Paul miller trip to the Deep South

Two years ago I lost my brother to alcoholism and liver failure, making me an “only child.” I recently had the opportunity to spend time with my parents – two on one. They can no longer drive themselves long distances or fly from Lake Park, Georgia, where they now live, to the rural areas of their home places. So off we went together: a nine-day road trip.

My mother has no living siblings but her two surviving first cousins are as close to her as sisters. These ladies, 86 and 90 years old, live in Guntown, Mississippi. My father has one sister left, in Hot Springs, Arkansas. She, too, is 86. It had been five years or more since any of these people visited each other.

My mother’s hometown, Guntown, Mississippi, is just a little north of Tupelo, with a population of 1183 people in the last census. Her family has lived there at least since the early 1800s as evidenced by the headstones in Lebanon Cemetery. Listening to the stories, visiting the Lebanon Church and graveyard and seeing five generations in the same room was priceless. I have not spent much time in the area but was welcomed as if I had lived there my entire life. A big bar-b-que dinner was prepared for us, and everyone came to see my folks.

Lucille and Ruth live in the family home. The conversations there centered on family, who was still alive, who had divorced who. We talked about our trip, local sports, and the children. There was no discussion of politics or any mention of the war. Though in my day-to-day life in Chapel Hill, these subjects get talked about in some way every day, the subjects didn’t seem to even be a part of their world. Being the outsider, I did not bring these topics up.

I spent three fascinating hours with Lucille (90 years old). She could recall the names of all her relatives, including great-great aunts and uncles, back three generations. With many of the ancestors and cousins, she could tell me who all their children were and who each one of them had married. I was then able to go to Lebanon Cemetery and see the headstones of these relatives, some of whom had lived through the Civil War in Mississippi. I learned new names in my genealogy, and I saw cousins I had not seen in 20 years.

Paula Miller's family in Guntown, MS

JoNell, her cousin Guyton, and family matriarch Ruth White enjoy a visit at the home place in Guntown, MS
Photo: Paula Miller

During this trip, we all discovered ways in which we have changed. The family matriarch is Ruth White, 86. Ruth lives on 125 acres that was once a dairy farm. Now the land is mostly leased out, but around the original family home is a “compound” where Ruth’s son, Dennis, his wife, and two of Dennis’s children live with their families. The most recent addition to the family is a little boy who is Ruth’s great-great grandson (Dennis’s great grandchild). Guyton is a mixed race child. Amanda, 24, has fallen in love with a black man, and recently their baby was born . Ruth said that she could either love Amanda and the baby or lose her. She chose love and has welcomed the dad into her home. (Not everyone in the family has made that choice. One uncle will not let his two little girls be around this baby, who is only four months old. I am not sure what he thinks will happen.)

Twenty years ago, things would have been very different. Ruth’s family demonstrates how in this small rural town in Mississippi, family and tolerance are becoming more complex. This is an incredibly loyal family, and family is the number one priority.

In Hot Springs, I found my Dad’s family more open and tolerant of everything. They were not afraid to talk of politics, not afraid to disagree. I saw my cousins who had been strangers for over 20 years. I was able to see where my great-grandfather once practiced medicine and even saw two of his original prescriptions. Hot Springs is not as rural an Guntown, but there still was a rural quality to our reunion.

Could I live in these environments? I suspect not in Mississippi. But I, too, learned tolerance on this trip — tolerance of small town ways and the judgment to know I would not change anyone’s minds in my short time with them. I also learned more tolerance of my parent’s way of thinking. I witnessed rural family, I listened to things that were important to them and I came away with a better understanding of life in small town America.

And did I mention it? The trip made my parents as happy as I have seen them in many years.

Dr. Paula Freeman Miller directs the Women’s Heart Health Program at the University of North Carolina. She lives in Chapel Hill.

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