glittery reflections on our waters, we can walk hand in hand along the surf like we are all princes.
I have been here for almost ten years now. I have survived the storm. I remember well what this place was before Katrina, and enjoy what it now becomes. But I only now realize this: I am so rich. Not as Tiffany’s Maw Maw was, but in the way that really matters. I am wealthy in spirit, living in a place where childhood dreams are made.
Reprinted from Mississippi Magazine, July/August 2011.