Mississippi Xmas rambles

While driving over the Biloxi Bridge, I squint at the sunlight and find the oldies station on the dial, first some Christmas songs and then “Never My Love” by The Association. We make a U-turn on Beach Blvd. and park at the beach. My son is sleeping in the car so I sit on the bench outside our parking space and watch my wife and daughter fly a kite. This is not the first attempt this year. That effort ended with a tangle of string and broken flaps in a parking lot at Kansas City’s riverfront park, with a methhead driving his truck over to laugh and commiserate and tell me about a boy scout kit you could order to build your own. Instead I bought this one at REI. It flies gloriously. Even a child can do it. Even an inept dad. It depicts a blue and orange and yellow scene of the mountains. There is no snow here, just white sand, and it’s enough to make angels out of, which my daughter does, though curiously while lying on her belly rather than her back.

I look over and see a couple who has just parked and walked out to enjoy the sunset, which according to my phone is only 10 minutes from now. This far east in Central Standard Time you feel like you’re being cheated of evening daylight, sunset is probably a good 35 minutes later in say, Russell, Kansas. But who wants to be in Russell. I look over toward the casinos, in the direction of the bridge, and see the couple is now standing together near the water in a back-hug, an arrangement you almost only see in photographs and not in real life. So perhaps that’s why looking at them I get the sudden sense I’m witnessing an important moment in their lives, a snapshot in which they fully realized and melted into their romantic love for one another, or maybe a moment in which something was renewed, restored. Perhaps.

Our own scene is less romantic. Our son is crying because the kite isn’t flying. The wind has died down, he was napping in the car, and it seems we woke him up too quickly. Christmas has been a long day for them. How can you sleep through the night when you know Santa is coming? At 4:30 in the morning I thought I heard a voice, and went toward their room and heard them both talking to each other at normal conversational volume. The overhead light was on and they were playing Kariba, a card game. What are you doing? I asked incredulously. Mom told us just to play quietly until you guys woke up, my daughter said. But it’s 4 in the morning, I said. You still need to sleep. We didn’t know what time it was, they protested, and we couldn’t go out in the kitchen to look. Fair enough. Here’s my phone, I said. Push this button and it will tell you what time it is. I turned up a few blinds so they could see the sun come in. And don’t get up until it’s light outside.

We had mixed luck with trails. One was beautiful, sunny, with palmettos and pines and wildflowers, a habitat for the rare sandhill crane, which there are only 100 of left in the wild. The other was set along the sparkling waters of the bay with trails through the woods and wooden platforms overlooking the bayou. But much of it was closed, visibly destroyed by the pair of hurricanes earlier in 2020. We spent most of our improvised walk through the park talking about hurricanes, tornadoes, Katrina. My son was alert and interested, my daughter was sad and wanted to talk about something else. But it seemed like a disservice not to discuss them, given how much these events are likely to be present in their lives.

Driving back from the beach later, I ask my wife to drop me off on the eastern side of the Biloxi Bridge. It’s only a 1.7 mile pedestrian path across, then another mile or so along the beach back to the house. The lane is protected but still the cars race by, roaring and whooshing. I feel a rush as I break into a run, buttoning up my raincoat and palming my water bottle in one hand and my cloth mask in the other. There is no one else in sight and I feel free. I stop at the mile markers which are decorated with bronze relief landscapes of fishing, boating, and other gulf coast scenes. One of them displays a bridge buckled into fragments, a clear depiction of the Biloxi Bridge after Katrina. It was only 15 years ago, but in this medium it feels historic, even Biblical. Destroyed bridges, houses, even the famous souvenir shop, Sharkheads, which was gutted in 2005 and reopened 7 years later with a giant shark mouth entrance.

Tracing my fingers over the image of the bridge, I think about what it means to rebuild, when by the time the rebuilding occurs so much of the community has already been reshaped—people moved away, jobs changed, relationships severed, a trust broken. I’ve seen it in Joplin, my wife’s hometown, which was wiped out by a tornado a decade ago. But that destruction and recovery was quick, at least physically. Katrina was so much more widespread, a clear era of before/after, and for someone like me who never went to New Orleans or the Gulf Coast before 2005 we probably have no idea what things were like before. We’re experiencing something similar now with COVID, an even slower-moving wave of destruction, this one quiet and invisible, as restaurants and businesses close their doors, schools are shut down, and loved ones say goodbye over iPads.

It’s a nightmare. And it’s still going on, even if many of us don’t see it. Meanwhile I’m traveling across the country, wearing masks and staying out of public places but still out in society in one form or another. What makes us think this risk is OK? To be honest I’m not 100% sure that it is. But as long as we limit our interactions to the same or less than at home (carryout, groceries, brief visits to stores or museums), stay outside as much as possible, and wear a mask everywhere we go, I’m hoping that reduces our risk to ourselves and others to the point of not being entirely irresponsible.

Having been home an entire year and canceled all of our spring and summer travel plans, I wanted to make sure our kids got at least some glimpse of the world outside their neighborhood, their family unit, their school-issued iPads. Even if it’s as frivolous as seeing seagulls on the beach, street musicians in New Orleans, and driving a rented golf cart drive through the Christmas-light-covered ironwork and magnolia trees of the American South. The world still exists, even if we can’t participate in it in quite the same way.

And for me, running wild across the bridge and only stopping to yell at a tugboat to sound its horn in a Merry Christmas salute, I haven’t felt this unburdened all year. For a moment the 25-hour round trip feels worth it. To quote an ancient proverb, never underestimate the wanderlust of the landlocked water sign, the spirit of renewal, the miracle of rebirth.

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