THE FLATLANDS OF MISSISSIPPI
My childhood was rich. I was raised in a secure family, dwelling in the nostalgically beautiful southern town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, which sits on the Sunflower River, a small tributary of the Mississippi River, the widest river in the world and arguable the most aggressive. This majestic entity—and its parallel levee—has appropriately been the setting for masterpieces by the literary Greats: Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, among others.
My neighborhood, one of the oldest in the Delta, is picturesque, with wide streets, large oaks and antebellum homes and boasting expansive porches. Throughout time, Clark Street has attracted acclaimed politicians, artists, poets, lawyers, and eccentrics. Sundays were quiet as most magneted to the local country club for swimming, tennis or golf. Always, whiskey.
My childhood in the Mississippi Delta taught me almost everything I needed to know about creativity. The Delta’s open skies were a canvas for dreams, the local librarian held reading circles presenting books on faraway places as well as Mississippi’s indigenous and seemingly exotic Seminole Indians, the school nuns at St. Elizabeth encouraged the written word and pretty penmanship, and all the Mississippi storytellers always, by default, could find an audience.
My mother could have written a manual on introducing one’s children to art and books. She was often juggling a full-time job and motherhood, always hauling me off to dance lessons, piano lessons, or art lessons, even if that meant late at night or early in the morning before school bells rang. My heart would flutter like a jackrabbit at the anticipation of engaging in that world of creativity, strategically packing my red backpack the night before with selected sheet music, pens, books, or paints. For me, the extra circular activities were a barometer of well-achieved academics, as straight A’s were required in order to engage in the after-school activities. Also, sometimes I got the feeling that my mother’s love and pride for me depended on how much I excelled at these art forms.
My mother, a great reader of books, would orate to me every night until, by the young age of four, I could read on my own. I, in my childish way, applauded her wizardry with the English language and her empathetic renderings of words to make the stories come alive. Sometimes, she would pause and challenge me on a spelling word, still a challenge as I see many letters backwards and upside down. My older sister Rachael, who could not keep her eyes open past sundown, quietly nested beside us, a closed-up bottle of fireflies often by our antique, quilted bed.
Rachael’s hair is “so dark that it’s blue,” as my mother would describe; her eyes the color of a Caribbean sea. She has never been as intuitively interested in art or academics and has always been most concerned with maternal achievements, exactly like my mother.
My mother would sign me up for me various art classes to not only explore creativity but to “eliminate my shyness.” A quiet, loner of sorts, strange and people filled rooms were—and still are—challenging. Feisty and gregarious, Rachael would care for me and guide me as her baby sister, walking me through long corridors and into these rooms, remaining present until I nodded “okay to leave.”
My mother also loved the art of candid photography, and a camera was ever present in our homes and lives. She was known to have two or three cameras strapped around her neck at dance recitals, graduations or casual family outings. Her archive is a detailed series of images of the Jacob home and our progress as a family. Her style direct and documentary, her camera varied from RCA video cameras to polaroid cameras. They are still in my archive.
My mother had a smile that could knock out a room and that’s what I remember most about her. Raised in small town Alabama, she had a southern drawl of long i’s and spoke in contractions as much as possible. Mama’s hair was dark black with a small patch of grey on the right side, a defiant Baptist, she always believed “that’s where an angel kissed her.” She was a corridor to kindness and the template of a virtuous woman, the practice of which she lived; the verses in Proverbs 31:10-31, highlighted and underlined in her Bible. She was the temple of Goodness and her gift was giving. Her eyes were crystal blue like a clear sky and danced in the rhythm to her deep-hearted laugh, which was constant.
However, kindness and graciousness did not completely trump her rigidness, formidability, and sternness. She would “crack the whip,” as my sister Rachael recalls, if we challenged house and family rules. Mama obsessed with cleanliness and order, could scrub the house down herself, top to bottom (even dusting the top of the ceiling fan blades), and then call the maid, Ms. Virginia to “redo.” The only “messy part” of my room could be my art table filled with an array books which were juxtaposed to stacks of crayons, markers, paints, fabric and string. My secret world? A collection of scurried books underneath my bed, hidden by the white lace bedskirt and protected from my mother’s view as she had crickety knees. At night, I would read with a flashlight past designated bedtime, defaulting into stories like Black Beauty often juxtaposed with pictures. I once checked out a book by Judy Bloom but then became hysterical that women were dying from bleeding vaginas. That’s when my sister, three years older, explained the menstrual cycle and described a tampon.
