When people ask where I am from I gladly answer "Mississippi," because Mississippi is a nice place to be from. Much of what Mississippi is known for are mixed blessings: red clay, kudzu, Southern belles, steel magnolias, sweet potatoes, okra, Ole Miss, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Brett Favre. Mississippi is "Boycott Disney" bumper stickers, "Don't Blame Me I Voted for Dole" bumper stickers, and radio stations that playIf Heaven Ain't a Lot Like Dixie a lot. Mississippi is grocery stores with real names like "Piggly Wiggly" and "Jitney Jungle," gas stations where people ask, "Where you headed?" and then, "It won't take you an hour now that they've finished the highway"-which was finished in 1992, and Elvis-who went to high school with my ninth grade biology teacher. She never forgave herself for not paying attention to Elvis. More than once Mrs. Stowers wondered aloud if she could have been the queen of Graceland.
My parents live in Mantachie, Mississippi, one hundred yards from where my grandparents lived for sixty years. In 1930, my grandfather and ten neighbors cut down trees my great-grandfather had planted and built a three-bedroom house that housed many of my childhood memories.
I remember being terrified when Grandma caught three of us with Old Maid cards in the back bedroom, but that was nothing compared to the time she discovered my cousin Barry listening to My Baby Does the Hanky Panky. I honestly believe that my cousin didn't know what hanky panky was or why Grandma would consider it wrong for him to play a 45 record praising hanky panky on grandmother's phonograph.
The wind patterns were not considered when they built the barn east of the house. My grandfather was so good at milking he could hit an open mouth from fifteen feet. He tried to teach me to milk, but I was never good at it. I am not sure what that says about me as a person, but I have never completely overcome my disappointment.
My grandparents named several cows after their grandchildren-including one named "Brett." One evening at dinner grandpa asked how my hamburger tasted and everyone at the table laughed. I did not finish my meal after it was explained that I was what was for dinner.
I am amused that the cousin who once hid my Christmas gifts behind the couch and used to be skinny as a rail is now more like a boxcar than a rail. My uncle looks like my grandfather. My cousin Jan's daughter looks more like the cousin I remember than Jan does.
My home state has the nation's highest percentage of Baptists. When I visit my parents' church I am welcomed by an assortment of saints. Some hug me before asking who I am. When I answer, "I'm Clarice's oldest boy," I am hugged again.
Some of the conversations are in a foreign language I no longer understand: "Brett, we baled three thousand bales last year, round bales, not the little ones. Guess how many acres that took?"
I am lost.
"Take a guess."
I try to beg off, "I really don't know."
"Just take a guess."
I stammer, "Thirty?"
I backtrack quickly, "Did I say thirty? I meant to say three hundred. Three thousand?"
Mississippi is a good place to call home because when the prodigals return we hope that folks will recognize that we do not quite fit in. At the same time we want to feel like we never left.
We want to go home to the home with the welcome mat on the porch and the home that we know only by its absence, home where there are dirty dishes in the sink and home that we have never even visited, and home where the dog is not allowed on the couch and home where the deer and the antelope play. We long for home sweet home, home where the country roads take you, and home where your homeboys hung long before you knew they were homeboys. We want to go where the home fires are burning, where the chickens come to roost, and where the angels are coming for to carry you.
Though it does not seem like it, the homesickness we feel is a gift of God. C.S. Lewis writes, "The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing to find the place where all the beauty came from. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in."
Our search for home leads us to blessed people, holy places, and sacred memories. We long for moments when we are with the people we love, when we glimpse home in the goodness of others, and when we close our eyes and feel God's welcoming grace.