I've never been all that good at the whole wealth thing. I grew up poor in Neshoba County, in one trailer park or another for a good chunk of my childhood, and we never had "wealth" to manage, fuss over or horde away. We worked hard, though-my mother sewing and then ironing in a pants factory; my daddy painting houses and driving a taxi; my stepdaddy fighting in Korea and Vietnam as a career army sergeant.
My first job was washing hair in a beauty shop when I was in 8th grade; then baking pizzas and scrubbing sinks filled with endless pizza pans starting in 10th grade, as I juggled band practice and tried to keep my grades high. I had to work to help my mother pay the house and car notes and buy groceries after she had to leave my lovable, but alcoholic stepdad. He had started drinking heavily back in Korea to deal with the horrors, he told me later.
What my household lacked in wealth and education, it made up for in fun and love, though. My mama was a "connector" (in Malcolm Gladwell parlance)-she was always surrounded by a rather ragtag group of friends of all ages and, later in life, all races. Both my daddies loved people and lively chatter. Each of them liked to hang out in "third places" like coffee shops and, too often, beer joints where everyone knew their name
My parents were far from perfect, but I did inherit at least one thing from them, especially my mother and stepdad who came into my life after my "real" daddy died when I was 8. They had hope-especially for me. They believed I could do more, and do more for people around us, than their circumstances had allowed them to. They encouraged me to speak my mind, to get a good education. They put up with me angering their adult friends for saying racist drivel; they gave up so much for themselves to give me that extra push.
I think back now on my mother "rolling nickels" to buy me an Easter basket, buying my school clothes on layaway and collecting quarters to help pay for my class ring; I remember my stepdaddy buying me a car he couldn't afford when I was a teenager.
My stepdaddy also taught me to love sports-he never had a son, so I would have to do-and to take politics seriously.
He instilled in me a lifelong distrust of political parties ("this state would elect a jackass if it was a Democrat," he'd say back before most of the Dixiecrats had switched to the Republican Party). He always told me: "Think for yo-self. Use yo head."
It breaks my heart the most to think that both my mother and my stepdad-whom I loved completely until he died of lung cancer at the VA Center here-pushed me to leave Mississippi, explore the world, learn, live, look for my bliss, even though I know they would have loved to have me nearer, and needed me in many ways.
What none of us knew then was that my bliss was indeed here in Mississippi, down the street from where my stepdaddy gasped for his last breath as I held his hand, and 90 miles from where I held my mom's as her heart won the battle over her in a Meridian hospital.
I think about all three of them regularly as we go about the work of the Jackson Free Press-connecting people, throwing parties, telling the truth even when it hurts, giving tough love to our city and state so we can keep more of our young people at home. And so we can all become something better than the sum of our pasts.
My "real daddy" Cliff used to drive me all over the city when we'd visit my brother in west Jackson or my uncles in south Jackson. It was the first city lights I'd ever seen sparkle, and it awakened the desire in me to live amid urban vibrancy. When I hear the train whistles at night now, I always think of those jaunts (even if they did often end up with him tucking a paper bag behind the seat).
But mostly I think of my mother-"Miss Katie," everyone called her-and stepdad Willie Hoyt (the name of my oldest feline terror; Willie Hoyt the man adored cats as much as I do, always calling up to tell me what "that rascal" was up to).
Both Miss Katie and Willie Hoyt would so love the Jackson Free Press and the community that gathers around us. Mama would cook for us-yes, figuring out how to use veggie broth and tofu-and my daddy would show up with arm loads of cookies and cakes for the staff.
They would love all the young people who are drawn to the JFP as staffers, interns and readers; they'd dig the energy and the sassiness. And I know that Mama would say to me with a big smile after I read her one of my stories, "Donna, you gone get yourself run out of town."
She'd also really like to dance to DJ Phingaprint's music at the Best of Jackson party every year. I suspect Daddy would have loved to deliver the paper, just so he could visit all the coffee shops and barber shops around town, telling the same joke at every stop, and lamenting what "them young'uns" (Todd and me) are up to now. No doubt: Everyone would know his name.
But I believe that what they would like the most is the optimism that the Jackson community has worked so hard to create, even as we're often surrounded by so much negativity. Despite it all-my mother's illiteracy; their lack of education and opportunity; his crippling alcoholism and war wounds that never healed; them so often barely having a pot to pee in (as my mama so eloquently put it)-despite it all, they both believed a bright future was possible, if not for them, for their daughter. And maybe even for their state. They managed to look for the best, no matter how tough life got. They knew, I believe now, that quality of life is not gauged by what's in your bank account; true prosperity is found in the community you build around you.
Here in Jackson something really special is happening. People are joining hands to face down the naysayers and forge a new future for our city. We're putting our pennies together and investing locally. None of us is perfect, but we know that we are very strong when we put aside differences and work together for the city and her people.
This week we celebrate the Best of Jackson for the eighth year, highlighting what is possible when we all believe that, together, we can be the best. Thank you, Jackson, for working so hard toward a glorious, inclusive future. Here's to the prosperity of living.
What a touching story! You've told it a few times before and it never gets old. Now that's the spirit of Mississippi!
- golden eagle
Beautiful,Donna! I can see your Daddy delivering JFP all over town --
In line with Golden Eagle, I have heard you speak several times about your family. You amaze me with your words and how you continue to expand the experience. I cannot wait for the next volume of this.
- Langston Moore
Thanks, all. I included new, and difficult, details in this one. The other morning, I was lying in bed thinking about what to write for the Best of Jackson editor's note, and I couldn't stop thinking about my parents and how proud they would be of all this. So, I took our my "morning pages" notebook and wrote the whole thing by hand! As I talk about in my writing classes, I cried all the way through. That is true for all my favorite pieces I've written. It really is like opening up a vein.
Ultimately, though, it really is a tribute to Jackson. I give thanks every day that my own state has welcomed me home in such grandiose fashion. What an extended family the JFP Nation is!
Big hug, Jackson!
Thank you, thank you, thank you for reminding us of how incredibly powerful HOPE is! I am refreshed and renewed by your article. . . .
- Duann Kier Sywanyk