My art table was one of the first pieces of furniture I bought and I made the deal with the antique seller with my babysitting money. One Saturday afternoon, my mother took me to the estate sale of a wealthy Delta family, the Peacocks. I selected an antique Duncan Fyfe table and a small mahogany side chair with carved roses on its rail and a needlepoint cushion with mirrored design. Preaching and insisting the furniture was nice and expensive, my mother had two sheets of glass cut to protect the table’s surface. A quiet, contemplative child who never was keen on a lot of friends or busy activity. I spent endless hours creating words at that art station by painting and writing. All the while, a red-headed woodpecker nesting outside my window and sometimes flying inside to rest on my encyclopedia stack. Every time I go home, he seems to greet me. “Woodpeckers have special spirits,” my father once claimed, “and legend has it that they live to be 100, often nesting in the same tree until death.”
My mother could be utterly demanding, rigid, and complicated—her way or the highway. Despite ice storms, sick days, travel, et cetera, we never missed Sunday church, and I had perfect attendance at school during most of my formative years. I was always expected to be five to seven minutes early, by her watch, which was already prompted ten minutes ahead. Honor roll was expected, and the letters on my report card never noted anything other than A. When angered, she could slam a phone so loud it would reverberate to Kansas. We lived on Clark Street, about two blocks from our Catholic school, St. Elizabeth, where I was trained on the piano two-three times a week by Mrs. Tavoletti. One cold morning, moving at a sluggish speed, I had forgotten my piano books. Mama was so mad, she drove me home all the way down Clark Street in a rant — backwards.
I mastered the piano, dance, and writing, erring the weight that she was difficult to please and experiencing the disappointment when I failed to please her. Mama was a perfectionist about our appearance. As most children rolled their hair in sponge rollers for Sunday church, my sister and I had ours “done up” every single night. Our clothes (sock and underwear, too) were always ironed, and we rarely wore the same dress twice to fancy functions where we were to be photographed. Those expectations have manifested and perpetuated in my adult life, thus defining me to some degree as a artist of sorts, workaholic, over-achiever, and might I add, a fashionista of well-ironed attire.
While my mother kept the house moving to her delight and high standards, my father mostly worked, departing before daybreak and arriving after sunset. My father, owner of a furniture company, located only a few blocks from my house in the business district. It was a world of sofas, couches as well a cash registers and large bound hand-written ledgers.
Daddy is still the hardest worked I have ever known. His work ethic was instilled in me early, and I still compare my progress to his unsurmountable success early in life. I don’t remember a day that he didn’t reflect and engage in his company, constantly “feeding the organism,” as he would say.
My father was sort of a miracle. He was tall, dark, and handsome and alway walked with a confident swagger. One of seven children of French descent, he was the only one to inherit green eyes, which shifted in colors to grey or blue, depending on the light. His eyes, set deep and expressive, said everything about his current state—stress, joy, concern, contemplation, and more. I am often reminded of his eyes—and their honest translation of thought and emotions—as I wear them myself. “Genetics are a funny thing,” my mother would suggest. At work, he was conscious of his appearance (yes, slightly vain), so my mother always saw to it that his khakis and long sleeve shirts were pressed with “triple extra starch.” Sometimes it would seem as though his garments were standing up on their own. I “inherited” the same trait. If I am not dressed to the nines at work, I am clearly having a nervous breakdown.
Though full of love and admiration for us, my mother could be emotional, irrational, high-strung, rigid, and complicated—the antithesis of my father. He was wonderfully tender when it came to his two daughters. He was gentle and kind, with a diplomatic and graceful approach to life and work. I never remember hearing him raise his voice and he tucked us in every night. He left us encouraging notes in our lunch sacks and later, when we were in college, mailed cards and notes to say hello and to remind us that he believed in us. He always signed off, “Dear Ole Day.”
I shared equal love for my parents, but I was a carbon copy of my father’s personality, political interests, brain power, intellectualism, and entrepreneurial pursuits. My mother encouraged the arts, and my father, business and financial independence. I have perhaps magically become a hybrid of them both.
BILL STEBER & ADAM SMITH: MISSISSIPPI DELTA
By, Rebekah Jacob: Owner & Founder of the Rebekah Jacob Gallery & Vedado Gallery
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